A group of four- and five-year olds are marching down the hallway, waving ribbon sticks and singing an old traditional tune about apples. A dragon is resting on a nearby table while a volunteer sews one of its ears. Six teens are heading upstairs to rehearse with bells tied around their ankles, adding whimsy and celebration to the already joyful scene. And in the parking lot, a group of volunteers are leafing through a songbook choosing songs to share at the evening’s Community Sing.
This is just an ordinary autumn day at Washington Revels, a 35-year old cultural institution dedicated to celebrating cultural traditions through music, dance, storytelling, drama and more.
There’s something for everyone — after-school workshops for PreK-8th grade, opportunities for children and teens to perform on stage, and family activities ranging from Community Sings, Pub Sings, concerts and parades, plus workshops (in music, dance and traditional crafts) – over 120 events each year. It’s a place where intergenerational interactions are a part of daily activities, a place where a family is invited to share in the joys of singing and community, and a place where traditions are honored, shared and created.
And it’s the place where ages-old winter holiday traditions are recreated and reshaped every winter, and then performed at Lisner Auditorium in DC to over 10,000 people over two weekends in December. The Christmas Revels is the organization’s biggest annual event, and one that draws all ages and cultures from well beyond the DC area, and then encourages them to dance in the aisles (literally!) during the show. It’s easy to see why families make this event part of their annual holiday celebration.
All three floors of the Revels’ Silver Spring building are ready for family activities. There’s a bright studio space for workshops and rehearsals, there are shelves and nooks filled with costumes, props, books and CDs, and tucked around the edges you’ll find colorful banners, a couple of dragons, a hobby horse, some jester hats and a Maypole. It’s a place where holidays and special days are celebrated and handed down to future generations, and a place always ready to create the shared joy of community.
Kids and families refer to themselves as “Revelers” and might be heard saying “I’m reveling.” It’s what Washington Revels offers — a chance to revel in music, dance, drama, cultures, traditions and community. The Washington Post calls the DC-area Revelers “…one hundred of Washington’s most literate merrymakers, from kindergartners to senior citizens…” and notes that Washington Revels can create “…a celebration to make even the most incorrigible Grinch grin.”
A guest post by Cate Hagman, former staff member and current volunteer for Washington Revels.
So a dragon, a hobby horse, and a jester walk into Takoma Park…
It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it becomes reality each 4th of July when Washington Revels steps out and sings out at the Takoma Park Independence Day Parade. Whether the temperatures are in the 70s (this year) or inching towards the 100-degree mark (2012), several dozen revelers of all ages can be relied upon to sing, play, and march their way through a community institution, and share a few centuries-old traditions in the process.
That’s where the hobby horse comes in, bounding across the parade route and bowing to delighted onlookers, while marching musicians (accordionist, fiddler et al) play merry tunes, a jester cavorts, and the women, men, and children of Washington Revels sing songs of simpler eras, “Country Life” being a particular favorite.
I like to rise when the sun she rises early in the morning.
I like to hear them small birds singing merrily upon their laylums.
And it’s hurrah for the life of a country boy
And to ramble in the new-mown hay.
The parade or procession is an essential element within Washington Revels’ seasonal celebrations, whether it’s the merry march across the grounds of Washington National Cathedral to celebrate springtime (May Revels) or through the Maryland suburbs at summer’s end (the Kensington Labor Day Parade), and it fits beautifully into the Washington Revels mission, bringing joy, celebrating tradition, and building relationships within the community and the region.
Of course it also affords a pressure-free, family-friendly way for revelers of all generations and talents both to perform and to connect with new audiences.
So if you see a jester gamboling through your neighborhood or a dragon peeping over a hedge, stay calm. They’ll no doubt be accompanied by a jubilant but peaceful army that includes preschoolers and septuagenarians, teens and soccer moms, all on the march for community, tradition, and celebration.
