Storytime: This Masquerade

Though it's only early November, I'm already planning for the holidays. Why? Because it'll take me that long to finish my presents.

I haven't bought gifts for my family and close friends in years. Instead, I make them because I find that to be more personal than buying something.

Fortunately, most of my family is pretty easy when it comes to concocting goodies for them. My mother likes anything I make, my sister is happy as long as I throw in a skull or two, and as for my niece, I just ask my sister what she's into and I go from there.

My dad though, has always been tricky; he won't say outright what he likes. You have to glean what he wants based on his comments, his hobbies, and just being with him. He's a challenge, but he's also been the inspiration for some of my more interesting pieces.

Last Christmas, for example, I decided to make him this:

"That's a rather odd thing to make your dad," you might be thinking. Well, what were you expecting? A tie?

True, it's a weird little piece, but it's the story behind it that counts. This is my interpretation of one of my dad's favorite songs, "This Masquerade" by Leon Russell.

"Who the heck is Leon Russell?" you're probably asking.

Basically, he's one of the coolest musicians of the 1960s and 70s. Originally from Oklahoma, he's associated with what's known as the Tulsa Sound, a fusion of rockabilly, rock n' roll, country, and other styles that would influence Southern Rock groups such as Lynyrd Skynyrd. An accomplished pianist and guitarist, he was a popular session musician who played with Bad Finger, the Beach Boys, George Harrison, The Band, pretty much everybody (he played at the Concert for Bangladesh, for example).

Still around today, Russell is also an accomplished songwriter who's released a few albums over the years; his most recent one is 2010's The Union, a collaboration with Elton John. And before you tell me that you've never listened to Russell's music, chances are you probably have. If you've ever heard Joe Cocker sing "Delta Lady," for example, then you've heard a Russell song. Russell wrote and arranged that one for him; he was also the main organizer behind Cocker's "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour.

As you have probably ascertained by now, I like Russell's music, but that hasn't always been the case. When I first heard him as a young teenager, I thought his voice was grating, and I couldn't understand why my dad liked this guy so much.

And yet he did. I can still remember my dad saying somewhat defensively, "you don't make fun of Leon Russell," when I made a snarky comment about him. I didn't openly tease Russell again, but I continued to privately dismiss his music as weird.

Carney, from 1972. Can you blame me for thinking this guy was a little strange?
Flash forward about 12 years or so. My dad was telling me about how much he liked The Union, and insisted that I give it a listen. I reluctantly did so to amuse him, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it. After I heard that, I returned to some of Russell's older material, and found that I now really liked it. I've been a fan ever since, and love singing along to it whenever I'm driving."Shootout on the Plantation" and "Roll Away the Stone" are among my favorites.

"That's nice, Sara," you're thinking, "but what does this have to do with printmaking?"

Well, I wanted to show my dad my respect for his taste in music, and to thank him for re-introducing me to Russell. I decided, then, to do a visual interpretation of his  favorite Russell song: "This Masquerade."

"This Masquerade" is basically a song about miscommunication: you try to express how you feel, but the words themselves interfere. It's a slower, melancholic number, but it's got a wonderful sense of atmosphere to it. After listening to the song a few times, I came up with this:

I started by printing out the actual lyrics, then cut them up into individual words and glued them all over the page. I wanted to express the idea of miscommunication visually, so I pasted the lyrics out of order.

I then printed three monotypes over the words to obscure them a bit. I hadn't intended for the paint to bleed to the edge of the paper, but I liked the effect.


Since the song is called "This Masquerade," I drew a couple of carnival masks that I own in pen and ink. I see them as a couple, but they're not facing each other because I wanted to convey the idea of distance, and how the lack of effective communication inhibits your ability to become emotionally close to someone.

I then printed three more monotypes, now in a green color scheme, over my drawings, giving the piece a murky feel.

Finally, I drew this octopus. Why? Whenever I hear the prelude to this song, I imagine a lonely octopus squeezing in and out of tight spaces, looking for something but never finding it. I know, it's odd, but that's what I see.

I wasn't sure what my dad would think of this, because the drawings I make for him are usually more conventional. Thankfully, he really liked it, and if nothing else, he now knows I appreciate old Mr. Russell.

Who knows what I'll make him this year. When it comes to Dad, every year is a new challenge in creativity.