Sculptor Kathleen Sherman on Wearing Masks and Serious Whimsy
- On January 5, 2018
At first glance, Kathleen Sherman’s living room is light and open, with a big, inviting wrap-around couch. Then something flickers in your peripheral vision–the flash of a whale’s tail, an alligator standing stalwart on the kitchen table, a house cat upright like the holy virgin, a snake-eyed mask on the wall eyeing you suspiciously. Her sculptures invite you into stories–your own stories–about the characters she creates.
Her sculptures invite you into stories–your own stories–about the characters she creates. Her masks invite you to be someone else for a moment, finding freedom in the anonymity of hiding your own face. Kathleen says she loves masks because they give you a chance to be something else, or even more of who you really are.
When asked about her work, Kathleen laughs and says “I’m not that deep,” with a twinkle in her eye that says otherwise. While her creations are full of whimsy and humor, it’s not all fun and games when you wear a mask. And, Kathleen points out, humor and joy and delight are just as profound to the human experience as darkness and despair.
“Something happens to people when they are wearing a mask. They change. They get to be a lot of the things they aren’t when they are just themselves. I guess that’s what I was drawn to.”
“I have one [mask] in there that’s a favorite. I get a really good response from people when I wear it too, especially children. Scares the crap out of ’em, haha.“
Kathleen: I hope the questions aren’t too serious.
Julia: Oh not too serious–it’s “just” art we are talking about, haha. I’m curious – how did you start out as an artist?
Kathleen: I was a commercial artist until I turned 50. Then we moved to Denver, right downtown, and I got my first studio in the Piggly Wiggly building that was close to the baseball stadium. Then we got kicked out by the fire marshal, because there was no place to plug anything in. Everybody had extension cords all over the place, and the fire department didn’t like that. Since then I think I’ve have about five different studios. I started doing masks back then, when I got my first studio. I did a lot of research on masks, and realized a lot of cultures use gourds for masks, like Africa and Australia. So I started playing with that. Then we started growing gourds in a space I had at the botanic gardens. I dunno we must have had a hundred and some gourds that year, so that was great fun!
Making masks the way I do, you also fall in love with the plants because they are so wonderful. I mean I don’t only use gourds, but that’s the kind of shape I love, the organic, kind of folk-art looking aesthetic. Using organic materials like that keeps you from getting too tight or too realistic, and also kinda gives it whimsy I think.
Julia: Yeah, I see that whimsy in a lot of your work, and this sense of humor. Has this been something you’ve always connected to?
Kathleen: That piece right there isn’t too whimsical. (Points to incredibly creepy snake-eyed mask on the wall behind us). Roger, my husband, was sitting here and he was like “You know, his eyes follow me wherever I go in the room.” I joked and told him, “That’s because there’s a spirit in there!”
What’s the scariest mask you’ve ever seen? “Probably a human face, haha.“
Julia: How were you drawn towards creating masks?
Kathleen: I guess I love the whole idea of being able to be somebody else for a short period of time, putting on a different face, or becoming an animal or some kind of creature. I love Halloween, and all these celebrations where people wear masks. Something happens to people when they are wearing a mask. They change. They get to be a lot of the things they aren’t when they are just themselves. I guess that’s what I was drawn to.
Julia: It sounds like there’s a level of freedom it gives people, or a level of expression that’s more difficult to access when you are showing your own face.
Kathleen: Yeah, there’s an excitement about that I think. There are people who won’t wear masks, and I find that a lot of those people have worked really hard to build a persona, and find it very difficult to part with that. I think they are wearing a mask already. They’ve worked too hard to be wearing that mask, and now they don’t want to take it off.
Julia: What’s one of your favorite masks to wear?
Kathleen: I have one in there that’s a favorite – the one with the horns made of branches, and it’s covered with seeds. I created it on my own face, and it’s a helmet. I don’t know quite what it is that I love about it, it just completely changes my face. I get a really good response from people when I wear it too, especially children. Scares the crap out of ’em, haha.
Julia: Haha, that’s how you know you’ve transformed, that the mask has done it’s job, right? I was reading an interview you did with someone else and you said “My whimsy is serious,” can you tell me more about that?
Kathleen: Someone came into my studio to see my work once and remarked “This is serious whimsy.” I loved that quote so I’ve used it a lot. I don’t take what I do lightly, I spend a lot of time on my work and I don’t think of it as just light and frivolous. It’s serious whimsy.
Julia: What guides you in your artistic process?
Kathleen: The materials, the shapes. I also love folktales and folk art, and I’ve done a lot of pieces that were influenced by Chinese art, and Japanese netsukes and the stories that go with them.
What I try to do is create work that allows people to create their own story about the piece. I want them to look at it, and see a story. Like, they see that alligator purse sculpture and see the bird in it’s mouth and say “Oh, that bird is cleaning his teeth.” When I’m done, people can decide what the story is, that’s the whole idea. They are stories without words. I also love it when people try to identify the various materials I’ve used in the piece. Sometimes I can’t even identify them after all I’ve done with them! Like that one, it’s all egg cartons, and the inside is part of a fancy sequined dress a friend of mine gave me.
Julia: I love the way your work invites people to engage their own imaginations–it feels like a strong invitation do more not than just view the work and try figure out what it means, but to find their own story.
Kathleen: Right, looking for the story and looking for the materials. That’s what I do. I’m not very deep–that’s all I do, haha.
Julia: I think that’s pretty deep. What’s the idea behind the Masked exhibition we are putting on at Art Gym? You’re creating some work for the show, and there will be some other artists who make masks showing work as well, correct?
“What I try to do is create work that allows people to create their own story about the piece. I want them to look at it, and see a story Like, they see that alligator purse sculpture and say “Oh, that bird is cleaning his teeth.” When I’m done, people can decide what the story is. They are stories without words.“
Kathleen: The show is really about the idea of masks, versus just a show of various masks. Like, the piece over my shoulder there – it’s not a mask, it’s a sculpture representative of a mask–you can turn it around, and it has an image on both sides, playing with the idea that one person can be all these different people. That’s really what the show is about.
Julia: Right, so actually exploring the concept of masks through different representations.
Kathleen: And through different artists, we tried to get a big variety of artists and material.
Julia: Will we have any masks that people can try on at the show?
Kathleen: We will see. I have a whole lot of masks, we may place some somewhere for people to try. Part of why I’m doing the piece I’m doing, is so people can interact with masks. I’m creating sculptures that integrate masks, so people can look through the mask without touching them. I had a mask show at the museum in Longmont years ago, and I wanted to make masks that people could look through, because part of the impact of a mask is the human eyes behind it. That’s what makes it look real. So I wanted to be able to do that, but I didn’t want people touching them, because you have a huge crowd coming in. So I played around with it, and what we ended up doing was making 8-foot high walls, and making them into a triangular shape, and putting holes in them, so the masks were on the inside. The inside was all reflective mylar, so you looked at yourself through that mask.
Julia: What’s the scariest mask you think you’ve ever seen?
Kathleen: Probably a human face, haha.