Cornish student's masks part of Opera's New Visions exhibit

Apart from occasionally fooling around with Play-Doh as a child, sculpture was not part of Matt Holmes' artistic repertoire. Yet just a couple of years of sculpting experience has landed Holmes' hand-fashioned masks a spot on the walls of Marion Oliver McCaw Hall.

Holmes, who lives on First Hill and is studying for his bachelor's degree in fine arts at Cornish College of the Arts, is featured in the August exhibition of Seattle Opera's New Visions art show. His work will be on view during Seattle Opera's upcoming production of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," from Saturday, Aug. 4, through Aug. 25.

New Visions, currently under the direction of Seattle Opera staffer Sirke Salminen, was formed in the summer of 2006 to exhibit the work of Seattle Opera's artistically talented staff members during the run of each of the company's operas. To garner an exhibition, artists are evaluated and selected by a three-member committee composed of Stefano Catalani, curator of the Bellevue Arts Museum; Judy Whetzel, Seattle Opera Board member; and Speight Jenkins, Seattle Opera's general director.

Holmes was eligible for New Visions as a work-study member of Seattle Opera's Public Relations Department. Among his assignments for the company are serving as the second cameraman for Seattle Opera videotaping and working with photos and video for publication in print and online.

Serendipity had a significant hand in Holmes' foray into sculpture. In fact, the Vancouver, Wash., native was focusing on video and painting when he enrolled at Cornish, which has locations on Capitol Hill and in downtown Seattle.

It was during a required dip into various artistic media in his freshman year that Holmes discovered, much to his amazement, an affinity for sculpture. Holmes was so taken with the three-dimensional medium he selected sculpture as one of three artistic areas on which he would concentrate during his sophomore year.

Two of Holmes' interests converged to move his sculptural efforts into mask making. Holmes loves movies and was fascinated with how makeup and masks are employed in films. "I was also really interested in what masks can represent, the way different cultures use them."

The deeply carved features of Holmes' white plaster masks are reminiscent of the stylized masks of the commedia dell'arte, Kaabuki theater and African genres, but with a more lifelike feel.

"I wanted a more naturalistic look, so I used shape as opposed to color to get the strong lines and exaggeration," he said.

To enhance the exaggeration, Holmes is using special lighting suggested by the shadowy look of film noir: "I wanted a certain dramatic effect, and about half of it is created by shadows."

While each mask portrays a specific emotion, there is something subtly amusing in even the most serious-looking Holmes creation. Which is not surprising, given the influence on Holmes by Al Hirschfeld, the American caricaturist renowned for his skill in sketching humorous black-and-white drawings of celebrities using just a few well-chosen lines. Although unlike Hirschfeld's drawings Holmes' masks do not represent particular people, the sculptor relies on a similar technique for comedic impact.

"Part of the humor comes from pushing these faces into exaggeration," Holmes said. "There is no way your face can be that exaggerated."

Holmes says he doesn't like his work to be too serious:

"My goal isn't to depress people. And having a really happy face next to a really grumpy face is an opportunity for a more comic effect."

Seattle Opera's "The Flying Dutchman" plays at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Saturday, Aug. 4-Saturday, Aug. 25. Prices: $25-162. Tickets/information: 389-7676,

Freelance writer Maggie Larrick lives in the Seattle area and is a former editor at Pacific Publishing Inc. Reach her at

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