masks

The medium is the mask

The Chehalem Cultural Center fills its galleries with masks by Tony Fuemmeler and others depicting human emotions, anthropomorphic animals, and one evil bunny

The Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg is closing out the year with an extraordinary exhibit (four exhibits, actually, it just feels like one) that virtually anyone – even those who don’t usually visit galleries — will find intriguing.

The subject is the human face and the oceans of meaning the face either reveals or conceals. The medium is the mask — hundreds of them.

Tony Fuemmeler’s Evil Bunny is a character from Grand Guignol, the Paris theater famous for staging horror stories (paper-mache, acrylic, fleece, fabric, wire). Photo by: David Bates
Tony Fuemmeler’s “Evil Bunny” is a character from Grand Guignol, the Paris theater famous for staging horror stories (papier-mâché, acrylic, fleece, fabric, wire). Photo by: David Bates

More than two years in the making, A Universal Feeling is a collaborative effort spearheaded by Portland mask-maker and theater artist Tony Fuemmeler and featuring work by more than 60 artists from around the United States and the world. The intellectual seeds of the project go back to the 1960s, when a group of psychologists suggested that a few universal facial expressions convey emotions understood across the entirety of human culture: fear, joy, surprise, anger, sadness, and disgust.

Fuemmeler, whose masks have appeared on stages up and down the West Coast and around the country, gave around 70 fellow mask-makers a task. He sent them a papier-mâché mask based on one of the six expressions and asked them to complete it, drawing (consciously or otherwise) on whatever identity, styles, experiences, and cultures inform their work.

The results are stunning, fascinating, playful, and occasionally disturbing. “It was an experiment,” he told me as we strolled through the exhibit recently. “I had no idea what would happen. I was very curious how people would respond.”

Respond they did, and alongside three other mask-themed exhibits that fill the center until Jan. 3, the exhibit is a riveting exploration of inner life as conveyed by the simultaneously simple and complex image of the face as rendered by a mask — an art form that goes back to ancient times.

Beth Bondy created Surprise 07: Paper Insect from cardstock scraps. Photo by: David Bates
Beth Bondy created “Surprise 07: Paper Insect” from cardstock scraps. Photo by: David Bates

“I have long admired Tony’s work, and have had the pleasure of playing his masks onstage in several settings,” said Sean Andries, executive director of Chehalem Cultural Center, in the press materials. “The ability of a well-crafted mask, full of life, to reveal the true sense of the performer who wears it has always transfixed me. When I heard about Tony’s vision for A Universal Feeling, coupled with an exhibit of his mask-making journey with Reveal/Conceal, I was immediately intrigued. By collaborating with artists from many cultures and backgrounds to ‘finish’ the masks he created for this special project, Tony has found a new way to reveal the nature of the artist within.”

Andries refers to Fuemmeler’s other exhibit, Reveal/Conceal: The Transformative Masks of Tony Fuemmeler, a selection of his own work, including some of his earliest pieces. Most are human, but some are not, and one is, arguably, both: Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes an appearance. All, he points out, were made for and used on the stage. This is the first time Fuemmeler has shown his masks in a gallery exhibit. It is a welcome debut.

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This is America: Linfield stages working-class epic ‘Sweat’

Adleane Hunter of California directs a cast of students and others in Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of identity, economics, and race

Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat brilliantly, humanely, and powerfully depicts what the playwright terms “spaces that are under-illuminated” — those spaces occupied by millions of working-class Americans whose lives are a daily struggle even if they have a job.

I saw it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, and of all the plays I’ve seen there since the early 2000s, it ranks high in my top ten. The final exchange of dialogue and, particularly, the last line, is one of the most powerful I’ve heard in an American play.

This month in McMinnville, Linfield College’s theater department tackles the play, led by guest director and producer Adleane Hunter, who has been doing theater in Southern California and elsewhere since the 1980s. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, Nov. 7-9 and 14-16, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10. A series of special events, including an opening night talkback, accompanies the production.

I sat down with Hunter, who first visited Linfield a couple of years ago because her granddaughter is a student there. She’s familiar with Nottage, one of the best playwrights in American theater today. I asked her about that last line — and don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you.  

“I was so moved by it, I actually felt manipulated, because I didn’t see it coming,” she laughed as we had coffee at the campus Starbucks. Unlike many playgoers, Hunter strives for as spoiler-free an experience as possible. She does not read reviews or even the program notes before the lights go down. Even so, Hunter says, she can usually chart a play’s trajectory early on.

Adleane Hunter has come from Southern California to be guest director of Linfield College's production of "Sweat." Photo by: David Bates
Adleane Hunter of Southern California is guest director of Linfield College’s production of “Sweat.” Photo courtesy: Linfield College

Not with Sweat.

“I was drawn into this play in a way that I wasn’t projecting what was going to happen,” she said. “Often I’ll see plays and I can pretty much guess how it’s going to end, but I couldn’t with this play. I was very emotional. It’s so humanistic, it’s so profound. But it’s real, it’s organic.” 

Sweat explores the world of eight characters of various ages, genders, and ethnicities whose lives are bound up with a factory in Reading, Pa. Nottage was drawn to Reading — literally so; she spent more than a year there doing research — because she saw in the 2010 Census that it had the highest share of citizens living in poverty in the nation. According to notes for the show compiled by OSF, Reading’s unemployment in May 2010 was 14.7 percent. By way of comparison, Yamhill County’s hovers around 4 percent. The writing is exquisite, both in terms of plotting and dialogue. Yet, despite the poetry and emotional content of the piece, it functions not only as art but also (it seems to me) as an act of journalism. Bearing witness to life in the United States.

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