StoryFaces — Visual Arts and Mask Workshops

Follow-up a StoryFaces Assembly Program with Classroom Workshops

Christopher’s surprising performance allows him to introduce students to complex educational concepts in an entertaining way in follow-up workshops for grade levels 2 – 12. The unique combination of visual and language arts at the heart of StoryFaces exemplifies using multiple strategies to communicate your story and demonstrates the power of art to convey social information, to retain and synthesize traditional wisdom, and to inspire — making this an ideal vehicle for workshops developing communication, visual storytelling and critical thinking skills. A variety of programs are available including mask design workshops and interdisciplinary programs combining ELA, Visual Arts and Social Studies in which students write stories and apply critical thinking to synthesize these stories into visual mask designs. Programs include:

•  My Amazing StoryFace Workshop  – telling a story through words and art 

•  Designing Tribal Masks – using symbology to bring ideas to life

•  Create Your Personal Superhero – a motivational mask arts program

and two special programs for Middle and High School:

             •  From Masks to Modern Art – a fascinating art history program 

             •  World Theatre Makeup – for theatre, art and fashion students

Classroom programs can be custom designed  in consultation with art teachers to fit a school’s curriculum goals.

*** Professional development workshop programs also available for teachers ***

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Workshop and Demonstration Programs include:

My Amazing StoryFace Workshop

This activity gives students their own experience in visual storytelling, as they create an original story starring themselves, first through a drawing exercise, and then as a written story meant to be told  — based on one of my original stories (see The Amazing Face Video). For the drawing, students use a special Drawing Form in which they draw a cartoon picture of themselves in the story — just like the image I create in my performance.    Grade Levels: In Elementary schools, grades 2 and up have been able to complete the StoryFace drawing and a simple written story in a single workshop session.  In Middle and High Schools the concept of placing a portrait of yourself into an illustrated story can continue into a visual art project by incorporating other media, digital art, animation, etc. Please see the MyAmazingStoryFace_TeachersGuide  for full information.

Designing Tribal Masks

This project gives students an experiential understanding of the traditional approach to art in tribal cultures as they apply critical thinking to create an animal mask design using symbols to signify the animal — in a way that even elementary students can understand. This “mask-concept” approach moves the design process away from realism and illustration, into an exploration of communicating through symbolic art and abstraction, and can be a vehicle for creating original mask designs for students with any level of art skills. Grade Levels: Grades 4 and up have been able to complete a pencil sketch design for a Tribal Animal Mask in a single session, this design can be the basis for a mask-making project in subsequent art classes. Please see TribalMaskProject_TeachersGuide  for full information.

Creating Your Personal Superhero — Spirit Healing Masks

This is a unique interdisciplinary workshop program I’ve developed to get students to work on using critical thinking to synthesize and communicate information visually, through signs and symbols, in reference to the traditional role in some cultures of Spirit Masks that allow performers in rituals to represent ancestors and other powerful healing spirits that protect the people — kind of like our superhero movies. For Grade Levels 6 and up: To start, I ask each student to identify some social concern they would like to help solve — it can be anything, from the obvious ones such as “ending war” to smaller scale concerns, such as “helping stray dogs”. Next they determine what “powers” they would need as a “healing spirit” to achieve this task, and I present this via the idiom of modern superheroes —i.e., would you need to be able to fly in order to end war all around the world?  The students then choose a color or graphic symbol to represent each of the powers or “attributes” their character has, and they design their Personal Superhero mask using those symbols — this step moves the design beyond an illustrative approach towards symbolism and abstraction, as the mask will communicate information purely through colors and graphics, giving students an experiential understanding of the thinking process that underlies visual arts, including modern art, and also allows any student to make a successful design regardless of their drawing skills. The process can also include a writing assignment —  for example, students can write essays to accompany their designs, in which they describe the social concern, or find media links to examples of this problem, and develop a storyline for how their Personal Superhero/Healing Spirit will solve the problem. Please see SpiritHealingMask_DesignForm

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From Masks to Modern Art — for Middle and High Schools

Picasso/Nuba — a synthesis of a Picasso cubist portrait and a traditional design of the Southeast Nuba of Sudan

Picasso/Nuba — a synthesis of a Picasso cubist portrait and a traditional design of the Southeast Nuba of Sudan

This is a unique and fascinating program giving students a vehicle for understanding the origins of Modern Art by exploring how artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Klee found inspiration in the masks, sculptures and bodyarts of cultures in Africa and Oceania as they sought to create more powerful art forms with greater social impact — what the art historians call “Primitivism in Modern Art”. After viewing African sculptures in the Trocadero Musuem, Paris in 1907, Picasso is reported to have said: “Men had made those masks and other objects for a sacred purpose…At that moment I realized that this is what painting was all about…it’s a form of magic…a way of seizing power…When I came to this realization, I knew I had found my way.”

