Commentary: The fraught topic of identity and one artist’s exploration of the masks we wear

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A few years ago my son Jake gave me a packet of Korean beauty masks for Christmas. I’m not sure why and I was afraid to ask. But I’m wearing a Gold Collagen Essence mask as I write this, hoping that, as the package promises, I’ll emerge more beautiful in just fifteen minutes.

Hey, it could happen.

Masks are on my mind right now because one I created is on display at the Fort Collins Museum of Art, in their 20th annual mask fund-raiser. My mask is called “Shattered.” It features a ceramic face covered with a mosaic of mirror shards, which is why I thought about calling it “10,000 years of bad luck.” That’s the least I’ll incur after shattering seven mirrors with a sledge hammer.

When I called it “shattered,” I was intentionally invoking the Rolling Stones song of the same name. The first time I heard “Shattered,” I was pulling onto the Maine Turnpike two hours after my college graduation, with no idea where I’d go in life. And there was Mick Jagger rubbing it in: “Look at me,” he sang, “I’m in tatters /I’ve been shattered!”

And he followed it up with a mocking “Sha-doo-beh!”

If Mick was shattered, what hope did I have? No wonder my mask looks so worried.

Identity, whether concealed or revealed, is a fraught subject these days. It’s a luxury to pull on the same societal mask everyone else is wearing. But some of us don’t have that luxury. The most obvious battleground right now is over gender. Trans people’s self knowledge is cast aside, in favor of judgment by legislators who wouldn’t know empathy if it stepped on them.

But it’s not just a gender thing. I think of my dad, who wore his accountant mask for a lifetime of workdays, but wrote and performed in comedic plays on the side. There are legions of firefighter guitarists out there, and house-painter poets, and who knows, maybe even a bunch of empathetic legislators just itching for a chance to break free from red-blue gridlock, and live purple and proud. Fluidity–of gender, of career, of expression, of affection, of choice–is something to be embraced, because it can free all of us from boring old binary life.

Of course, even in the land of the free, it takes a lot of bravery to radiate who you are, or who you might be, if only you had permission. Well, get this: The only person you need permission from is yourself.

Which is one of the reasons it’s so provocative to tour the mask exhibition at the Fort Collins Museum of Art. It’s a gallery full of artists who asked and answered the question: What face do you want to show the world? When you walk into the gallery, you may think that you’re there looking at the masks, but in some sense, the masks and their creators are looking right back at you.

Linnae Holmes, a junior at Windsor Charter Academy, is a member of the school’s suicide prevention club, and contributed a mentally askew mask called “I’m Not as Put Together as You Think.” Who among us is, Linnae? But my favorite was Nicole Coco Chenot’s “New Moon,” which features a face peering out from a woman’s uterus, with fallopian tubes draped on either side, like blue hair. Surely there’s a gynecologist’s office in town that needs to put that one front and center.

Meanwhile, I just took my cosmetic mask off. I have to say, I do have a little glow. Masks conceal, but they also reveal. As Oscar Wilde said: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”


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