Wearing masks dates back centuries with its purpose as broad as the many styles that have been created. Hiding or decorating one’s face appears in history and cultures for purposes of anonymity, war, theater and cultural practices, such as denoting hierarchy, signaling mourning or for celebration. Southern Shores artist, Carol Willett, understands and shares this very history when asked about her idea to create The Art of the Mask, the latest Dare County Arts Council exhibit on display in their upstairs Manteo gallery.

Willett, program chair for DCAC, sees the exhibit — which coincides with the arts council’s October fundraiser, Black Opal Masquerade Ball — as an opportunity to explore the mask theme though diverse mediums. “Our goal was we wanted to get masks or mask-themed art from as many kinds of disciplines as possible,” she says.

She envisions works coming in crafted from fiber, clay, wood, metal, glass and more. “Blow out all the talent and get it to come together in one place.”

Willett is entering multiple pieces in the exhibit including a fantastic paper and cloth mâché sculpture of an owl covered in creatures such as a giraffe, dragonfly, chameleon, tree frog, horseshoe crab, snake, toucan, bumblebee, luna moth and salmon. The owl is fantasizing about what it would like to be these other creatures, says Willett.

Multiple students from College of the Albemarle’s Professional Jewelry School, students of Associate Professor and Program Coordinator Kathryn Osgood, have created a variety of masks in metal for the exhibit using various techniques depending on the level of class they are taking. Ten or so students in beginning and advanced classes have cut, sawed, soldered and added elements to their either hand-held or wearable copper masks.

“It’s interesting to see the different themes people choose,” says Osgood. One copper mask depicts a spray of soldered coral; another shows a flying fish with spread wings, with a third depicting an owl’s face

For Kitty Dough, one of Osgood’s students, wearing a mask is a fantastic adventure, Dough, also an illustrator, is exhibiting a metal mask enhanced with colored pencil that she fashioned as an ode to Vincent Van Gogh’s painting “The Starry Night.”

“I think when you put on a mask, you’re just in another place. You become another person or maybe a part of your personality comes out,” Dough says.

Participating in the exhibit was a great fit for Outer Banks artist Lisa LeMair. She created “Free?! (This Cage Was Always Too Small” from sterling silver, copper, patina, silk, .8 ct Ethiopian black opal and an ostrich feather.

“Sometimes, a mask can set us free to be our truest self,” LeMair says in a recent e-mail. “This idea fits into my broader body of recent work of wearable art and jewelry, which has focused on the messages we send to others and ourselves with our clothing and jewelry — they can be a costume, a signifier of our status, a projection of who we want to be or how we want others to see us.”

“At the same time, the idea of cages and birds was rattling around in my head, and I couldn’t quite shake loose of that. So my mask has two parts: a cage (which sits on top of the wearer’s head) and a bird-inspired mask, which is attached to the cage, but which can also be worn separately. And, in a nod to the title of this year’s DCAC gala, “Black Opal Masquerade Ball,” the bird’s eye is a faceted black opal stone.”

While masks can be fanciful, creative and decorative, they also can be thought provoking. They can signal a fundamental psychological state of mind, Willett says.

She urges the viewers of The Art of the Mask to look beyond the object and see “the aspirations, the dreams and the inner, untapped part of ourselves that it might represent.”

The vulnerable action of crafting a mask allows us to see creators on a more intimate level.

Mary Ellen Riddle has been writing the Coast’s art column for more than 20 years and brings to her work a BFA in painting from East Carolina University and a profound passion for the role the arts play in society.

Mary Ellen Riddle has been writing the Coast’s art column for more than 20 years and brings to her work a BFA in painting from East Carolina University and a profound passion for the role the arts play in society.

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