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Apr 15, 2020 - Apr 30, 2020

Masks for America

Determined Czechs in the U.S. Sewing Face Masks + Designer Radka Salcmannová in an exclusive interview with Marek Milde.


Photo: Radka Salcmannová

Protective masks, which until recently had only belonged in a hospital environment, have suddenly for many of us become a daily accessory. World-wide, they are considered to be part of effective prevention against the spread of the coronavirus and are now mandatory in the Czech Republic. People without a mask cannot go out in public at all. Even politicians are setting an example and no longer appear on television without a mask. In the United States, the situation is different, besides some states like New York and New Jersey public mask-wearing is only recomended not mandatory .There are different opinions on their effectiveness and their use is, with a few exceptions, only recommended at the moment. Because the amount of industrially produced masks is limited, a good alternative is to make your own mask out of commonly available materials. In the Czech Republic, people have mobilized, and masks are being widely made at home, which are then shared as a gesture of solidarity with others. Sewing has become something of a movement and a trend in the Czech Republic. In just a few days, home-made masks became part of the lifestyle and, for many, a creative way of helping.


Photo: Helena Plavcová, Suzanna Halsey, Anna Rathkopf, Šárka Vamberová

Additionally, some Czechs living in America – and especially in the significantly coronavirus-affected New York – decided to start sewing protective masks, in order to help out in a serious situation. Many have never sewn before or rarely sew. We can also find among them professional designers and artists who are all connected by the desire to help and prevent the further spread of COVID-19 in society.

Conceptual artist and designer, Radka Salcmannová, with whom we bring an exclusive interview to our readers on the subject of masks below, finds hope in sewing. “I got inspired by sewing masks in my home in the Czech Republic,” she says. In Brooklyn, Williamsburg, she sews masks for a wide range of fashion people. Salcmannová, who for many years has been creating masks as sculptures and works of art, for instance showcased at the New York Fashion Week, has quickly remodeled to sewing protective masks: "I like that it is bringing the world, which is now isolated, closer together."

Suzanna Halsey, a NYU professor, notes: “It was a personal challenge for me!” She struggled with sewing, but eventually made various models for the family. "We both wear glasses, so I was looking for a mask which would not cause the fogging of glass."

"Thanks to the masks, I became friends with the sewing machine again after 25 years," says Šárka Vamberová, Czech cultural attaché in Washington, D.C. She sews masks for colleagues at the Czech Embassy in D.C., family, and loved ones.

Barbora Zeigler at Greenpoint, originally from the Czech city of Hradec Králové, had never sewn before. She is now making masks out of cotton which she tie-dyes herself with natural dyes and distributes them to her local Brooklyn community.


Photo: Barbora Zeigler

I will make it!” exclaims Anna Rathkopf, a Czech photographer living in Brooklyn. She humorously describes her troubles with sewing masks out of an old shirt for her family on her blog called “Mom Across the Water.” She always wanted to sew but never got to it – now she has been inspired by the face-masking movement in her homeland and a simple tutorial on Youtube.

"I realized a lot of people were afraid to come out of the house because they couldn't get the masks in stores," says Helena Plavec, who sews with her daughters in New Haven, Connecticut, while her husband, doctor Martin Plavec, is on the front line at the Yale University hospital caring for patients sick with COVID-19. “The enthusiasm and willingness of our girls (15-year-old twins, Nicole and Natalie) to do something during this difficult time was contagious.” They distribute the masks to people in need in their neighborhood, including hospital staff who lack them. Their St Joseph High School in Trumbull, CT is proudly featuring their comitment in their publication. 






In Chicago, to keep school on children’s minds, the Czech School TGM announced a Koroňák Competition with Hihlík ​​for the best mask. The pictures of the masks, most of which are adorned with animal motifs, were shared by teacher Klára Moldová.

Photo: Archive Czech School TGM, Chicago

The determination and creativity of these Czech women brings hope and can inspire America. In recent days, Americans are also beginning to wear masks more and making them on their own. Instructions on how to sew handmade masks have even appeared in The New York Times. Although improvised masks cannot offer 100% protection, experts agree that by wearing them, the probability of infection is significantly reduced. The U.S. Army has even newly been ordered to wear masks, even those that are handmade or improvised.

Because the American public cannot simply be ordered to do something, besides staying well-informed, things like trend and design may play a significant role in popularizing the wearing of masks on a regular basis. “I want to make masks that are cheerful, artistic, and maybe a little crazy,” says Radka Salcmannová, adding it is “not to go crazy and to maintain a positive mood.” With this Czech artist living in Brooklyn, we will talk about design and masks in the following interview.



Photo: Archive Czech School TGM, Chicago  

Radka Salcmannová interview

with Marek Milde 


Photo: Radka Salcmannová  

MM: In your artwork, you have been working on masks for a long time, conceptually intervening in design and fashion. At the time of the coronavirus pandemic, you turned to making completely different masks – protective face masks that you offer to the public. Can you talk about how you originally came to the theme of masks?

 RS: The masks in my work began with such a special coincidence. I came to New York from Prague as a student at the School of Visual Arts. My dream was to work for Matthew Barney, which came true, and it was an important experience for me. This then inspired me to make films, combining my visual interests for performance, painting, and sculpture. I started sewing costumes, but I didn't have an actress, and I needed someone to act as a character in my experimental videos. So I started to do it myself, but because I'm not an actress and I didn't want it to be known that it was me myself, I started to create masks. These were later noticed by people from New York Fashion Week where I was invited to be the Art Director. I then started to create masks for their models, which brought me into the world of fashion.


Photo: Archive Radka Salcmannová  

MM: Are your artistic masks very expressive, evoking emotions? Do they represent some symbolism, mythology or is it your own imagination?

