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Making Masks: TMCC Art Club Teams up with UNR

masks on display in the masks a la fini exhibition at UNR
Rebecca A. Eckland

TMCC High School student Van Lopez is one of several student artists whose work will be on display in a special exhibition called “Masks à la Fini” at the McNamara Gallery, located at the Church Fine Arts Building at University of Nevada, Reno, managed by the John and Geraldine Lilley Museum, from May 4-15.  

After over a year of wearing masks, the question of what it means to “be masked” is a relevant one. It’s a question that art students at both TMCC and UNR are answering in this combined exhibition that is the result of a collaboration between TMCC Art Instructor Rossitza Todorova and UNR Art faculty, Mark Combs, and Tyler Brownlow-Caulking. 

“What does it mean to be masked? Is it about changing identity? Or is this about protection?” mused Todorova whose own work—which serves as a response to a current exhibit featuring the work of surrealist artist Leonor Fini—is on display at the Lilley.  Todorova invited her students, as well as art students at UNR, to ponder these questions through the framework of the life and work of Fini, who was also a maker of masks.

For Lopez, the process of creating a mask for this exhibition drew its inspiration from both his body of work and learning about Fini. “A lot of my work is personal,” he said. “Usually what I work on is [inspired] by mental health...and explaining my emotions and being able to visually represent them so people can understand and possibly relate. But, it has been interesting creating a mask based on a persona [I created] rather than as an object to protect myself... but, it was also interesting that the character I based my mask on was also about protection and hiding, so there are some interesting connections.”

“I’m excited that our students got to participate in this,” said Todorova, who explained that participating students from TMCC toured the Leonor Fini exhibit to learn about the artist before they began creating their own masks. “They were inspired by this project and the multiple ways in which this artist works. So, not only can students interpret her ideas, but they bring their own inspiration to it... and to have their work visible in the museum is also exciting.” 

About Leonor Fini

Fini was a part of the surrealist movement that began in Paris in the 1920s, following World War I. Influenced by Dadaism as well as the insights about the unconscious by Freud, surrealist art and literature sought to map a higher truth through a meta-reality or sur-realité (literally: above reality or “super” reality). The result often involved elements that ran counter to conscious, logical thought, often seeking meaning in the deep unconscious through symbolism and iconography. 

Fini relocated to Paris from Argentina in 1930. Her work, like those of her contemporaries Max Ernst and perhaps the most well-known of the surrealists Salvador Dali, casts bodies into unfamiliar landscapes, creating autobiographical paintings that simultaneously entered into a conversation about women’s bodies and their representative role in visual art. 

For example, Fini employed the sphinx in many of her works, a mythical creature that combines the body of a lion with the wings of a falcon and often a human head. The creature is often thought of as a guardian or a treacherous creature guarding the answers to seemingly unsolvable riddles. Beyond her paintings, however, Fini created many elaborate masks and costumes that she wore to art openings and theatrical performances. 

Fini’s fascination with masks and costumes can be traced to her childhood; according to one account, she was once kidnapped by her father and then dressed up like a young boy to avoid being caught. During her teenage years, Fini suffered from rheumatic conjunctivitis, which forced her to have her eyes covered in bandages for months. Later, she would claim this time of visual darkness would help her to develop her imagination and connection to her inner world where much of her complex imagery in her paintings and the vibrantly eccentric masks would come from. 

“Visually, they’re stunning,” said Todorova of the student masks that were created by the show. “They’re very diverse and interesting. You can see Fini’s influence as well as their own perceptions about cultural identity and personal identity with the work.”

Making Masks

Lopez, who graduates from TMCC High School this June, is exhibiting his work for the first time in the “Masks à la Fini” exhibition. “I’ve always really liked art,” he said. “It’s always been a part of my life and one of the best ways I can express myself.” 

Taking college-level art classes at TMCC felt like a natural way to explore a subject for which he’s passionate. Although he typically produces work through varied drawing media, the exploration of 3D art forms through a ceramics class last semester and now the mask project have challenged him with taking art from the page and bringing it to life in a new way. 

Lopez said that the process of learning more about Fini and applying that knowledge to his own work has been inspirational not only to this project, but to his approach to art moving forward. “I had actually never heard of this artist before... especially how this artist worked against the surrealist stereotype of women being only muses,” he said.  Fini’s paintings, as well as photographs that depict the artist dressed in costume also provided Lopez with food for thought. “I really like clothes and fashion... and I’d like to be able to relate to my work in that way, too.”

Lopez’s mask utilizes flowers, a blindfold, and a large crown that are all intended to create a dramatic effect. “My mask was inspired by one of the characters that I designed in another piece of work... that represents insecurity and wanting to hide. I worked to work with that and see how I could represent those ideas and emotions in a mask format,” he explained.

This, said Todorova, was the goal of this collaboration and student exhibition. “These students were inspired by Fini and the multitude of ways she works. So, they could not only interpret her ideas, but bring their own experience and art to it... and to have their work visible is so exciting.”

While Lopez plans on becoming a professional working artist one day, the opportunity to showcase his work at the McNamara Gallery is certainly a highlight of his career so far. “This is the first time that my work is being exhibited...and it’s at UNR. I hope those who visit the exhibition enjoy the work and find the work that we’ve created interesting,” he said. 

The “Masks à la Fini” exhibition will be on display at McNamara Gallery from May 4 through May 15 in conjunction with the final two weeks of the “Leonor Fini | Not A Muse, An Artist” exhibition. For more information about Masks a la Fini, contact the John and Geraldine Lilley Museum at 775-784-6658. 

For more information about the Visual Arts at TMCC, contact the department at  775-674-7610.