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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
What to do with your weekend, delivered every Thursday.
Great deals and chances to win prizes, delivered every Monday.
Exclusive offers from our partners,usually delivered twice a week.
Resources for parents of children with special needs,delivered the second Tuesday each month.