Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Location of Meaning - An Open Letter of Gratitude

I'm grateful for my life, for the work I do and, as a result of it, for the many interesting, creative, and fun people I've met over the years. I'm thrilled by the response the masks receive and, since the very beginning, how interested and curious those I meet are about my creative process. Regardless of the particular mask that strikes their fancy, people often ask me the same question--What inspired me to create it? In my fantasy, I have a short answer, something compelling and, given the fast-paced show environment, able to be expressed in under 15 seconds. In reality, I often feel incapable of adequately responding because, to my way of thinking, it's an impossible question; my answer would have to include a detailed account of my entire life and would go on and on long after the show was over and everyone had gone home. Still, with some time to write and with deep gratitude for the genuine curiosity of those who ask, I'll attempt a response.

Showing my work as I do, I have plenty of opportunity to watch people look at, try on, and let the masks speak to them. I often wonder what movie plays behind their eyes that I cannot see. In a sense, the same question they ask me is one that I silently ask them--Why this or that mask? In his book After Babel, George Steiner writes that in expressing something, "We normally use a shorthand beneath which there lies a wealth of subconscious, deliberately concealed or declared associations so extensive and intricate that they probably equal the sum and uniqueness of our status as an individual person." The same is true for a handmade object. It's the nature of the creative process that it cannot be captured in explicit language. Like a poem, the object itself is its own best expression; to describe it further in language is at best gilding the lily, at worst fogging the glass.

What do you see when you look at the masks? What feelings are evoked in you? Perhaps the masks are trying to convey their “style” more than anything else. To you, what does that style say about me? And...what does your attraction to a mask’s weight, its line and form, the material it's made of say about you? Any power the mask holds exists, most fully, in its ability to stimulate the asking of these questions.

What I think of as the defining moment, the seed of my decision to choose masks as a form of creative expression, happened twenty years ago as I stood inside a shop at South Street Seaport in NYC and stared, for what felt like my entire one-hour lunch break, at a wall of primitive-looking clay masks. The masks spoke to me as if in a dream and what I heard was "we are rich and deep and full of mystery" and I fell in love and, in that moment, I felt chosen in return. I left there with a secret, so full of excitement because I'd been searching and didn't know, until that moment, for what. Since then, as with any affirming, long term relationship, I've learned to listen better, to accept the ebb and flow, and to see our relationship with new eyes daily. It's a rigorous practice and with it, my understanding of and ability to articulate my feelings about the masks has evolved. So too has my style. It's an ongoing dialogue full of details.with light and dark places that reach out, recoil and melt away.

I create masks because I thrive on the challenges it presents and, as the saying goes, I'm committed to following my bliss. What sparks the creation of a particular mask could be something as seemingly insignificant as the shape of a fallen twig or the way dew drops hang heavy along the lower edge of a wild rose branch in winter. On the other hand, it could be something as complex and beautiful as Ernst Haeckel's illustrations of radiolaria.

Below are two images. In the first is pictured a class of marine invertebrates, illustrated by artist and biologist Ernst Haeckel, known as Siphonophores. In the other is a black leather mask I created called Daedalus (in Greek Mythology, the great artificer). I've put these two images side by side as a way of showing the process of metamorphosis and how what follows, from initial inspiration, is a kind of channeling of conscious and unconscious insights that, in the end, give rise to a finished mask. So much ground is covered between here and there that the mask's assumed "personality" is sometimes a surprise even to me. As I worked, the mask developed into something unfamiliar, though not unrelated to Siphonophores and, as it turns out, the name I settled on, Daedalus, with it's unusual ae spelling, became a strange and distant homage to artist and illustrator Ernst Haeckel. In thinking about it, I'm reminded that the connection is always there but it's often something very subtle.

So, where is the location of meaning? Is it somewhere along that road, is it in my head, my hands, my heart, is it in the fallen twig, or is it located in the movie that plays behind your eyes when you look at it? At its root, I believe the masks are an expression of my awareness of and interest in these questions, in the constantly shifting location of meaning. I revel in the giving of my attention to this subtle dance.

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