MassQ Ball 2022: Origin and the Arnold Arboretum

“A mask tells us more than a face.”

Oscar Wilde, Intentions, 1891

In October 2021, the Arnold Arboretum’s Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden provided a beautiful setting for a singular event—Daniel Callahan’s MassQing (masking) workshop. A warm, fall day welcomed the group as they gathered and learned about the cultural and historical context of face painting. Under Callahan’s eloquent tutelage, they brought those cultural precedents forward to express meaning through color, introspection, and design of a mask (MassQ).

“The purpose of a MassQ is not to hide or conceal or protect but to reveal the truth that is within.”

MassQ Ball

Callahan’s workshop was just the first of a series of associated events at the Arboretum that will culminate in one of the insitution’s featured sesquicentennial public events, MassQ Ball Origin 2022, on July 9. This gathering promises to be a remarkable public event—a passage, figuratively and literally, into art, community, and the Arboretum landscape. Envisioned by Ashleigh Gordon, Artistic Director of Castle of our Skins and Daniel Callahan of MassQ Ball, the ball will center on the Arnold Arboretum’s conifer collection and you—you (and all participants) as art, and art as an integral component of the Arnold and its collections. The application of an artfully applied MassQ, as a first step, brings the promise of a journey for the spirit—individual and communal. Each participant will be invited into the ritual of applying paint to their face, then begin their journey through the conifers to experience a variety of performances—music, dance, spoken word—that will “feature diverse artistic expression of and for Boston’s communities of color,according to Gordon and Callahan.

Woman with painted face and art supplies at table
Jeanette Calahan MassQing Workshop October 2021 Sheryl L. White

Plans for MassQ Ball 2022 and its associated programming grew out of the Arboretum’s conversations with co-producers Callahan and Gordon about a potential collaboration. In their words, the event was “crafted to engage seemingly disparate communities in dialogue and co-creation,” and is rooted in our current moment, “when genuine celebration and connection across cultures is so greatly needed.” At its core, MassQ Ball 2022 is intended to “create safe spaces of inclusion—utilizing the healing properties of the earth.”

Celebration is both welcome and needed. The last two years have brought us a familiarity with one type of mask. We used it to protect ourselves and others through a global health crisis, but it also hid our faces and obscured identity. A MassQ, as applied to MassQ Ball 2022, does not share this quality. Faces will become canvases to create a new way of seeing ourselves and others, a celebration of differences through art and the multicultural world we inhabit.

4 persons sitting at a table
Culture/Identity/Arts MassQ Panel at Weld Hill with Jenny Oliver, L’Merchie Frazier, Biplaw Rai, Daniel Callahan Photo credit Lauren Miller

“By being painted, the people have been changed. They have undergone a new birth, and with this they have new responsibilities, new obligations, and a new relationship.”  

The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, Joseph Brown, 1953, p. 111

Although he grew up in the Boston area, Daniel Callahan points to his early work with youths in California as inspiring the beginnings of MassQ Ball. Like many kids in Boston, he found they didn’t have much experience associating with others outside of their peer groups. Using rich Indigenous and African traditions of face painting allowed them to dress up, but not disguise, and acknowledge themselves through art.

The words themselves, “MassQ Ball,” come not from the European/Western traditions of a masked ball, but from the sense of “mass” as a collection of many things, the weight or mass of oneself; and “Q” as in queue or line-up, become aligned with oneself and with others. “MassQing is so much about self transformation,” says Callahan, “and being changed through art.”

Musician Ashleigh (Ashe) Gordon grew up in Rochester, New York and came to Boston to complete her first of two master’s degrees at NEC (New England Conservatory) in viola performance. Gordon had researched African diaspora cultures, finding much richness and tradition to celebrate. It was, according to Gordon, “a Pandora’s box that just opened up opportunity and led to Castle of our Skins.”

Gordon launched Castle of our Skins (COOS) in 2003 with composer, performer, and fellow NEC graduate Anthony Green as a way to explore Black contributions to classical music and Black artistry in contemporary compositions. The organization’s name is derived from Poem (for Nina), a work by world-renowned poet Nikki Giovanni. The spirit of the poem—and intention behind COOS’s mission— resonated with Callahan as he returned to Boston to continue exploring the art of MassQing.

When the two artists eventually met, Gordon also found a kindred spirit in Callahan and was, as she puts it, “struck by the beauty of Daniel’s work, as well as the depth.” This initial synergy evolved into an ongoing collaboration and eventually the first MassQ Ball in 2017.

Two persons in front of an aerial map
Ashe Gordon of Castle of our Skins and Daniel Callahan of MassQ Ball Sheryl L. White

Themed Convergence, MassQ Ball 2017 was held inside the Strand Theater in Dorchester. Music, movement, spoken word, and MassQing brought communities together in a celebratory way. The Ball’s amazing culmination saw over 200 fully MassQed persons walking into the city wearing an expression of who they each were, “… a walking work of art” according to Gordon.

In 2019, a grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) allowed them to launch plans for a second Ball—and then the pandemic intervened. Although delayed, this second Ball was always envisioned to be in an outside venue; an event that would engage with, and be part of, nature.

“Indigenous wisdom [is] always pushing us to think about how we interface with nature.”

Daniel Callahan, MassQ Ball

Gordon and Callahan toured multiple green spaces throughout the city to host the event, hoping to “be in a space that felt transportive,” according to Gordon. The Arnold Arboretum promised that space. One of Callahan’s favorite places in the city, the Arboretum had helped him reestablish his own connection to nature.

In 2021, a collaboration was confirmed for MassQ Ball 2022 to be part of the Arboretum’s celebrations of 150 years as an institution connecting plants and people. “[We’ll] plant a seed with this event,” Callahan explains, “that we hope will grow into a new city where everyone feels welcomed, everyone feels a part, and everyone feels seen and appreciated.”

“(The MassQ Ball embodies the) idea of differences coming together—different artistic disciplines, different ages, different languages, different cultural expressions, ethnicities, and lived experiences.”

Ashe Gordon, Castle of our Skins

The Arnold Arboretum is indeed a landscape where difference and variety is valued. Visitors find calm, beauty, and renewal within nature and a collection of plants from around the world. Just as an artistic MassQ allows us to cross boundaries, so does nature itself. We have the opportunity to appreciate differences and see them as beautiful. MassQ Ball 2022 Origin on July 9 will strive to bring our mutual hopes to fruition.

““If people can get a residue of the intimacy, the openness, the wonder of all the cultures that make up humanity, and get a sense of this reconnection with nature—and if we can build community across cultures in Boston—then I think that is more than a success.”

Daniel Callahan, MassQ Ball