I spent last weekend at FolkEast, one of the biggest Folk festivals in the area.  It was my first visit to a festival (apart from an afternoon many years ago at Jimmy’s Sausage Festival…) and my first attempt at running a public mask-decorating workshop, so all in all I was a little nervous!


I shouldn’t have worried: everyone I met there was lovely.  I met so many interesting people who stopped by the stall for a chat about everything from folklore and masks to woodcarving and leatherwork.  The workshops were great fun, and it was wonderful to see people’s own designs emerging as they worked on them.  Everyone who took part, children and adults, were all so creative.  It actually brought a tear to my eye at one point!

I’ve added photos from the workshops to my Facebook page but here are just a few of them.  In all the busy-ness I didn’t manage to snap photos of them all, so if you have any I’d love to see them!


Mask Making in Florence

After my experiments last summer making masks I decided I wanted to learn a little more about how the papier mache mask is made in Italy. I scoured the internet and bookshop for related articles and texts, and quickly came across The Masks of Prof Agostino Dessi.

The book itself is beautifully produced, filled with full-page photographs and for anyone interested in masks it’s well worth obtaining.  By that point I’d seen a lot of masks and Agostino’s stood out to me as some of the best around: unique and far more like pieces of art than mass produced partywear… So, buoyed up by the mad artistic enthusiasm that grabs me from time to time, I got in touch and asked him if it would be possible for me to visit him and learn how he does it.

And he said yes.

So, I booked my hotel and flights and set off on my own for Florence at the end of March.  I’d only been to Italy once before, had a tourist-level grasp of Italian from listening to the Pimsleur Italian course for a few months (which I heartily recommend: no other language course has stuck in my mind so well.  Check it out of your library for free), and was travelling alone.  It was a bit daunting.  Especially when I made the mistake of looking up reviews for Expedia just after booking.  It’s a bit like looking up your symptoms to self-diagnose: you’ll always find links to the worst possible scenario and people don’t generally go online to post “actually it was all fine”.  So, to break the trend: it was all fine.  Expedia was great, communicative and easy to use.  London City Airport was fast, easy to drive to and navigate internally as it’s so compact.  Air France were friendly and the flight was pain-free which was nice: my hearing was impaired and my ears hurt for several weeks after the flight home from Venice last year.  So, credit where it’s due, even if it’s not as exciting as “and then the engine blew up on the runway and we all had to be evacuated”… an incident involving the same airline and airport about a week earlier that I’m glad my parents told me about after the trip.

Agostino Dessi's mask shop in Florence
Agostino Dessi’s mask shop on Via Faenza, Florence

And Florence was beautiful.  The people endlessly helpful, and I got chatting to so many more people than I would have if I hadn’t travelled alone.  I stayed for a week, touring the city in the mornings and studying with Agostino in his beautiful mask shop every afternoon.  I had the best time.  THE BEST time.  I learned so much, saw so much, and can’t wait to go back.  It’s a gorgeous city filled with incredibly talented people, so many of whom are based in the streets around Agostino’s shop that they seem to be forming an artistic quarter, which can only be a good thing.

I had my own little corner of the shop to work in
Agostino’s shop.  It took me a week of evenings to produce my mask from scratch, so I can only imagine the sheer quantity of man-hours contained in this one image.

One of the many problems I’d had with the masks I’d tried to make before was getting them to fit a real face.  I’d been making a clay replica of my own face and then building the mask on top, but then found that the finished item was too wide, narrow, too close to the eyes, or didn’t have enough space for a nose.  Just being able to recreate a face doesn’t mean it’s the ideal shape for a mask.

Sculpting the face in clay, then embellishing with details
Sculpting the face in clay, then embellishing with details

My first day at the shop was almost entirely spent getting the proportions correct according to a set of rules that should eliminate that problem.  Fingers crossed I can remember it all from my notes now I’m home!

After casting the sculpt in plaster I started to apply the papier mache over a couple of evenings.
After casting the sculpt in plaster I started to apply the papier mache over a couple of evenings.
Painting the mask
Painting the mask

Then I painted the undercoat for a cracked and antiqued surface, before adding the details and finish.

