Masks – Plague Doctor

In the final part of the course, I want to return to some ideas or works which I felt were unresolved. One of these was a clay model of a ‘skull’ which was a hybrid of human and animal. My tutor remarked that it reminded him of the plague doctor masks common at Halloween, and I wanted to follow this train of thought. Masks, in general, are an interesting area to consider and research. As suggested by my tutor, I started this project by mind-mapping around the topic to find connections, associations and different directions. I also researched around masks, the plague doctors and contemporary artists working around these subjects.

doctor (1 of 3)

doctor (2 of 3)

In my mind mapping around masks, I was interested by the wide range of reasons that masks might be worn, and the range of masks that could exist from the ceremonial masks which inspire Picasso, say, to the social masks which we could all be said to wear.

mind maps (2 of 4)

One of the things that really struck me, looking at masks in the context of medicine, is the contradiction between the masked figure as health bringer and the sinister effect of the mask. As I played in my sketchbook with images around the original skull idea and the plague doctor idea, I found my self drawn towards the modern medical image of people working in modern ‘plague’ areas such as the Ebola outbreak in Africa, barrier nursing in the UK and surgical masks.

doctor (3 of 3) mask sketches small (4 of 6)mask sketches small (5 of 6)mask sketches small (6 of 6)

This medical connection really resonates with me. My husband is a surgeon and for many years, since retiring to have kids, I have acted as his medical secretary (outside his NHS work). He specialises in plastic surgery, particularly scar revision, after burns or trauma, and cancer reconstruction. I frequently found myself discussing over the phone with prospective patients the fact that scar revision surgery does not remove scars, merely swaps one scar for, hopefully, a better scar. Many people believe that doctors, and plastic surgeons in particular, have a ‘magic wand’ to wave problems away. It is also true that some surgery, for instance burns surgery or surgery to combat necrotising fasciitus, can be truly horrible and radical. The idea of the surgeon, seen through the prism of a sculptural mask as a modern witch doctor, has real power for me.

My first idea was to make a mask out of fabric which I could wear, rather like the Ebola masks, with the addition of old eye protection goggles. I liked the idea of replacing the lens with old x-ray film (which I have) but it is very dark and needs a bright light source behind it which is incompatible with wearing the mask.

I liked the idea of representing a surgeon by the instantly recognisable face mask, as above, but I wanted to abstract the face much more and make it less human.

sketchbook (2 of 12)

Sketchbook pages experimenting with abstracting faces.

sketchbook (3 of 12)

I don’t want to make a model of a face and stick a mask on it. I took my inspiration from Romuald Hazoumé and created the suggestion of a face from an empty cleaning fluid bottle. The bottom was cut off and a piece of wood hot glued across the back to provide stability and a way of hanging the piece.

Selecting materials:

doc (1 of 2) doc (2 of 2)

Beginning assembly:

doc (3 of 13) doc (1 of 13)

I had to create ear shapes on the side of the bottle in order to retain a face mask. I tried making a face mask out of J-cloth but it was unconvincing, so purchased a pack of face masks from the chemist. Ears were made out of polystyrene packaging shapes from my recycle stash and hot glued in place.

doc (4 of 13) doc (11 of 13) doc (9 of 13)doc (7 of 13)

I couldn’t source a real surgical cap, so made a simple version using a food container top with a cardboard collar and a J-cloth. The mask would need to have hair, I felt, to create a more ‘primitive’ impression referencing African masks and also to add textural interest and personality. This was created using scrap parcel strapping and scrap nylon tie material from the local recycling centre. The parcel strapping has a strong memory of being coiled which gives a sense of movement and life.

Surgical instruments (disposable needle holders, tweezers and scissors which are remaindered from surgical sets where only one instrument is used and the rest thrown away) were added to the head in various places. At this point everything apart form the ears was placed on and could be moved about, added to, relocated etc. I experimented with the placing and amount of the ‘hair’ and the additional of surgical gloves (disposable cleaning gloves).

