The mask

Michelle Lassaline

PHOTO/Brad Bynum

University of Nevada, Reno BFA artist Michelle Lassaline's thesis exhibition Observations IV: Paintings and Masks is at the Southside Cultural Center, 190 E. Liberty St., March 31 through April 5, with a closing reception from noon to 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 5. For more information, visit

You’re primarily a sculptor?

There are sculptures and paintings. I’m doing both, and both will be in this show. I’ve got a brand new mask. It’s a surprise, and then four others, a goat, a fox, a crow and a cow.

Why masks?

I made this papier-mache fox for fun one summer, three years ago. It’s a papier-mache fox on a balloon, because I remember making puppets on balloons as a kid, and then I thought, how cool would it be if I could wear it? This is probably because I’m really interested in childhood memories, going back to that time. I’m always really sad about not being 4 years old. For the rest of my life, I’ll be sad about not being 4 years old.

What about childhood is so nostalgic for you?

The things that I imagined were the most important and real. And then when we grow up, we have to do computers and fast-paced stuff—what everyone hates, I hate that, too. The relation to my paintings is similar. It’s kind of a subtle connection. … I look at things and think about a hike I took around the Tahoe Rim Trail last summer. I hiked the whole rim trail, and tried to look through that childlike point of view.

Do you classify your paintings as landscapes? What’s the media?

It’s watercolor and gouache on paper. These are landscapes, but I’m trying to take you into the landscape, not be a postcard. So it’s more like a first-person, direct experience. … These are places you can remember—whether it’s from childhood or whenever, it’s a place where a memory happens. They’re my memories, but they could be anyone’s memories, because they don’t have any signifiers of anything too specific.

You mentioned a connection between the landscapes and the masks. Tell me about that.

There are a couple of layers. First of all, they’re all on paper, and the masks are also made of paper. That’s really important to me. Paper is delicate. It’s an essential material where you don’t need a lot of tools; you just need a lot of imagination. But underneath that, there’s a simplicity or a naiveté that I think is connected to childhood. They’re not scientific. I’m not researching, doing adult things in nature, like being an ecologist. I’m just observing direct experience, like walking around as a kid.

And you perform in the masks?

In the past, I performed one-on-one with people, and it worked really well. Then I did a stage show, and when I got onstage, I forgot everything. I forgot my tap dance I’ve been practicing since I was 12. I forgot my story, which was about my dog. And I forgot how to play mandolin. I just got stage fright, even with the mask on. So I’m going back to what was more successful, which is one-on-one interactions with people. For the thesis show, I’ll be performing for six hours a day for five days, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. And every day is a different mask, and each day I’ll be doing something different in the gallery setting in the mask. When you come into the gallery, you can hear a story, get a gift. All you have to do is say “hello.”

Do you adopt different personae for each animal?

Yes. Part of masks in primitive cultures and in what I do, is that it transforms the wearer into something different. It’s not really controllable. You just happen to have that persona. The goat happens to be kind of an awkward, klutzy, charming character that likes to come up to people and kiss their hands. And the fox loves to tell jokes, and she’s a little more sly. They’re all very folkloric animals that have a long history and relationship with humans.