The finished mask
The finished mask

I’m really happy with the final result, and can’t wait to try recreating the whole process at home!  Watch this space.

Cats, Devils and Cthulhu

Back to papier mache masks.  I’d started to get a little fed up with plasticine as a sculpting material.  It was difficult to work with and took forever to create the details that I wanted so I ordered some clay and a couple of airtight containers, and a couple of weekends ago finally found the time to try it out.

What a difference!  I can’t imagine how I put up with the plasticine now.  Using clay has reminded me how much I used to love working with it at school many many moons ago.  It’s so much more agreeable and much easier to smooth.  I began by making a cat and devil sculpt:

Cat Mask Clay Sculpt Devil Mask Clay Sculpt

As you can see, the cat mask was sculpted over the same clay face I used previously.  For the devil mask, I pushed the clay into a modroc cast I’d made of that same face:

Pushing clay into the face cast

This essentially replicated the underlying clay face, but in damp, workable clay.  I added details and chopped off the lower part of the face, and all this resulted in a much closer fit than the cat mask.

Devil Mask Cat Mask

The cat and devil mask popped out of the molds.  They need trimming around the eyes and edges, but otherwise it seemed to work brilliantly!  The cat mask is based on the traditional cat masks found in Venice.  I liked the simple form of them, so didn’t change too much when I made my own.

Sketching Cthulhu

And finally, I wanted to try something a little more complex, and Cthulhu seemed like the perfect subject (when is he not?).  I pondered over how to do the tentacles for some time.  The sketch on the far right would no doubt be easiest: a stylised straight tentacle look.  But who wants to go for the easiest option?  I studied some photos of classical statues with curly beards, then went for it:

Cthulhu Clay Sculpt Cthulhu Mask

The clay Cthulhu sculpt, and the resulting mask as it was this morning; a layer of glue drying so slowly that I had to hold it for the photo otherwise it’d stick itself to my favourite Generic Background paper, and we can’t have that.

In case you can’t tell, I also discovered Instagram.  I’m using it to document my mask making trials and errors as I always have my phone nearby while I work and it’s easy enough to snap a work in progress.  My camera lives upstairs in a drawer, and sometimes you have to be quick before something dries/runs/sets in the wrong place.  See what I’m up to on Instagram.

Bookbinding Course with Mia Leijonstedt – 9th June 2012

I discovered Mia Leijonstedt’s website early last year when I first became interested in book binding.  I’d just completed a day course at Brignell Bookbinders in Cambridge where I had learned to use a whole array of large and expensive equipment: metre-long guillotines, book presses so wide you could stretch out and lie down on them, specialist hotplates for gold lettering, delicate alignment mechanisms, book sewing frames, and vats of unlabelled glues, to produce this:

A piece of work I’m really rather proud of.  The course was brilliant, Barry was an attentive and helpful tutor, there was a constant supply of biscuits and tea, and the level of expertise and skill displayed by the bookbinders there was awe inspiring.  There was only one catch: there was no way I could replicate the process at home without all that equipment.  Barry kindly offered the course participants the use of the bookbinding studio for our future projects, but Cambridge is just too far away if I wanted to create books on a regular basis.  I turned once again to the internet – seeking out shortcuts, DIY methods, and following bookbinding threads and links around the web.  On one such day of research I chanced upon Mia Leijonstedt, and was instantly entranced by how beautiful her books were.  Head over to to glance through her work, and you’ll see what I mean.  Just seeing the way in which she turned bookbinding into an art form reinvigorated my attempts, and I spent a happy few weeks trying to combine the formal techniques I’d learned with new and exciting combinations of materials.

I’ll admit that it was some time later I wandered back to her site and looked at her blog, and there – in between the photos of books, beads and exotic locations – was something I recognised: a bronze flower embedded into a pavement, strikingly similar to ones I’d seen dotted around Cambridge… the very place I’d done my first bookbinding course earlier in the year.  A short investigation proved it: Mia was based in Cambridge, and what’s more, she too did bookbinding courses!  Surely this was meant to be!  But if fate had arranged it, it also took it’s time in allowing all the pieces to come together.  All the dates Mia advertised were days that I was working, and it was almost a full year later before I could make the journey and attend the very last course Mia was running before moving abroad.