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
~ Oscar Wilde
Down through the “centuries of the snow white world”, masks have been used for revels and rituals of all sorts. Masking is always a transformative act, whether it be children cavorting at Halloween or for an ancient ceremony among indigenous cultures. Masking does more than just cover the face and provide an altered appearance. When the archetype of the mask is clear to both performer and audience, the metaphors and meaning are accessible, then an act of sacred theater occurs. It is an exchange of ideas between the masked person and the viewer. Masks are a form of story telling within themselves. By evoking imagery either of localized cultures, or from the greater depths of the human psyche, the masks provides everyone a doorway into the story, removing the human form and substituting a metaphor in their place.
The art of Christmas Mumming and Revels has a long tradition with masks. The various small plays and pantomimes that are enacted this time of year in European and other cultures are rich with them. The Christmas Revels in particular have used masks since the early days. In the props archives of the many Revels troupes around the country there are numerous examples of fierce dragons, barnyard animals, and dancing fools with grotesque features, all telling some small part of the solstice story.
Masks are playing a special part in this year’s Washington, D.C., Christmas Revels. My wife and I are full time professional mask makers. We are honored to be part of the production, as maskers, and I as a principal performer in the role of the King. The initial offer to participate wasn’t directly about our mask work, but our artistic careers are rather entangled, and we immediately offered our craft to the show. It is a monumental undertaking reflective of the ambitions that Revels reaches for every year. Dozens of our pieces will be in the show on chorus and principals, and examples of many will be available in the show’s gift shop.
Without spilling too much of the magic, a mysterious woodland queen and her court might need masks to veil their true nature, or perhaps the masks are actually that, and the true mask is the human face we find most familiar? Faery glamour can be like that. Either one, masks were needed. So we thought to share a glimpse of our creation process.
We work almost exclusively in leather and paint, ornamenting sometimes with glass or semi-precious beads. Our work is very sculptural and textural, reflecting our backgrounds in similar arts. We start with vegetable-tanned cowhides, and the first step, but an important one to us, is a hand-applied texture. We suede each hide, using wire brushes, to give a heavy nap to the surface. This is done to provide a depth to the finished piece that amplifies our dry brushing paint techniques.
Each design starts as a sketch to visualize how the mask will look on the face. Drawing the finished idea first gives us a goal to aim for, though we work loosely and let our long acquired experience guide us. Initial patterns are built from our template library giving a uniformity to fit and wearability. We know that if the final mask is not comfortable or is overly restrictive to movement and vision, then the wearer won’t enjoy the experience. We like to say that “If you can eat. drink and party in it, it’s a success!”
As so many of our works are nature- and leaf-inspired we often gather leaves directly in autumn for patterns. We joke about it, saying we don’t work that hard and that Mother Nature makes the patterns, but really it’s all in good humor. It’s taken years of experience to find the right leaves and the forms we like as well as how to alter them to work in leather. Additionally, the paint finishes while inspired by leaves in autumn’s glory, feathers of an owl, or a butterfly’s wing are carefully thought out and detailed in surprising ways. Still it is a joy to work in partnership with the environment this way. To say that we are “working” when walking in the woods and observing the natural world is perhaps one of the greatest benefits of our craft and art.
When the design and pattern templates are ready, we trace them onto the prepared leather. The masks are cut out and soaked in a white glue-based stiffener. This is necessary as we work in “split” leather which has had its tooling surface removed, allowing us to achieve the textured surface we prefer. The saturated “flat” is removed and dried for a short time on fans. The consistency is akin to clay, which, considering that potters use the term “leather hard,” seems appropriate. At this point the glue has not fully cured, and the leather is malleable and holds the form it is placed in.
That form is achieved in several ways. We don’t use any molds, but we do use a face casting. We are lucky in that my wife’s face has naturally symmetrical and “classical” features. In the early days of our careers we took many measurements and did considerable research on human features and we were delighted to discover that her face casting would fit an incredibly wide range of faces. The vast bulk of our work is done on a series of castings of her face and they fit from the very young and small to the very large, very well. However, occasionally, specifically for performers, we find that a custom casting will be in order. This was the case for this year’s Revels and the Woodland Queen, played by Gwen Grastorf.
