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Julia Routbort

Julia Routbort
Associate Dean of Student Affairs for Health and Wellness
Skidmore College

This mask as object

The fabric is tough, thick cotton, rough on the outside, but the inside layer is soft against my face. The stitches are tight, the thread is strong. Each layer was sewn separately and then attached to make a whole. The folds in the fabric are generous, so the mask expands to fit my face, your face, as needed.

The metal band (not wire or plastic) sewn into the top seam means I can fit the mask tightly across the bridge of my nose. If you wear glasses, you know how much this feature matters.

The straps are brightly colored elastic, thin and adjustable, so they do not dig into the backs of my ears. They are long enough that, if I wanted to, I could attach the mask across the back of my head, to save my slightly sore ears.

Figuring out how to make a mask that is tight, secure, comfortable, and wearable is not easy. It takes planning, table space, tinkering, and attention to detail. It takes steady hands, patience, collaboration.

Those qualities carry grace with them, grace willed into being in a time of fear, hate, need, and death.

Those qualities sustain, protect, endure.

This mask as art

These masks are beautiful. These masks are more than objects. These masks are more than beautiful.

I like knowing that silkscreened images of Nicole Cherubini’s installation Shaking the Trees were cut into rectangles and sewn to make these masks. If you have seen the original, you can pick out the parts—the floor, the plants, the tiles. I would know that lawn chair anywhere. The installation was designed to encourage community conversation and to offer space for contemplation. COVID took the physical space from us, but not the need for connection and contemplation.

These masks mean that we do not allow COVID to close our doors completely. We carry the art with us, carry the Tang with us, our faces turned into gallery walls.

Sending the masks into the world activates their intent, knits our community together. We make the space anew as we protect each other.

These masks are pieces cut up, separated but still linked if you look closely enough.

Thank you for these masks. Thank you for creating them. Thank you for wearing them.

Masks made by MASKS4PEOPLE and Nicole Cherubini in *Nicole Cherubini: Shaking the Trees*, Tang Teaching Museum, 2020
Masks made by MASKS4PEOPLE and Nicole Cherubini in Nicole Cherubini: Shaking the Trees, Tang Teaching Museum, 2020

Who do you protect?

We (more women than men in that “we”) made masks because we had to, because there were not enough, because they helped, because we needed to help. We dug out sewing machines, exchanged patterns, watched videos, experimented, ordered supplies, MacGyvered when supplies ran out, and dug into thrift store remnants. We made masks out of old flannel shirts, shop towels, bandannas, and curtains.

We made masks printed with kente cloth patterns, American flags, rubber ducks, and airplanes. We embroidered masks, made them look pretty, put team logos on them, made them look tough. We made masks with slogans, wore our hearts and convictions on our faces: “Vote,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Make good trouble,” “MAGA.” Looking at each other sometimes helped, sometimes hurt.

My mask has a secret talisman, a quote on the inside asking me, “Who do you protect? ISBN: 9781608466122.” The ISBN number points me quietly, persuasively, privately to a collection of essays on police brutality and resistance.

For me, it is absolutely the right question to ask, the right question to motivate and interrogate my actions—to remember that oppression and privilege can and do masquerade as protection.

Who do I protect? How do I protect? Do I protect? Who do I not protect? The questions spiral urgently from this quote, from this mask. My answers change every day because no answer is sufficient. My mask demands I continue to ask the questions, to undo the harm I create, to relinquish, listen, share, create, resist.

I wish we did not have to wear these masks. I love this mask.

My mask is rage and love and craft made visible. My mask is art.

Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe.

Cite this page

Routbort, Julia. “Julia Routbort on MASKS4PEOPLE masks.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. Last modified January 27, 2021.
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