It’s easily to get entranced by the masks of our September Fantast in Focus, Cyndy Salisbury, who in a way, sculpts the faces of gods and goddesses, using nothing but her imagination and careful artistic technique. Her website, Art of The Mask is home to a pantheon of her creations. Cyndy is based in Bainbridge, Washington but her artworks have a quality of timelessness and universality, as if the legendary characters they represent are alive and breathing.
The Custodian: Why did you start making masks? Were you always an artist?
Cyndy Salisbury: I’ve always created, and at 60+ have spent many decades exploring many mediums, though I have very little formal art training. About seven to eight years ago I was asked to help stage the annual fundraising dinner auction at one of my kids’s schools, themed An Evening in Venice. We needed masks but had no budget, so I started exploring the websites of Italian mask ateliers, which would often have a page about production. I also found The Masks of Prof. Agostino Dessi . This lovely book showcases the work of one of the world’s great mask artists and concludes with a chapter showing the casting of Alice Dessi’s face and the step by step creation of a mask. I fell in love with the whole process!
C: Your masks are highly influenced by Greco-Roman and Biblical mythology, but which myths and fairytales are your personal favourites?
CS: I do love the mythologies of classical antiquity and Northern Europe, and would include fairytales as an integral part of the European mythologies. There aren’t particular stories that come to mind, though my preference is always for the earliest versions, uninterpreted (sanitized), maintaining the raw, dark elements. It’s interesting that you mention Christianity as an influence. The only masks that reference that particular mythology are the devil masks, and I think those reflect broader Levantine mythologies.
C. Traditionally masks have been used for a variety of purposes. Shamans and medicine men still use them to ward off evil spirits, opera performers wear them as part of their costumes, and masqueraders all over the world put them on during Carnival. Your masks appear to have a spirit of their own—what do most of your clients use them for?
CS: A large number of my buyers plan to wear the mask to an event, then hang them for display. And it’s very common to sell to collectors who already own a number of masks.
C: What’s your creative process in coming up with a new mask design?
CS: Here’s a good example of how the idea for a mask begins, typifying how that process works for me. Reading is one of my greatest pleasures and I do a lot of it. A recent book, The Malice of Fortune, set in 15th c. Italy, references the popular belief in Fortuna (or Tyche), the Greco-Roman goddess who personified fortune or luck (both good and bad) and who experienced a renewed popularity during the Renaissance. That sparked an interest that led to more exploration of Tyche-Fortuna. I re-listened to Carmina Burana , Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi, looked at videos and stills of how the music has been staged, googled Grecian statuary of Tyche, found as much as I could about Tyche/Fortuna. As I fill my head with this stuff, I start to see (literally see, as I’m a visual thinker) how this idea can be portrayed through mask. An image forms, often in the wakeful small hours of the night. Then once I start to work, the image is altered, embellished, fleshed out. I often end up doing the mask a number of times. As one version sells, I’ll start another. Because each new iteration is created months after the first mask, no two are exactly alike.
C: In a way, all of us like to take on different personalities—we do it every day when we have to engage with others at work, school, and at home. It’s also really fun to do that with masks, and the mask maker could also be said to be a sculptor of personalities or archetypes. Why do you think so many of us have that affinity for literally putting on a different face?
CS: Some theories of personality maintain that it (personality) is a fluid construct. That may provide a clue to why many people love masks, in that the mask provides an avenue for change, if not transformation, and even if only for a light-hearted evening.
But I find many people to be uncomfortable with masks. I see it at shows, where there are always those who avert their eyes, and can be overheard saying (though with a self conscious chuckle) things like, ‘well, that’s kind of creepy!’. A good bit of that is attributable to our culture here in the US not having any historic mask culture. We’re too young and trace too big a component of our culture to the Reformation and Protestantism. The places where you will find masks are Halloween parties, where adults have appropriated the permission originally granted to children to dress up, New Year’s Eve parties, and Mardi Gras throughout the greater New Orleans area. Though the latter has such a strong tradition because the cultural roots are French Catholic and African, inheriting that Old World tradition.
C: Do you ever make any masks for yourself?
CS: I think the question is, do I ever wear any of the masks I make? No, although when asked by a gallery for a photo to supplement the standard artist’s statement, I wore a mask that has a veil covering the lower face. All of the masks I make are, ultimately, for myself.
C: Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibitions?
CS: I participate in a couple of regular art shows each year, and pick up additional shows when they seem good venues for masks. I’m showing at a Steampunk event next weekend. I have notebooks filled with ideas waiting to be fleshed out, and too little time to create. (I work 20 – 25 hours a week with my husband’s business.)
Some wonderful books about masks are the following:
1. Mask and Performance in Greek Tragedy, by David Wiles, Cambridge University Press.
2. Venice Incognito, Masks in the Serene Republic, by James J. Johnson, University of California Press.