WE LIVE IN A WORLD OF MASKS. Some are obvious. Some are not. And some are very, very old. Masks are at the heart of classic Greek theater. They’ve been crucial around the world for millennia in cultural and spiritual rituals. Long before the Covid pandemic turned them into political ping-pong balls they were playing a key role in the craft of state, which relies on presenting the proper appearance at the proper time: “Who’s my audience today? What face should I wear? Should I threaten or cajole; smile or frown?”
Masks are comedy and tragedy and the stuff of Shakespearean mistaken identities. They are animal spirits and symbols of transformation: coyote, raven, fox. As puppetry, they’re staples of popular entertainment, from Punch & Judy to Pinocchio to the Muppets. Masks hide, and they reveal. And we wear them, consciously or not, all the time.
“Outside of daily life and interactions, masks play and have played a huge role in ritual, in celebration, in play, and in the theater,” says master maskmaker Tony Fuemmeler. “These uses of mask span the globe, and each culture has their own take on what they mean and how they are understood.”
Almost three years ago the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg presented a grand celebration of Fuemmeler’s artistry, including a lot of his own work and a separate show titled A Universal Feeling. For that show, which includes about 60 pieces, Fuemmeler invited other artists to create their own works expanding on basic forms he gave them, and to fit them into one of six emotional categories that masks can represent: disgust, fear, anger, sadness, surprise, joy.
ArtsWatch’s David Bates wrote a splendid story about the combined shows, The Medium Is the Mask, in which he briefly gave the lay of the Universal Feeling land.
“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,” Bates wrote.
“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.’”
A Universal Feeling, the collaborative part of the Chehalem show, was supposed to transfer to Portland and be exhibited at what was then called Cerimon House, a grand gathering spot on 23rd Avenue just north of Alberta Street in Northeast Portland. Then the Covid shutdowns hit. Last Friday evening, at long last, the show opened in what’s now called the Historic Alberta House, and I made an appointment to walk through it on Monday. It was worth the wait.
I hadn’t been inside Cerimon/Alberta House since before the shutdowns, and despite the change in leadership and name it was like visiting an old friend. It’s a rambling old building, with a large main auditorium and several side rooms and a narrow balcony that circles the big main space, and although it’s not set up like traditional gallery spaces, in a way it’s ideal for this very theatrical show.
Cerimon was started by the fine actor Randall Stuart, who with a lot of help and a lot of sweat equity transformed it into a welcoming gathering place. As the Historic Alberta House its artistic director is another fine actor, Vin Shambry. Alberta House is just beginning to kick back into action after Covid shutdowns; on Monday evening PassinArt: A Theatre Company presented the first in a series of staged readings in the auditorium, kicking things off with John Henry Redwood’s The Old Settler.
Several large paintings by the Portland artist Henk Pander – some of scenes of the old city of Vanport when it was destroyed by flood in 1948, some depicting the downtown Portland clashes between police and protesters in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd – were on the walls. The Vanport paintings were first shown, in this space, in an exhibit sponsored by Vanport Mosaic, with which Cerimon/Alberta House has had a long and fruitful relationship.
The masks in A Universal Feeling are much smaller than Pander’s paintings, but they have both a specific and a large cumulative effect. The exhibition – which includes masks from 60 artists; 24 from greater Portland, 24 from across the United States, and 12 international – begins on a landing halfway up to the balcony. It continues up the stairwell, around the corner into an expansive side room, and marches down a long balcony side wall to the corner so that each of the pieces has its own space, and all of them move together in a dance of beguiling differences and similarities. They share, more or less, a basic shape. And then, the creative individuality flows.
Many of the artists Fuemmeler invited to create masks are performers or part of the theatrical world: actors, dancers, choreographers. Others are visual artists, and many work in multiple forms. Most of the masks in the show aren’t performance masks – they seem made more for visual display – and yet, the spirit of the theater breathes through them.
Actors get the glory, and for good reason. Yet stagecraft – masks, makeup, costumery, lighting, sound, set construction and design – are integral to the putting on and trying out and stripping-down of personae that are the essence of theater, from medieval morality plays to the stock characters of commedia dell’arte and television police procedurals and situation comedies.
