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In Medieval times, men forced women deemed scolds or gossips to wear “shame masks.”
Created in mortifying designs as punishment devices, they were popular in Europe until the 18th century.
Santa Fe artist Samantha Mullen is reviving this practice in sculpture as parodies of the originals. Her work can be seen at Santa Fe’s Keep Contemporary.
After becoming known as a wood burner and creator of intricately detailed animal wall sculptures, Mullen decided it was time for a change.
“I felt healthy for the first time out here,” said the artist, who moved to New Mexico from New Orleans in February. “The smoke (of wood burning) was really bothering me. Art wasn’t as much fun.”
Before she decided what to do next, Mullen headed to art supply stores and bought supplies for every medium she could think of.
“I had a crazy, manic week,” Mullen said. “I went to the art store every morning in a serious panic. I felt this pressure to perform as well as I had with a new medium, which is ridiculous.
“I tried carving and painting and graphite,” she continued. “Nothing had enough texture. I got papier-mâché things. I got a cheap potter’s wheel.”
Then she discovered paper clay, a Japanese medium blending paper with volcanic ash.
“I sculpted a coyote head and I just loved it,” Mullen said.
She had always liked masks, be they African, American Indian or Indonesian.
“But I’m very aware of how white I am and didn’t want to appropriate another culture,” she said.
Then, she discovered the history of those Medieval masks used to shame “misbehaving” women during a Google search on the history of masks. The British invented the “Scold’s Bridle” for women who nagged their husbands. Some sported piercing devices should she attempt to speak or eat. The Puritans brought them to America.
“It’s really wild,” Mullen said. “They were all forged in iron. They would make people walk around on a leash.
Her first shame mask incorporated jack rabbit ears and a coyote’s nose with a long tongue.
“I took all the things I’m self-critical about or have been accused of and made a kind of badge of honor,” she explained.
Mullen uses sculpting knives and tools for the carving, then paints her pieces with acrylics.
A winding slide trail twists around a vulture sculpture she hopes to transform into a marble run. She dreams of massive versions of the original.
“I want it to be eight feet tall with marbles running through birds and coyotes,” she said.
Mullen studied film at the University of New Orleans, but decided to switch to art after working in two productions.
“It just wasn’t my vibe,” she said. “It was so fast-paced with a lot of stress.”
She fell in love with wood burning after she burned someone’s name on a piece. 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 moved up into galleries on Long Island and in Montana, as well as Santa Fe.
Mullen moved to Santa Fe with her husband because they both lost work during the pandemic. They had never visited New Mexico.
“It was a very emotional decision,” she said. “We moved to Santa Fe because my husband is a professional trombone player. We decided, instead of stressing out about a mortgage we couldn’t pay, we sold everything we owned and moved to Santa Fe.
“It’s so historic, which is what I love about New Orleans,” she continued. “History is just slapping you in the face all the time.”