May '09  


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A few years ago, my son became interested in world mythology, and I became drawn to it through talking about it and reading about with him. The more I studied it, the more I realized the importance every ancient culture placed on masks as iconic representations of their beliefs. The image depicted in mask form helps the people in each particular culture identify with the symbolized force of nature, or the deity that they worship.

Thousands of years ago, when humans were hunter-gatherers, masks were first used as camouflage for the hunt. The masks were made of animal hide and animal bone and helped the hunter blend in with his environment. As human society evolved and the perception of their world evolved, their collective awareness became tinged with the mysteries of life. These inexplainable mysteries (such as birth and death, for instance) forced the collective human awareness towards matters of the spiritual. This growing spiritual awareness brought on a whole new type of hunt; the hunt for the origins of life and for God.

Just as the ancient hunter used a mask as a cloaking device in order to blend in with and become part of the animal world, this new type of spiritually aware human was hunting for a way to identify with unseen forces. As mythology was born out of the depths of the human collective unconscious people needed a way to identify with their god or gods. A new type of role playing was born, and the mask was an integral part of it. Joseph Campbell, in his book: "The Power of Myth", says: "The images of myth are reflections of the spiritual potentialities of every one of us. Through contemplating these, we evoke their powers in our own lives." The longer I studied mythology, the more I came to the realization that through my artwork I was actually developing my own mythology. Perhaps every artist is doing this to a greater or lesser degree, but all of what I consider to be my best art is coming from the wellspring of my subconscious, (the collective unconscious?) which is where all mythology was originally born.

Also masks are mighty handy when your being sought by the IRS, the FBI, or that guy you accidently backed your car into in the grocery store parking lot. Not that I would know.

The process of making a mask involves a reversed way of thinking, compared to the process of painting a canvas, at least for me. When I paint a canvas or even a watercolor,
I usually start out with a sketch of some kind, ether a small sketch on a separate piece of paper, or i'll sketch directly on to the canvas. From there, its mostly me applying pigment
to the surface, and manipulating it to achieve a pre-concieved image. I try to leave my self open to "happy accidents", but for the most part, I am placing color to canvas with a
desired end result in mind.

With the masks, the process is in reverse, because the medium is manipulating me, or rather, my decision-making process. Im starting out with pre-made objects, already existing shapes and colors that completely influence my decision-making process, at least as far as esthetics are concerned. I use found objects, literally stuff I've found in the neighbor's trash can, things I've found in the gutter, garage sale shmatta, Goodwill gunk. I'm even using garden debris, such as seed pods. Now that the economy has tanked I'm seeing oodles of stories on "the virtues of re-using and recycling." I've been making things out of found objects for about twenty years now, and it took a "recession" (a.k.a. Depression) to make the rest of society catch up!

Im not claiming to have invented the idea, certainly. after all, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were using found objects in their artwork back in the 1950's, and as previously mentioned, ancient peoples were using animal skins and bones long after that animal had been eaten. I just find it ironic that in a society where almost any manufactured object that is five or more years old is destined for the landfill, we now have the well-to-do shopping at thrift stores. But I digress.

I have to work with the vast array of objects that I've collected. forcing me to work in a much more stream-of-conscious style, even if the mask is of a specific character from mythology. I place the found objects next to each other and use them almost like puzzle pieces. It sometimes becomes a rather precarious balancing act, until I finally start to attach objects to objects.

The one thing I buy from an actual store is hardware. These masks are NOT held together with glues or adhesives of any kind! I HATE GLUE! It's messy! It smells bad! It gives me headaches! I find ways, sometimes quite elaborate, to attach these found objects with nuts & bolts, screws, nails, steel and/or copper wire. Adhesives are not sturdy enough (no matter WHAT it says on the packaging) This requires some tricky carving and drilling. Ever tried drilling in to certain types of plastics? I've had the plastic melt all over the drill bit a few times.

This process has forced me to think out of the box, because Im not mechanically minded by ANY stretch of the imagination. Sometimes the power drill won't go through an objectl, so I'll have to resort to using my wife's Foredom. (no, its not a marital aid.) My wife, Cristi, works in glass, (stained glass, kiln-fired glass, etc.) and has this devise that is the Superman of the grinding and drilling world. It will go through just about any substance except Kriptonite. On the other end of the scale, some materials tend to be to soft and easily ripped (cardboard, canvas, etc.) and for those I've just recently learned how to use GROMMETS! (and I'm not talking about the dog, either!).

When I was a wee lad, I used to lay on my bed and stare up at the texture of the walls. The longer I stared, the more images I would see. A bump and lump over here would start to look like a face, some other textured area would start to look like an animal or an automobile. Sometimes the images would start to look scary, and I'd have to cover my eyes. Its reasonable to assume, then, that people of ancient times relied on that same adrenalin-pumped imagination to explain the unexplainable, and thus mythology was born.

Another source of inspiration from my youth is my sisters. Roxanne is seven years older than me. As a kid I would watch her draw and paint, and be fascinated at the process and her abilities. It's got me started drawing at a very young age. Currently, she and her husband, Nyle, run a successful business in the San Francisco Bay area called Artfibers, and she still uses her artistic sensibilities through the use of every type of exotic yarn imaginable.

My other sister, Jeanette, was the classic 1960's mod female back when I was young, and always had a strong, independent spirit about her. She drove around in a hippie-style van as a teenager/ I believe she even lived out of that Van after she moved out of our parents' house,. She and her husband, Chris, always seem to approach life with a "can-do" spirit. As a youth, I watched Chris build and/or repair just about everything they owned. He even built an Austin Mini In his garage, from the ground up! I used to watch him work and marvel at his ingenuity. Whenever I get baffled by the technicalities of assembling one of these masks, I pause and reflect on those times and it gives me inspiration to try new avenues of thought and keep going.

My Dad used to build things in his garage when I was a Little kid, too. I still have a music box that he made me out of a cool-looking old cigar box. (THERE'S the connection to my obsession with found objects!) My Mom used to be an avid reader and she would always bring me along when she went to the library. I used to check out Dr. Suess, and Peanuts books, and she and I would read them together at home. Those books definitely had a lasting impression as well.

My more recent watercolor and acrylic paintings have been influenced and inspired by two main factors: #1. my garden, and the creatures that I find there. And #2. the botanical photographs of German Art and design teacher Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932). Blossfeldt took his pictures with a home-made camera, and used his images as a teaching aid in his drawing classes at the Berlin College of Art. They are incredibly beautiful, and truly an excellent study in design.

Oh, there's a third inspiration! An animated movie called "Spirited Away" by Hayao Miyazaki (and the talented artists at his studio!). I love that film! I love Miyazaki's movies anyhow, but that one really stuck with me; I couldn't get it out of my mind.

O.K., there's a fourth influence that just came to me; my son, Marsden's drawings of monsters that he did back when he was a few years younger, maybe seven or so.

I had solo shows of my artwork at the Los Angeles Art Association in West Hollywood, at EZTV Gallery in West Hollywood, and at Ministry Art Gallery on La Brea in Hollywood back in the 1990's. I also had work in group shows at R. Mutt Gallery in West Hollywood. My animated film, "Earth Dance", has been shown at the Hirshorne Museum in the Smithsonian Institute; at MOMA in New York, and at the Pompidou Center in Paris. It also took First Place in the Nissan Focus Awards in the animated shorts category. Currently my work isn't being represented in any gallery, and I've been to busy in my job to pursue that. If there's a gallery out there that sees this that's interested, you can contact me at and if there is a buyer of fine Art out there who is interested in purchasing, please use the same e.mail.

All artwork in this article is the property of Steve Wahl.

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