You set a pattern and put on your literal or symbolic mask: leading lady, comic relief, hero’s sidekick, wise old counselor, sneaky bad guy. Then you play around with it, test its boundaries, explore its possibilities, see how far you can stretch it. The mask both liberates and traps the performer. If you are Loki, you are free to be as Loki as you can be. But can you ever be Thor?
If a mask defines a character, performance quickens the mask, at least partly breaking the spell of its embedded pattern and creating the disruptive and liberating possibility of something fresh and new. I was pleased to see a mask by the great performer and teacher Joan Schirle, who died on Feb. 1 of this year and who was the founding artistic director of the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre, in Blue Lake, California, a distinguished training and performing center that has sent its graduates around the world, including a liberal and welcome sprinkling through the Pacific Northwest. Fuemmeler, in fact, has taught there regularly.
Schirle’s mask, in the “disgust” category, is titled Chief Forked-Tongue Orange Power Tie, and depicts a fellow with a well-known, oversized necktie streaming out of his mouth like a torrent of lies. “Joan was such a force, and a great mentor to me,” Feummeler said in an email exchange. “I was teaching in Blue Lake when she passed, and it was such a loss. Having her work present in the show feels so good.”
Many of the masks in A Universal Feeling seem to have presented their artists with an opportunity to explore and express their own inner lives and the faces they present to the world. In Ghost, the actress Chantal DeGroat, who is Black, creates a double image, a shiny silver exterior face partially obscuring a dark interior face. It’s “quite interesting,” Fuemmeler notes, “as she fabricated an additional face to sit behind the expression of Joy. From this alone, there is an acknowledgement of the mask in its sense as a social construction we present to others.”
DeGroat adds, in her own statement: ““This is a mask that I’ve been required to figuratively wear in my art. It is my white, Western European mask that has shaped the kind of theatre I’ve been allowed to perform. All the while, the true acting performance has been experienced in my hiding myself from myself, defining who I am by how closely I can present to the world as white.”
Tara Carioso’s I know I am not safe in this world presents a wide-eyed, dissheveled, scarifying woman’s head, her mouth stuffed with newspaper clippings telling tales of current events. You can sit in a chair beside her mask, don a pair of headphones, and listen to her talking, in a soft yet firm voice, about it and the ways it deals with the contradictions of her Filipina American identity. “I was not born understanding that I am Filipina,” she says. “… Making the masks, I may have to remove things that don’t fit. I begin removing. And theres a lot of material for me to remove. I’m carving. I’m not sculpting.”
Other masks are happier – a few, like Eric Sellers’ chorus-line piratical One Eyed Willy, almost jovial. Nicolo Gentile’s Roman Umpire – a face covered by an umpire’s mask – is a playful linguistic and historical joke. Jamie M. Rea, in Say Yes, expresses a joy of recognition. “There is a smile that is inherent when you encounter people in a moment of wonder,” she writes of her mask in a box. “Then there is an inner smile when people share their memory of that moment, when the wonder is personal, now uniquely alive in their veins.”
All of the expressions, all of the explorations, all of the artistry – some of it, as in Joeannally Gonzalez’ wind-whipped crumple of harsh white Ego with a startling streak of blue flying out from its lips, stunningly simple, yet far, far from simplistic. Things are hiding and revealing themselves.
If masks are about transformations, so is life – and Fuemmeler, as it turns out, is undergoing a big one right now. After years based in Portland, he’s moving full-time to Blue Lake, to become interim head of training programs and core faculty for Dell’Arte International, an appointment that the physical theater school announced officially on Tuesday of this week.
“It’s a great blend of my artistic work, my work as an educator and of the work I’ve done for the past decade with the Teaching Artist Studio program,” Fuemmeler said. “I’m excited to continue my research into the world of masks and facilitate that for generations to come. Portland – it’s been a little over 16 years! There’s a lot of feelings for sure. Thanks for everything and I’ll be sure to visit.”
Thanks right back. A new day, a new face to the world. Change masks and dance.
- A Universal Feeling is free and on view through Sept. 26, 2022, at Historic Alberta House, 5131 N.E. Alberta St., Portland. You can see it by appointment between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; to make an appointment, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The exhibit is also available to view if you are attending an event at Alberta House.