I interviewed Beckie while she was in Los Angeles for the opening of her latest work “Sculpted Arias.” The exhibit was held at the Los Angeles Music Center Opera. Art buff’s and opera lovers were among the crowd viewing her collection of famous opera characters. Get the scoop on Beckie’s fascinating career as a multi-talented artist!
How did you get started as an artist?
Art was something I always did. I took art classes from the time I was a kid. I was involved in children’s theatre workshops, in addition to acting stuff I took puppet-making classes. I was always putting on plays and making costumes. I always had my hands in “craft” stuff.
When did you discover you had a talent for creating faces?
I really found my art niche in high school. I had a great crafts teacher. I am not particularly good at two-dimensional drawing. I was introduced to three-dimensional arts and craft oriented things using multi-media. This included sculpting, ceramics, textiles, and jewelrymaking. I realized this was the fun stuff. When I became a makeup artist and maskmaker I looked back through some old files and discovered I had collected faces from the time I was eleven years old. The focus on the human face goes way back for me. All my doodles were of eyes and faces!
How did you combine your love of theatre and art together?
I was on the art track and theatre track separately. They eventually came together in college. I got my BA in Theatre at Williams College, Williamstown, MA. I went on to Yale Drama School to pursue a Masters in Dramaturgy. During my three-year masters program I realized I did not want to continue studying Dramaturgy. I switched to a one-year internship program in prop making. This program was tailor made for me. I studied scenic painting, woodworking, metalworking, maskmaking, and design.
I realized at the end of that internship that I did not want to be a prop maker. There was a specific thing I loved and that was making masks. Making masks brought together all my focus on faces and sculpting. After my internship, I apprenticed maskmaker Ralph Lee in New York to further my training.
How did you start doing opera makeup?
I took a summer job with the Santa Fe Opera. They needed a maskmaker as luck would have it. This was my first experience with opera. The makeup and wig department was next to the crafts shop. I looked in and saw what they were doing and I had a huge revelation. They’re painting masks on real faces! The world of opera makeup opened up to me.
I went on to train with Judy Disbrow in Santa Fe. She runs Theatrical Hair Goods in San Francisco. I also went on tour with the Western Opera Theatre for six months then came back to LA and worked the crew for LA Opera. All my makeup training has been on the job. Rick Geyer, wigmaster at the LA Opera has been a mentor in this area. In 1990 I came on full time as the first assistant to Rick at the LA Opera. I have been Placido Domingo’s makeup artist for eight years now. I now spend about four months in LA and the rest sculpting in my studio in Arizona.
Who have been your mentors along the way?
Ralph Lee, a maskmaker who I apprenticed with in New York after studying at Yale. Hunter Spence, my props and maskmaking teacher at Yale. Rick Geyer, friend and wigmaster at LA Opera. Julie Taymor was an inspiration more than a mentor. The one show I worked on for her early in my career was working with her assistant. Donato Sartori, a leather maskmaker in Italy. Jonathan Bickart a sculptor in LA and longtime friend. Jonathan taught me just about everything I know about portrait sculpture. Pamela Shaw, LA costume designer with a great eye. Tim Saternow, set designer and Yale colleague with a great eye.
Is there a particular maskmaker who’s work has influenced you and how?
The works of Ralph Lee and Julie Taymor have been major influences. I had the privilege of working with Ralph on “The Wildman Project” at the cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. I learned tons from him about design and technique. I have also benefited enormously from my friendship and collaborations with Bob Beuth. Bob is a multi-talented writer, actor, director, and maskmaker in LA. I have also studied a great deal about masks of other cultures. The styles and techniques of these masks of the world find their way into my work. Inspiration is everywhere! I can look at anything and anthropomorphize it into a puppet or mask.
What type of materials do you use when sculpting?
Chavant ‘Le Beau Touche’ sculpting clay (oil base) and terracotta pottery clay (water base). Armatures of plywood with a pipe flange and 1/2-3/4″ pipe attached.
What are the basic tools needed?
