Mask-maker lives for double takes

Jeff Semmerling once donned one of his famous smile masks, with big red lips and lots of teeth, and walked through an Italian airport. Some passengers snapped photos; others stared in amazement. One woman asked him through a translator what he was so happy about.

"Most people walk with their blinders on, but they now see something that causes them to look again," he says. "Most people are thankful that someone is doing something other than being glum and serious."

Semmerling, a Chicago-based artist, has been making people take a second look for decades. He makes masks used by some of the city's leading theater groups. His work explores the transformative power of accessories most often thought of as Halloween props.

He and his mask-making partner, Sonja Schaefer, worked on the Jeff Award-winning Actor's Workshop production of Equus last year, and the Chicago premiere of the The Ash Girl at Vittum Theater.

Semmerling's commedia dell'arte characters have graced the stage of Chicago Shakespeare Theater in their productions of Much Ado about Nothing and Taming of the Shrew.

Sam Wooten, a theater director and actor in Chicago has worked with Semmerling, most recently on Chicago Dell'arte's production The Light of Love.

"I've found that contemporary audiences tend to engage with a masked show much faster as they rarely see such shows. [Masks] also present characters that are much easier to identify," he says.

Semmerling studied theater at Northwestern University, but didn't become interested in masks while he was there.

After graduating in 1981, Semmerling eked out a living as performer in a touring Renaissance fair. He began to focus on masks after he traveled to New Orleans for Mardi Gras in 1982 and had an eye-opening moment.

After taking in Mardi Gras, and realized it was essentially a huge street-theater piece featuring masked characters, Semmerling knew what hewanted to do.

He started returning to New Orleans every year, and pieced together an education in leather working, latex molding, and painting.

Semmerling began selling his masks during Mardi Gras, established a name for himself and soon was running a studio in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood.

In 2005 he launched Inside Out Art studio, where he teaches mask-making.

The studio, located near Damen and Montrose, offers mask-making workshops for kids and adults, along with intensive weekend classes.

The studio has a long reach; Semmerling says his weekend students are from over 500 miles away.

"With masks, the audience participates in bringing it to life," Semmerling says, donning an old man's mask with a huge nose, bushy beard, and bushy eyebrows.. "They will see it breathe, they will see the mask's eyebrow rise because the body did."

One of Semmerling's happiest customers in the past was none other than Patch Adams M.D. Semmerling created clown noses and smile masks for the Patch Adams Clowns, and traveled with the clowns to Russia in 2000 on one of the Gesundheit Institute's yearly good will tours.

"We love his noses," says Adams.

Semmerling also works with teachers, showing them how to use mask-making as a learning tool in everything from social studies to algebra. Yes, math masks do exist.

This spring, Semmerling will working at Farragut High School. Art teacher Amanda Nadig says she's looking forward to his time there.

"I like to expose my students to creative career opportunities, and I wanted them to meet and work with a real working artist. The mask project is designed to be a symbolic self portrait, so I hope they will gain a better understanding of who they are."