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“I find sometimes it’s easy to be myself
sometimes I find it’s better to be somebody else”
lyrics from So Much To Say by Dave Matthews
Guest blog by Suzanne Révy
It’s the beginning of a new year, a time to reflect on the past and, for many of us, to think about turning over a new leaf and trying on a new persona. Sometimes, those personas are created with psychological masks; they can protect us from the things we fear or free us from the humdrum of the day to day. Two books involving physical masks caught my attention recently, “Horace and Agnes” by Asia Kepka & Lynn Dowling and “Charth Vader” by Ashly Stohl. Reflecting on a new year, it seemed a perfect moment to write about them here.
Horace and Agnes Groomsby enjoy a domestic, quiet, if a bit eccentric, mid-century modern life. Horace is a horse, of course, and Agnes is his squirrel. Well… sort of. Using animal masks, the Groomsbys are the fictional characters that sprang from the imagination of photographer and set-designer Asia Kepka along with her partner, writer Lynn Dowling. Their recently published book, Horace and Agnes (Blue Rider Press, 2016) is a delightful series of images and written vignettes detailing the many blissful adventures of the Groomsbys, who first met on a train twenty years ago. Their many outings include afternoon picnics, traveling through the West or lounging around the house. They even explore those melancholic evenings when Horace and Agnes must spend time apart. These short vignettes and images have a sensibility similar to the tales of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, and Jemima Puddleduck by Beatrix Potter. In fact, Horace and Agnes will likely appeal to many parents looking for something out of the ordinary to read to their kids.
Like Potter, Kepka and Dowling have created portraits of a menagerie of eccentric friends and neighbors who drop in on the Groomsbys from time to time to share a meal or gossip. It is in the quirky, charming details of these portraits and conversations – superbly conjured by Dowling’s inventive prose, the characters’ ardent gestures, and Kepka’s meticulous period costuming and set design – that a philosophy of kindness and respect are cunningly imparted.
A favorite of mine has got to be the wonderfully named Irene Klench (Dowling has a real talent for fictional names!). A hawk who takes it upon herself to be the neighborhood watch from the turquoise interior of her vintage car, Klench alternately grips the steering wheel and assiduously scribbles in her little black book which neighbors are in violation of lawn watering rules. Where Kepka found that car, I don’t know, but it’s from a period when cars were designed like sculpture, and it gives Klench’s character the visual perch from which her imperious eyes and beak can keep tabs on all the locals!
The Horace and Agnes sets are packed with descriptive details, from striped and flowered wallpapers to vintage lamps, rotary telephones and vinyl records. Most amusing of all has to be their threads: day dresses, pillbox and fedora hats, boots and jodhpurs, lounge suits, plaid pants, and flowery swim caps! Kepka and Dowling’s fantasy using animal masks and mid-century modern design create the backdrop for an appealing love story steeped in domestic charm. I’ll confess… I covet an invitation to a Groomsby soiree!
Equally appealing, but with a very different emotional resonance, is Ashley Stohl’s Charth Vader (Peanut Press, 2015). Another exploration with masks, this one features one young boy and one mask. Stohl’s youngest son, Charlie, is obsessed with the evil Sith Lord named Darth Vader from the popular Star Wars movies. He wears his “Charlie plus Darth” or “Charth” Vader mask seemingly everywhere he goes in the pictures of this intimate book.
Stohl presents black and white images that recall the work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who famously employed grotesque masks in his Family Album of Lucybelle Crater series. However, it’s his pictures that are known as the Romances that strike a familiarity with several Charth Vader images. One of Stohl’s pictures, for example, shows two figures in front of a house, Charth to the right of the frame and a jumping figure wearing a Minecraft blockhead mask in the center, which is similar to several dream-like Meatyard compositions which include two boys next to or in a house.
Another somewhat surreal moment depicts Charth standing in a garage next to a pair of empty utility coveralls. The coveralls take on the persona of a menacing demon next to the small lad protected only by a mask. In some images, Charth is well camouflaged and difficult to see, while several use light, form and tone to isolate the boy. It heightens a sense of tension between the mighty visage of the mask and the slight build of his body with touching symbolism.
Leafing through the book, the vulnerability of a small child, defending himself against the world with only a mask is both poignant and humorous, but something else is at play here, too: the careful reader intuits the relationship shared between a mother and her child. I expect making these pictures was a collaborative effort, and the trust between the two is clear whether running errands at the grocery store, by a motel pool, walking the dog or getting a haircut. We learn at the end that Charlie is visually impaired with a condition called Ocular Albinism. Stohl notes that there are disadvantages to this condition, but that it also allows her son to see the world in a totally unique way. He feels the Force as he persists in wearing the mask, and that persistence, she hopes, will make him fight for good and not evil as he grows up.
Suzanne Révy is a Boston-based fine art photographer whose work is represented by Panopticon Gallery. She writes the blog, A Grain of Sand. To learn more about Suzanne’s work, go to: http://www.suzannerevy.com/ OR http://www.panopticongallery.com/artist/suzanne_revy/#Suzanne_Revy_40.jpg
Horace and Agnes
by Asia Kepka and Lynn Dowling
published by Blue Rider Press, 2016
by Ashley Stohl
published by Peanut Press, 2015
Feature Image: “Untitled” © Ashly Stohl, from the book Charth Vader (courtesy of the artist).