By Greg Hernandez
A diverse group of LGBT seniors whose lives have been touched by cancer, HIV, or other health challenges came together at the Los Angeles LGBT Center for a mask-making workshop designed to help them heal emotionally.
They unveiled the masks they lovingly labored over and told the stories behind them during a special reception at the Center’s Advocate & Gochis Galleries.
“I’m not an artist. I can’t draw a straight line. I went into this class kicking and screaming,” Clarence R. Williams told the crowd of approximately 50 people at the reception. “It took me so many places emotionally. Masks are not just done for beauty, they are done for a purpose.”
The first-time workshop was organized through the Center’s Senior Services and facilitated by mask maker Nick Paul and Anne Stockwell, the founder of Well Again which helps survivors take back their lives after cancer.
“You can tell by the work presented here, how much everyone loved making masks. These people are my friends now,” says Paul, who found out two months ago that his cancer had returned.
Stockwell, a three-time cancer survivor, described the fear felt when fighting cancer as “really primitive” and she has pioneered a technique of using ancient tools “to invite the fear to go away and release bad things that happen.”
“Ever since ancient times, our ancestors made masks to chase away evil spirits or celebrate being alive,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how many wrinkles you have on your face, you still have the same heart inside. You’re still the same fierce person inside. To have creative ways to express that is so important. It reminds you of who you want to be and who you still can be. No one here is a victim. We are all going forward and we love our lives.”
Participant Hermina Ban’s wife is currently battling cancer. This has meant accompanying her partner of 22 years to doctors appointments and chemotherapy sessions and being there for her emotionally.
“I’ve been with her every step of the way,” Ban says. “This class really meant something to both of us because I would work on my mask at home and I could engage her as well. She’s very creative but really feels out of the loop right now.”
Ban got the idea for her dragon-themed mask (pictured above) from her wife who is a fan of the HBO fantasy drama Game of Thrones.
“She takes a figurine of the character of Rihanna with her to chemotherapy and she says, ‘We’re fighting a dragon.’ So I wanted to do something that would reflect that dragon.”
Her classmate, Latoya Hnarakis, says the mask-making experience helped her cope with her struggles with Lupus and anxiety.
“What I got was a major healing internally for myself,” Hnarakis says. “I fell in love with doing the work. It was exciting spending six weeks together building these relationships, building these masks. And now it’s so nice to have people here celebrating our various journeys.”
The mask-making class was such a success that the Center hopes to offer it again sometime in the future. Senior Services offers more than 100 different activities and events each month including support groups, health and fitness classes, and various cultural workshops.
Learn more about the Center’s Seniors Services, including upcoming activities and workshops, at lalgbtcenter.org/seniors.