Fantasy Art of Roger Wheeler by Jonnie Gilman

This article originally appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of Instant Planet.

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Roger Wheeler is a self taught working artist and lifelong resident of Seattle's Fremont district. He is also one of the founding members of the Fremont Arts Council, the group responsible for putting together the internationally famous Fremont Summer Solstice Parade. Primarily a painter, it was his work with the parade that got Roger interested in making masks. Searching for a cost effective way to create more drama in three dimensions, he started playing with using papier mache. He found it the perfect medium for the parade, allowing a great degree of expression, and at the same time light enough to be worn or carried.

In his eight years of mask making, Roger has developed techniques for making papier mache look like almost anything. He has cast objects such as horns, antlers, and shells using papier mache and affixed those to mask.s He can create textures that look like carved stone. Sometimes his masks resemble wearable frescos.

Inspired by monster movies, mythology, and legends, Roger's masks occasionally disturb. "A lot of people think my work looks dark, but to me it looks like cartoons. Some see death in it and I suppose I might want to scare people a little bit. I've always loved monster movies. I think people have an inherent fear of masks because they can't see the real person underneath."

Masks tell stories. The cover image on this Instant Planet is one about Coyote. As Roger tells the story: "Coyote met a warrior on his way into battle. Coyote told him, 'Hello Warrior; I am a great warrior myself. I should like to join you. If we team up, we'll be unstoppable.' However, the warrior knew that it was the Trickster, Coyote, in disguise and proceeded to lead him on a merry chase through crazy places. The first place they visit is 'The Land of the Flying War Clubs' where Coyote gets hit in the head by a couple of these flying clubs; and he's got to duck and run. The warrior enjoys this immensely. He leads Coyote to other places, such as 'The Land of the Broken Knees.' Coyote is getting tired and all beat up and is about to split, when the warrior says, 'I want to take you to one more place before battle, The Land of the Flying Vulvas.' All of a sudden Coyote's interest picks up. They set up camp. In the middle of the night, Coyote is awakened by a swarm of flying vulvas! He's feeling real horny and leaps about to grab one, finally succeeding in getting one down on the ground. But he cannot get an erection. Disgusted, Coyote slinks away and the warrior is free of him."

Masks touch us on an archetypal level. We experience a kind of primordial fear and fascination. Masks get our attention. Maybe the way we respond is a measure of how comfortable we are with our own shadow nature. Roger sees it as an opportunity to reveal a more aggressive side of himself than he ordinarily shows to people.

Roger loves the opportunity to share his techniques and teaches ongoing classes in mask making. He can be reached at (206) 634-1569.