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 African Masks to Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie & Fitch Spring Quarterly 2000 cover, photograph by Bruce Weber

by Christopher Agostino

From early on I was taking inspiration for face designs from the makeup and mask art of other cultures. During  the summer of 1999, I was able to initiate my company of artists in this process as we painted faces in African Mask inspired styles over 8 weekends for the opening of the Congo Gorilla Rainforest exhibit at the Bronx Zoo .  None of the culturally inspired faces we paint can really be “authentic,” removed as they are from the culture that gives them meaning, so taking a traditional art as source material needs to be done with an understanding that we are artists finding inspiration in a visual image and we can claim no ownership of the intrinsic cultural content of that image. During the “Congo Summer” of 1999, I sometimes questioned the propriety of my being a white American in New York painting these wonderful African images, especially on the beautiful black faces they might be said to really belong to. It’s a tricky question I frequently confront as an artist and storyteller whose work includes cultural sources, and I try to be open about it. I was very gratified once when a woman trusted me enough to ask me to paint a Maasai design on her son’s face, telling me that this was his heritage but he knew nothing about it, so she wanted me to paint him and tell him the significance of the design.

Traditional Maasai bodyart, from a photograph by Art Wolfe in "Tribes"

Photo from Art Wolfe's tribes of a decorated Maasai.

Part of the profound beauty of a painted face is that you can’t see the color of the skin beneath. All you see are the eyes — the very human eyes. My explorations into the earliest human art and cultures convince me that we all truly are one people, sharing a universal view of life and our core aspirations, originating in a single fundamental culture — which anthropologists today tell us began with a small group of modern humans in Africa and subsequently spread around the world and diversified. By using cultural images, I believe we remind our public audiences of the unity of the family of humanity.

Whereas all of modern humanity may have sprung from that one, small unified group of humans in prehistoric Africa (perhaps, scientists say, a group of as few as 600 individuals), to use the term today “African Masks” or “African Art” is an inaccurate shorthand at best. Africa is a continent of many diverse countries and ethnic groups, and the mask and body arts of these cultures vary greatly. We found a wealth of images, styles and conceptual approaches to transforming a human face in our search for inspiration as we painted faces at the zoo that summer of 1999, from the rock paintings of the San bushmen of Southern Africa through the abstract spirit masks of equatorial Africa and north to the henna designs of the Berber. I have come to see that the experimentation that summer gave my company of artists a new overall perspective on facepainting as a larger art, including a foundation in stylizing and abstracting designs that take the artist beyond realist imagery.

My photo of the Abercrombie & Fitch model before they costumed him

In October of that year, the photographer Bruce Weber saw me working in this stylized “tribal” approach as I was painting at another New York event, and he hired me to paint a group of models in Florida for the Abercrombie & Fitch Spring Quarterly 2000. The foto he chose for the cover was of a model painted in a spirit mask inspired baboon design I had been experimenting with all that summer.

And it was while I was researching the mask and sculptural arts of Africa that summer that I read about how in 1905 Africa again became a source of inspiration for world culture as traditional sculptures and masks made their way to Paris and changed the approach of a whole generation of Western artists at the dawn of the Modern Art movement. As Frank Willet states in African Art: An Introduction (Thames & Hudson,1993), when masks from Africa were seen by Picasso and Matisse, “the revolution of twentieth-century art was underway.” 

"Spirit Mask" inspired baboon design from that Congo Summer, 1999.

That was a spark that set me into an ongoing exploration of this linkage between traditional and modern art, primarily through a series of fine art bodypaintings in which I blend iconic modern art images with the tribal bodyart and mask images that inspired them: the “Modern Primitive” series.

The first third of my book is about the lessons I’ve learned from cultural sources. To learn about my book, and about the other books mentioned here, go to:

For a related blog post, see: From a mask to a painted face:

The Omo River region in Ethiopia holds several cultures that still maintain some bodyart traditions. These geometric patterns in earth tones may be so different than the facepainting most people are used to, yet they make for very pleasant looking finished faces, and I find people are very receptive to being painted in this way.

This Surma photo from the wonderful book "African Ceremonies" has proven to be a style of design that adult women enjoy wearing. In the photo on the right, I copied the pattern of the original design while altering the colors because I was painting it on a caucasian face.

The designs of Surma males are different, in this example the men have covered their whole bodies in a white clay, then scrape the design into that white base so that their dark skin shows through to make the geometric patterns. In a regular facepainting setting I can't really imitate the scraping technique, so I imitate the pattern instead.

This face painting was for a demonstration on African bodyart for a student group at Columbia University, based on a sketch of Lobi facepainting from the book "Body Decoration".

Combining imagery with a simplified "Tribal" style

Spending 8 weekends working in one style allowed for a lot of possible areas of exploration, including trying faces using just pieces of designs or patterns from African cloth and masks.

Another design from a cultural source that makes a pleasant face for an adult. The original came from one photo I saw of bodypainting among the Loma people for a girl's coming of age ceremony, in which she will be painted in plant dyes that slowly fade over a few weeks, and once they have faded she will be eligible for courtship. Again, though, I have to approach this image primarily as visual inspiration for I have no full understanding of the cultural context.

We have also had the chance to bring an "African style" to theme events at other venues, including the Coney Island Aquarium where I painted these two stylized Starfish faces.

here's my friend Kate painting during the Congo Summer event. Having 10 artists at the zoo for 8 weekends gave me the chance to invite in some guest artists like Kate to work with us and try our Transformation approach.