Behind the masks

Artist Lucien Shapiro talks meditation, identity and rom-coms

Lucien Shapiro transforms forgotten objects into things of beauty.

Lucien Shapiro transforms forgotten objects into things of beauty.

Photos courtesy of Shaun Roberts

Lucien Shapiro’s Half Full runs through March 17. Public Land, 2598 21st St. For more info, visit

If you think Public Land is a store where you can purchase succulents, you’d be right. But if you think that Public Land is a place with dedicated space for monthly art exhibits, you’d also be right.

Currently on display, Half Full features a range of career-spanning works by California artist, Lucien Shapiro. A working artist for 20 years who’s exhibited around the world, Shapiro gathers materials such as bottle caps, broken glass and caution tape and repurposes them into new creations.

Among those at Public Land: Woven tapestries, ancient-looking vessels and studded crystals, called “protection objects.” He also puts on intense performances, in which he dons masks of his own creation and guides people toward introspection and spiritual healing. You won’t find any of his masks at Public Land, but if you whisper “Whitesnake” to one of the owners, you just might be able to summon Shapiro back to Sacramento for a special performance. SN&R talked to Shapiro about his work, the ideas behind them, plus rom-coms for some reason.

You have a lot of different moving parts, tiny pieces that are all very intricately constructed. Has there ever been a moment where something with one of your pieces has just gone horribly, horribly wrong?

I try to focus on the impermanence of everything. If something “goes wrong,” it could just be the universe readjusting to alter a better direction for the work to go. Everything happens precisely the way it must, and because of that I must remain open and not discouraged. My process is a meditative repetition of actions to complete a whole. I do everything myself. I don’t have any assistants, so all the bottle caps are punched, drilled, and everything is collected and made by myself. I never have a concrete plan on what the finished result will be. Maybe I have an idea in my mind, a flash of the finished piece, but the process of making work is to solve a problem, throughout my process of building it. Once the work is complete, I realize what the purpose was for the creation of the piece. I am channeling the work, I am a conduit in which the work flows through.

Part of Shapiro’s work involves the creation and wearing of masks.

How does the concept of time relate to your work?

Time tends to be an illusion, and because my work can take hundreds of laborious hours, I move through the motions of creation, building something and sticking to it and seeing it through all its forms. This is a very similar idea with meditation. You’re not usually doing something. You’re supposed to be just sitting, concentrating on nothing. So this is sitting, concentrating on something, but so repetitively that it just becomes nothing.

Is it kind of like being in the moment, staying present with something, versus thinking about the past or the future?

Yeah, exactly. The funny thing is, I’ve had interns before, and I’ve had people try to help me with my practice, and they don’t last. It just drives people crazy. To me, it makes me feel at peace. So it’s kinda like, I chose to do this because I like what it does to me.

What’s the purpose of a protection [object]? The people who buy them from you, do you know what they might be protecting themselves from?

These protection objects are meant to adorn your home and help you in protecting and empowering yourself. But they’re never made with the intention to harm another. The underlying message behind my work is “love thyself” and compassion. These protection objects create a reminder that you are safe in your own space, and they protect yourself from the pains and traumas that come with living life.

Shapiro finds the repetitive act of creating intricate vessels to be a peaceful form of meditation.

Gotcha, gotcha.

Usually people have a strong connection to certain protection objects because of the minerals and stones used. They are a reminder to never judge a book by its cover.

They’re kind of intimidating—just all the studs on the bats and stuff. Like, if I saw someone with that, I would not wanna mess with them, probably.

That’s a great point, in what we are taught to fear and what is the underlying truth behind the purpose of each specific object. I make objects of protection for personal empowerment, not to scare another human.

What do your masks say about identity, and concealing or revealing of the self?

The idea of the masks—which, the very first ones were bottle cap masks and then dime baggy masks … all of the elevations of different types of work usually gets inspired by some kind of relationship ending. Like a love relationship ending. … I was with someone for a particular period of time, and then I saw that they could be someone else. You know, we all wear masks, we all are hiding from ourselves or from people or from whatever, we all have those kinds of social masks. … They were portraits of the person that had deceived me. But if you looked close at the very first masks, they were all actually my face, and then I sculpted on top of it. So it all started with me.

Protection objects are made with the intention of protecting yourself from pain and trauma.

You’ve been quoted saying that you sometimes tear up during rom-coms.

Where’d you find that?

Hang on, let me look it up. Empty Kingdom, maybe? No.

Empty Kingdom!

No, sorry. Rogue Habits. Rogue Habits.

Rogue Habits. Yeah, that’s true.

You said, “Sometimes I tear up at rom-coms, but shhh … don’t tell anyone.” But now everyone knows, so I’m curious, what are your favorite rom-coms?

Pretty down with most. Anything to keep my mind off of the millions of thoughts rapidly shooting through my mind on a daily basis. I’m a hopeless romantic. Finally found someone to shower the romance with.

Did you have a performance at Public Land when your show opened?

No, it never happened, but if 12 people go into Public Land and say “Whitesnake” to whoever’s working while they are purchasing a beautiful plant or other wonderfully curated item, then I’ll try to put one together before [the exhibit] comes down in mid-March.