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Art Beat


Behind the mask


I WONDER IF OTHER counties have as many opportunities for artists to win prizes and awards as Humboldt does. Maybe we're the art contest capital of the world and don't even know it. In the next few weeks alone, for example, three competitions (and accompanying exhibitions) are making their debuts in Eureka, including the Redwood Art Association's Fall Show in November, Humboldt Arts Council's Junque Arte Show in mid-October, and the Ink People's Maskibition 18, which opens during Arts Alive! this coming Saturday night.

Since I often compete in local shows myself, I'm always curious to know how judges choose the winning entries in these contests. In the case of Maskibition, Libby Maynard (the Ink People's executive director) says she's witnessed a lot of judging in the 18-year history of the competition.

"Judging is an interesting process," she says. "You invite someone because they have a well-developed aesthetic sense -- it's their sense, but they're professional people, either creators or academics. They have likes and dislikes, like we all do, but their likes are -- perhaps -- formed on a higher plane."

And then she laughs, and tells a story about a couple from Sacramento who judged Maskibition a few years ago and "made a whole ceremony out of it," by burning incense, putting on music, going into trances, invoking a jaguar god, and then choosing the winning masks.

Libby also tells me about Maskibition's first judges, the "fabulous performers" who used to choose the winning masks in the early years of the competition, back when the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake still co-sponsorephoto of Michelle Millerd it. "Dell'Arte helped us get the jurors for the first five or six years and we got some wonderful people -- they were all performers, really wonderful artists, some international. In the beginning, we would do a big auction and the [Dell'Arte] students performed in the masks."

Due to Dell'Arte's early involvement, Libby says the Maskibition judges have always had to assess both "art" and "performance" masks. "You have to be able to perform in a performance mask. It has to be strong enough to hold up for the length of the play and comfortable enough to wear for hours. Art masks are all over the place -- all kinds of wonderful, conceptual things have come in over the years."

The judge for this year's Maskibition is Michelle Miller [photo at right], a Dell'Arte-trained maskmaker and performer. Michelle hadn't yet seen or judged the entries at press time, but said she didn't anticipate any problems making her choices for the competition's three money prizes (for Best Art Mask, Best Performance Mask, and Best Overall).

"The performance mask -- I think that one's gonna be a snap," Michelle said. "It should be easy to judge a mask for the stage." I asked how she could tell, since the masks wouldn't be worn in a performance when she was judging them. "The mask has to have a who, all by itself. You look at it and it has a personality. That's a good mask."

"Art masks are harder," she continued. "There's a lot to take in. How tough was it to work with what they picked to work with? How far did they take it? Is it a face? Some people turn in a monacle and think that's a mask, but I think a mask should be a face. Everybody has their own ideas, but I'm a bit more old-school that way."

Michelle has entered several of her own masks in Maskibition competitions over the years and says she always wins an honorable mention award. "Always the bridesmaid," she laughs. "Never the bride." She says she's also performed in many of the masks she's created.

"I've been onstage in a mask for two hours at a time. I once had to run around the whole stage and then through the audience and I was so out of breath, I could barely speak. I couldn't get any air in there, and that was in a mask I made for myself."

Libby Maynard says she's noticed that judges who are also artists often choose things that are very different from what they themselves actually create. "I think it's because they understand what they do themselves, and are very critical of that in comparison to their own work," she says. "But they're fascinated by things that are different, because it's not something they could create easily themselves. They admire a different approach, a different vision."

She also notes the subjective nature of judging art competitions. "I've been a judge myself," she says. "I've tried to approach it in terms of inclusiveness, tried to judge the art on some kind of scale, but when you do that, the body of work you choose just looks awful. In order to get something that's consistent and looks good, you really have to rely on your own aesthetic sense."


MASKIBITION runs Oct. 4-25 with an opening reception on Saturday, Oct. 5, 6-9 p.m. A mask performance by Rudi & Flo begins around 8, after the award ceremony.

Linda Mitchell can be reached via




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