Art changed at the beginning of the 20th century in large part because these early Modern Artists saw that in traditional cultures art was not confined to being beautiful or decorative, but rather that traditional art and artists played a vital role in maintaining the social fabric of the community — that art could have the power to communicate complex social and political ideas and help make a better world.

Christopher Agostino has also explored this seminal moment in art history through a dramatic series of fine art body paintings: Modern Primitive Art

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World Theatre Makeup — for Theatre, Art and Fashion Students

From the very beginning of human culture we have used makeup and masks to transform our appearance and create a new identity. As ancient ritual evolved into theatre, makeup remained as the way for an actor to present an identity beyond their normal self. It is especially evident in non-western theatre, such as the Chinese Opera or Japanese Kabuki in which fantastically painted faces transform performers into gods, demons, heroes and all kinds of creatures to bring myths to life. Today, traditional designs are a source for creating theatrical magic in productions like Julie Taymor’s Lion King (with makeup based on Maasai body art) and in the fantastic special effects makeup that brings aliens and superheroes to life in Hollywood movies. Christopher Agostino uses makeup and mask art from world cultures to present the story of this fundamental art from ancient origins to modern theatre in this fascinating performance/lecture illustrated by his amazing facepainting on audience volunteers.

The participants from a Transformational Makeup lecture at the U.S. Institute of Theatre Technology Conference (USITT) in Houston, 2008.

The participants from a Transformational Makeup lecture at the U.S. Institute of
Theatre Technology Conference (USITT) in Houston, 2008.


Transformation Facepainting for Arts-In-Education Events

Our professional company of artists present facepainting in an educational context using styles based on World Masks, Tribal Faces, Native American Totem concepts or cultural traditions from regions around the world, such as Dia De Los Muertes or Amazon Indians. The same artists seen at the Bronx Zoo and Tri-State area events can facepaint students to create a uniquely memorable cultural experience that goes far beyond how much fun they will have. Events can be tied into assembly programs and to specific cultural regions or areas of Social Studies.


Makeup Artists for School Theatrical Productions

Transformation Facepainting for a school production of the Lion King

Transformation Facepainting for a school production of the Lion King

Our artists are also available to paint the faces of student performers for theatre productions and other special events. Bringing in professional artists is a thrilling experience for a young actor and a great confidence boost that makes a school production extra special.


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From a Mask to a Painted Face — Face Painting from Cultural Sources

Geo Magazine, 1980, contained a few dozen photographs of Chinese Opera faces

Painted in 1983. In addition to learning to blend from copying a design like this, these Chinese Opera faces gave me an understanding that facepainting can be a true art, truly transformational, and not just a decorative art.

By Christopher Agostino

Taking a mask image from a cultural source and painting it onto a face is a primary methodology I use for expanding my understanding of what is possible on a painted face. My first steps in that direction were 30 years ago with Chinese Opera faces I saw in an issue of Geo magazine. When I start with images like these that are already makeup designs and re-create them on a face the lessons I am learning are primarily about finding new ways to fit designs to the structure of a face, a new range of imagery, and exploring different application techniques — for example, it was as I tried to imitate the way the red over the eyes fades into the white on the check in this Chinese Opera image that I first learned how to blend — and from Chinese Opera designs I moved onto similar explorations with other cultural sources of painted faces such as those from the Amazon and Papua New Guinea.

Paul Kirk's book "Man as Art" is an inspirational and definitive statement about he remarkable possibilities of bodyart in world cultures.