An early morning drive from Ipswich got me to Cambridge well before the course start time, so I spent a happy few minutes camping in the sun outside the studio gates.  Gradually other participants arrived, and between helping set up the workspace I discovered that despite the journey from Ipswich I was actually one of the most local attendees that day!  Book artists had come from as far away as Germany, Australia and South Africa, all incredibly talented and bringing their own styles and inspirations with them.  Being the organised person that I am, I managed to forget both pen and paper to make notes during the course, but Mia and Lizzie (a fellow student- see her lovely bookbinding blog here: ) came to the rescue.  Mia had produced course notes in the form of a tiny palm-leaf book, and no sooner had I noted out loud how daft I was to forget such essentials, than a speedily hand-bound notebook arrived in front of me thanks to Lizzie!

The aim of the course was to create a palm leaf book (, a deceptively simple format which leaves plenty of room for creative variation.  Unlike the Brignell course which followed strict steps to create a standard book, Mia’s teaching was very much focused on helping us draw on our natural creativity to create our own, highly individualised books.  Between sanding the wooden covers and cutting pages to size over the course of the morning, she talked us through three creative exercises (which she herself uses) to get us in the right frame of mind for the bookbinding process.

In the first exercise we were shown five piles of assorted objects: buttons, threads, pieces of metal, odd stones and material scraps; and told to choose five items, one from each pile.  I picked out a length of gold thread, scraps of leather and vellum, a metal ring, and a small slate.  We then had to combine them to form an object which we felt expressed who we were, so I spent a good few minutes pushing the objects around and seeing how they might work together.  Eventually I came up with this:

The last scrap of vellum already suggested a hare, I just refined the shape, honest!  I really enjoyed this exercise, and it put me in mind of the charms I used to construct when I was little.  On walks in the countryside I’d collect objects along the way that caught my eye: sticks, leaves, stones, and then see how they wanted to combine at the end to make a kind of physical memory of the walk.  My parents used to get rather frustrated with all the random sticks and stones I’d bring home, so sufficed to say, the charms never stuck around for very long after they were made!

The other two exercises were equally as fascinating.  The second was a session of intuitive drawing: Mia would read aloud a word, and we would immediately set pen to paper and create marks that channelled how that word made us feel.  Sedate lines for peace, star-bursting lines for joy, tangled weaves for curiosity, and so on.  The last exercise was a guided visualisation, read aloud by Mia, which was both a strange journey through places, symbols and imagery, and yet deeply relaxing.

After lunch all focus returned to constructing the book.  Mia was ever on hand to answer questions about technique and guide us where necessary.  She somehow achieved that perfect balance between instruction and freedom: not dictating every step, and equally not giving us the studio and then ignoring us until we needed something.  She opened up her treasure-chests of objects, beads, beautiful papers, gems and other materials for us to use.  I used pyrography sets to burn designs onto wood and leather, and a small stove to melt tin and create tiny sculptural forms.  My first attempt created a lovely ring of metal, but unfortunately it was just a tad too wide to sit atop my book, so I picked it up and started to bend the rapidly-cooling metal to fit it back in the melting pan for a second try.  At the moment when it had cooled to the point where I could no longer bend it, it had formed a rather lovely curved shape, and amazingly, sat steady and upright when I placed it on the book.  I decided it was a happy accident, and went with it!

The whole day was a fantastic experience.  It was wonderful to meet a select crowd of people who loved book binding, and to see the masterpieces they created.  Unfortunately I forgot my camera on the day, so I only managed to capture our finished pieces with my phone.  I hope you can see the quality of the work, if not of the photo!

And here is my finished book, complete with metal sculpture.  On any other kind of book this would be a pain to open with such a delicate weight on top, but the nature of the palm-leaf book means you can set the cover aside and still look through the pages.

       I had immense fun, and came away pleased with what I had created, impressed with everyone else’s work, and inspired to (finally) clear my craft table and set about experimenting with books.  As soon as I get some spare time I’ll start posting updates and photos detailing my efforts!  Many many thanks to Mia, and everyone else who made the day so special.


Mia’s website:

Lizzie’s blog: