Like many others, Rachel Grand BMC ‘21, a Haverford fine arts and history of art double major, has been profoundly impacted by the pandemic. However, she was able to adapt her senior thesis to study an item that has become universal in the lives of millions around the world: the mask. Grand’s thesis, “Un-Masking Emotion,” seeks to understand how people convey emotions while wearing masks—relying primarily on the eyes and eyebrows, since the mouth and nose are obscured—and how others can interpret those emotions. For her subjects, she investigated Bryn Mawr students, and for her “laboratory,” she chose the Phebe Anna Thorne Kindergarten, conveniently located on Haverford’s campus, near the John A. Lester Cricket Pavilion.
Grand’s idea for her thesis project sprung from her desire to interact with people and create art that everyone could relate to. With the ubiquity of the pandemic and willingness of her fellow students to volunteer to be a part of her work, she turned to printmaking, one of her favorite forms of art and expression.
“I asked a number of Bryn Mawr students, ‘What emotion do you think comes out particularly well through your mask?’ and some would say ‘Surprised, judgy, confused,’” said Grand. “So I’d take a picture of the student’s face, and use it as the reference for a print which represented that particular emotion.”
Grand used a monotype method for making her prints. Her process was to draw her subject, make a stencil from the drawing, then ink and print those stencils in the printmaking press. She created prints of 15 different subjects, all conveying different emotions simply through the eyes.
“The main pieces contain the eyes, mask, and emotion in text, with some accompanying prints that just have the eyes. It’s composed playfully, using bright colors and Comic Sans font to emphasize how we all need to ‘relearn’ how to communicate, almost like a kindergarten class,” said Grand.
So what better place to display those works than an actual kindergarten?
“On one busy Saturday, Rachel hung her posters in the classroom amongst the regular classroom decor of small tables and chairs, blackboard, alphabet posters, bookcases and teaching tools. She did this while the classrooms were empty, since we are unable to accommodate visitors during school hours due to the restrictions in the pandemic,” said Rachel Stern, a teacher at the Phebe Anna Thorne School. “She brought clothing that represented the costume of a kindergarten teacher and posed in an active teaching stance.”
Stern said she welcomed Grand’s work in the classroom, as the pandemic created challenges for both teachers and students in reading each others’ emotions due to the mask mandate.
“In our classroom all year, we have needed to assess emotions and think about emotions differently than other years,” she said. “We can only see the eyes of the kindergarten children most of the time, and they can only see our eyes because of our masks. Certainly, we express emotions through our words and body language too, but our eyes are the only visible facial indicator of what we are feeling. Some children have very expressive eyes, while some eyes are less readable. Likewise, some children are very perceptive about emotions even this year, while others seem to miss or misinterpret more. We really have had to ‘relearn’ how to read emotion even as the children are learning to express emotion and read emotions.”
That need for even experienced teachers to relearn such important social-emotional information gathering is exactly what prompted Grand’s thesis.
“Art can be an avenue for anyone to use to process their emotions. Using this project to get people to think about what it actually means to wear a mask in terms of emotions and their conveyance has begun, and will hopefully continue, to inspire reflection and conversation,” said Grand.
She was accompanied on her thesis journey by Professor of Fine Arts Hee Sook Kim, who advised her since she first conceived her thesis.
“She carried her idea successfully in printmaking media, especially in monotype and lithography, brilliantly incorporating the inspired environment in a kindergarten classroom,” said Kim. “Her way of expressing emotions only through eyes was quite challenging in visual formats, but the included texts supported her statement ideally. I am impressed to see her effort to extend this project to the actual classroom setting at the Thorne School.”
Going forward, some of Grand’s preliminary prints of the eyes will be lent to the Thorne Kindergarten, to see if students are able to identify the particular emotion associated with each one. Grand’s prints will also be displayed as part of the Fine Arts Senior Thesis show in Haverford’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery from May 14-29, as a testament to the lasting impact and meaning of her work.