An interview with Nate Bertone, creator of the ‘We Wore The Masks’ Project.
You are standing amongst a crowd of thousands of people.
Take a moment.
What do you see?
In front of and all around you is a crowd of people whose faces are covered by neutral expressionless masks. On a daily basis, thousands of people pass us by and wear “masks” that shield who they truly are. Eventually, these masks become covered by layers of protection that ultimately make it difficult to peel them back to reveal the true face beneath. Underneath these masks are the emotions and characteristics of ourselves that we keep deeply rooted inside, underneath the surface, and hidden from society. We Wore The Masks is a photo-journalistic exploration that dares you to remove that mask, and show the world something that you have yet to share. This project asks the question, “If you could choose five words that you feel you keep hidden from the world; either because you are afraid to share them, or because the world does not allow you to; what would those words be and why?” In asking this question, participants have dared to peel back individual layers of their mask to release the thoughts and feelings hidden beneath.
What will it take to discover your inner most thoughts and feelings?
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nate Bertone to learn more about We Wore the Masks and his artistic process.
Q: How did you become an artist?
A: I’ve traveled down a lot of paths on my creative journey. I don’t know if I would call myself an artist or exactly how to describe myself. I throw myself at the world, and there’s no word in the dictionary for that. I’m a set designer, a playwright, a photographer, a storyteller. I listen to the world and respond to what the world is telling me. A lot of the places we visit in our lives are emotional places. And that’s what I’m trying to capture in We Wore The Masks.
Q: What was the genesis of We Wore The Masks, and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
A: The masks came from listening to people while I was a freshman on the Carnegie-Mellon campus. Even though we’re taught—more now than we used to be—to express ourselves and emote, we’re also taught to tell another story, to shut off our emotions and tell people what they want to hear—in effect to hide behind a mask that covers our sense of vulnerability, of imperfection, of shame, of whatever we are too scared to share with the world. I started by photographing two friends, Amanda and Michael, in the design studio. I asked them, would you feel comfortable removing your mask and revealing one of five words that we tend to hide. Then I realized that by projecting a single word onto a person’s skin, without any covering, I could tell—I could allow that person to tell—a story. Sort of like Hemingway’s six-word stories, only these are one word stories where the interplay of image and word reveals the narrative. As the project grew, people would send me texts with the one word they wanted to share. So the goal is to enable people to strip off their masks and tell their individual stories, while helping humanity as a collective become more willing to share our hidden truths.
Q: Did working on We Wore The Masks cause your image of men and understanding of their emotional issues to evolve?
A: Absolutely. With each person who participated, the question arose, why did he or she choose that word? What does it say about that person? And with men, who are trained not to show vulnerability, the project enabled them to open up and share their innermost worries and concerns. Often times, we see it portrayed in media that women are more self-conscious and self-aware of their physical appearances then men. However, it’s often the same with men, and sometimes even worse. A lot of guys who may seem confident, handsome, and fit on the oustide think the world sees them as smaller, uglier, and weaker—both physically and emotionally—than they are. Take the example of the—I think we can agree he’s beautiful—guy who chose the word “Imperfect” to be projected on his chest. Well, his beauty on the outside is the result of cosmetic surgery, and so he thinks he’s not truly beautiful. The whole area of men’s vulnerability is really heartbreaking. Keeping your mask on as a man, or staying in the Man Box as you guys call it at The Good Men Project, is so ingrained in the culture of masculinity in America. Most men are guarded, and the idea that men are totally in touch with what’s going inside, with their emotions, is striking, because it really shatters the stereotype. So often we listen to what a man is saying without really seeing him. We imagine his inside matches his exterior, and sometimes we’re spot on, but sometimes we’re shocked by how different his inner reality is from what we expected.
Q: Where do you see yourself going after We Wore The Masks?
A: I guess I’ve become what you’d call a story artist, a professional listener who facilitates people telling their truths through the act of being heard. I believe we could solve so many of the world’s problems if we could just look inside and understand the roots of our internal monologues, the conversations we’re having with ourselves. And I believe that listening to the world—instead of telling the world what to do—is the key to bringing on meaningful change. What I do isn’t exactly activism, but it’s not passive either. I’m creating a platform where people can present and edit themselves, where they can change the world’s perception of themselves and eventually the world’s perception of itself. I know that sounds lofty, but removing our masks and showing the world what’s inside is, I believe, the only way to get people not only to think differently but also to act differently, and to act in ways that make a positive difference.
Below is Nate Bertone’s statement about his artistic process.
In a digital age where we are constantly stimulated from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, theatre and art have the potential to alter how we receive information at any given moment. In the age of iPhones, tablets, Apple watches, and digital billboards, we are constantly in a digital media overload. Understanding the ever-evolving ways in which media is presented allows for infinite opportunities to explore how and when we receive a performance. Whether on a stage or in a public setting, art should not transport us into someone else’s world simply to get away from the issues surrounding us, but rather, to let us discover alternate ways of facing our own reality. Art is therapy. Art is also what we experience around us. The conversation between a mother and a daughter on the bus, the awkward couple on a first date at the table nearby, or a first encounter with a stranger—art is everywhere. This, for me, is because of the idea that each and every one of us wears a mask on a daily basis; a mask which can alter the way in which we are presented to the world. For that reason, when creating and directing We Wore The Masks, I simply allow myself to stand back and ask YOU what your story is. My process in this moment is simply to listen and capture your story. I believe LISTENING can alter the here and now.
We Work the Masks will be showing at FUTURE TENANT Gallery in Pittsburgh, PA, on the following dates:
Gallery Crawl: Friday March 18th, 2016 – 6pm-10pm
Official Shows: Friday March 25th, 2016 – 7:00 pm -10:00 pm
Saturday March 26th, 2016 – 12:00 pm – 10:00 pm
Photos courtesy of Nate Bertone