A note on face and life casting: This ancient art form is a deeply related craft to masking. We are honored to know one of the contemporary masters of this ancient art. Ann Curtis of Masquerade Life Casting is one of only a few that still practices it wholly as a skill within itself. Once done on dignitaries and heads of state, it is hardly known today. Though she has taught us the rudimentary forms, she far exceeds us in expertise. So whenever the Maryland Renaissance Festival is going on, as we both have booths there, we send any of our custom castings to her skilled hands. It was she who cast our queen. See more of Ann’s mastery at www.lifecasting.net
The mold is done with plaster bandages, such as is used for medical casts of limbs, directly on the face. Once set, it is easily removed and ready for casting. This is then filled with mix of hydrostone cement. A solid positive is achieved and this we traditionally spray in a high-gloss gold to preserve the surface and provide us a working form. We only need the shape of the nose bridge, brows, and cheekbones, but a full face casting is usually in order for posterity.
Having face form ready, we do initial scribing and sculpting of leaves, etc., in the flat and then lay the flat over the face, working it down onto the features. Careful attention is paid around the eyes and mouth to make sure a range of motion is maintained. Any additional sculptural attachments are glued on as we make the mask and the form is placed aside to set up. Once it will hold its shape, we check it again for fit and comfort on our faces. Then it’s removed from the form and dried on fans overnight.
The next step is, in many ways our favorite, the painting. We are primarily painters and are both trained as faux finishers. We bring all of that to our studio bench and more. We work in artist-grade acrylics. The mask is base coated in usually only one of three colors, green, white, or black, depending on our desired finish. Then begins the process of building up layers of color. We often work in the technique known as “dry brushing” using brushes dried of most of their paint. This lays highlights that are then built up, bringing out details. We achieve iridescent and shimmer effects using “interference” paints. These have tiny flecks of titanium coated mica as a pigment base. These refract light in different wavelengths and, when mixed with standard colors, create amazing fantasy elements. Once the painting process is done, it dries overnight on fans again, to cure the paint. Then they are signed, and a final coating of clear sealant is applied to protect the finish.
That’s it. You’re ready for Revelry. Care is simple. We encourage our prospective mummers to hang their masks by two points to preserve the shape, not leave it in direct sunlight for extended days, and not crush it or deform it. Other than that, the masks are durable, wearable and usable. Some of our masks see very hard wear and use. Performers wear our work while juggling fire, acting on stage and street, singing, celebrating and performing foolery, in all kinds of weather. They don’t like an oversoaking, but some rain, sweat, or moisture doesn’t harm mask or finish. Like a pair of shoes they tend to get more comfortable with wear.
For the Christmas Revels this year we created several unique designs for stage and sales: the Woodland Queen’s mask and crowns, custom-designed, as well as the matching crown and mask of the Green King. The Woodland Court wears four designs, inspired by the elemental powers of their people. Editions of these, along with the snowflakes as worn by the snowdrop children, will be available at the merchandise table for the shows. We also created matching accessories and Christmas ornaments reflecting the ivy and oak themes of the story as well as some unique editions of our wintry themes.
Masking as an art form and career is a strange and fascinating path in life. It is all imagination, and fable and “Faery Glamour.” Yet it is very real in the emotions it evokes in people. We have seen people moved to tears by the imagery we’ve created, but their feelings are really for that of the natural world. It is like giving voice to story and sight to trees. It is a type of magic, to reach back into the depths of time, bring up forms that excite the imagination and spirit, and give real meaning through them. It is an honor and a responsibility. These are people’s dreams we are touching, and those are special indeed.
“Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives.”
