A transformation mask created by Astra Sreeja Selvaraj from Toronto’s St. Joseph’s College School. Photo courtesy Paul Sabyan

Unmasking the pandemic creativity: Mask4Aid a path to creative expression

  • April 30, 2021

In coping with challenges brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers and students are turning to art as a means of expression, hope and renewal.

Spearheaded by educator and artist Kelvin Sealey, principal at CaST (City-as-School Toronto), the Mask4Aid project is uniting students and teachers across the city through the creation of imaginative masks, marking this unique moment in history through artistic communication.

Working in collaboration with the City of Toronto, students at schools across the region, including Msgr. Percy Johnson Catholic Secondary School in Etobicoke and St. Joseph’s College School in downtown Toronto, are lending their skills to this pandemic art initiative.

“The degree of grace that I am finding in both my outreach to schools and their outreach to me has really been a wonderful,” said Sealey, who is working with more than 30 schools across the region. “The teachers are telling me that the kids are enjoying it. It is wonderful in such a dark moment, to be able to bring some degree of joy and some degree of community to a time that seems so fractured and so individualistic.

“We’re all covered up in masks. We’re hiding from each other behind our walls. This project is designed to get us out from behind those walls, out from behind those masks and to suggest that creativity is still alive in the world and that we will prosper once again.”

Paul Sabyan teaches the Grade 9 Native Arts and Culture course at St. Joseph’s College School and was thrilled to learn about the initiative through Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) arts and resource teacher Vicki McRae. In studying the masks of the west coast First Nation groups of British Columbia, the class was inspired by Indigenous transformation masks and saw the initiative as an opportunity to integrate that learning into pandemic art. Transformation masks usually depict an outer animal or spirit being, which the performer can open by pulling a string to reveal another animal or spirit being to symbolize the wearer moving from the natural world to a supernatural realm.

Staying within the parameters of the face mask model with the lower part of the face covered and eyes revealed, the class decided the masks would transform to reveal various messages of hope such as “be strong” or “keep going.” Part of the assignment is students had to photograph themselves wearing the mask both in its closed position and open position.

Sabyan says the project provided an opportunity to take students away from the computer during this time of virtual learning and gave them a creative avenue to express any pent-up emotion.

“Art is playing an important role in fostering feelings of connection and expression and healing at a time when many are feeling disconnected in so many ways,” said Sabyan, who teaches Grade 9 to 12 at the school. “As an outlet, the project gave them the opportunity to create in a way that allowed them to get away from the day-to-day of being on the computer and learning. The image of the masks ties into the idea of mental health and creates solidarity for one another and supports students’ own personal mental health by expressing themselves.”

Sealey is grateful for the support of TCDSB school effectiveness framework and staff development co-ordinator Joanne Melo, who gave the project the go ahead at participating schools within the board. The art at some point will be projected onto the exterior walls of school buildings across the city. With St. Joseph’s College School located in the downtown core near the University of Toronto, it will likely be one of the main projection sites of the initiative, he said.

In sharing his initial intentions for the project with educators, Sealey says what the students and teachers have come back with is greater than anything he could have imagined.

Students from schools across the city have submitted paintings, animations and digital art inspired by their own personal experience, Indigenous history, the history of pandemics across the world and so much more.

“I didn’t know what pandemic art or art in the time of COVID-19 would actually look like,” said Sealey. “I had envisioned masks creatively designed by young people that might have embellishments or might be made of unusual materials or designed in an unusual way. That’s as far as my artistic brain had gone. But when I put out there through my colleagues at the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the Toronto District School Board that I wanted art, I never actually thought about the range of art that would come back to me.”

In studying the history of First Nation masks of the west coast, this project has sparked meaningful online classroom discussions about Indigenous philosophy and the seven grandfather teachings, Sabyan said. The Mask4Aid initiative has been an opportunity for community building and true creative expression and speaks to what each teacher and each student envisions when they think of pandemic art during COVID-19.

“The message I tried to give students is that your art can have a voice outside of the classroom and you can make powerful statements with it,” said Sabyan. “It doesn’t matter what age you are — that’s the power of an expression through art making.”

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