Short piece for ingénu/e magazine about a Social Sulpture exhibition by Deborah Ravetz

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Two book reviews:


Mask by Mike Chase

Hawthorn Press, Stroud, 2017

  Masks have accompanied human cultures since the beginnings of time. Spiritual leaders, healers and story-tellers used them to embody ‘the characters, spirits and gods from the stories, which would guide the ethical choices and moral development of society[1].’ In contemporary Western society, however, their use became marginalised, as human consciousness grew increasingly distant from its origins. Designs became ‘either sentimental or grotesque.’

  Mike Chase’s great achievement, in a lifetime of designing, making and working with masks, and now in the writing of this outstanding book, has been to reconnect the medium with its spiritual origins through the use of archetypes; ‘to seek out meaningful cosmologies, ordered wholes, on which to develop my practice as a mask-maker… the temperaments and other archetypes, including the seven planets and the zodiac, have been the foundation stones for my mask designs.’ In his work as a teacher, therapist and theatre director, with community groups, specialist colleges and in prisons, he has rediscovered the healing, embodying and educating roles of mask. In a culture whose focus is almost entirely on the individual, he reinvents mask-use and design for the self-understanding, development and balance of individuals and groups.

  He sees it is a medium through which the individual can find their voice and tell their story. ‘The outside of the mask becomes the externalised expression of an inner state, boiled down to its essence, arriving at an archetype that also has meaning for others. Filling the mask from the inside with the expression and breath, the body and gestures of the heightened state of the wearer open a doorway into another world. This vast and awe-inspiring world, both beautiful and terrifying, can be managed, named and expressed through the container of the mask.’

  This is a beautifully produced book, illustrated abundantly with Jane Chase’s colour photographs which are works of art in themselves. It is endorsed by Clark Baim as ‘a generous book, full of clear guidance and practical wisdom.’ It is a practical handbook for making masks and their use in many educational, therapeutic and social contexts, but it is so much more. In an effortless yet energetic style, Chase weaves together practical instruction, wise, emotional understanding and a theoretical underpinning laid out in economic, jargon-free language.

  In particular, Chase’s work is based upon the use of one set of archetypes: the four temperaments – choleric, phlegmatic, sanguine and melancholic. He cites others who have applied an understanding of the temperaments in modern contexts: Carl Jung in psychotherapy, Katharine Cook-Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, (the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, used extensively in the business sector), Michael Chekhov in drama training, Rudolf Steiner in education and teacher training. ‘What captured my attention,’ he says, ‘was the simplicity and depth of this cosmology and the manner by which it is applicable in all walks of life. This can be a tool to understand the self, relationships and behaviour, managing a classroom, training actors for the stage, mask makers for the theatre and design, mask using as a professional development process in education, business, therapy and theatre performance.’

  A fifth mask is included: the neutral, ‘the mask of unmasking.’ This is about being present in the here and now, and a preparation for entering into the ‘powerful and extreme states of being’ which are encountered through the four temperaments.

  The book is in four parts:

Background to masks and to the four temperaments.

  1. Mask-making. Clear instructions for designing and constructing masks.
  2. Mask-using. A host of exercises, involving three elements: bodily movement, imagination and the spoken word. With charming line drawings by Allmut ffrench.
  3. The application of mask work across many fields: education and special education, teacher training, psychotherapy and psychodrama, organisational and leadership training, community groups, theatre. And, not least, some stories from the author’s extensive experience, which range from deeply moving to hilarious.

  As well as a handbook, MASK is also about what lies behind the masks we all adopt every day. ‘… a relationship begins to develop between what is seen and what is still unseen… The psychology of masks as they challenge the notion of identity invites us to reconsider who the “self” or the “other” might be. The elemental psychology of the temperaments seems to awaken an ancient tacit knowledge of human nature, inviting us to consider the masks we might be wearing. These masks are not cultural, or social, but rather correspond to a constitutional self situated somewhere between the body and the soul.’

  In an age when loss of meaning, the struggle to find the self and to understand the self, all contribute to illness, mental health issues, alienation and criminality, this book is a source of understanding, recovery and even comfort. Every library, school, college, drama department, therapy centre, community and arts centre will be enriched by this; teachers, trainers, actors, therapists and facilitators will be inspired and assisted in their work. As John Wright says in his Foreword, ‘You learn through ‘doing’ with Mike and this is the quality that comes out when you read his book.

[1] All quotations are from the book.

Published in Point & Circle, Michaelmas 2017.

Book Review


The Art of Being Human by Deborah Ravetz

Vala Publishing, Bristol, 2016

Review published in New View magazine, Winter 2016/17, and in Die Christengemeinschaft, 1/2017.

  In her Social Sculpture project, The Search For The Deep Self, which she has presented in the UK, Germany and the USA, Deborah collected the stories of many ordinary and some remarkable people who, at critical moments in their life, broke through to a sense of their true self and purpose. Attending some of these exhibitions and workshops, I notice that it is common for people to come up afterwards to say, in all seriousness, ‘This has changed my life.’ In this book, Deborah adds her own story, with the aim of showing a wider audience that the possibility of uncovering what is so easily and so often ‘hidden, ignored or denied’ – the true self – is possible for everyone, at any time, and that it is just this which can bring fulfillment and joy to life. It is a book not quite like any other.