– Joseph Campbell
“Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons; it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories
When the Washington Revels asked my wife and me to be part of their 2015 production, me as a principal performer and us both as mask makers and “tradition bearers,” we were delighted and honored to say the least. However, I was also extremely taken with the responsibility of conveying the artistic aesthetic known as the “Mythic Arts” to the Washington Revels community. This article is a small attempt to introduce you all to the threads of that form, and from its tangled weave we hope to bring a whole cloth to your understanding. Any myth-conceptions or mything-links are entirely the accident of this writer.
The term, Mythic Arts, was coined in the 1980s, but the ideas of it stretch into our neolithic ancestry. The very beginnings of human culture are the myths of our hunter-gathering forebearers, and it is firmly upon this foundation that the modern Mythic Arts imagery is built. The stories that our distant grandparents told to call the animals to the hunt, explain the natural world, and keep the dark at bay are the table upon which our feast of fairy tales and fables is laid. Indeed, when thinking on the traditions that Revels represents, and the spirit of Jack Langstaff’s vision, I realized we are bearing traditions to a home they already live in.
From this distant time, we receive the transmission of these stories and imagery. They have continually influenced human thought and in some ways all our civilizations are mythic of one form or another. If we start to draw upon too many of these threads, the fabric of what I am trying to convey may become untangled. Therefore, instead of exploring the rootings of these ancient tales we will allow them to lie fertile in our imaginations and stay more within the modern era. There are, however, in the not so distant past some important influences that we must consider. First there is the impact of the Pre-Raphaelites and their offspring. It would be impossible to detail their contribution to the arts as a whole in so brief a space. Their attention to natural details, story, romantic imagery, realistic form and pose, and the very capturing of light and life was revolutionary and controversial in its time, and they remained outliers in the arts community for many years.
The direct inheritance of the Pre-Raphaelites impacted the Art Nouveau and Symbolist styles, influenced advertising, storytelling and illustration. This met with the Arts and Crafts revivals of the late 19th century and together a somewhat perfect storm of elegance in line and form in many artistic disciplines came about. Most all of this was to be discarded by Modernism and Expressionism of the 20th century and the nature-derived myths and romantic styles would be quietly tucked away, awaiting a future age. One can hardly understand the modern revival of interest in myth and fairy tale without considering the similar growth of the late 19th and early 20th century fairy tale books and illustrators. The advent of publishing truly for popular culture had reached a period where stories could be told with lush artworks to excite the imagination. The drawings of famed illustrators, such as Arthur Rackham, H.J. Ford, Walter Crane and others, were joined with collections of the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang. The collection and preservation of such stories had come to be more respected in academic circles, and without the efforts of these early mythologists and folklorists, and the popularity of their publishing as story’s for children, we would have lost many of them into the mist of time.
A fascinating direct connection to this period and the Revels Tradition is the works of Andrew Lang. His “Color Fairy” books have become a fundamental storehouse of fairy tales. Meredith Langstaff, father of Jack Langstaff, founder of the Revels, was a collector of Lang’s works in books, manuscripts and personal papers. The exposure to these at an early age influenced Jack’s own storytelling, and though known among Revelers as the founder, he was also an acclaimed writer of books for children, winning many awards. Meredith Langstaff’s collection was later donated to Harvard University, where it still resides. These luminaries continue to deeply inspire many of the artists illustrating today both in the old stories and more modern twists. These artistic threads seemed to have been quietly tucked away. The ravages of the world wars and the global change that came after seemed to have left little time for fairy tales and romanticism. Still, small pockets of the mythic wood were nurtured and sheltered among the postwar meetings of the “Inklings,” in the writings of Tolkien and Lewis, among others. Elsewhere, fairy tales had come to be almost entirely a child’s genre.
