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In medieval times, men forced women considered to be scolding or gossiping to wear “masks of shame”.
Created in mortifying patterns as punishment devices, they were popular in Europe until the 18th century.
Santa Fe artist Samantha Mullen brings this sculpture practice to life by parodying the originals. His work can be seen at Keep Contemporary in Santa Fe.
After establishing himself as a woodstove and creator of intricately detailed animal wall sculptures, Mullen decided it was time for a change.
“I felt healthy for the first time here,” said the artist, who moved to New Mexico from New Orleans in February. “The smoke (from burning wood) really bothered me. Art wasn’t that fun.
Before deciding what to do next, Mullen went to art supply stores and bought supplies for any medium she could think of.
“I’ve had a crazy, manic week,” Mullen said. “I went to the art store every morning in a severe panic. I felt that pressure to perform as well as with a new medium, which is ridiculous.
“I tried sculpture, paint and graphite,” she continued. “Nothing had enough texture. I have some papier-mâché stuff. I have a cheap pottery wheel.
Then she discovered paper clay, a Japanese medium mixing paper with volcanic ash.
“I carved a coyote head and just loved it,” Mullen said.
She had always loved masks, whether African, Native American or Indonesian.
“But I’m very aware of my whiteness and didn’t want to appropriate another culture,” she said.
Then, she discovered the story of these medieval masks used to shame “bad” women during a Google search on the history of masks. The British invented the “Scold’s Bridle” for women who harassed their husbands. Some sports piercing devices should try talking or eating. The Puritans brought them to America.
“It’s really wild,” Mullen said. “They were all forged in iron. They made people walk on a leash.
His first mask of shame incorporated jack bunny ears and a coyote nose with a long tongue.
“I took all the things that I’m self-critical of or that I’ve been accused of and made some sort of badge of honor,” she explained.
Mullen uses knives and sculpting tools for sculpture, then paints his pieces in acrylics.
A winding slide winds around a vulture sculpture that she hopes to turn into a marble track. She dreams of massive versions of the original.
“I want it to be eight feet tall with logs going through birds and coyotes,” she said.
Mullen studied film at the University of New Orleans, but decided to turn to art after working in two productions.
“It just wasn’t my vibe,” she said. “It was so fast with a lot of stress.”
She fell in love with wood burning after engraving someone’s name on a coin. It was a passion that would last nine years. She first sold her work on New Orleans’ Pirate Alley in the French Quarter.
“You wait for tourists to give you money for weird art,” Mullen said.
She gradually settled in galleries in Long Island and Montana, as well as in Santa Fe.
Mullen moved to Santa Fe with her husband because they both lost their jobs during the pandemic. They had never visited New Mexico.
“It was a very moving decision,” she said. “We moved to Santa Fe because my husband is a professional trombone player. We decided, instead of stressing over a mortgage we couldn’t pay, to sell everything we owned and move to Santa Fe.
“It’s so historic, it’s what I love about New Orleans,” she continued. “History only slaps you in the face all the time.”