On the weekend before Mardi Gras for the past 38 years, the French Market has hosted one of the most unusual art markets in the country. Meet a few of the makers behind it.
- by Kirsten Reneau
Masking may have roots in rituals and celebrations around the world, but the Mask Market is a strictly New Orleans event. The annual art show takes place the weekend before Mardi Gras in the French Market’s Dutch Alley (912 N Peters Street, tucked downriver from Café Du Monde). Over the course of four days, a dozen professional mask artists working in feathers, paper, fabric, and leather offer their creations to those looking for eleventh-hour costume additions — or entirely new personas to don for the day.
Like many stories in the French Quarter, the road to the Mask Market starts with the late Mike Stark. Mike Stark is a familiar name to those familiar with neighborhood lore. Once proclaimed “King of the Hippies,” Stark moved to New Orleans in 1962 for seminary school, and by the mid-’60s had made a home in the Quarter, never to move again. For the next 30 years, he founded or co-founded a dozen or so different projects. His legacies still reverberate in one way or the other from Canal Street to Esplanade.
Mike wore many hats — and masks — during his time in New Orleans. He began a mask co-op in the late ’70s called Little Shop of Fantasy. In 1982, this seed blossomed into an annual art show that welcomed a small and far-flung community of mask makers from across the country.
Thirty-eight years later, that niche market still thrives in a mutually beneficial and valued relationship with its venue: “The French Market is honored to keep this longstanding annual event part of Carnival in the French Quarter,” says Jeremy D. Smith, director of marketing for the French Market Corporation. “With artisan masks made in various media — and at all price points — there is something for everyone.”
For many, the masks represent all the best parts of Mardi Gras. That’s the case for Jeff Semmerling, who worked alongside Mike Stark in the market back in the ’80s. The professional leather mask maker now lives in Chicago, where he owns a mask shop. He had been studying theater at Northwestern when he came to New Orleans for his first Mardi Gras. That initial experience was the catalyst for what became a lifelong dedication to the art of mask making.
“The masks of Mardi Gras just totally captivated me,” Semmerling says. “The year after I graduated from school, I wintered in New Orleans. That’s when I understood why I was interested in theater. When the street is a stage, no one is off stage, or on stage. Everybody’s on stage. I found it so wonderful and it’s so healthy. It’s been my life since.”
Another longtime Mask Market veteran is Ann Guccione, who got on board in 1992. She first met Mike Stark through her mother, who was his rehab nurse after a stroke. Ann was just out of college at the time and became an apprentice to Mike, helping run the shop. Eventually, she started creating masks of her own, alongside her sister Laura. She was armed with a psychology degree from Loyola (which she says has come in handy working in the Quarter).
“I did it because… it was fun,” she says, laughing. “Laura and I originally just helped with paperwork, then fell in love with the shop.”
Both had grown up steeped in New Orleans and Mardi Gras culture. Although their family lived in the neighboring suburbs of Metairie, the girls’ parents had friends who lived in the French Quarter, and Ann recalls exploring the neighborhood freely throughout her youth. On Mardi Gras day, however, the family would get a room in the Holiday Inn on Royal Street in the Quarter, where parades would march right beneath their window.
“Mardi Gras used to be a really well-kept secret,” Guccione says. “I always costumed, but I never really thought about it as an art form until I met Mike.”
Guccione still runs Stark’s original business, although the name has changed from Little Shop of Fantasy to New Orleans Masks. The storefront now is only digital — the sisters gave up the shop’s last brick-and-mortar location after Hurricane Katrina. The Mask Market, like the rest of the city, also suffered in the first years of the storm’s aftermath. But while it still hosts a smaller number of artists than in pre-Katrina years, neither the quality nor the creativity have suffered.
“It’s developed into something really good for everybody,” says Mike Stark’s sister, Judy Trapp. She began making masks herself just after the market opened in the ’80s — originally to help out her brother. Like Ann, her own art honors his; they both work primarily with feathers, bright and decadent. “He started the market because he wanted people to realize mask making was an art.”
Trapp believes the universal appeal of masks lies in their physical embodiment of the roles that people play in their everyday lives. For instance, Trapp says, “Who I am when I taught school isn’t who I am when I’m working the Mask Market. We all wear different masks in our lives.”
“Masking changes you. The personality you’re not sure of comes out. You can be somebody you’re not and have a completely different experience,” Trapp says.
“Sometimes when people try a mask on,” she adds, “you can see them change right in front of your face.”
Mardi Gras Mask Market
February 21 - 24 (Friday - Monday)
10am - 4pm
Dutch Alley in the French Market
Live music schedule
Growing up in the West Virginia mountains, Kirsten Reneau has worked as a journalist wherever she could for as long as she's been able to. Currently living in New Orleans, she spends most of her free time lounging on the bayou and walking her dog. Her creative work has been published in Hippocampus Magazine, and she is currently working on her Masters in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans.