Collection Explore
Interview
Nicole Cherubini and MASKS4PEOPLE
on Experimentation and Community Building

The following conversation was conducted on two occasions: on September 16, 2020, artists Nicole Cherubini and Laleh Khorramian attended Dayton Director Ian Berry’s Art History course “The Artist Interview,” via Zoom; and on August 21, 2020, artists Cherubini, Khorramian, Kristen Dodge, and Becca Van K met with Berry at the Tang. They discussed the mask-making collaboration between MASKS4PEOPLE, the Tang, and Cherubini, in conjunction with her exhibition Shaking the Trees.

This interview was part of a series of interviews with artists for the online exhibition Pandemic and Protest.


Ian Berry
Nicole, how have your feelings about your Tang exhibition, Shaking the Trees, shifted? Your installation was built around people gathering, and then the pandemic hit so we’re not able to interact in the space as planned.

Nicole Cherubini
No, we’re not, and there’s great sadness about that. Working through the mask project helped me understand more about how to spread the work out as opposed to bring people into a space, or maybe how to make a new kind of space. I’ve been a bit confused about how best to put this exhibition out into the world; the masks were a beautiful way to start.

IB
Let’s begin with some background: Nicole, where were you born?

NC
I was born and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts.

IB
Was that where you first experienced art?

NC
My grandmother was a bridal dress designer, so I spent a lot of time in her shop seeing things being designed and made. Also, we lived right in the city and I would spend every Sunday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with my dad and a lot of time at the Museum of Fine Arts.

IB
Who were some artists that made an impression on you at that time?

NC
Agnes Martin was always a favorite. Also, Adrian Piper, whom I had the luck of seeing lecture when I was in high school. She was exhibiting at the Harvard museum and that was very influential.

IB
Ceramics quickly became a focus of your work. How did that merge and mix with those influences?

NC
I never felt there was any value difference between media, or that ceramic sculpture had a different importance than painting or drawing. I grew up in a large Italian-American family and there was a lot of clay around from Italy, a lot of tchotchkes. My grandmother, the bridal dress designer, had a beautiful collection of Italian ceramics. I grew up with a lot of craft, and I never felt that it was necessarily any different than any other type of art. Using clay eventually became a conceptual choice. It held so much of my experience.

IB
Laleh, where were you born?

Laleh Khorramian
I was born in Iran and we immigrated to Orlando, Florida. We ended up there pre-revolution, and there wasn’t a romantic escape story. I was raised in Orlando, where there were few art influences and no other artists in the family. Yet there was always something surreal about Florida that made a big impression on me. I think I was sixteen when I went to my first art museum.

My father was an avid Rumi admirer, so he was into Persian mysticism and Persian poetry, and I was brought up on Sufism, although my parents were from Muslim backgrounds.

When I was fifteen, my father started giving me drawing assignments. First twenty drawings, then it became fifty. I had to draw every day if I wanted to do anything with my friends. It felt like a punishment and an odd one. Eventually, I got into it and no longer needed him to tell me to draw.

IB
What were the assignments?

LK
I did drawings of him in his library with his books, and things that he would set up as still lifes. I would go to the local ballet and draw the dancers practicing. At some point, I started to do my own thing and wanted to be a classical painter.

IB
You later went to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design. What did you make there?

LK
I went there as a painter and I think of myself as a painter and a drawer at heart, but when I got to school, I discovered and fell in love with other mediums. I remember Robert Wilson spoke at RISD and I was floored. Performance and film became strong interests to me, even though I knew that I was definitely not a performer. Similarly, with film, I knew being a director was not a role for me, but I was still struck with the medium and continued studying it, not sure how it would be part of my work.

IB
Your animations reveal process. You can see the drawing and the objects you’re making, very much like a drawing practice.

LK
Yeah. I was never trying to make just a succinct, well-made animation or reveal the whole narrative. Figuring out how to make it usually followed the idea. I think they come from an internal and certain psychological space that’s hard to describe. I think transparency in the process and an emotive impetus seem to go hand in hand.

IB
That’s an interesting way to connect both of your studios. Nicole, you’re always inventing something—coming up with a process or trying out new ways to build and think about balance and weight and construction; the history of ceramics and glazing has that embedded in it. Both of you are inventing in your studios as much as anything. Would you say that’s something that connects you?

NC
For the mask project, we were mostly in our own spaces, but there were a few hours that we spent together working, dyeing, and I felt like we were both in a state of pure exploration. It was amazing.

LK
Yeah, experimentation is something I totally enjoy.

IB
The things you make reveal a certain kind of vulnerability and risk. Could you say a bit about time alone and deciding what you’re going to do next? Choosing to do the thing that you’re not sure is going to work out can be a hard choice. No?

LK
I love that you brought that up. It’s usually a very calming relief when I see an artist revealing their vulnerabilities, especially one whom I admire. To me, being in the studio is the most sacred place. There is a certain confidence, I suppose, when you commit to a decision and believe in that process and where it’s going to take you, and whether it’s going to work or not. There’s usually something to learn from in the failure of a direction. I really don’t know what I’m doing a lot of the time: I’m just making it, and then I read it as I go.

