Safety First, Creativity Second

Craft school incentivizes today’s crucial accessory

1. Becky Rickenbaker, St. Luke’s Hospital staff, wears a “Corduroy the Bear” fabric mask by Diane Duncan 2. “Ear Savers” by Sam Oliver (health professionals enjoy these add-ons that keep the ear loops from chafing the skin behind the ears over long periods of use). 3. Masks by Katelind Correll 4. Bulk mask donation by Barbara Smith
Photos provided by Tryon Arts & Crafts School

When Will Barclift, executive director of Tryon Arts & Crafts School, sees a pizza cutter, he thinks of homemade face masks and what-all it takes to save lives in this New Normal brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the beginning of the health crisis, he had shut down the popular school and began soul searching on how to go forward. He couldn’t offer classes and workshops, but local artists needed a creative outlet. Most of all, he wondered: “How do we make a contribution to the overarching global problem?”

His search for answers started with a Facebook conversation with an old art-school friend in Brooklyn. The friend told how three Big Apple crafters had just started a new business when the pandemic hit and they, too, had to close their doors. Since they couldn’t work together, they collaborated remotely, making masks and ventilator parts. “I was very inspired that these people whose entrepreneurial dreams had just been crushed were already rechanneling their creative energy into helping address the health crisis,” Barclift says.

About that same time, one of the Tryon school’s board members, Jamie Carpenter, asked to borrow a Fiskars rotary fabric cutter to make homemade face masks for whoever might need them. Barclift didn’t have the Fiskars, but he did have a pizza cutter that he sharpened and gave her. 

Unfortunately, the pizza cutter didn’t do the trick — but it did inspire what became Masks 4 Masses, a far-reaching, ongoing community project that has brought together more than a dozen mask makers (artists and crafters) and hundreds of mask takers (pretty much anyone who asks).

The first week of April, he began figuring out the infrastructure to take Jamie’s kitchen-table creativity to a more impactful level. “Since our studios were not being used for classes, we repurposed our new welding studio to be a hub for receiving and distribution of donated masks,” he explains.

He also had to recruit and incentivize more makers, find supplies, and reach people who needed masks. “So we decided Masks 4 Masses would use online mask-making demonstrations, photography, weekly prizes, grand prizes, guest judges, and basic mapping technology to add a little flair.” Now, many weeks into the project, the school has channeled more than 850 fanciful, functional face masks, with a goal to get and give 3,600 — the product of  “60 masks times 60 years since TACS was founded.” 

Most of the masks come and go within a 30-mile radius, but through the power of social media, some have arrived from as far away as New Jersey and Ohio. To keep the project on the public’s radar, each week local notables and artists judge the current crop of masks in these categories: most made by an individual, craftsmanship, innovation, and best adaptations, such as ear-savers. Winners receive prizes donated by local businesses, the school, and other artists. Makers, recipients, donors, and judges are all publicly thanked and recognized.

“I think all the masks are great. I particularly like the orange ear-saver made by Sam Oliver,” says Tryon Town Manager Zach Ollis. “I think the large fabric and the big buttons make it stand out in a crowd. It has a real whimsical feel to it. I think it gives an upbeat, quirky vibe.” Ollis feels that “the eccentric character of this [mask] helps lift spirits in the darkened version of our current world.”

“That pizza cutter now carries all sorts of symbolism,” notes Barclift.

To support Masks 4 Masses or request masks, visit or contact Tryon Arts & Crafts School at 828-859-8323 or

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