Plastered with Memories

Fourth graders show off their creativity and continue a hallowed Sidwell Friends tradition.

Every year, 4th graders look forward to the mask-making project they’ve been anticipating since their earliest years at Sidwell Friends. Wacky, wise, and wildly colorful masks made of plaster have hung in various places around the School since the project began many years ago. Watching the yearly appearances of these masterpieces, students grow up thinking about how they might approach the project—and then, in their last year of Lower School, they finally get their chance.

“What I love about this project is that it’s a legacy project,” says Lower School art teacher Sabreena Jeru-Ahmed, who leads the project along with art assistant Miriam Ghattas. “It is a tradition that was passed on to me by Lila Hochberg, who was an art teacher here for 20 years. She served as a mentor for me my first year, so I decided I was absolutely going to teach mask making in the curriculum, because this woman was just amazing, and I wanted to honor her work.”

Nowadays, the project is still going strong, though Sabreena points out that it’s changed and evolved over the years. Students’ masks often reflect trends of the times, and during the 2015/16 school year, Sabreena had students make them in the style of Chinese opera. The one thing that every year has in common is that the final products are breathtaking. But a lot of work goes into them first.

Students form the masks out of plaster gauze, which requires one student to serve as a model, while a partner carefully layers strips of plaster over her or his face, using a technique that Sabreena first demonstrates on a volunteer. Sabreena adds that she tries to pair up students who don’t spend a lot of time together, often placing a girl with a boy. “We want them to learn how to talk to people outside of their groups—there are a lot of same-gendered groups of friends at that age. It’s an important skill to have in life.”

“Pairing the students this way works really well as a trust-building exercise,” Miriam notes.

Once the masks have been made and dried, it’s time for students to decorate them! The possibilities are endless. “We’ve had kids transform their masks into sushi on a plate, waffles with syrup, basketballs going into hoops, and one student who painted her mask to look like a blueprint, because she wants to be an architect. Another student painted her idea of God, trying to represent different races and cultures with all these different hair and skin colors. Her version of God was the sum total of all the characteristics of human beings. Sometimes they’re pretty complex concepts and ideas.”

The students aren’t just limited to one medium, either. “We use acrylic paint because it’s plastic and it seals the mask in a way that tempera paint wouldn’t,” Sabreena explains. “They use paint markers on top of that, but they have access to all kinds of other things: pom-poms, pipe cleaners, feathers, gemstones, shells, beads, WonderFoam, fake fur. We encourage them to bring things from home, too, and if they require a specific material, we’ll go shopping!”

Ultimately, Sabreena hopes that students will remember this project throughout their lives, whenever they come across plaster as an art form. “I want them to have this memory as an experience,” she says. “It’s a reminder that ‘I did this incredible thing when I was in 4th grade.’”

At ArtRageous—an annual celebration of the arts that includes Sidwell Friends students of all ages—the masks are always a big topic of discussion. One year, two parents approached Sabreena. “They told me they still have their plaster masks that Lila Hochberg did with them all those years ago!” says Sabreena. “To me, that says a lot.”

View a Selection of Student Work


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