NC
The moment of experimentation is the most exciting. It is way more exciting when something unexpected happens in the studio than when one gets comfortable making a finished piece. Experimentation is joy. The bravery of a risk feels so good.

DSC04507 1.JPG
Masks made by MASKS4PEOPLE and Nicole Cherubini in Nicole Cherubini: Shaking the Trees, Tang Teaching Museum, 2020

IB
How did you start MASKS4PEOPLE?

LK
In all honesty, I needed something to take my mind off everything. Kristen Dodge wanted masks made for her caregivers, and because I work with textiles and have sewing machines, I figured out some patterns and made them. When COVID-19 really hit, it became a no-brainer: we have the resources and the workforce, let’s make them.

Kristen said, “We’ve got to make them for the essential workers, and we’re going to raise money, and we’re going to do this right.” It was because of her that the organizational part was in place. I was the production lead, and she was everything else. We worked together every day. I was working twelve hours a day at the beginning.

IB
This was in March 2020?

LK
Yeah. It seemed like the right thing to do and something I could do to help. I threw my head down and worked. I remember it being a very emotional time, especially reading the emails from nurses and healthcare workers.

IB
This was all happening at a moment when people weren’t wearing masks, but there was already discussion of a mask shortage. People were stockpiling and donating masks to hospitals.

LK
I remember we had trouble getting elastic and other materials; everybody was suddenly starting to make things because you couldn’t buy them. You couldn’t get an N95 mask, you couldn’t even get those wimpy surgical masks that are everywhere now.

IB
September Gallery in Hudson, New York, is an important connector and catalyst in all of this. Kristen, you’ve activated September as a place for much more than showing art for sale, but also for gathering people for all kinds of things from political to performative. The mask project feels like an extension of some of the activism that you cultivate around the gallery.

Kristen Dodge
Yes. We respond to the moment of what’s happening and figure out how to contribute in some way. Part of creating MASKS4PEOPLE was to bring artists together to meet a need. It started out in March based on realizing that there was a real need and we ended up making 8,000 masks for 175 different organizations.

IB
How did you decide to whom you gave them? You always gave them for free?

LK
Yeah, always for free. We were making around 150 masks a day and shipping every single day to hospitals, food pantries, Meals on Wheels, senior centers, Planned Parenthood, the Navajo Nation, etc. We had twenty-four people working with us: eight seamstresses, twelve runners, and then a few people helping as staff. The runners were always driving, to get them out as soon as possible. It was beautiful.

IB
You built a community of mask makers to work with you, including many women artists from the region, right?

LK
The sewers were all artists, and by chance they all happen to be women. Basically, if they had time to sew fifty masks or more per week, they were working with us.

IB
Did they work at your place?

LK
There were about four or five people working at my studio, which is pretty big, so we could space out and sanitize constantly—and then there were four off-site seamstresses. The seamstresses worked hard and were paid, which was great. We took in donations to support it all. We knew exactly how much we could make with how much we had.

IB
Nicole, right now we have your exhibition Shaking the Trees up at the Tang, which had to close because of COVID-19. We had planned a pretty ambitious program of concerts and in-person readings with different people. After the initial shock, we reconnected and talked about what to do next, which is when the idea of the masks came up. Could you talk about your initial ideas?

NC
I appreciated that MASKS4PEOPLE was functioning as a cooperative. Kristen, Laleh, and I started talking about what these masks could be and how they could fit into the idea of conversation. Slowly, it emerged that they could be an aesthetic object that related to the exhibition. It felt good to make something that was needed for both physical and emotional health. A mask can give you some sense of freedom and agency at this moment with the pandemic. It’s an equalizer: every single person is speaking through a piece of fabric. We were thinking it could somehow be a tool or vehicle for change.

Also, a crucial part of this project, and our secret champion, is Becca Van K. Becca has worked with me in my studio on and off for about five years and was a huge part of installing and making this exhibition for the Tang. She wove the chairs and helped install yards of rope in the floor. Becca and Laleh sewed all the masks. In every part of this project, Becca was one step ahead of me: she’s an incredible being.

IB
How are the masks constructed?

LK
We cut them out of tight woven cotton and there is an interface layer that goes between the inner and outer layers. We put the pieces of fabric together so they’re facing each other, and that gets sewn together and then turned right side out. We assemble them with elastic and a nose bridge.

IB
They are all unique because of the process of dyeing and trimming the silkscreen. Who is the screen printer?

LK
His name is Mark Hayden. He owns Upstate Ink: one of a few Black-owned businesses in Catskill, New York.

IB
How many silkscreen patterns are there?

NC
Two patterns and four colors.

LK
And eight quotes.

Becca Van K
There are also five different colors of elastic thread.

NC
And then, probably six thread colors, too.

BVK
We tried to match the threads so that it wouldn’t clash too much and so you could see it as an object.

