David Knezz somehow knew trading options on the Chicago Board Options Exchange wasn’t his true calling in this life.
Visual and performing arts. Far more intriguing.
But what of his exasperated father simmering at home?
“He told me to … 'get a job!' ” chuckled the master mask maker, over a clear line from his studio in Homer Glen. There he has molded masks in clay and latex and more exotic materials for more than three decades. Anything from Mr. Magoo and The Wizard of Oz to one-off personalized masks of anybody you’d care to re-create.
Having a surprise 50th birthday party for the boss? Everyone can wear a lifelike mask of his face—slightly altered for comic effect.
“What did I do?” he asked. “I started clerking at the Chicago Board Options Exchange and that led to trading on the floor. And I was quite good at trading, eventually trading my own money until 1987. Do you know about 1987?”
Oct. 19. Black Monday. The Dow Jones Industrial average fell 508 points, or 22.6%, taking the options markets down with it.
“I watched the carnage from the trading floor as the markets went all tapioca,” Knezz recalled. “Everything went. That was the 'eureka moment' for me. The epiphany. I knew then I would not spend the rest of my life trading. I stayed a few months, long enough to make back the losses.”
Knezz had been active with several improv groups at night while trading options during the day. (“I did it to keep my sanity.”) Returning to college, he earned a theater degree and gained hands-on experience in set design, art direction, props and lighting.
“Masks came about through necessity,” he remembered of work for which he has become internationally known. “We planned a production of 'The Hobbit,' and there was no money to buy character masks. I picked up a book on mask making and learned something interesting about myself. I’d always wanted to be an art major … but I couldn’t paint or draw. Not well enough, anyway. With the 'Hobbit' masks, I learned I could sculpt three dimensional objects — like masks. The more I worked at sculpting masks, the more skillful I became.”
Flash forward 35 years and the David Knezz studio is a thriving source for theater groups and individuals looking for custom masks, as well as for those interested in learning the art of mask making. Knezz offers introductory and advanced workshops in mask making and mask performance for ages 12 and up, though Covid 19 has curtailed in-person sessions over the past year.
But an unexpected pandemic-related assignment came Knezz’s way, when a theater group from White Fish Bay High School outside of Milwaukee contacted him about masks. The students planned to enter the statewide One Act Theater Festival with a production of "Hamlette" (a comic take on "Hamlet"). Director Ceri Hartnett thought of David Knezz-style masks from her days of working with Knezz in the Children’s Theater of Western Springs. (Knezz has volunteered as a director with the troupe since 1992.) Hartnett said the competition rules were clear: Remote performances by Zoom hookup were permitted or actors could work together at a social distance wearing masks.
“David and I hadn’t talked in years,” said Hartnett, “but he’s so creative and his masks are amazing. 'Hamlette' is a broad comedy with big expressions. David thought we could try a workshop. We had Zoom meetings with David and the nine actors to make their masks. This type of workshop was totally new to them. They enjoyed themselves, and we ended up with more masks than we could possibly use.”
What is it about a mask?
“I’ll tell you what I notice with David’s masks,” said Mary Behlar, owner of the Maskarade mask emporium in the French Quarter in New Orleans. “When a customer takes one of David’s masks down off the wall and tries it on … he becomes the character. If he chooses the face of an old man … his shoulders hunch over and he moves like an old man. He brings life into the mask that isn’t there when it hangs on the wall."
Knezz agreed with Behlar.
“An African mask hanging on a wall in your home is a piece of art. We’ve all seen masks displayed as art. The Field Museum has dozens of masks displayed. A hanging mask is inert. But when the same mask is taken down and put on … it comes to life. And in this sense, a mask bridges the performing and creative arts.”
Masks break down our inhibitions. They embolden us to take chances. Knezz emphasized that the need to mask-up evolved in all cultures simultaneously across the globe. Beginning with ritual masks worn in ancient cultures that enabled wearers to speak directly to the spirit world and to the gods and continuing through history. Period masks were worn in Egypt, Greece, Rome and across Asia.
Masks also conceal identities in sensitive times.
Commedia Dell’arte, a traveling comic theater of the Italian Renaisance, relied on recognizable stock characters hidden behind outrageous masks — often for the actor’s protection. “They poked fun at authority with masks,” said Knezz. “The military, the police, the rich. Foolish old men and devious servants. All in masks. We see their descendants today. There was a character called the Spanish Capitano in Commedia Dell’arte. A self-important police officer type we would recognize immediately today as Barney Fife from "The Andy Griffith Show.'
“Masks come back every so often,” added Knezz. “The let us slow down. Wearing a mask we have one foot in a dream state and the other foot in reality. A mask allows the wearer to stare. As small children we’re told not to stare. Put on a mask and stare all you like.”