In a building along Montrose, just off Damen, masks of all shapes, sizes and colors line the walls. Puppets peak out from the tops of shelves. Vibrant paintings compete for attention. Jeff Semmerling holds up a red clown nose. “Some say this is the simplest and most complex of masks. You put it on, and you’re transformed.”
Those only acquainted with masks from Halloween or children’s school craft projects would hardly recognize the immensely creative and inventive pieces on display at Semmerling’s multi-use space. It more resembles the workshop on a Guillermo del Toro film than the low-rent costume warehouses selling poorly made rubber masks. Talking to Semmerling, it’s apparent that he views masks—and art as a whole—as not only transformative but essential to human nature.
“When you have a mask on a wall, it’s like a piece of sculpture,” he said. “When you put it on, it becomes something else. It makes you special.”
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Semmerling had just finished teaching the first day of a two-day leather mask-making boot camp. Students spent the better part of a day molding their leather and cutting out the basic shape, giving it memory. The masks would then rest overnight with detail added the next day. An acrylic lining makes the masks more comfortable to wear for long periods. “Leather mask making requires a lot of touch,” Semmerling said. “Making a mask is like life: you participate choice by choice.”
Semmerling should know. He’s been making masks for more than 25 years, a pursuit he took up fresh out of college. In 1986, he co-founded Semmerling and Schaefer Mask Artists Studios, which he runs with partner Sonja Schaefer. The two create their own works but bring together experience in theater, art, leather craft and fashion. It’s this fascination with the power of masks and their ability to impact others that led Semmerling to open Inside Out Art Studio, 2005 W. Montrose Ave., where it’s been located since 2003.
To call Inside Out a studio is only partially correct: it’s a studio, gallery, education space and retail shop. In addition to making and selling his own masks, Semmerling uses the space to teach the art of mask making to children and adults. It’s part of his philosophy of bringing world-class art to the neighborhood. “It’s like grass coming in through the cracks of the sidewalk,” he said. “We say it is serious fun for artists of all ages.” The studio offers classes in puppetry, mask making and performance, painting, drawing, sculpture, and teacher training.
The studio’s mission is to make “art a bigger part of your life,” which is also a mantra for Semmerling. Whether describing the way puppets can come alive or how art can be good for the soul, he seems to be talking on two levels: the physical level of the mask and the philosophical level of what it means to be human. To this point, he sees Inside Out Art Studio as not just a place to learn art or buy a mask but as a place the community can coalesce around, something that will make the neighborhood better. “We want to show that culture can nurture and come through the neighborhood,” Semmerling said. “Art is like a garden and not an oil well. It doesn’t just burst forth. It needs to be tended to and grown.”
Part of this tending and growing is accomplished through weekly classes for adults and children. Every summer, Semmerling and Inside Out Art Studio hold summer classes for children, who spend several weeks learning about art history, painting, mask making and technical skills. It’s a great resource for parents who want to engage their children in constructive activities.
“I had a student come up to me and tell me that his brother who made a mask several years ago still has it.”
The goal is to present art as a serious pursuit, Semmerling said of the summer classes, which he runs along with his wife, Donna Lurie
Laurie , a state-certified art teacher. “The masks they make here, they can keep until they go to college. They will do serious pieces and we teach the skills to be an artist. We don’t bring art down to the level of the kids, but instead bring them up to our level.”
Semmerling became interested in mask making when he studied theater at Northwestern University and started working in traveling theater and attending Renaissance fairs. But it was during a winter spent in New Orleans and a memorable encounter with Mardis Gras that Semmerling became truly inspired by the art form. “It was a reversal,” he said. “Everyone put down their normal roles and everyone is participating in art. It was like group therapy.”
In 1998, he returned to Chicago and signed on with a group that pushed art out into the city’s neighborhoods. “When I was doing this, I discovered the use of cardboard as a medium for masks,” he said. “As soon as I started mask making, people started coming from all over the country.” In the beginning, Semmerling constructed masks out of cardboard and paper-mache and quickly discovered how much like leather they both were.
Masks have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years and not just because of the growing popularity of Halloween. Theater, dance and opera companies are incorporating more masks into their productions. Masquerade parties and fundraisers require more professional and comfortable masks. Every year in Chicago, a group of Mardis Gras enthusiasts (Mystic Krewe of LAFF) holds a night of festivities where everyone is required to wear a mask. For reference, a simple clown nose can cost $8 to $75 while a higher-end mask can run $700.
Even though masks have been worn throughout the world for centuries, according to Semmerling, it is only within the past 15 years that the practice has gained more acceptance as an adult activity in the U.S.
“It’s only recently that masks have been introduced back into the theater with the success of The Lion King musical around 2000,” Semmerling said. “Halloween is a critical part of the reversal that masks play, and cosplay [where fans of various fiction dress up as their favorite characters] is an example of costuming and masks making its way back.”
Long after he’s finished teaching for the day, Semmerling is still expounding on masks and art. He talks about the masks he made for Patch Adams (“I made smiling masks for him. He loved them.”) and the different types of materials used in masks (“Acrylic is a space age gift to mask making.”).
If he’s passionate about masks and art, it’s because he views them as the remedy to an adult world that has stifled creativity. “Society can be counterproductive to our souls,” said Semmerling. Whether it’s cosplay, theater or wearing face paint at a football game, putting on a mask and participating in art gives the wearer the opportunity to take on a new personality.
Inside the studio, it’s apparent that Semmerling feels that he is doing something more than making masks and teaching art. He is doing something for the neighborhood, for the city. “Art is something that is essential,” he says while holding a mask. “Art can inspire us to do better.”