When I tell people that I am a mask maker, I look at their face – they are usually speechless, searching for a relevant follow up – and watch as their eyes search inward through the scant file of familiar references for my line of work. Perhaps they briefly envision an African or Balinese carver squatting over a piece of wood in a hut, or a Venetian artisan laboring in his atelier/shop. Some might think of The Phantom of the Opera or Julie Taymor’s work for The Lion King. But few can fully comprehend the idea of an American claiming this line of work.
This is as odd an occupation as one can imagine, but not for me. I have pursued a lifelong interest and study of the visual and performing arts, with degrees in studio art, art history, academic research in folklore and psychology, and formal mask study in Bali and Italy. Mask making gives me the opportunity to utilize all of the skills and knowledge that I have investigated and practiced over the years. It drives me to break new ground and find the edge in my chosen art form. Mask making opens a window into various cultures, time periods, stories, and characters – human, animal, and magical. All of my fascination for the range of artistic motifs and personality types in this and other cultures can be explored through masks. This venerable and ancient art form also provides me access to many of the activities that I enjoy: researching, designing, sculpting, painting, writing, storytelling, and performing.
While practicing the art of the mask I can balance a need for rewarding, purposeful, and celebratory social interaction with my precious and solitary studio time. These are the two most satisfying and exciting aspects of my path as an artist – the relationships with extraordinary individuals that have emerged from my work, and the prospect of exploring the many humbling and inspiring subjects for designation in the mask through all the years of my life.
When I create a mask, I celebrate the depth and diversity of the stories I love, the natural and magical worlds we inhabit, and my inner life. There are always many worthy subjects to portray, e.g., many would agree that an owl would be a great mask character. But one must have a reason to make the piece at this time. Then, based on that initial impulse, inspiration, or request, I must ask, what owl – male, female, old, young, wise, foolish?
Through the research, design, and construction process I ask more and more specific questions about my subject. Research includes academic work, sketching, and many hours of thought and visualization, perhaps discovering that it must be a Great Horned Owl for this piece. I may be further guided by a script, a director, or by a specific experience in my life. To make a powerful mask the character needs to resonate strongly within me, and express something important about me. Field work might include locating and visiting owls, so I can observe and mimic them, to discover essential characteristics which must be shown in the mask. When the mask is wearable, the actor or dancer moves with it, to see what characteristics are then set in motion, which can be accented, augmented, or toned down. At some point the work is self-referential – with the forms, rhythms and textures which have emerged informing the final treatment. This owl will be different than any other owl that I craft.
After 30 years of mask making, it is a joy and a blessing to have the appreciation and recognition of my colleagues, clients, and the public for the works I have created. This creates a certain confidence and satisfaction. But as an artist, I strive for the opportunity to be ever more vulnerable, to create mask images in different visual languages, to answer creative challenges with new and unexpected solutions. The more experienced I become, the more I seek to shed the baggage of knowledge and embody “beginners’ mind,” the transcendent Zen state of mind where one sees infinite possibilities with great freedom of mind, spirit, and body – playing jazz with life and art.