NC
There are so many ways in which they are unique objects. At first, we had the idea of using a really bright color on the inside of the mask where the quotes are, to make it more graphic, like a political poster. Though Laleh and I realized that that just wasn’t right for the feeling or the ideas, which is why we started using a similar tone for the inside of the mask. This way, it became more of an object versus a front and back, which I think was an important decision.

Tang screen printing 157
Love is Profoundly Political: Screen Printing at the Tang, an event organized by the Tang Student Advisory Council, Tang Teaching Museum, 2020, photo by Cindy Schultz

IB
The quotes started out being about voice, about the mouth?

NC
We all found quotes and brought them together. The first was the Shaker quote.

KD
We went through lots of different options and then voted. I pulled out historic voices that speak about racial injustice and also quotes that spoke to it being on your face, on a mask, about your voice. There’s a correlation between the function of the mask and what’s happening culturally right now.

NC
The words coming out of your mouth mix with the words on the mask, challenging you to consider what you’re thinking and saying. Instead of, “You have to think this,” it’s meant to be, “What am I thinking?”

IB
So, it’s as much a lesson for the wearer as it is for the audience?

NC
Maybe even more so. I really like thinking about them as gifts.

LK
Also, you don’t know what quote you’re going to get. I like that you can’t choose; it’s a bit like a fortune cookie. I think it’s asking people to think about their role, their potential complacency or activism. It’s asking the individual who’s wearing the mask to absorb the meaning of the quote. It’s not on the outside, but on the inside of the mask.

NC
Many of the quotes are about changing perspectives and being aware of the words coming out of your mouth, as a way of making you more responsible for what you’re saying and putting out into the world.

IB
Understanding your voice, the power of that voice, and the responsibility that comes along with that.

NC
Exactly. A huge responsibility.

LK
It’s also about expression, self-expression, whether that’s through art or activism. I know a lot of artist friends who were conflicted as to this being the right time to make art. I think it’s all connected.

Malchijah Hoskins ’22
I love that there’s citation involved in this project and giving credit to the people whose words are printed. I often think about quotes without their proper context, so I wonder how you want viewers or people wearing the masks to engage with this? Do you want them to look at it as a reminder of what their politics, their lived politics, should be, or is this a way for folks to get deeper into radical feminist and pro-Black thought?

I also love the fact that the quotes are on the inside. Activism is very often performative, but I love that this project prompts us to reflect on how we internalize our beliefs: to do the research and learn the lesson at the same time.

LK
Do you think of it as activism, Nicole? How conscious of that are you? It is meant to be thought-provoking.

NC
I always think of activism as part of my process and what I’m making puts those ideas out into the world.

I also want to mention that we didn’t really tell Ian what we were doing with the quotes or what the installation would look or be like and that was okay with him. As artists, Ian gave us the unbelievably wonderful and rare gift of making these in full trust and support. In this way, it is not only our work—not only us—but it’s the Tang supporting all these words.

IB
Nicole, how is the mask project changing how you’re thinking about the exhibition and do you see the masks as an integral part of that?

NC
Now it feels like this is what the exhibition is. All of the conversation that was supposed to happen in this space actually happened and is happening and spreading out into the world in ways that I never understood it could. It’s a huge learning curve as to how to get outside of walls or space. The act of making the masks has opened up pathways and thought processes for me that wouldn’t have been available otherwise.

IB
This will hopefully inform us as the show develops. We made 500 masks. Who are the ideal recipients of this gift?

KD
I think the context of the Tang, as an institution with students, is the first place to think about, but then also to broaden it to the community outside of Skidmore.

NC
Since the public can’t come to the museum, the masks are a way for the museum to come to the public. I love the idea of the museum as a place of social health. We have to figure out how to keep the conversation going in new ways, and museums can be healing places.

IB
How are museums healing?

LK
I’ve always thought of museums as a refuge. I know I can go there to escape, and I feel better when I stand in front of certain works. I love to go to the Met for the solace and comfort—whether it is a garden or a particular artwork, I love the secret relationship you have with it.

IB
Maria, you led our first mask-making program at the Tang. What inspired you to want to teach people how to make masks?

Maria Staack ’22
At the beginning, I felt really helpless and didn’t know what to do with my time. When I was younger, I was into sewing and more recently I had gotten back into it. I’m not that good at it, but I felt empowered by having something to do. I’m from New York City, so everything was crazy at the time. I started sewing masks for my family because, as you were saying, it was really hard to get supplies. I really only had enough material for my family, and I was making masks out of old clothes. It felt really good to help and to do something with my time that wasn’t just sitting inside and feeling bad while much worse was happening to other people.

NC
There is a real loneliness to this moment. We’re all separated from each other. We can’t physically touch each other, and we can only be in the same space at a distance. There’s something about collaboration that our souls need. We need a form of connection that can happen at a time when we can’t be physically close.

Cite this page

Cherubini, Nicole, Laleh Khorramian, Kristen Dodge, and Becca Van K. “Nicole Cherubini and MASKS4PEOPLE on Experimentation and Community Building.” Interview by Ian Berry. Tang Teaching Museum collections website. https://tang.skidmore.edu/collection/explore/263-nicole-cherubini-and-masks4people.

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