“The association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history. Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien
It was the very works of Professor Tolkien that helped to bring them back out of the nursery again in the Western world. Tolkien’s popularity struck just at the time the world was indeed changing, and looking back to romanticism and myth to gave it solace in a troubled age. This was, of course, the late 1960s, and the burgeoning resurgence in all things mythic found fertile ground then. As well were the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell. Mostly unknown until the popular TV series in the late 1980s, “The Power of Myth,” Dr. Campbell’s work quietly influenced and was a guide to the mythic imagination for generations of filmmakers and creators. Indeed, the foundational series by George Lucas, “Star Wars,” was a direct reimagining of Campbell’s “mono-myth” told in “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” showing that myth and knights, brave heroes and rogue archetypes do not only live in ancient lands but in galaxies far, far away. Through these many rootings a generation was primed and fed on myth. Dr. Campbell called those youth who first saw Lucas’s films the “Star Wars Generation” and said that we might “re-mythologize the world”. By the middle 1980s the older kids of that generation were coming of age and beginning to create, and a world of mythopoesis was at their fingertips. Inspired writers, artists, and creators of all kinds were beginning to rediscover the stories of the past and find them relevant, and creating new stories that dipped from a common well of mythic imagination.
One key book that came of this time was the work of two illustrators, Brian Froud and Alan Lee. The book was called simply “Faeries,” and the two artists collaborated on a rich tapestry of imagery accompanying ancient tales and folklore of the “Good Folk.” Both artists went on to other influential work, but this key book serves as a touchstone of early Mythic Arts. I know that personally, I often say that it shaped my thinking and appreciation of illustration in important ways. It was an escape in imagery and was one of three similar books published at the time, the equally famous “Gnomes” and the less well-known “Giants”. Today there are many such titles on the shelves, and fantasy fans can find hundreds of options of similar inspiration. Yet at the time they were somewhat unique in their style and presentation, and many fans of the genre mark them as turning points.
There were many other books to come, and films too. Brian Froud, went on to make the signature film “The Dark Crystal” during which he met his wife, Wendy and they, together with their son Toby, helped create “Labyrinth.” Fantasy films were finding a new market, and a new way of telling stories. While the sword and sorcery style still had some relevance, it was clear that audience and filmmakers, fantasy fiction fans, and writers were reaching for something more.
The fans were creating their own tales at the time as well. Around many tables on late nights, quests were undertaken, ancient evils were being conquered, and brave heroes were finding a path through the dice and rules of Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop role playing. I find a deep personal relevance in this. It was D&D that gave me a shared community in my youth, and helped me find many others who loved the tales and wonder that I did. It is not a great leap to point out that around those early tables of gamers, many of our current stories, and even some of the technology and companies of today, were first seeded. I often wonder how different the world would be without that.
Into this came a voice of some influence. Terri Windling, a young writer, artist, and editor, recognized a growing community of fellow artists, all tied by a mutual love of myth, folklore, fairy tale and more. She helped coin and popularize the term “Mythic Arts” and was diligent in connecting the roots and threads of that diverse creative field. Together with fellow editor Ellen Datlow she recognized new and established writers touching on the genre, and through numerous anthologies and collections helped establish a true network of “Mythics.” In 1987 she co-created the Endicott Studio for the Mythic Arts in Boston and later a virtual “salon” and the accompanying Web magazine, Journal for the Mythic Arts. The lists of the early members of the studio reads like a who’s who of current creatives in fantasy and mythic fields: Holly Black, creator of the Spiderwick series; Brian and Wendy Froud, mentioned earlier; Charles de Lint, known for his urban fantasy work; Neil Gaiman, one of the most popular writers of today, creating works for print, movies, and television; Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, acclaimed writers and supports of the field in their own way; Charles Vess, illustrator and creative, who is responsible for this year’s Christmas Revels poster; the well-known Jane Yolen, an amazingly prolific writer and poet. All of these and more became a circle of friends inspiring each other, supporting works and projects, and fostering a love of imagination and wonder needed by so many. It’s no surprise that many today view Terri as the “Fairy Goddess Mother” of the Mythic Arts.
