CHICAGO MASK MAKERS
During the pandemic many Chicagoans began making and distributing masks. Some masks were designed in traditional or culturally inspired styles and were meant to create a sense of connection amongst the wearers. Some were meant to meet the needs of specific organizations or groups. Still other masks were a valuable asset, both economically and mentally, for the creators. While the inspiration behind them may vary, each mask made is a physical demonstration of the care we hold for each other.
RIBBON MASK PROJECT
The Ribbon Mask Project, from Maggie Thompson’s (Fond du Lac Ojibwe) Makwa Studio, arose as a response to the lack of personal protective equipment such as masks. Thompson, a textile artist since 4th grade, was moved to create the masks as a way to offer some protection from the spread of COVID-19, but also out of a desire for connection between the wearers. She shared that every time she saw somebody wearing beaded earrings, she felt a connection to them, and hoped that the beautifully sewn designs would serve as a symbol of the strength and resiliency of Native Americans in a similar way: that these masks could play a role in unifying the individuals who wear them during a time of such isolation. The making of the masks was a way of connecting to her culture, and she spent a lot of time thinking about the symbolism of ribbon. Ribbon was brought to the tribes, and adopted into clothing and culture, ribbon has ceremonial significance for womanhood, in clothing. It was important for her to invest care and love into the masks she made, and she frequently thought of friends or family struggling with health concerns during this time. She thought of how her people have gone through survival before. The meaning of the masks was changing for her, though, taking on a more activist/political meaning. “So many Native artists began making masks.” She saw them when going to community events such as marches for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) summit and at Standing Rock—it was a symbol of power, awareness. For every mask sold, the studio donated two CDC compliant masks to those in need (see donation cards in photos).
In 2020, the RefugeeOne Sewing Studio began offering courses on mask making in addition to their usual vocational sewing courses which aim to prepare students to create custom products for buyers and develop marketable skills. For many individuals who took part in the classes or who were able to take a sewing machine home with them, the making of masks was one thing they could do to take their minds off of everything going on. It was also a way for them to help their community members by providing masks. (Photos courtesy of RefugeeOne. ALL photo rights reserved).
The Sewing Studio is a project of RefugeeOne, among Chicago’s largest Refugee Resettlement Agencies. The Sewing Studio is staffed entirely by refugees.
FASHION MEETS FUNCTION
Having made a name for herself with athletes such as Michael Jordan in the 1990s; Barbara Bates is no stranger to high profile clients. At the onset of the pandemic though, her clientele as well as her work shifted in response to the growing need for masks. She joked that she went from making thousand dollar suits to five dollar masks - a testament to just how rapidly she was able to reimagine what her business could do, how it could serve the community. Her contracts in 2020 included 40,000 masks for the city of Chicago, 1,000s of donations to local hospitals/essential workers, as well as individual mask sales. Each of these masks were sewn by herself and volunteers, either at her South Loop storefront or at home.
Cultural Preservation, Healing, and Unity Through Mask Making
Loren Aragon is the co-founder of ACONAV, a Native American owned and operated couture fashion brand which uplifts, empowers, and celebrates women through the proper representation of Native American culture in the fashion industry. The name, ACONAV is a blend of both Loren Aragon's (Acoma Pueblo) culture and COO Valentina Aragon's (Navajo) culture. The masks seen here were created from the remnants of dresses from Aragon's previous collections. Elements of light and dark, origin stories and paths, rain and wind, are at play in these designs which are representative of Acoma culture and traditional pottery designs. The intent behind these masks was to continue to preserve and to heal through reconnecting to culture, place, and identity, especially as a tool to cope with the stress of the pandemic. He also wanted to lean into the call for unity to help each other through these times by bringing ACONAV's own mask designs to the table. Each mask seen here was made by Loren and Valentina Aragon as well as Loren's mother and aunt after they relocated the business to Albuquerque, New Mexico to be near his family during the pandemic. These masks, and more ACONAV pieces, will be featured in Field Museum's new Native North American Hall: Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories.
"In making these masks we are going back to these designs, which represent a lot of things about life. That's what we're trying to protect here, life, but also in our culture we're trying to preserve that, and how we live, how we represent, how we interpret what happens in nature, for the living world. [...] We just had this opportunity to show it again and kind of reestablish what we're trying to do and our goals as a fashion brand.” -Loren Aragon