‘When I put on my mask, I fall in love.’
by Elissa Blake
It’s not every day a work of art is made on top of your head.
I’m sitting on a couch in Studio A in Hornsby and Thom Roberts is standing behind me carefully inspecting the crown of my head. Satisfied, he places a piece of tracing paper over my hair. I feel the tip of a gold felt pen making soft flicks on the paper. After a few minutes, he takes the paper away and sits on the floor to work. Watching closely, fellow artist Skye Saxon observes: “It’s a piranha!” Roberts holds up the picture. “Fish,” he says. He has transformed the gold pen strokes into scales, adding blue fins, a mouth and an eye. This is Crown Art and Roberts is very likely its only exponent.
Saxon is a unique artist, too. She makes drawings and writes stories based on mystical creatures, dreams, memories and past lives. Also present at Studio A, a space for artists living with intellectual disability, is Meagan Pelham, an illustrator, painter and storyteller with a special interest in owls, wedding dresses and love poems. “I’ve always loved owls, they are my favourite,” Pelham says, showing me a delicate drawing of two owls leaning in towards each other. “These owls are in love.”
Roberts, Saxon and Pelham are working on birdfoxmonster, a collaboration years in the making between Studio A and Erth Visual and Physical Inc., supported by Carriageworks. Together, they have come up with a magical idea, an intimate dining experience in which the audience will encounter and interact with three mysterious characters. Roberts is a “monster”. Saxon is a fox. Pelham is a bird (one of her precious owls). It will be the first time the three have explored live performance.
The idea grew out of a wild night of dancing and dreaming by torchlight at Bundanon Artist Residency, an idyll Roberts calls Bird Town.
“We did a lot of work at night,” explains Gabrielle Mordy, artistic director of Studio A.
“We don’t normally work at night but it shattered the schedule and put people outside their comfort zone. In night time hours, new things started to appear and key elements shone through. We realised they each had an innate ability to embody these characters.”
All the performers wear masks in birdfoxmonster, as do those serving the food. The audience, participants rather than voyeurs, are invited to respond to non-verbal instructions from the performers while enjoying a selection of dishes based on the three artists’ favourite foods. Guests will eat from hand-painted crockery while images are projected onto the dining table. In one showstopping sequence, Meagan will dance to Jason Derulo’s hit Marry Me before rapping her own love poems, death metal style. “I am screaming my head off!” she says. Scott Wright, artistic director of Erth Visual and Physical Inc., describes birdfoxmonster as a “curated sensory experience. It features each of the artists, both in their visual work and in their performance work through touch, sound, smell and taste,” Wright says. “You are immersed in their alter egos and how they relate to each other.”
Wright says the team was overwhelmed by the response from their first audience at a small work-in-progress showing at Carriageworks. “People were really touched and moved by it,” he says. “Part of it comes with the anonymity of the masks, the audiences don’t know the artist and they don’t pass judgment on them. It comes as a bit of a surprise at the end when they take their masks off and take their bows.”
Roberts shows me his “monster” mask. “I call this the Budgie Monster,” he says, holding a big square box made from foam, fabric and painted yellow and black. Each side features a face made of circles and rectangles and a painted mouth. One mouth looks like a soft cloud. “These are faces on the Millennium train,” Roberts explains. “It goes through the Bert and Ernie station… that’s Denistone station.” Roberts loves trains, planes, cranes and towers.
Meagan’s owl mask is made of white felt, lace and white wedding beads. “When I put the mask on, I fall in love,” she smiles.
Skye has created a number of fox masks. She shows me two masks made with soft fake fur, sequins, fishing line and buttons. “I like foxes because they are clever and soft,” she says. “I don’t like it when people put foxes down.”
The show includes music by composer and sound artist James Brown and projections from digital artist Elias Nohra. Additional support comes from Mordy and artist Emma Johnston. “There is something about the darkness in birdfoxmonster,” says Johnston. “It’s something we notice working in disability, people think all the work has to be sweet and nice and cute. It doesn’t have to be. This has a darkness that might be confronting or very surprising for some people.” Saxon smiles. She loves the darkness. She once flew through the Carriageworks foyer wearing a pair of black wings, taking an audience with her on her spontaneous flight.
“It was spine tingling,” Mordy recalls. “That was the moment we knew Skye had this amazing capacity for performance.”
Saxon has a favourite mythical character called Midnight. It sleeps beside her bed at night. Midnight is a creature with vampire fangs, claws and “really fluffy feet”. “He can fly too,” she adds. “I’m looking forward to the show. I think it will be kick-ass awesome!”