One of the earliest truly tribal designs I painted on a person (an adult) in a regular party setting - at a corporate family picnic in 1996

A different process is required — and different lessons learned — when the traditional image I start from is a physical mask rather than face or bodyart. Re-creating a physical/sculptural mask as a facepainting brings different challenges because you have to somehow transfer onto the organic shape of a human face the plastic form of the mask, such as the exaggerated geometric shapes on certain African masks, or the extended beak of a wooden Haida thunderbird mask. Here are lessons to be learned about how to place hard shapes on a softly curved face, and to create illusions that seem to alter the structure of the face. I think that the most useful lesson I’ve gleaned from trying to re-create a sculptural mask design, however, is in learning how to boil a mask down to its essence. Since I can’t really duplicate the full mask on a face, what can I achieve with facepainting that has the same impact as the physical mask?

“Spirit masks” is a somewhat generic descriptive term applied to masks from a variety of African cultures worn to bring supernatural spirits to life in traditional rituals. Such masks are intentionally bizarre in appearance with the features of faces and animals distorted into geometric shapes and graphic patterns. Since I can’t make eyes that are cylinders sticking 8″ off the face using just makeup, I’ve had to translate that idea into what I can do, so I’ve focused on using strong geometric linework to make the face startling. As I’m about to start a design like this on a kid I may ask them if it’s ok for me to make them look really, really strange — and usually get an enthusiastic “yes”.

An early attempt at a Spirit Mask, from the event at the Bronx Zoo in 1999

Another early attempt at a Spirit Mask

I have found the complexity of the masks of Native American Northwest Coast (NWC) cultures the most challenging to re-create. Part of the struggle is due to the intricacy of the symbolic imagery on the masks. Whereas masks like the African “Spirit Masks” primarily employ geometric signs and patterns to carry symbolic content — patterns which be simplified and imitated to have the same visual affect even if they don’t have the precise cultural content — NWC masks employ recognizable and pictorial animal imagery much more difficult to duplicate simply.  A traditional NWC mask-maker learns very specific forms to symbolize the mythic characters they depict — such as the precise shape the eye must be for Kwikwis, the eagle of the undersea in the Kwakiutl culture. As Franz Boas states in his book Primitive Art, once the proper symbols are included the artist’s concern becomes the unity and aesthetic achievement of the overall design, and they do it with a remarkable finesse of design style, beautifully fitting the complex imagery onto the shapes of the mask. Like African masks, and the masks of so many cultures, the NWC wooden transformation masks are sculptures worthy of the museums where they sit in cases and hang on walls, but their true raison d’être is just the same as the “Spirit Masks” — to be worn in performance at rituals to bring the gods and myths to life.

I had quite a number of examples available of faces painted at events for the article in my book on African “Spirit Masks”. We spent the summer of 1999 at the Bronx Zoo painting faces inspired by traditional African art for the opening of the Congo Gorilla exhibit, and this style of design has been part of my usual bag of tricks ever since. For the article on Northwest Coast masks, however, I had few examples from faces at events, and none that were successful, so I painted a model in my studio for this one. There is a fundamental cosmology the underlies much of NWC mask culture, and it includes the concept that there was an earlier time in which celestial beings lived on earth and then departed to live in the heavens. These celestial/ancestral beings can return to earth in the guise of humans, and they are depicted in these masks both in their celestial form and in their human form, which is dramatically demonstrated in ritual performances in which these wooden transformation masks will open and alter their shape through ingenious devices to show first the ancestral being and then the inner human. In the NWC coast example for my book, I relied on the humanity of my model (as we facepainters do) and her eyes to exemplify this concept of transformation, from celestial eagle to the eagle in human form.

The Eagle in celestial form, inspired by Northwest Coast Indian culture transformation mask

The Eagle in Human Form

From the Nuxalk culture of the Pacific Northwest, the closed image depicts a celestial bird figure of some sort.

When the mask opens during the ritual performance, revealed inside is the figure in human form (notice how the beak for example is now depicted more like a human nose), and the humanized bird-face is surrounded by a sun-like orb indicting its celestial nature.

Edward Malin's book "A World of Faces: Masks of the Northwest Coast "includes very useful simplified analytical sketches of the traditional mask elements

An early Spirit Mask attempt in which I used this geometric approach to create a specific animal, a baboon face

More recently I have been making Spirit Masks that are more deliberately spooky, and not just strange

The first third of my book, Transformations! The Story Behind the Painted Faces, chronicles my investigation of cultural sources of face and body art, and how I have incorporated those discoveries into my work.

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