At this point, I took some photos and posted them in the Fine Art Facebook group asking for comments, particularly about the emotional response evoked by the work.


super creepy

witch doctor/shaman and Ebola. A bit of voodoo thrown in as well. Scarier in the front views. I wonder if the eyes are too gentle – while the blue suits the overall palette, both it and the green are both cool calming colours. That may of course be the intent…in which case the contrast with the overall impression is nicely done.

Frightening,  makes me shudder!

I see a smiling ape, perhaps that’s creepier than a skull.

Really scary but also fascinating and oddly compelling

I think it’s the blankness of the eyes and the calming blue that make this so unsettling

Tension created by conflicting suggestions from this image. Surgeon/security, tribal mask/fear, recognisable household materials/humour.

A kind of tribal, mouth shut, gloves coming out, not able to talk, frozen in movement, at the edge of life and death

The long plastic tubing ‘hair’ with attached implements is freaking me out !!

Love the concept. For me he could be fiercer and scarier though. He’s a bit gentle for a witch doctor or plague doctor Is that a j cloth surgeon’s hat? Is his gentle surgical colour scheme a comment on the sanitised world we live in today compared to real witch doctors and plague doctors of old?

deeply unsettling……. For me the eyes work – I find the blank expression subtle but I think this works in conveying an atmosphere of unease. I think otherwise it could be too easy for it to slip into caricature. Instead, I feel you have a very contemporary sculpture which uses references (colours & props) that we associate with today’s health profession and yet have been subverted into something more sinister.

I was pleased that people picked up on the Ebola connection and the use of cleaning materials as well as surgical instruments. The connection with an ape is interesting. The shape of the bottle reminds me of a baboon and these were often depicted as gods or fetish masks in African, Indian and Far Eastern religious contexts. Taking these comments in, I used the photos to experiment with various changes.

sketchbook (1 of 12)

I reworked the cap to come down over a non-existent forehead and over the ears. I decided to make the face the rather toxic yellow of warning signs. Painted on the smooth plastic this was rather patchy and easily rubbed off giving the face a rather decayed look. The eyes were developed to be rather more significant without, hopefully loosing their blankness. The top was removed from the bottle to reduce the front projection and allow the mask to sit better. The nylon braid hair was coloured with felt tip pens to make it show up more.

heads (27 of 41) heads (29 of 41)

The  contents warning stamp on the ‘cheek’ was picked out in ink, like a scar. In order to move the cap and mask away from ‘off the shelf’ materials and link them more with the face, I brushed areas with pastel colour, fixed with hair spray. One ear was ‘pierced’ with a pair of scissors.  All this rendered the ‘doctor’ less clinical and more ‘charlatan’ and hopefully less bland.

All the elements were fixed with dabs of hot glue and the work photographed. I have also attempted to produce a video, but I am struggling to create this with the quality and control I can bring to photographs, particularly the exposure. This work is essentially designed to be seen from the front or three quarter view, hung on a wall.

doc (2 of 24) doc (4 of 24) doc (5 of 24) doc (8 of 24)doc (7 of 24)doc (1 of 24)


My ambition to create a powerful mask representing the power of a surgeon or doctor has been realised although the clinical aspect has been diluted by the introduction of added colour which was added for visual impact.

The surgical instruments in the ears and hair, together with the surgical mask, are symbols of the mystique and power of a surgeon. The blank, impersonal eyes create an impression of distance.  The cap, wild hair and floppy surgical glove give the mask a raffish real and I am not sure this sits easily with my objective, although the hair certainly provides volume, scale and texture and gives a liveliness to the work.

The materials were selected for their significance to the subject and because they were scrap (except the mask). Whilst the work is strongly fixed together with hot glue, it is not a work of craft because I have tried to follow the idea rather than get caught up in technical making.

I think the piece is broadly successful because it evokes a really strong response it those who see it; part fascination, part revulsion.




About starrybird

I am mature student studying art with The Open College of the Arts. My passion is printmaking.
This entry was posted in Course Parts, Part 5 Developing Sculpture and Imagination and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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