One doesn’t need to dig far into Mowachaht culture and lore to find out the meaning behind the “Old Woman Wants to be Young Again” mask. I created this design after listening to my mom complain about old age.
When she was younger, she would do tasks around the house that ran parallel to my dad’s work. He would be out on the water, while my mom was home, gutting and deboning fish, jarring it or hanging it to dry once it was brought home. In our culture, women’s work was always physical. The constant movement of bending down and straightening up again also happened during cedar bark stripping and food gathering. Over time, that takes a toll on the back.
My mom eventually felt pain from years of work, only this time it was a bit of emotional pain too. She was working on fish one afternoon, and expressed that she wished she was young again. But this wasn’t for vanity’s sake. She wanted to have stamina to continue working on the fish and helping with her usual tasks. She explained that at least if she was young again, she could keep working without feeling sore and exhausted.
This gave me the idea to create the Old Woman Wants to be Young Again mask. My original design (now, long since sold) was a young woman’s main profile with a peek-a-boo mask inside that opened up at the vertical mid-seam to show the inner mask: an older woman’s face.
Recently, I had shaped out a topsy-turvy design on some alder that didn’t have any direction until an order for the Young Woman Wants to be Young Again was requested. This gave me a chance to recreate the design on one profile. Flip the mask one way, and you’ll see the old woman with wrinkles, grey hair, and down-turned eyes. Flip it the other direction, and the young woman has a smooth complexion, with tidy, dark hair and happy eyes. One other difference in the young woman is the salmon design in the cheeks. It’s absent from the old woman’s profile as she can no longer work, which was the very reason she wished she could be young again.
Working on a mask like this opens up so much creativity for me. I can use one half of the profile to express one meaning or to represent one person, and make the other side completely different. I do enjoy the transition pieces, and hope to make the Old Woman Wants to be Young Again in that style. Until then, I never know how a piece of wood will talk to me until I consider the stories from our people. Some stories are hundreds if not thousands of years old. Other stories – such as this one – are quite recent.