A Revealing Experience in Mask Making

By Gregory Pings, October 27, 2022

Michael Sullivan ’16 explores his passion for making masks. 

Ithaca College’s faculty challenged him. “School was tough,” Michael Sullivan ’16 recalled. “I thought theatre would make me feel super comfortable, but it was hard to break out of my shell.” A class on Shakespearean theatre at Ithaca College’s London Center required the students to make masks and perform in them—and Sullivan found his breakthrough opportunity.

“I grew up in a creative household. My mother sews, and we did crafty projects together,” he recalled. This mask project was his first, but it was a natural extension of the craft projects he had done at home, and the Shakespeare assignment launched a new passion.

Other assignments tweaked his interest as well—such as a cabaret show. “I love the queer arts, especially drag performance—at least, my version of drag,” he said modestly. The experience wasn’t what he expected, but he wore the makeup, experimented with different clothes, and made head pieces, which was not so different from making masks. “This turning point in my life was not so much a single moment but more like a lot of dominoes falling at once,” Sullivan described. 

London was amazing in so many ways. It was such a huge opportunity. It was incredible because the curriculum included voice lessons, stage combat, and scene study.” 

Michael Sullivan '16

Sullivan’s first mask for the Shakespeare project incorporated natural elements such as leaves, twigs, and feathers. Reeds, marsh grass, flowers, and more found their way onto some of his other masks. He has since moved on to artificial materials such as jewels, mirror shards, metal, and found objects.

The result is stunning. His mask craft has expanded from the theatre and includes a niche in queer culture and art shows. Sullivan’s work has been featured at Studio Lacombe, the Schoolhouse Gallery, and others in Provincetown, Massachusetts. His latest show in July 2022 was at the Cherry Artspace in Ithaca, where it ran for six weeks.

Michael Sullivan holding a mask

(Photo submitted)

He works with jewels and other nonperishable objects because art that lasts is art that leaves a legacy. But the call to nature persists. “I’m aching to get back into it,” Sullivan said. “Wasp nests actually survive, and I have a huge nest right now. I’m waiting to figure out what I’ll do with it.”

The semester Sullivan spent studying at Ithaca College’s London Center infused for him an international cultural experience with fascinating course work. Its location is ideally suited to exploring London, as well as Europe. “London was amazing in so many ways. It was such a huge opportunity,” he explained. “It was incredible because the curriculum included voice lessons, stage combat, and scene study.”

Then there was London’s theatre scene. They saw a lot of it and then discussed the shows the next day. The curriculum also included tours where the professor would connect various parts of London to the theatre. The history was obscure, informative, and enriching. “We turned in journals at the end of the semester, which I really enjoyed because it was a chance to get creative.”

London is far away from Ithaca and Sullivan’s hometown of Guilford, Connecticut, in terms of distance as well as experience. This was his first time in a large city with a lively gay culture.

In the United States, these kinds of queer spaces are not open to anyone under 21 years of age. Not so in London. “This was my first time seeing queer nightlife and creative and artistic queer people.”

It was also the first time Sullivan made a mask to wear in a public space that was not for a classroom or a theatrical role. “London was amazing in so many ways. Studying abroad for anybody is incredible. Being able to see Europe is incredible. I especially enjoyed seeing and being part of nightlife for the first time.”