I was once an art student at SAIC in Chicago. Back then, I had never been on my own before, and found myself living in a swank studio apartment dorm. It was an exciting “leaving the nest” experience, but what I remember most wasn’t the rose-tinted luxuries, rather the white overcast sky and the fog hugging the tops of the sky-scrapers.
What my eyes saw each day was pretty bleak, and not just due to the lake effect weather. My fellow “avant-garde” as well as the homeless wanderers on the street that I saw each and every day when I made the commute to class, set the tone for a weird internal interlude of my life that I now loosely refer to as “back when I was in college”.
I went to the community college in Las Vegas for three years prior to being accepted to Chicago. My desert life was comfortable, social, and somewhat balanced… so as any proper creative person would do in that situation, I started looking for a way out. I could hardly imagine leaving my beloved mentors to pursue my desires elsewhere, but I knew it was what I had to do.
I quickly realized only a couple of weeks into my first semester, that the prestigious art school was not the place for me. In fact, there were many aspects of it that I loathed. It glorified many things I detest, and the students there were like monks to a religion I was at war with: contemporary art.
Due to this sudden and drastic unease with my surroundings, I withdrew and kept to myself. The silence allowed my mind plenty of room to stretch out and process things: primarily thoughts about what I was doing and who I was.
That weirdly acidic, white, cold, and generally uninviting setting is also where I found myself in my first machine shop and met the person I would grow to become today. Even if I had no way of knowing it at the time, I was finally on a course to becoming who I wanted to be. In this unlikely place, I felt like a sapling growing in spite of layers of concrete and bricks towards sunlight.
Some time at the beginning of 2011, the maybe-roboticist Sarah woke one morning and seemingly from nowhere decided she really, really aught to make a mask. I had never done so before, and prior to that day hadn’t any interest in doing so. But there I was, doing research, buying the materials, and preparing to cast my own face in the bathroom of my dorm.
Over two weeks of casting, sculpting, and scavenging, I built what I now call “Merca” – which is a crude-looking thing that has a significant amount of meaning to me. Now many years later, I understand why I woke that morning and so urgently decided to do what I did.
Masks are curious things. We wear them for reasons that are almost contradictory. They are symbolic of hiding, but they are also tied to the concept of acting, or assuming a role. When someone puts on a mask, they aren’t just concealing themselves, they’re also becoming something different entirely.
It’s more than that though. Masks effect us profoundly. If someone puts on the mask of a wolf, without realizing it… they start to subtly enact their perception of what a wolf is like. If someone puts on the mask of a devil, they become devious. When we witness ourselves in a new face, we begin acting as what we see ourselves as. We role-play. The funny thing however, is once the mask is removed, the identity that was borrowed doesn’t magically get taken away along with it. It becomes a part of you. It sticks with you forever… whether you have the mask on anymore or not.
The mask asks a question of us that we answer through our actions. By answering, we welcome the consideration of something other than who we are, and as a result expand our definition of self to include the answer we devise of. By putting it on, we give the mask permission to infuse us with whatever it suggests we might otherwise be.
I made Merca that day because I subconsciously recognized a change happening within me. The change had to do with adaption; how I was morphing or masquerading as something else in order to survive in my new home. It was also in recognition that what I was pretending to be was not natural to me. It wasn’t a welcomed response, but one that happened out of necessity, in light of being thrust into a new life in a new place.
My mentor told me I would move away from Vegas one day. Maybe I’d come back, maybe I wouldn’t… but in either case, if I did… I wouldn’t be the same person. This sounded dramatic and ominous- but he was right.
As a result of persisting through concrete and stone, the sapling develops unusual roots and a twisted form. This was me now. The mask represented my pseudo self. It was the ingenuine me I assumed in Chicago that stuck around even after I took the mask off and moved away. But it also represented the part of me that pretended to be stronger than I was, until I was stronger. Like my mentor predicted, I came home different, but I came home better.
Sarah has always loved machines, but now she knew she could machine them. She was awed by technology, but now had an open invitation to create her own. Contemporary art had always left a sour taste in her mouth, but now she understood the shape of the fruit she was tasting, and could appreciate the bitterness for the beautiful form it came from. That’s growth, y’all.
I moved back home to Las Vegas, Summer of 2011, just a hand-full of months after I smeared petroleum jelly all over my face and laid strips of plaster-gauze all over it. I had this mask in tow to show for it. When I put it on back then, whether I realized it or not, I was becoming the person I am right now. My other face was the new me.