It’s mid April of 2014 and I am busy with my little studio café and the chores of spring in a rural environment. As the weather improves, so does attendance at the café and I am also finding myself increasingly outdoors to attend to my flower beds and vegetable gardens in anticipation of this year’s plantings. My studio has not yet evolved into a Gallery and the café offerings are still quite minimal – a decent selection of tea and a daily coffee. Cookies have not yet arrived but I am in the process of “testing the wares” of local foodie/baker Astrid to choose a small selection of goodies for locals to nibble on with their teas and coffees – ostensibly while I would be working on creative projects.

As I was discovering, the dream of running a little self-serve Café Gallery while I worked – undisturbed – on my art and writing projects was not reflected in reality. Even in the slower early days of this new project, my gregarious nature and the islanders willingness to sit and chat meant that much creative time was spent in conversation. Despite this, chores were still being done, projects were initiated and completed, and masks were being made, albeit on much more chill, “island time”.

The Oppenheimer Mask would be my first attempt at creating an image of a recognizable historical figure. Because of this, it makes the explanation of “Why Oppenheimer?” a little more complex. Robert Oppenheimer was considered – by some – to be the father of the atomic bomb for his role in the Manhattan Project , the WW2 undertaking to develop the first nuclear weapons used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite the singular significance of his contribution to the origins and development of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Oppenheimer was ultimately conflicted about proliferation, the advent of more powerful weapons and their politicization. He has also been seen as “symbolizing the dilemmas involving the moral responsibility of the scientist in the nuclear world.” When I first saw Oppenheimer in the attached grainy black and white TV interview, I was struck by the obvious struggle taking place within him as he brushes away tears and quotes from the Bhagavad Gita…”Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”…it is 1965, a full 20 years after the explosion of the first nuclear weapon at Alamogordo New Mexico where Oppenheimer worked.

The world is – at this time – immersed in the Cold War and a nuclear arms race whose gift to us is of Mutually Assured Destruction. Oppenheimer’s pain is palpable as he reveals his emotional state to us in this interview. The burden of realization…of a deep glimpse into uncertain futures, and his contribution to this morass is etched in his face.

From a purely artistic point of view – I also found his face interesting and wanted to tackle it’s creation as my next project. As is usually the case, this starts with a sketch:

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It is April 25, 2014 – I cleared a space in my studio, assembled my clay and utensils and began to construct Mask # 6 – it is also my 2-year sobriety anniversary – so much has changed, for which I am so grateful.

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It normally takes me the better part of a weekend to create a mask. As Oppenheimer was more detailed and complex than some of my previous images this extended to 3 or 4 days. This does not include the week (or so) of drying/curing, the subsequent firing, and eventual glazing or painting.

This would be the first time that I would use Fallow Deer antlers on a mask. Mayne Island has a bothersome surplus of Fallow Deer. They are an invasive species which are damaging the local ecosystem (and, of course, gorging on islanders petunias) – and are consequently fair game for local hunters. The Fallow Rack is a more dramatic antler display than the indigenous Black-Tail Deer and resembles Reindeer antlers – which are also related to Elk. Here is the finished mask:

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Postscript: The story, dear reader, does not end there. I am happy to tell you that I was the proud recipient of a Blue Ribbon award at the 2014 Mayne Island Fall Fair – a not-to-be-missed event if you ever happen to be on Mayne Island in the Middle of August 🙂

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