RS: It's my imagination, and at the same time, I perceive every mask as almost a human in itself. Masks have strong characteristics and can represent a person or character. I like the fact that the viewer can imagine this person based on what the mask evokes in form and material. For example, I have black masks, aggressive ones with scary-looking spines, or masks that have a lot of eggs where something seems to be being born. I am also interested in the paradox that one can hide behind a mask, can hide one’s identity and get another, but things that are suppressed and concealed end up getting to the surface anyway, so with a mask, one can sometimes look more real than not.


MM: How did this change from a symbolic mask to a utility mask come about for you, what does this mean to you?

RS: This is a strange coincidence. Now, in early March, I was exhibiting my masks here at the Scope Art Fair in New York, but unfortunately, the course of the fair was influenced by the declaration of an emergency due to the coronavirus. I planned to continue working on my art masks, but the situation eventually arranged it in a different way. I started sewing masks, and I got a lot of inspiration from sewing masks in my home in the Czech Republic. I enjoy being able to help, and at the same time, it is a continuation of what I did in art, albeit it being different, functional. I also like the fact that it is bringing the world, which is now isolated, closer together. I hear people and often important colleagues in my field that I have not heard from for two years needing a mask. When I went out to send the masks, I noticed that people were smiling at each other more on the street, I think that good is being born out of the bad. The world will stop, reshape, and surely the perception of us all will change. Personally, I try to be optimistic and believe that something new and better can arise from a crisis situation.


MM: Do you follow a certain style in your masks? Is design important to you?

There are still many people on the streets without masks. Probably because of the fact that they are not explicitly mandated, but at the same time, people cannot or do not know how to get them. Shyness may also be part of it. People don't wear face masks so much in New York – do you think design could make them popular? 

RS: I don't think people in New York are ashamed to wear masks, they think it doesn't matter. You will not find a unified view on the masks here. Newspapers, politicians, everyone has and –very strongly – holds a very different view. I think people have contradictory feelings arising from that. Now there are more masks, but there were very few masks just a week ago. I want to make masks that are cheerful, artistic, and maybe a little crazy, so we don't go crazy and to maintain a positive mood. I created a positive, colorful collection, and I hope we don't start to panic and adopt an apocalyptic mood. It doesn't work here by opening up notions fabric stores so people can buy material – getting fabric at this time is very hard. Therefore, the masks that I sew are limited in number, and most of the fabrics are enriched with a personal story of how I got them. It's a powerful improvisation.

MM: Practically speaking, how is it coming along? How many masks do you sew and how do you distribute them? 

RS: It became literally a full-time job for me: I get up early in the morning and sew into the evening hours. Of course, my boyfriend is not enjoying it anymore – no one expected the living room to become a small manufactory. I make about 35 of them every day. It's laborious, I do everything myself. I even knit the strings, because now I can't get elastic laces, a detail that takes more time than making the mask itself. I try to look for and change fabrics and patterns. Last week it was romantic, a lot of floral patterns, black and pink flowers, now it got pretty wild – maybe it reflects that we've been locked up at home for three weeks. I distribute masks to a wide range of my contacts. I'm glad it isn’t growing into more production; I have a conversation with every person, it's personal.


MM: This is a very rewarding activity these days, masks have surely changed your life.
What are you working on besides the masks and what are you planning for the future?

RS: In making those masks, I realize what's important and what's not. I am thinking quite intensely about how I could link my art and creativity with functionality in the future. In fact, it is a very lesson-learning experience for me, which I will certainly use as a base for my future projects. I'm already working on sketches, and I'll see what it turns out to be.

MM: Your creativity is very encouraging and instils hope. Do you think the current situation will change us as a society? Would you like to tell people something encouraging?

RS: As I mentioned earlier, I think every crisis is important and will bring something positive. I take it as a natural cycle of life. I can say for myself that this stopping in time and space – almost literally, in fact, has taught and enriched me a lot. Once we are overwhelmed by uncertainty – I think artists and people in the creative industry are used to it – maybe we will all re-value and start doing a lot of things differently. You also start to enjoy the little things, things that we normally do not even perceive in the everyday amount of information and stress. I am extremely proud of all the people who help, sew, and observe quarantine measures. Look at how we hold together as a nation. That seems incredible to me and it’s absolutely unique. Czechs like to complain about Czechs very much, but in this crisis, I hope that Czechs are proud of Czechs. It’s truly a beautiful thing to behold.


Radka Salcmannová (1986) is a successful Czech artist, designer and filmmaker living in Brooklyn, New York. She is known for her bold approach in pushing the boundaries of contemporary visual design. Her studio RS Visual Thing focuses on the cross-section between art, cinematography, fashion and experimental installations. She graduated from the Academy of Art Architecture and Design in Prague (2009) and studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York (2012).

In 2016 she received a prestigious FCA grant, which is awarded annually to the top five artists. Modern Painter Magazine listed her as one of “25 artists to watch”.  She presented her designs at the Los Angeles Fashion Week (LAFW 2016) and Vogue magazine recognized her as a must-know designer from LAFW. A year later, she created a series of silicone dresses, shoes and headgear as part of LAFW 2017 inspired by the design of Game of Thrones. Her experimental film Light Year was screened on Manhattan Bridge (2017). In 2018 she was selected to participate at the prestigious SCOPE Art Show in Art Basel Miami and 2020 SCOPE NYC. 

She worked for major icons such as, Marian Sell, Leo Kuelbs and Wonderful Production.

She worked for award-winning artist Matthew Barney on installations of his opera film called River of Fundament from 2014. She created a unique installations and art direction for the designer Carolina Sarria at New York Fashion Week (2015,2016).







From: Apr 15, 2020
To: Apr 30, 2020


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