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.

In the lobby, the smallest collection is titled Guise: A Group Mask Exhibit. Here you’ll find some of the most kid-friendly faces in the bunch (mostly anthropomorphic animals, although a freakish, crimson devil could genuinely frighten littler ones). The collection is a sampling of work by Portland-area artists Faerin Millington, Rachel Mulder, Kristin Musser, and Nathan Tanner. Finally, look up as you enter and you’ll see a series of Zodiac masks by Argentina artist Kike Mayer. His work is in private and public collections around the world, and you can see a dozen of them, on loan from a private collector, in Newberg.

“Capricorn, the Goat,” from Kike Mayer’s “Zodiac” mask series, greets visitors from above the lobby the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. Photo by: David Bates
“Capricorn, the Goat,” from Kike Mayer’s “Zodiac” mask series, greets visitors from above the lobby of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. Photo by: David Bates

No light bulb moment set Fuemmeler on the path to making masks. As a youth, he was interested in art, but “there wasn’t a lot of stuff where I grew up” in rural Missouri. He became interested in theater design while attending the University of Kansas, and it didn’t take long to realize that stagecraft incorporates visual art. “That’s how I think about it now,” he said. “I’ve always been drawn to both, but I never wanted to pick. I trained as a performer and as a designer. This is a way I don’t have to pick.”

Fuemmeler works closely with the actors who wear his masks. Actually, he insists on it, because his masks are not costumes, and they are rarely a means of disguise. They are intended to be the character’s face.

From being a performer, he said, he knows actors need as much time as possible working with any mask that’s actually their character’s face. “Companies that have less experience with that kind of mask work want to think of it as a costume or a prop. Their instinct is to add it in the last few weeks of rehearsal, and then, no one wins.” It’s a similar dynamic, he notes, with puppets. “You’re basically building an actor. To add an actor in tech [rehearsal] would be very weird.”

Fernando Rodriguez submitted nine photos of anger for the Universal Feeling show. Photo by: David Bates
Fernando Rodriguez submitted nine photos of anger for the “Universal Feeling” show. Photo by: David Bates

One piece in A Universal Feeling illustrates just how versatile a mask can be in performance, and how focused on body movement and position the actor must be. Fernando Rodriguez submitted nine black-and-white photographs of an actor wearing the same mask (anger) but shot from different angles. It looks as if there are subtle differences between them, almost as if they were different masks.

Portland mask-maker Tony Fuemmeler says he organized the Universal Feeling show as an experiment, to see how artists would portray one of six expressions.
Portland mask-maker Tony Fuemmeler says he organized the Universal Feeling show as an experiment, to see how artists would portray one of six expressions.

Fuemmeler is a graduate of the University of Kansas and Dell’Arte International, where he is a mask-making instructor. Some recent local shows include Wolf Play at Artists Repertory Theatre and The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show and Tomás and the Library Lady tour at Oregon Children’s Theatre. He has also studied and worked abroad.

It’s difficult to overstate the ambition of the projects – not only those Fuemmeler was involved in, but also the collective results on display in all but one of the center’s many galleries. A Universal Feeling and Reveal/Conceal were made possible by grants from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Community Foundation, Oregon Cultural Trust, Regional Arts and Culture Council, as well as 40 individual donor friends who raised $8,683 to close the gap to make this project happen. Viewed in that context, it took a village to fill the Chehalem Cultural Center with masks, and it’s one of the most impressive shows I’ve seen there, absolutely worth a visitor’s time. The shows run through Jan. 3, and there is no admission charge. 

CHRISTMAS DRAWS NEAR, WHICH MEANS IT’S TIME TO FIND a performance of Handel’s Messiah: The McMinnville Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, so far as I know, is first in line in Yamhill County for the season. Directed by Julie Louderback, the concert features soloists Anton Belov, Chelsea Janzen, Marni Cochran, and Trevor Cochran. Tara Burke is the concertmaster. Two performances each in McMinnville and Newberg: 3 and 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 1, at the church in McMinnville, 1645 N.W. Baker Creek Road. Then in Newberg, at 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8, 1212 Deborah Road. Admission is free in both locations.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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