Much Ado About Masks

“Social Inexistence” by Owen Steck

Americans seem to love symbols. It’s our shorthand or slang for announcing who we are or how we feel. So it’s no wonder that masks have become as popular as T-shirts, baseball hats or decals as a way of announcing an affiliation or a point of view. As a kid growing up in Far Rockaway, a mask to me was for play-acting “The Lone Ranger” as we listened to the radio show. Well, we’ve come a long way from the Wild West in our mask meanings.  Now, It’s all in the eyes of the wearer, or the beholder. So for example, if you are a fashionista, you might wear a mask to match your dress. I’ve seen folks wearing American flags or even confederate flags across their mouths. I’ve also seen skull and bones or smiley faces. 

Mask commentary has a role to play in Together apART: Creating During Covid, a new exhibition organized by ArtsWestchester in its reopened gallery at 31 Mamaroneck Avenue in White Plains. That’s because artists have a lot to say on the subject. In the exhibition, some 250 artists and would-be artists have presented the creative output of their year with Covid. Many of those works include or involve masks. 

There’s a soft and gentle arrangement of pastel bentwood masks by sculptor Susan Manspeizer, which she says is meant to “bring order to a chaotic situation.” It also, perhaps, is meant to mimic the powder blue medical masks used in hospitals. Says the artist: “As I emerged from my winter cocoon, I realized that life would take on a ‘new normal’ shape… My sculpture installation imagines a new skin formation on our bodies that may remain with us indefinitely.” 

Moving right along in the exhibition, there’s a quilt stitched together from remnants of masks sent to the quilter by folks in 48 countries. There’s a poignant portrait of a masked daughter, a healthcare worker whose sad eyes have probably seen too many lonely deaths. 

There’s a striking tableaux of portraits of friends looking both dutiful and awkward in their masks. Eleanor Miller of New City created her “Pandemic Portrait Project” in segments. She explains: “One day while grocery shopping, I passed a woman wearing a blue and yellow potholder taped to her face.” That gave her an inspiration. “I emailed people I knew and asked for photos of themselves wearing their masks. I painted them on 8×10 sheets of canvas, cut from whatever I had available, as this expressed the transitory period we were all experiencing.”

Artist Dave Steck says about his installation: “I explored ideas of life, loss and social distancing during the COVID-19 crisis. Three figures, each in masks and gloves, stand six feet apart in the corners of a large square, facing each other but unconnected. The fourth corner has an empty black square, as if another figure once stood there.”

The mask project of Kathy Yacoe (Skura) of Cold Spring consists of six photographs of masks found in the woods. “During the time of Covid, I have found much solace in the woods. Beginning in the summer, we began to see discarded masks lining the roads and trails. They looked like invasive or alien beings. I began to photograph them.” She thinks it may be a story for our times.

Indeed, the art of mask wearing  or perhaps just “putting it out there” seems to be a current trend.  It’s become such a statement that, who knows? — the idea of making a statement may be quite enough to motivate those anti-mask folks to wear one after all. That would really be what’s called ” a turn of events.” If you have a unique mask, tell us about it, or, better still, send us an image.