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How I learned Wooden Mask Carving in Bali
mask carving Vancouver to Ubud Bali
Mask Carving in Bali
When I began carving lessons at night school in Vancouver I bored my friends taking about: bleeding students, sharp tools,the smell of the wood chips. I praised my workbench partner Thomas who made sure I wouldn't cut off my fingers. Mark George our teacher showed me how to pin down the log with my foot and cut a round shape with his electric chainsaw. I was scared. What if the blade slipped? When friends learned it took me four months to make my first rounded mask they told me not to give up my day job.
My friend Dina understood. She had been to Bali and loved the culture, especially Balinese masks. She had fallen under the spell of a particular mask and had wanted it. But it cost five hundred dollars and she just didn’t have the money. She longed for that mask and had a photo of it which showed a dark life sized face in the neo art nouveau style. It was a mysterious and seductive dark woman with long blond hair, like Dina’s. But it was also the dark jungle forest, the face made of the jungle palm trees, ferns, tropical flowers, and strange shadowy animals. Her lips were a golden butterfly. Her eyes peered though the ferns as if trying to escape and drawing me into the jungle so I could almost smell the moist ferns and hanging moss.
I had to get to Bali to find that mask, and to carve it. Dina said it was much too dangerous to go to Bali at this time, especially to go there alone. There were insurgents, terrorists, rival political gangs, and thieves. The police were corrupt. When Dina was there a villager has stolen money from her guesthouse and someone had then killed him... But I went anyway.
Descending from the plane at the Bali airport the heat and humidity engulfed me. I have always disliked heat. Thankfully the taxi driver kept his windows down. We arrived at Mas a small town amid green hills and rice fields. When the driver couldn’t find my destination he dropped me alongside a field near a stream. Right across the road was a carving workshop that specialized in wooden flowers. Tulips, orchids, unknown flowers, with tall stems and bright paint. The whole family was at work, carving, sanding, and painting. I was too shy to speak with them.
I wandered Mas until I found the friends of my friends in a rambling house, back from the road along a muddy path up stream. They knew the family who carved Dina's mask. Next week I could see their masks and buy some. But they wouldn’t teach me. They were of the highest Brahman cast in the village, and I , being a westerner was an outcast, untouchable.
So I moved to near by Ubud. I was told of a carving, dance and music school for westerners. The contact called me but his phone connection didn’t work. I wandered Ubud asking in art shops with no success. Then I decided to go to Ubud's dark jungly Monkey Forest. Through the forest there was a temple, and past the temple a street of carvers. A small cardboard sign said "Here learn wood Carving." No one was around so I waited , went for lunch, waited some more and two men and two children arrived on a red motorcycle. Wayang Dadi was a tall handsome young man. He offered to tech me to carve a Komoto Dragon for two dollars US per hour. "But I want to carve a mask." Repeatedly he explained he didn't know how to carve masks, only Komoto Dragons. Desperately I searched his little shop and way at the back found a small dusty mask of a skinny old man. "Please teach me this one-only fatter." I said. "I cannot teach you to carve a perfect mask." He replied. "No problem." I pleaded,"Nothing I carve will be perfect anyway."
The next day he was waiting for me with a green Suar wood log and a shaping axe. He showed me how to sit on the ground, hold the log in my bare feet, and chop a circle for the start of the mask. I had to cling to the axe because my sweating palms made gripping difficult. The wood was so wet that water drops splashed out as I chopped.
After an hour I was drenched with sweat and noticed large blisters forming on my hands. On the good side I still had all my toes. Painfully I straightened up and tried to stick band aids on my wet blisters. Wayang Dadi took pity on me and finished chopping out the circle. That night I awoke to an intense itching. Some hungry creatures, maybe chiggers, had crawled up from the earth where I was sitting and started munching me at my bum and worked their way all up the side of my back. There was a neat evenly spaced line of red itchy welts. I spent most of the night under the cold shower trying to relieve the itch and first thing in the morning found a drugstore which sold anti-itching powder. After a week the welts were mostly gone.
The next day I started class drenched in Deet. Wayang Dadi had me sit on the stoop of his shop and kindly added a piece of cardboard for me to sit on. I pounded on my mask with gouges and a mallet. That seat was better and the cardboard protected me from further chigger like attacks. From my log emerged a round shape which started to look a bit like a face. Suar wood is fine grained, easy to carve when wet, and if carved evenly it dries to a good hardness without splitting. Wayang Dadi showed me how to hold the gouges loosely and hit with the mallet to remove wood. He would carve part of the left side and show me how to carve the right side to match. He carved out an eyebrow, then I carved the matching eyebrow. He showed me step by step. It was energetic work requiring total concentration. I got tired and stiff from sitting on the step, but I could see the mask taking shape. The wood grain was dramatic with lighter strips running through.
I needed my own tools so Wayang Dadi took me in the motor bike to the blacksmith's forge. The skinny old smith made me a whole set of gouges from old automobile steel springs. "I will make them small to fit your small hands." He said. They cost-two dollars each compared to $20 or more for good quality gouges in North America. Wayang Dadi carved me a mallet and gave it to me. I shopped for a sharpening stone in the market-cost $2. I got to meet Wayang Dadi's wife, his cousins, and his two little sons. They gave me a lovely gift-a small sandalwood mask of a young woman with flowered headdress. Working together we finished the mask in a week and I sanded it while on my way to India. When it was smooth I waxed it to a semi gloss finish with neutral shoe polish. I would like to return to Ubud someday and visit Wayang Dadi.Maybe next time I can learn to carve a gigantic Komodo Dragon.
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