To Jeff Semmerling, a mask that is light as air can convey heavy messages and thoughts. It is a metaphor for human emotions that strip a person of all pretenses.
You cannot tell if someone is rich or poor, pretty or plain, shy or extroverted when they are wearing a mask, he says. "A mask has the power to open people's eyes and change who they are."
Semmerling, in his early 50s, is co-owner with Sonja Schaefer of Semmerling and Schaefer Mask Artists Studios in Chicago. Since 1986, they have been creating handmade leather masks for theaters, television shows, ballet companies, partygoers and art collectors.
Semmerling also produces about 300 clown noses a year for his friend, world-renowned Doctor Patch Adams.
Four times a year, Adams orders clown noses for groups of volunteers who bring aid and joy to the elderly, ill and orphaned in Peru, Brazil, Cambodia and Russia. Semmerling, who was a young actor when he met Adams at a show, accompanied him on a 1999 trip to Russia.
Throughout the year, Adams distributes the clown noses as gifts to generous supporters of his Gesundheit Institute, which, among its humanitarian projects, runs fundraising campaigns to help establish free healthcare clinics in the U.S.
Semmerling earned a degree in speech with a theater major from Northwestern University. After graduation, he discovered masks during Mardi Gras and later joined costumer Schaefer in business.
At a friend's suggestion, he opened Inside-Out Studios in Chicago to teach leather mask-making classes. He and his wife, Donna, an art teacher, lead classes for children and adults in mask-making, drawing, circus skills, painting, puppetry, print work and papermaking. They host birthday parties and travel to schools for artist residencies and assemblies.
Their son Atticus, 9, creates the display art for the studio's storefront window.
Thanks to the Internet, art enthusiasts travel to their studio from different countries to take classes in leather mask making. Next, Semmerling plans to partner with a theater company to teach drama classes with masks and puppetry.
Chicago Parent recently spoke with Semmerling about his work as an artist.
What is unique about art? It makes us be here now. If there's a regular chair in a room, you don't notice it. If an artist made it, you actually stop and see it for longer glimpses.
What would you do if you couldn't be an artist? I think you could be a streetcar conductor and do it artfully. Doing the same thing all the time and blending in or doing something artfully. That is what art is all about.
What do you tell people who aren't artistically inclined? I wasn't born with a paint brush in my hand. I put time into it. It's a matter of practice and participation.