Breathe. Collective: Traditional Artists on Pandemic Masks

Dec 20, 2020Issue 9

Photo by Veridian Photography. Mask by Celina Loyer.

By Connie Kulhavy

For many Indigenous people in North America, the COVID-19 pandemic has carried echoes of a not-so-distant past. “It had not been many generations prior that infectious diseases had greatly impacted First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples,” said Métis artists Nathalie Bertin and Lisa Shepherd. 

Bertin and Shepherd both center Métis beadwork in their artistic practices. Métis Flower Beadwork has a signature style and a long history. The iconic five-petal flower, known as the prairie rose, which honors the matriarchs, has been used in many of the designs for at least 200 years and is the most popular of flowers. Branches of vines throughout the designs are called mouse tracks. Some say the beaded colours on the sides of the vines were colours that indicated affiliations to different families and communities. Horse hair was colored and could be used as a trim in the smoked and tan moccasins. Many of these traditions still endure today.

Yet, in March 2020, the artists observed a lack of beaded objects being made by artisans. “In speaking with peers, it seemed the pandemic had completely blocked them of their ability to create.” 

Through the realization that all people all over the world were affected by the pandemic, the decision was made to open up the group to anyone who wanted to create a mask in any traditional medium that is authentic to their culture and artistic practice.

Social media platforms became a lifeline to many for staying in touch with friends, family and coworkers in the midst of quarantine and lockdown measures. Artists Bertin and Shepherd took to Facebook and create a group where people could share hand-crafted masks inspired by the pandemic. They called this platform Breathe: A collection of traditionally crafted masks demonstrating resiliency through the 21st century pandemic.

As a result, there are hundreds of masks featured in the public group in a wide variety of styles. Because the pandemic affects so many people on a personal level, many of the artists who share their hand-crafted masks also include stories: about the materials used, the inspiration behind the masks, and their hopes about the future.

The online group is the fascinating outcome of traditional knowledge marrying  contemporary events and technology, with techniques passed down through generations to create face masks — an object that has become an emblem for the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. 

The Breathe. Collective has been featured in a documentary from the CBC. Some of the masks featured on Facebook have been purchased by museums, and others will tour in a forthcoming exhibition. 

The following is a selection of the masks from the Facebook group, courtesy of the artists featured. 

Shayai Lucero

Photo courtesy of Shayai Lucero

“In my Pueblos, juniper (Keres: k’aani) is an important medicinal plant and one of my favorites. I have been studying medicinal plants since I was 13 years old. I wanted to create a piece that integrates my skills as a floral designer and medicinal plant healer. The medicinal properties of juniper are identified as an antimicrobial and antiviral medicine for respiratory illnesses. The scent of the juniper leaves can be smelled through the mask like the cleansing smell of a smudge. Juniper is very special to the Pueblo people in that the tree is an evergreen and never goes to sleep in the winter. They are a plant medicine available year round.

The mask is accented with turquoise stones worn often by the Pueblo people and represent health. Abalone shells are from the ocean and symbolize rain. Pueblo people always pray for rain and moisture in every aspect of our lives and ceremonies. Rain is important because it contributes to the growth of plants which help provide oxygen for breath needed by all living creatures.”


Amanda Roy

Photo courtesy of Amanda Roy.

“First time making a mask and doing birch bark etching. I helped make a canoe last year though. Materials all foraged by the walking trail by my place in Montreal. Made with birch bark, cedar wood for the nose from someone’s hedge, sap and roots from trees by the trail, and edged with sweetgrass. Deer leather for the straps.”


Matt Campos

Photo courtesy of Matt Campos.

“Even though I’m an introvert happily beading alone all day in the safety of my home, I still welcome the casual interaction with strangers at the market, at the deli, on the walks with my newly adopted Pitbull son. But sometimes words aren’t needed, and all it takes is a friendly smile to communicate camaraderie or just a warm hello. But these are different times. Behind all our masks these subtle but meaningful social cues go unnoticed and we are sometimes left with seemingly blank stares. I miss talking to a face.

This piece is a self portrait and it represents my wish to see everyone again as they are: unmasked, conveying emotion and intent. And hopefully smiling that the worst is all behind us. And for those who won’t be with us to see that day, the pearl on the cheek references “tattooed tears” — a prevalent prison tattoo which represents sorrow and loss. This pearl is for my friend Terry Lee, a funny and talented Diné artist who died of COVID-19.

Materials: Beadwork on smoked moose hide, bear fur, deer lace, freshwater pearl.”

Vicki Soboleff

Photo courtesy of Vicki Soboleff.

“The face mask is made from red and yellow cedar. The plaited weaving style is used in some traditional Haida style dance hats. I created the piece as a sign of the times we are in. I am a Haida from Southeast Alaska.”

Connie Kulhavy is a Métis artist and a cultural facilitator in Edmonton, Alberta, and surrounding School Districts, and a facilitator for Teacher Professional Development self-care days. Connie’s Flower Beadwork has sold through the Nanaimo Art Gallery and The Royal Alberta Museum, and will be showcased in the Sherwood Park Museum in the Spring of 2020.