So This Is Oberlin

Susan Mask at Shift through April 27, 2019

Imagining Viney

Peggy Murphy

Susan Mask exhibits a collection of ink and watercolor paintings depicting the residents of Oberlin Village, one of the earliest freemen’s community settled by slaves after the civil war.  Mask’s great-grandparents were residents of Oberlin and in her current show Reclamation, she weaves the historical significance of this settlement within the context of family and home.

Her photo-referenced drawings, detailed historical timeline and legal documents give us a glimpse of early Oberlin Village.  The work in this exhibit resonates with familiarity and warmth.  Various sized pieces are hung salon style, suggesting the informality of a family home.  Here we see small ink and watercolor sketches of family painted over handwritten documents and letters from the past.  Three powerful portraits dominate this tableau where Mask displays her skill as a portraitist, capturing something beyond likeness.  In Imagining Viney, Mask uses heavy repeated marks as if to unearth a depth of understanding and imagining.

Another group enfold like a family photo album.  Sunday Best, Blue Tie, Reading and others capture the relationships and day to day life in Oberlin Village.  These pieces have the lightness and deftness of figure drawings, with simple, direct lines and broad swathes of color.  In these pieces the specifics of identity seem less important than capturing the sense of shared community and enjoying the good life.  Masks references family photos freely in these pieces, taking liberties, and clearly enjoying the ride.

Mask bookends her collection with two pieces that are rigorously painted and graphically bold.  While Yellow Suit reads again like a familiar family photo, Dock of the Bay II is more iconic.  With dark and featureless faces, the women in this painting seem to represent an idea bigger than themselves.

So this is Oberlin reads the wall text in this exhibit and is echoed in the handwritten document of Mask’s Grandfather.  It is a phrase that holds the sound of hope and pride.  Masks writes “genealogy and the stories of people who persisted in the face of challenges both fascinates and inspires me for the lessons they provide today.”  In Reclamation she shares this fascination as well as her personal history, and truly brings alive the vibrant and inspiring community of Oberlin Village.