The Semmerling and Schaefer Mask Artists Studio, located on 4041 N. Milwaukee Avenue, is ironically a studio devoted to the sale and construction of beautiful, attention-drawing masks, that also happens to be tucked away in a discrete location. Right across from the old Portage Park theater, visitors need to head up two floors and past the National Veterans Art Museum in order to access it.
The main art studio space is half storefront and half workshop, split down the middle. To the right are tables, racks, and glass booths containing leather, paper, and neoprene rubber masks right out of the Venetian masquerades and pagan festivities of folklore; many of these masks are curved, sinuous, and organic looking, caricatures of both animal and human faces. To the left are work tables and shelves, cluttered with tools and supplies. High up on these shelves are works in progress, such as a two-sided mask of the Greek god Dionysus, or two paper mache half-statue puppets that students from different high schools are working on.
The masks themselves are beautiful and eerie creations, close enough to real life creatures that their exaggerated buck teeth, cheek bones, horns, and noses give them a devilish air. This 'uncanny valley' is an aesthetic that studio co-founder Jeff Semmerling tries to invoke in the masks he's created. When people wear masks, in his own words, “Time and Space get mixed up”; whether at a masquerade or a Mardi Gras celebrations, the wearing of these masks elevates the ordinary into the fantastic, the usual into the unusual.
Jeff Semmerling, along with his partner Sonja Schaefer, specialize in leather mask making, and host various kinds of workshops at the Mask Artists Studio. The 8 week long classes on Wednesday and Monday nights teach basic to advanced mask masking techniques: students learn to sculpt mask features, decorate them, and make casts of their own faces with plaster to create perfect fitting masks.
Semmerling and Schaefer also offer one day family classes on the weekends, where kids and their parents can work together to make leather masks for either masquerades or superhero activities. On the 29th and 30th of March, their “Shaping Leather Masks” courses will teach attendees how to make two to three sophisticated leather masks and provide them with materials and tools to create more masks on their own time.
Whether to attend a masked ball in style, or just so you can maintain a secret identity while fighting evil, Semmerling and Schaefer's Mask Artists Studio is the place to go to learn how to conceal your identity, or perhaps reveal your true self.