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'Mask' interpretations

'Mask' exhibit at Blue Line Gallery features work of 29 artists, including Tony Natsoulas
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Artist Tony Natsoulas heaves a handful of fresh clay against a wooden wall. He digs his hands into the clay, kneading and smoothing the edges into an oval, demonstrating techniques he learned in college at UC Davis, where he earned a Master’s of Fine Art in 1985. Natsoulas digs out eye sockets, a mouth and two nostrils. Using a wooden sculpting tool, he smoothes down the chin and forehead, then textures in tufts of hair. “You can see how rapidly he puts these things together,” says friend and fellow artist, Ron Peetz. Natsoulas works out of the garage of his Sacramento house on a recent afternoon. He’s a prolific artist. Every room in his eclectic 1950s ranch-style house boast dozens of his sculptures — a 6-foot-tall statue of the actress from the French movie “Amelie” sits in the living room — and an expansive collection of other artists’ creations. His sculptures have been displayed at public sites, and in private collections, museums and galleries around the world, including the renovated Crocker Art Museum and the Blue Line Gallery in Roseville. He has two pieces in the local gallery’s “Mask Invitational: An Inch to a Foot” exhibit, which opens today and runs through Nov. 13. The ninth-annual group invitational features the work of 29 regional artists, who use mixed media and varying styles to explore different interpretations of masks. The pieces are all between one inch and one foot. Local artists Ray Gonzales, Michelle Mahan and Peetz curated the exhibit. “It is a celebration of all the unique and creative solutions from the imaginations of these artists,” Peetz says. “This theme of mask making has traditions that run centuries old in almost every culture and on every continent, from Native American, Meso America, African, Asia and European … and it is a continuing tradition explored by contemporary artists.” Peetz, who lives in Lincoln, says the exhibit features established and emerging artists, men and women, young and old. Peetz created a shadow piece of a skull scratched on Plexiglas. The retired teacher, who taught art for almost 30 years at El Camino High School, typically starts with an idea, then figures out what to make out of the idea and what materials to use. He’s often inspired by word play and word associations. His friend, Natsoulas, finds inspiration in other places — and he’s turning those muses into a 10-piece series based on people that inspired him, mainly during his high school and college years. One person tops the list: His teacher and renowned figurative ceramic sculptor Robert Arneson, who is credited with taking this style of art “off the knick-knack shelf and (into the realm) of fine art,” as Peetz says. Tributes to Arneson saturate Natsoulas’ house, with several books about the artist lying around, and over the fireplace hangs a lithograph print of a self-portrait by the mentor, who passed away in 1992. “(Arneson) had 40 years of making this really incredible stuff,” Natsoulas says. “It’s all kind of irreverent. He’s making fun of himself and other people.” Humor also expresses itself in Natsoulas’ pieces. He has a whimsical series of ceramic noses sticking out of inexpensive frames. He also makes a “cup of Joe,” a coffee mug with a mini-ceramic head — of Joe — inside, named for an old phrase used in diners to describe coffee. “I thought I’d just be literal about it,” he says. On this recent afternoon, Natsoulas hurries around his studio, demonstrating how he sculpts a face. The wire devices he uses to cut clay blocks litter the floor, camouflaged by dust that covers everything, including his desktop computer that usually belts out jazz, big band music of the 1940s, disco tunes and 1970s rock. He typically listens to music as he works. “I don’t drink coffee because I’m too wired already,” he says. “If I’m low energy, I turn on Lords of Acid. It’s techno with a beat.” Natsoulas will next hollow out the face, fire the item for a few days, glaze the piece and then fire it again. The two pieces displayed at the Blue Line Gallery depict the face of Arneson, one blowing a big pink bubble. The flesh tones shine with beige and hints of blue, yellow and other colors, making the skin look alive and not like a mannequin. “Tony is noted for his flesh tones and getting the colors in the skin,” Peetz says. “He’s really a master at it.” Also in the series, although not at Blue Line, will be a sculpture of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, a cartoonist who created hot-rod icon Rat Fink and a custom carmaker in the 1960s. Natsoulas is also working on a piece about illustrator Basil Wolverton. “They are these wacky, wacky artists,” says Natsoulas, who was born in 1959. “It’s stuff that was put in front of me when I was growing up. In Europe, they were looking at Impressionist paintings. It’s like Japanese Anima nowadays. It’s everywhere.” He’s referring to the Pop Art or Funk Art of the 1960s, which he became aware of as a teenager. “We love working with Tony,” said Blue Line Gallery Curator Beth Rohlfes. “He’s one of our key connections to the Funk Art movement in the Sacramento and Northern California areas. His work is fun and he’s technically amazing.” Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com. ---------- What: “Mask Invitational: An Inch to One Foot” When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Exhibit closes Saturday, Nov. 13 Where: Blue Line Gallery, 405 Vernon Street, Ste. 100 in Roseville Cost: Free admission. Art for sale and donations welcome Info: Visit www.rosevillearts.org ---------- New Blue Line Gallery exhibits: “Transfiguration: An Electronic Audio and Visual Installation” features a piece by Chris Daubert and runs through Jan. 8. Daubert’s “Transfiguration” installation took more than a year to make and includes about 150 miles of wire. The piece features a series of electronic layouts that detect and reflect motion, sound and light. The artist was inspired by ancient temples in northern Mexico. Daubert will give lectures from 7-9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 28, and Nov. 4. Free exhibit admission. Lectures $5 for students, seniors and gallery members, and $15 for others. “Black & White” highlights the individuality of seven Roseville Arts’ member artists, including Jo Ann Aiello, Susan Cawthon, Lisa Deniz, Gayle Rappaport-Weiland, Anna Rolin, Gayle Roger Streff and Eimi Tagore-Erwin. The artists present their interpretation of the black and white theme in varied media and styles. The exhibit runs through Nov. 17. Free exhibit admission and artwork is for sale.