“Masks,” says Jeff Semmerling, “are tools of revelation” rather than “disguise.”
A Chicago mask-maker and Filament Theatre Ensemble advisory board member, Semmerling is not only an internationally renowned artist, but also a mask historian and teacher. Though he started out working with puppets after graduating from Northwestern’s Theater Department, he zeroed in on mask making after visiting New Orleans in 1981. Semmerling spoke with Our Town about his work with kids, sources of inspiration, and how one of his masks came to be shown on America’s Next Top Model.
Our Town When did you first become interested in masks?
Jeff Semmerling I played with puppets as a child quite seriously, then got very involved in the theater. Masks were right there under all the things I was interested in. Theater was interesting to me mostly because of the ‘we’ thing of working on something bigger than myself. Masks do the same thing in a more direct way. They make us less about ourselves and more about a spirit of ‘we.’ [Masks] melt social restraints and distance. So damn healthy!
OT Your bio says you have the “unique ability to understand masks and how they relate to their wearer from the inside out.” Can you talk a little about this?
JS When we sell masks we set them on tables, hundreds of masks, and we stand behind the table and we watch people play with the masks. I've watched people fall in love with a mask, but leave without buying it, only to dream of it that night and come back the next day for it. Part of it, and it is only part, is that when you obscure the "identity" self the playful self is set free to be playful. The mask invites people to step out of their walls of protection, not just the wearer, but people who encounter the extra-terrestrial being that is, yet is not, before them. They are forced to be here now! Art at its best makes us really perceive.
OT What inspires you?
JS When I wintered in New Orleans [after college] and saw what happens when a whole city shuts down to party in costumes and masks, my eyes went up like roller blinds. Everything I loved about watching and doing theater was all happening at the same time with no line between the audience and the performer. These days, my customers, serious costumers, and the theaters, dancers and opera productions that need masks. I also love to play, so wearing [masks], that keeps me going too. When I travel I always make sure to have a pocket size silly face-changing mask, it makes it all so much more fun than if I were just getting pictures of myself in front of famous sites. You meet people and have some really genuine connections. The masks are like an open invitation for the best stuff to happen.
OT I hear one of your creations has appeared on America’s Next Top Model.
JS A fellow named James St. James has one of my Crazy Smile Masks and has made several appearances on the show. One of his resume pics features the mask and they always show that photo when they introduce him. It is quite a striking image. Those smile masks are really powerful!
OT Have there been any mask making or puppet making projects, your participation in which have taken your abilities to a new level?
JS Last summer I went to a convention of mask masters in Abino Terme, Italy. It was really important for me to learn directly from the master’s mouths. Ah, and being in Italy is always worth the trip! Plus I got to meet the Master Mask Maker Sartore and Dario Foe, Madame LaCoque. What a trip!
OT What’s the best part of teaching kids about mask making?
JS Kids get it right away. I love their enthusiasm and the process is nothing short of magical. We start with a two-dimensional material, make three-dimensional metaphors for people. It's great fun, start to finish. And masks work with any curriculum. I really enjoy working with teachers in the city's schools to make a rich art experience that will keep kids in art.
OT Why spring for a personalized, handmade mask?
JS For the comfort, artistry and craftsmanship, and because if you have a mask-maker, you can make your dress-up dreams come true, you know, actually participate in the creation of the work of art you will wear. The more I've looked into it over the twenty-five plus years of research, training and practice, the more I am certain that people have always done this and that it is something I want to be a part of reawakening in our culture right here in Chicago!
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," is forthcoming from Soft Skull, an imprint of Counterpoint Press. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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