Mask tales

There’s a moment, during the Childsplay production of a play titled “The Sun Serpent,” when the audience gasps as the stunning set grows even more exquisite. It’s the moment when rows of masks created by the Valley’s own Zarco Guerrero are revealed — glowing with light as the stage grows dark.

Guerrero’s masks, which he sometimes creates “early in the morning or late at night” in his home studio, are featured throughout “The Sun Serpent.” Guerrero says he spends about 10-12 hours a day in the studio, but he’s also a performance artist who shares stories and more several times a week in school, conference or festival settings.

I first experienced Guerrero’s work while attending the Arizona Humanities Festival, where he and wife Carmen shared Day of the Dead lore through song, masks and readings from a book Guerrero authored titled “We Decorate the Dead.” Their work is ripe with rhythm and rich language.

“I grew up around a lot of creativity and love of art,” shares Guerrero. His father was a portrait artist, his mother a dressmaker. “I read lots of books about art from my father’s library and started drawing early in life.” But his “real love” is sculpture.

Zarco Guerrero poses with a sea of masks

“I never made a conscious decision to make masks,” says Guerrero, “because I was trained as a portrait painter and sculptor.” It was other mask makers in Mexico and “theater people” who first encouraged him to do mask work. “After fifty years,” Guerrero muses, “you could say it’s become an obsession.”

Guerrero notes that “masks have played a vital role in many cultures throughout the world” — adding that they’ve been used “to hunt, to heal and to maintain certain social orders.” Masks are powerful, reflects Guerrero, because “they allow the person wearing them to transform into someone or something else.”

“The Sun Serpent” has dominated Guerrero’s creative life since May. He was invited to participate in the production by Daniel Valdez, a friend who serves as the play’s composer. They’ve “worked and collaborated together” before — most recently on the Stanford University production of “Ollin.”

But Geurrero also counts acting among his list of credits, noting that he was the lead some two decades ago in a Childsplay production titled “La Mascarada de la Vida” which was performed both locally and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Both Zarco and Carmen Guerrero sat front and center for Friday night’s VIP performance of “The Sun Serpent” at the Tempe Center for the Arts — close enough to the stage to feel the wisp of a beautiful blue scarf used during the play to portray running water. When Childsplay recognized the many artists and partners who’ve worked together for two years to bring “The Sun Serpent” to the stage, his work was loudly applauded.

The three person cast of “The Sun Serpent” — who play a total of 30 roles made possible by variations in masks, movement and multi-media elements — stayed after Friday evening’s performance (their third of the day), to answer questions about the production. One audience member asked about the making of the masks.

Turns out they’re made from plaster bandages and paper clay. The masks are formed to the actors’ faces early on, then handcrafted and embellished by Guerrero. “I call the masks ‘invisible masks’ because they are meant to disppear on the face,” he explains. A grandmother mask the audience sees as the play opens is just one of 60 created for the show.

But it was a mask depicting a powerful god that most impressed a first-grade boy I spoke with after the show. Something tells me he’s destined for some amazing art adventures of his own. As we spoke, he drew me close to an art installation featuring amber-colored insets, showing me his favorite cylinder. It contains the tiny replica of an animal — something I had yet to discover despite all my time admiring the work.

“The Sun Serpent” is recommended for ages eight and up. If your child or teen sees only one live theater production this season, make this the one. It’s operatic in scope and scale, features bold and brilliant artistry, and combines the best of simple yet sophisticated storytelling.

After the show, you’ll be able to enjoy several art- and literature-related activities offered by Childsplay in the Tempe Center for the Arts lobby — then run right home for some creativity time of your own. Guerrero recommends that “kids draw and color everything they can.” And his work serves as the perfect inspiration.

— Lynn

Note: Guerrero shares that plaster bandage, available at most art stores, is easy and safe to use. For more art inspiration, visit his website at zarkmask.com. Click here to read about a current exhibition of  Guerrero’s work in Colorado.

Coming up: More musings on “The Sun Serpent,” Dia de los Muertos — library style

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