“There have been a number of us working very, very hard to bring myth and fairy tales into public consciousness, through fantasy literature and other media. I hope we’re succeeding in some small way.” ~ Terri Windling
These wanderers in the dark woods marked the trails for many to follow, as the younger generations of those times came of age and began creating their own stories. They knew the way amongst the forest of tales was opened to them. The creative people in films were paying more attention as well. Of special note is the important effect the “Lord of the Rings” films had on fan culture as whole, and the Mythic Arts in particular. Based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and inspired by the illustrative work of Alan Lee and fellow artist John Howe, they were a “sea change” on the world of fantasy and film. I view them as the “coming out party” for the Mythic Arts in a way. Suddenly the tales of Tolkien I had loved so much as a child were popular the world over again and the illustrators I admired were being discovered by new fans. In many ways the fan and creative communities can mark the day as transitioned by the films. There was before LotR, and after. Suddenly the conventions and gatherings were inundated with new fans and older ones returning. Being a “fantasy geek” was cool, and creative people were being paid attention to in new ways.
The coming years would see many new properties in film, comics, and art inspired by the Mythic Arts. Video games were well part of that. As the technology for graphics and computers increased, the images we could imagine through them became more and more complex. Indeed, the ability to visualize the old tales in new ways was sharpened by the skills of this very new technology. Millions of fantasy fans regularly engage in their wildest dreams via gaming and the art of the story is of vast importance to the genre.
Like the art movements of the past, but perhaps in a more subtle way, the Mythic Arts have fostered more than just illustration and film. The influences of the past progenitors of fairy tales and their modern caretakers continue to shape the arts of all kinds. In costuming, design, sculpture, music, and of course in theater, the gleam of a world half glimpsed can be seen. Festivals and events with either fairy tales as a central elements, or perhaps along the edges of things, continue to spring up. Indeed, in our own art forms as maskers and mummers, the vast bulk of our designs are drawn from legends both ancient and modern. The stories we tell in our craft are often instantly accessible, even without foreknowledge of the tales that might have inspired them. The simple understanding that the “Green Man” is a “Father Nature” spirit and plant elemental is graspable for children and seniors. Whether it be a knowledge of the metaphorical nature from a study of ancient traditions, or associations with comic book or movie characters, in many ways, the stories never change and the inherent form remains.
It’s been many years now since the turn of the new century and growth of Fantasy and Mythic Arts. The kids who experienced the LotR trilogy and Harry Potter as a fundamental part of childhood are creating their own myths and perhaps sharing those with children of their own. Despite more than a decade of global unrest and change or perhaps because of it, fantasy, myth, folklore, and fairy tale are more needed than ever. Countless films, television shows, books, comics and other media, has reached back into the depths of time and shown it to be relevant today. Connecting our interlinked global community with our deep ancestors around those ancient fires and in the torchlit caves. Reminding us that grand tales matter, that dragons can be conquered, that small things can make a great difference, and old myths can be imagined anew. The future is indeed now, but the past and the lore we tell to make sense of it still carries us through each moment in our personal journeys and indeed, into each season. Those tales carried by the way finders in the Mythic Arts are lights in the darkness, and can help us see that the path ahead is clear. By finding the tales that move us, and reveling in them, we can know the secret at the heart of the forest, and become our own lights of guidance.
“Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are artists of one kind or another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.” ~ Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers
“It’s not what we believe, it’s what we make believe!” ~ Billy Bardo, artisan, musician, and producer of the New York Faerie Festival
Here are a few guideposts along the way:
Endicott Studio and the Archives of the Journal of the Mythic Arts. www.endicott-studio.com/
Now folded, the studio was a nonprofit to encourage and support the Mythic Arts. They produced the Web journal, and issues would often focus on particular mythic topics. Drawing on artists, writers, and poets in the field, they are an excellent starting point to explore the mythic forest.
The Mythic Imagination Institute.www.mythicjourneys.org
The purpose of the Mythic Imagination Institute is to reunite people to the accumulated wisdom of humankind that lives in stories and mythology. An excellent documentary inspired by the Mythic Journeys conference is available. Learn more at: www.mythmovie.net