The art of Mardi Gras mask-making

February 24, 2009 9:48:11 AM PST
Fanciful, elaborate masks are important components of Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans and Carnivale in South America. Many masks become treasured heirlooms. But tragically, since Hurricane Katrina, much of New Orleans' original mask art has been lost, and many mask makers are no longer working. But Chicago mask artist, historian and teacher Jeff Semmerling is reviving the almost-lost art. One of perhaps a dozen experts in the art of mask making, Semmerling is an internationally-renowned artist, international presenter and historian of masks and their relation to world cultures. In 1981, after graduating from Northwestern University Theater School (where he was a classmate of Marg Helgenberger and Julia Louis- Dreyfus), he traveled to New Orleans where he discovered his art. Now, Semmerling sells his spectacular works and teaches mask making courses to adults, children and other artists at his Ravenswood studio.

Each mask requires 12-14 steps from beginning to end. Summerland's designs either partially cover or fully cover the face with the finest pieces custom molded from leather. Semmerling creates animals, birds, bugs, monsters, supernatural beings and glamorous, "blinged"-out designs. Top-of-the-line masks are elaborately embellished with feathers, jewels and custom beading. By request, Jeff designs couture masks for the most elegant galas, costumes and fashion shows. Prices range from $25 for his signature "Smile" mask to $200 or much more for a feathered, leather creation. Commissioned theater and couture pieces can run much higher.

Masks tell stories and often play significant roles in cultural celebrations and festivals, Semmerling explains. Of course, here in America, consumers spend hundreds of millions of dollars on Halloween celebrations. Also, of enormous importance to Chicagoland's community of nearly 2 million Mexicans, is the traditional "Dia de los Muertes" (Day of the Dead) celebration on November 1. Hopi and other Native American Indian tribes, South Americans (Carnivale in Brazil) and eastern Europeans (Lent), are just a few of the many cultures in which masks play historic roles.

Semmerling has produced pieces for a variety of users ranging from theater to corporate to pop culture including:

- Disney/MGM Studios Theme Park
- The Goodman Theater, since 1988
- Joel Hall Dance Studios
- Amadeus at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater
- Equus at the Actors Theater Workshop (the horse head, of course)
- The Arizona and Houston Ballets
- Dr. Patch Adams wears them regularly (the real Patch. Not Robin Williams)

You may have seen some of his work, but sometimes it goes uncredited. His "Smile" mask was worn on "Americas Next Top Model," a huge-pop culture hit hosted by Tyra Banks and viewed by millions around the world.

To teach urban kids about themselves through art, Jeff often visits and lectures at schools and park districts. This year, his teaching program was funded by a grant from the Oppenheimer Family Foundation. He also teaches mask-making classes to students in his studio as well as in their classrooms. Students can complete an elaborate paper mask in one-hour. More info and photos of Jeff's presentation to students at Farragut Academy can be viewed at:

Jeff's wife teaches art to special needs students. They have a 6-year-old son.

For more information, visit You may contact Jeff Semmerling at or 773/697-5012. To see photos of his masks, visit