  As a young girl, growing up in a white community in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), she is confused and distressed by the dysfunctional, abusive lifestyle going on around her. Her parents and their friends, having survived WW2, are traumatised and disoriented but determined, at all costs, to lead ‘the good life,’ to appear happy and successful. In one of the author’s typically telling phrases, they are ‘perched on the surface of their inner lives.’

  When the child innocently asks why everyone is unhappy, she is perceived as a threat and angrily silenced. She then does something remarkable: she decides, at a very young age, that ‘my feelings were precious, and I was determined not to suppress them.’

  For instance, at school, she is mortified to see her best friend playing with a group of new friends. Her response is to do something that is rare even amongst grown men and women: she confronts her own jealousy. Through admitting her feeling, looking honestly at herself and her friend’s behaviour, she finds that their friendship need not be broken but can, in fact, deepen. This early example is a model for how she will respond, deeply and positively, to crisis.

  ‘I believe it is very important to allow ourselves to feel,’ she writes, ‘Our whole life of feeling is like a thermometer. Feelings… bear messages about our inner lives that, when decoded, can help us to understand who we are and how we are responding to the world around us. They need to be felt and explored so that we can understand the questions that our life is asking us.’

  In the first chapter, we are introduced to Rilke’s concept of the City of Pain and the Land of Pain: the City, in which suffering and ‘all that is mysterious and inexplicable’ is denied in pursuit of a superficial happiness; and the Land, where life is embraced in its totality and complexity and its meaning sought.

  Personal experiences and insights are grounded by her incisive and extensive reading of novelists, thinkers, social reformers, artists and scientists from classical times to the present. Not yet in her teens, she is reading E.M.Forster and Anna Karenina, alongside childrens’ stories. Literature is not an escape but a place where she discovers people – authors and characters – who try to respond to life with courage and integrity; a world that is more, not less, real than the determinedly superficial chaos going on around her. In this historical–contemporary stream of literature, philosophy, biography and art, Deborah has panned for gold and come up with an extraordinary treasure. This work is a wonderful example of the new discipline of Autoethnography, ‘a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore their personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.’[1] It is impossible not to feel encouraged and equipped to apply her approach to one’s own life: opening oneself with vulnerability to what has happened, admitting one’s own motives and behaviour (To admit: to own up to, but also to let in), thereby finding the ground within oneself. In describing her own journey, she role-models for us, showing that it is not only possible to embrace the unbearable but that it is – though never easy – always preferable. Through openly and bravely attempting it, we can discover the meaning of events and situations, coming ever closer to our real self, to the true purpose and narrative of our life.

  The decision not to flee from experience but to explore her inner world, where ‘my own feelings became my North Star’, sets the course for the way she will deal with life. At school there are factions and bullying to confront, teachers who are controlling, while others inspire; then the cynicism of her lecturers at university in the 70s; in contrast, the idealism she discovers in Camphill communities which is, however, undermined by power struggles and personal weakness.

  The latter part of the book explores how personal processes impact upon groups, communities and society. The author’s research and experience is extensive – from Camphill communities to Joseph Beuys’ Social Sculpture, Adam Kahane’s work, Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, all underpinned by a life-long study of the holocaust.

  Throughout, it is a description of theory arising from practise: Deborah embodies the truth that all constructive politics, ecology, social activism and spiritual activity, begin with the self and continue with one’s engagement with others. As a student of anthroposophy, it is liberating to read of a life grounded in spiritual science which refers to it sparingly but practises it tirelessly and profoundly, on the self, in all of life’s circumstances.

  The growing girl was accused by her mother of ‘living your life-like a novel,’ and it was through reading that she maintained her sanity and sought to understand the crazy and truly frightening events happening in their family life. This book reads as engagingly as a good novel and part of its attraction is the delightful writing. While deeply serious, the story abounds with love-of-life. Here is a thumbnail sketch of her grandfather:

  ‘I had a very good relationship with my grandfather whom I loved to distraction. He allowed me to sit on his knee and sip his beer. I teased him and deafened him by kissing his huge ears. If it was his birthday and we sang for him, he wept; if we had to say goodbye after a long holiday, his eyes filled with tears. But if one of us children left food on the side of our plate my warm-hearted grandfather became white with rage.

  I only understood this much later when my grandfather was a very old man developing Alzheimer’s. Then, having lost his short-term memory, he began for the first time to talk to me about the past and especially about the war. He described being marched across Europe after his capture at Arnhem. Local women had tried to give the prisoners of war food and drink as they passed, and he wept as he told me how the offered comforts were kicked away by their escort. He was angry because he’d known what it was to starve. He was nearly ninety before he spoke of these things. Not even my grandmother had heard these stories.’

  This is a book not quite like any other. Re-reading it for the purpose of reviewing it, I found I could not put it down for a second time! As readable as a novel, it is a manual for living in a way that faces up to life’s emotional and spiritual realities. It explores and maps out an encouraging journey to the place where ‘your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’[2] It is a book that will change lives.

[1] Ellis, Carolyn (2004) & Maréchal, Garance (2010). Paraphrased in Wikipedia.

[2] Frederick Buechner, quoted P.104.

Published in New View, Winter 2016/17 and in Die Christengemeinschaft, 1/2017.