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Combining art forms: spirit masks and poems

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Stages of Griefmask1.jpgBy Janet Ruffin

Janet Hull Ruffin is an artist, arts educator and poet. She is finishing a book of poems showing what it's like to work with critically ill children in a major cancer center. She focuses on hospital culture, the therapeutic nature of art and spirituality.

She retired from MD Anderson in January 2009 after serving as the art teacher in the Children's Cancer Hospital for more than 10 years. Her position was special because the time she spent with patients and their families was not about diagnoses, examinations or treatments. They made art together. Currently, she volunteers with the Children's Art Project working with pediatric patients.


One of the most powerful forms of creative expression is achieved by combining art forms.

I practiced this concept working on a spirit guides mask project with the pediatric patients in the Children's Cancer Hospital. Spirit guide is a term used to describe an entity that remains a spirit in order to act as a guide or protector to a person.

The children and I began by reading a story about spirit guides and discussing what kind of information we would want from our guide.

Next, we brainstormed to decide what our guides would look like. Adhering plaster gauze to plastic molds of the human face made the masks. It was necessary to build out features on some of the masks, like the dragon and cobra masks. An eagle and angel mask had wings attached. There were also bear, clown and a superhero masks.  

Painting and decorating each mask took weeks because I met with each student individually at different time and in all different places.

Turning action into words
To add a second dimension to this project, I turned the patients and their masks over to the Writers In The Schools program facilitators. The WITS teachers had the students write stories and poems about their mask.

This process deepened the experience of the child in relationship to their mask. Their words were staggering; everything from rage and bitterness to peace and acceptance.

Below is a poem that I wrote in response to one of the masks. I have not used the patient's real name.

Jamal's Mask

He plasters over
the mold of a human
face, uses crumpled
newspaper and masking
tape to build a lower jaw
with fangs, then the massive
upper jaw.        Jamal forms

black horns above orange eyes
with yellow slits, paints the
inside of the mouth a red that
spills over the sides, bleeds
onto the fangs.        This is

his spirit guide, protector and
killer, destroys monsters that
inflict pain, dries up the poison
of snakes with his fire breath.

                                    Jamal knows

his dragon can turn on him,
what choice does he have?

Ekphrastic Poetry is writing that comments upon another art form.

Try it, feed your creativity. Write a poem about one of your favorite pieces of art, sculpture or song?

Read more posts by Janet Ruffin

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