Why this Sudbury woman is making masks from turtle shells and birch bark
'Even when I put it on just for show, it feels safe. It feels like a safe place for me'
When Sheryl Boivin puts her handmade face mask on, created from unlikely, found objects such as turtle shells, she says she feels protected.
For the last several weeks, the Indigenous artist of Métis and Wendat descent has been spending her nights crafting masks, after returning home from her day job as a health care worker in Sudbury.
In addition to her mask being made from turtle shells shed by their previous owners, Boivin also decided to craft a leather medicine pouch inside it.
Boivin isn't sure the masks are functional in keeping COVID-19 at bay. But she said she's viewing them as pieces of art, in part, expressing her journey as a health worker navigating unprecedented times.
"Working in health care, there's a certain level of anxiety that goes with working in the hospital setting," she said.
"So when I was thinking of the turtle ... the turtle protects you, and adding the medicine pouch is also an added protection."
As a health care worker, Boivin said she spends a large part of her days concerned over the physical wellbeing of people.
In making her turtle mask, she wanted to shift the focus from physical to spiritual wellbeing.
"We're faced with this on a daily basis," she said, "It's not something we can forget about."
"So the mask is kind of to me, even when I put it on just for show, it feels safe. It feels like a safe place for me."
Community and healing
Boivin's turtle mask, in particular, is part of a larger initiative called Breathe, which aims to cultivate community and healing during the pandemic through the art of mask-making.
Pom poms, hide, woven cedar, embroidered textiles, copper and carved stone are just some of the materials which have been used by artists across the U.S. and Canada to make the masks that populate the project's Facebook page.
Honouring Indigenous roots
Many are beaded in the traditional Métis style, while others have been crafted using an array of historical and contemporary motifs and techniques.
She said using found objects like shards of turtle shell also helps to deepen and honour her connection with her Indigenous ancestry.
"The turtle is representational of Turtle Island, which is where we live, and it's also a protector of women. And I thought well that really goes in keeping with Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls."
Boivin said it took her between three to four weeks to finish her turtle mask.
Now, she said the plan is to continue to make more masks beyond the Breathe project.
She said she's already in the midst of fashioning another mask — this time made from birch bark and moose hair.