Meet the Banksy of Masks…
“What if I crochet a balaclava and thread wool through the stitches?”
Within my earliest memories of masks swirls an unwavering sense of disquiet. By this time of year, most kids were queuing up for Scream masks or cloaking themselves in makeshift ghost costumes: conversely, I was far less comfortable with ghouls, zombies and other morbidly-masked figures wafting through my neighbourhood. While I can partially chalk this up to being prematurely – if accidentally – exposed to slasher films (never again did I sneak into my older cousins’ Halloween screenings), it was less their ghastly appearance that chilled me; more so the fact their identities were distorted, concealed. Even before I caught wind of Stephen King’s IT, clowns were personally outlawed – my 7-year-old self found their painted smiles and synthetic camouflage to be deeply unsettling.
Over time, this maskaphobia (it’s a thing!) thankfully diminished, replaced by intrigue towards the artistry of contemporary mask-makers – admiring the ways in which pieces could transform and even empower their wearers. I discovered James Merry, a self-taught embroiderer who crafts surreal facepieces for Bjork; Damselfrau, a.k.a Magnhild Kennedy, a Norwegian maker gracing a myriad of fashion magazines; Carina Shoshtary, a German mask artist whose Instagram perch @Fashion_For_Bank_Robbers provides a visual salve for selfie culture. Around the same time, I encountered the first two creatives, I stumbled upon the remarkable threadstories; a Dublin-born, Kilkenny-based artist whose colour-bursting specimens instantly grabbed me. A variety of enshrouded profiles danced across my smartphone screen, stretching from tassled balaclavas to avant-garde takes on Monsters Inc.
Checking their Instagram numbers quickly proved I was late to the party: tens of thousands of followers were already watching this mystery maker’s every movement, seeking respite from more egocentric posters. The sheer scale of their online backing bemuses threadstories to this day: “When I first put up these pictures I thought, What am I doing? What on earth is this? So it amazes me how many people have become interested. The international following came first, then people started to pick up on it in Ireland. threadstories mainly attracts people who like textiles, people within drag, cabaret and alternative communities, alongside performers in the music sector who like that idea of hiding your persona.”
From starting point to present day, threadstories has never been keen on premeditation: “personally speaking, it kills the work.” The project officially spawned in 2015, when an Electric Picnic trip prompted the artist to create masks for the occasion. What a welcome reprieve from flower crowns. “My friends and I would often make undercover costumes for the craic. I had an idea of something I wanted to make and I couldn’t figure out how to do it – the kind of thing you’d go to sleep thinking about, wake up thinking about. Then it just popped into my head. What if I crochet a balaclava and thread wool through the stitches? Once I created that, something flipped in my stomach and I thought I could do this a thousand times in a thousand different ways. It felt like a compulsion.”
Unsure of what exactly they wanted this project to entail, and feeling zero desire to explain themselves, threadstories began to anonymously upload their masks. “Nobody knew I was working on this for a solid year or so. It was a really nice incubation space to do what I wanted, without having to justify it to anybody. What I do with threadstories is quite bizarre, and if I describe myself as a mask-maker locally, people don’t know what to do with that information.” The masks form an arresting marriage between textile and sculpture, respectively drawing from the artist’s childhood influences – “I was always surrounded by very accomplished textile makers: my mam, my grandmother, my aunties” – and collegiate training – “I studied fine art and sculpture, was always making wearables in college, but I used more industrial techniques like casting, found objects. There was never any tactile quality to what I was doing, until a decade or so after my degree.” Much to the confusion of most fans, the masks circumvent categorisation – instead flirting with #visualart, #costume, #storytelling and other creative taglines.
The process within which threadstories creates is quasi Impressionistic. “When I make the masks, I really don’t know what’s going to happen until I put them on – they are malleable forms that I’m looking to be surprised by. I can move them, flatten them, manipulate them. There’s no point in pre-planning or sketching, because I think with my hands: I have to be engaged in the physical making process for ideas to sprout. Each mask I make is responding to the last one – it’s quite time-consuming to make the initial balaclava, but that gives me the headspace to envisage what I’ll do next.” Each creation delves deep into expressions of colour, form and movement, liberally exploring all manner of crafting techniques – crochet, tufting, dyeing, brushing – and is only complete, or rather “resolved“, once photographed or filmed on its first wear. “Once you take it off, it’ll never look the same again – it loses shape, becomes lifeless, so it has to be re-sculpted. I don’t know why I’d rarify the object and put it on a shelf – it makes more sense for me to throw it in a dye bath or unpick it, to see how far I can push these techniques each time.”
Underpinning these fibrous experiments are themes of privacy and the intrusion of social media, towards which threadstories has always experienced discomfort – the disguised portraits are thus serious dialogue instigators, intentionally hiding the whole story from their viewers. When the artist exhibited FalseHoods last year, their first solo showcase, they were determined to continue those thought provocations. “There were no masks in the show – there was film and photography. What seems to happen with a lot of craft-based techniques is that people want to figure out how the work is made and, once they do, something is resolved in their head. So, when I pervert that viewing process and stop people seeing the masks in person, it’s way more interesting because they can’t quite figure it out.” The fact threadstories has harnessed a strong digital presence without falling victim to oversharing, nor collaborations ill-suited to their value system, testifies a resolve to craft and showcase on their own terms. “I’ve stopped lending masks for editorials, because I’ve realised the reality of a fast-paced fashion shoot doesn’t suit the work. It needs time and space and, when they’re on set, these creative teams have neither. Publications I really like have called for masks in the past, but trying to explain to stylists how these masks tick – that it’s not as simple as throwing one on a model and shooting – is tricky.”
Given their natural selectiveness towards commissions and partnerships, when the right collaboration does come along – akin to their artistic process – they waste little to no time in seizing it. Such was the case when performance artist Headonbody (i.e. Deirdre Griffin) contacted the artist after visiting FalseHoods to chat potential work, which snowballed into crafting Griffin’s facepiece for her nimble-footed show, Soup, at the Dublin Fringe Festival last month.
“With Deirdre, there seemed to be a lot of reasons why I should explore this. We had a good conversation at the start, where I told her I wasn’t a trained costume designer and explained how I worked. I stayed true to my process throughout. I wasn’t trained to design things for other people; designers know how to ask the right questions, they know how to work to a brief, they know how to get to the bottom of what a client wanted, whereas my process is far more organic. It’s all about trying something new, and Deirdre’s crazy innovative in how she works. Why wouldn’t I want to work with someone who’s really pushing the boundaries of what they’re doing?”
threadstories never makes the same masks twice, nor do they sell them (I can hear c. 42K followers collectively sighing), but going commercial, they conclude, simply doesn’t match their ethos. They’re all the more refreshing for it. “This is not my bread and butter, so that gives me the freedom not to feel I have to chase opportunities. I could be in a position where I undertook interns – they’d be producing balaclavas and I would just come along and do that final step – but it’s not my goal. I just want the work to go off in different directions and see whatever excites me.”
Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady
Persona, new work by threadstories opens in the Molesworth Gallery on September 3 and runs until September 30.