Miguel Romero
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BALI (March 6 – 27, 2000)

In the Mask Carver’s Studio

From Japan I flew to Bali. I settled in Ubud, a city in the central part of the island north of the capital, Denpasar, known for its many artists. Shortly after my arrival, I visited a mask carver, Ida Bagus Oka, who had been recommended by a UMASS colleague from the French-Italian Department, Nancy Lamb, who knows Bali well. I arranged to spend a few weeks working in his studio with his large staff of artisans to learn his craft. Oka, whose father and brother are performers, is unusual in that he designs masks for performance, while most of the masks that one can purchase on Bali are intended for decorative purposes only. Oka takes commissions for European theatres and American and European interior designers who distribute his masks and wood sculptures to craft boutiques throughout the world.

Oka’s studio is like nothing I have ever experienced in all my years of studying design and art. My first day as a Balinese mask carver was a revelation. The Balinese philosophy is the opposite of the Western approach to art. Instead of coming to the work, you bring the work to you. What this means is that you work squatting on the floor with your legs holding the wood in place, functioning as a vice. Only two tools are available: a wooden mallet and some very simple chisels, which, in the right hands, can do anything that can be drawn!

The first day started with the master Oka’s pulling himself out of bed before noon just to order one of the ten carvers on staff to prepare a piece of wood for me. It was fascinating to see this man use a chain saw to cut the log to the right size. From then on, power tools are totally out of the picture. The workman used a small sharp ax to get the log in the basic shape. I had prepared a sketch of the mask I hoped to create, which amazed the artisans whose skills with the chisels directly on the wood are breathtaking - yet none of them can draw. They all found it curious that I worked by first translating a concept to paper. This was a fascinating exercise in building cross-cultural respect for colleagues who bring a different set of tools to the table.

I was astonished at the results that Oka achieved so quickly and with only an occasional glance at my design. He sculpted the solid block of wood - a soft, easily carved variety similar to bass wood - as if it were butter. He showed me how to use the chisel and gave me a general idea of what to do. Then he handed me the tools and set me up with my wood block, giving me the luxury of back support in the form of the base of a pillar in the shed. Smiling, Oka said, "Now you do like me." He kept an eye on me, giving me pointers and making sure I did not sever any parts of my body as I hacked away. He pointed out the better chisels to use and pretty much left me to experiment and find my own way.

Oka, the master, returned looking fully rested and smiled at my progress. He asked me to move over, took the beginnings of my mask and my tools, and in a matter of minutes, he made some noticeable corrections. He expected me to watch, take it in and then repeat it. It is a very low-key approach to teaching. He gave just enough information not to overwhelm me with details. This is a good approach, as he concentrated fiercely while carving. Oka left a few finished commedia dell’arte style half masks around to inspire me. While never looking over my shoulder, he passed by whenever he felt I should be at a certain point and made some adjustments.

I think I made remarkable progress that first day. I emerged from the heat and discomfort of a long day working on the floor convinced that studying under Oka met my needs and that his work surpasses that of any other mask maker I have seen from Bali. Oka has created masks for "western" theatre, if that's what we can call The Magic Flute in Tokyo and a ballet version of The Jungle Book set in the Amazon for a company in Munich.

After my second day in Oka's studio, I became even more in awe of his gifts and talent. It is mesmerizing just to watch him work. He is carving a serpent head for The Jungle Book, and it is an exquisite work of art. I see how engaging the whole body of the sculpture in the making of the art - literally holding the wood in a holistic embrace with his entire body as he works on it - is what gives it such organic beauty. After all, it must fit between his feet to be held, and then he must use every muscle of his hand at one time or another to manipulate the tools. It was lovely to watch him take over my mask and with just a few passes of his chisel to make it come more alive. Albrecht Roser’s carving skill came to mind. Both are awe-inspiring. I decided to spend two weeks working in Oka’s studio, and despite the physical rigors of the work, I managed to do that. One of my most rewarding days was the Sunday I went in to work, only to find that I had the master all to myself, since Sunday is the day off for the rest of the workers. We worked side by side, he on his python and I with my mask, on which he occasionally provided help and advice.

my maskBy the time I started my second mask, Oka expected me to do much more than on the first one, including cutting my wood block from the log with a hatchet as the first step. I have not had much experience with hatchets, and it takes more skill and strength than I could muster in this heat and humidity. The really hard and tedious part of mask making is scooping out the inside of the mask after the major work was done on the outside. While I took a break to regain my strength, Oka took over good-naturedly and, of course, made it look effortless. This was very humbling.

At the end of the two weeks in Oka’s studio, I received a lesson that was as great as the carving skills he gave me. To the Balinese, the passing on of artistic skills is not perceived as a commercial enterprise. Oka would accept no payment for the time I spent with him, and the only way that I could repay him was to purchase his masks.

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Copyright © 2002 Miguel Romero. All rights reserved.