Stainless steel jeweler’s wax sculpting tools, available from jewelry supply stores in downtown LA, and assortment of wooden clay tools available in any art store. An adjustable, rolling sculpting stand with a turntable top is very helpful as well, though not absolutely necessary. I find that an adjustable drafting chair with good lumbar support and comfortable seat makes a huge difference. And a mirror!
Do you continue to train by taking classes or studying other maskmakers to improve your craft?
Always. There is so much to learn in terms of techniques in sculpting and construction. I am lucky to have several friends who are designers and/or sculptors. Much of my continued training is not in formal classes. I also teach workshops and find that I always learn from my students, no matter what age or ability level.
What was your inspiration for “Sculpted Arias?”
My love of doing opera makeup and the music itself was an inspiration. I wanted to study specific opera characters from the inside out. I wanted to create their face, then create the inner self as well. I threw myself into sculpting. I felt everything come together. My ten years as an opera makeup artist, my training as a crafts person and working in clay. I have created this body of work that pulled all those elements together.
How was the recent showing of “Sculpted Arias” received?
The reception was great. People told me that the work really moved them. There did not seem to be just one “favorite” piece, which is a good sign that different pieces spoke to different people. I sold several pieces, which of course is always encouraging!
“Sculpted Arias” included how many works?
Eleven opera characters were on exhibit. My website will be available soon for specifics on each piece. You can see photos of four of the pieces at the end of our interview.
What is the price range of your work?
Limited editions: $1500-$1750
One of a Kind: $3500-$9500, general range $5000
Theatre masks (wearable, various materials, reproducible): $300-$600
How do you determine the value of your pieces?
A common formula for bronze sculptures is to figure the actual cost of producing the piece (mold making costs, foundry work, materials, etc). Triple this cost to include a gallery percentage (50-60%), and a fee to yourself for your time and talent. I used this as a starting point, but this formula applies mostly to limited editions (more than one piece made from the same mold). Many of my pieces are one of a kind and the prices are higher for these.
Are most of your pieces one of a kind or limited editions?
Yes. My Sculpted Aria series consists of a one-of-a-kind sculpture for each character. The back of the same mask is filled with additional paintings or sculptures. Limited editions of 25 are available of just the faces. These limited editions can be wall mounted or mounted on a marble base. My theatrical masks are different. I often make a mold for these, and reproduce the face in unlimited quantities. I hope to use these molds to start a business through my website and brochures. I would also like to provide sets of masks to schools, training programs, or to mask actors.
What is your next project? And where is your next mask exhibit?
I am creating two masks for the Gilgamesh Theatre Company’s “Chomlungma” or “The Mountain”. This is an original work by Stephen Legawiec about climbing Mt. Everest. “Chomlungma” will premiere in LA in May.
I hope to have another gallery show with more opera sculptures in the summer or fall of 1999. I am also working on a body of figurative sculptures. I hope to have that ready to show in late 1999. All three types of work will be on the website soon! I am currently looking for my next venue, either another opera house or a gallery.
What has been the most challenging experience with your maskmaking projects?
It’s hard to pinpoint just one. I had to learn how to make my sculptures “big” enough to read in a house, and how to work with the lights. A well- sculpted mask can change expression if the planes are designed to catch the light. The biggest challenge is adapting the design of a mask to the performer. The performer needs to see, be heard, and be comfortable performing in the mask. In my non-wearable work, the biggest challenge is to create sculptures that speak to and move the viewer.
What advice do you have for an aspiring artist interested in a maskmaking career?
Collect pictures of faces. Keep files. Sculpt a lot from life if you have the opportunity. Go see masks in performance! Find a maskmaker to apprentice with. Get a copy of Thurston James’ “A Propmaker’s Guide to Maskmaking”. Find costume and/or wig designers you like and work with them. Much can be learned from the techniques and design elements of costumes and hair. Work with mask actors; there is much to be learned from watching masks in action. Keep your imagination alive and your mind open. Masks get made out of some pretty strange stuff sometimes. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
Beckie has a website currently under construction, but you can contact her at : firstname.lastname@example.org. We will alert you when more information is available.
Check out a glimpse of Beckie’s “Sculpted Arias” on the next page.