The Masked Men and Women of Michelle Ramin

Michelle Ramin (NAP#99), composes colored pencil portraits of her friends and family.  Sounds cute and cuddly at first, but not necessarily.  Ramin’s portraits depict those close to her in great detail, all while they are wearing face masks.  Creepy, yet personal; Scary, yet seductive, Ramin’s works are compositionally and conceptually challenging both on an individual and larger societal level.

Three Aliases, 22" x 30", Colored pencil on paper, 2011. Image Courtesy of Michelle Ramin.

What about masks are scary or intimidating?  What makes us feel safe?  What does it mean to feel safe?  What do we all hide beneath our own figurative masks?  Can you ever truly know a person?  These are all just tip-of-the-iceberg questions Ramin’s work welcomes us to ponder and explore. - Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor

Photo by Sim Chi Yin for The New York Times, in Dan Levin’s “Beach Essentials in China: Flip-Flops, a Towel and a Ski Mask”, NYT, Published: August 3, 2012.

I recently read this article in the New York Times about new face-mask swimgear that people are wearing in China to protect their faces from the sun.  I immediately thought of Ramin’s work and the delicate spot that her works touch upon and span.  I am a sucker for art that can haunt, repel, and entice me all at once.

Ellen Caldwell: What first led you to use colored pencils? It is an underused medium in my opinion and I'd love to know about your choice and preference.

Michelle Ramin: I guess I've always been intrigued by colored pencils. It was the first medium I remember using as a kid to make art. I hadn't picked up a colored pencil though in probably 20 years until the start of this new series. I was influenced by the artwork of Aurel Schmidt, Storm Tharp, and Desiree Holman. I also wanted to use a medium that speaks to the concept of the work. Colored pencils inherently reference youth, craft, and camp - three ideas I wanted to highlight throughout the mask series.

Joel's Tent, 22" x 30", Colored pencil on paper, 2011. Image Courtesy of Michelle Ramin.

Joel and Jewel, 22" x 30", Colored pencil on paper, 2011. Image Courtesy of Michelle Ramin.

EC:  I really love the haunting images of your friends in the ski masks… My high school used to have annual camping retreats and one year, my younger brother decided to wear a ski mask through the entire trip. His counselor was really disturbed by the end, because he had no idea what this masked boy looked like.  I instantly thought of that story when I saw your images and read about your "sociological experiment" in NAP #99.  Can you tell me more about your use of masks and the evolution to documenting them in your work?

MR: For me, the most important aspect of the mask is concealment. This series originated out of personal necessity to discuss addiction and the innumerable psychological affects it has on the people involved. As a close family member of an addict, I've seen firsthand the extent to which concealment plays a role in addiction. I wanted to extend that dialogue further into the realm of the political without being overbearing or overtly specific. I wanted a strong image that could talk about my personal story as well as reference more universal topics such as terror, the gaze, and my generation coming-of-age. I'm also interested in dual identities and issues related to public vs. private spaces (physically and psychologically).

(De)Construction Photoshoot, 22" x 30", Colored pencil on paper, 2012. Image Courtesy of Michelle Ramin.

EC:  Yes, your underlying themes of concealment and dual identities are really haunting.  It is fascinating to consider how, in your words, we "read perversion and terror into such an intrinsically innocuous image as the mask."  And equally interesting to consider how the wearer's eyes are revealed, yet somehow that personable and recognizable side doesn't seem to console us or dissuade our fears.  Can you discuss this a bit?

MR: Each of us has sides of our personalities that we choose to share with certain people and not with others. Some parts we never reveal to anyone. The idea that people can never be wholly seen or understood is extremely disturbing but is also what keeps us interested in one another - maybe the reason relationships exist at all. I think the mask highlights this notion and provokes a reaction that resembles fear of the unknown. Even the presence of familiar eyes and mouth is not enough to console because the whole is missing. Without the shape of the hair, the ears, etc., the whole remains incomplete and forces questions upon us. For this reason, I find the image of the mask confrontational, controversial, and continuously intriguing.

Self-Portrait with Tattoo, 22" x 30", Colored pencil on paper, 2012. Image Courtesy of Michelle Ramin.

EC:  In terms of your next projects, have you moved away from the masked subjects or is this still your focus?

MR: I am still very interested in the mask as a highly charged image. As mentioned earlier, it speaks to me on a personal as well as political level. I want to push it until it can't be pushed any further. It's interesting to see how often the image pops up. From bank robbers to Pussy Riot, the ski mask seems to be an ever-present and relevant image.

It's All Fun and Games Until Somebody Wins, 22" x 30", Colored pencil on paper, 2012. Image Courtesy of Michelle Ramin.

EC:  What art inspires you now—do you have any favorites?

MR: I look a lot to artists that are working around me. When I lived in Portland, Storm Tharp was my hero. In San Francisco, I look to Josephine Taylor, Desiree Holman, Taravat Talepasand, and Brett Reichman's work for inspiration. Community is very important to me. I want my work to be talked about in reference to a particular group, not flying solo as if it were made in an isolated bubble. The longer I spend in certain geographical locations, the closer that circle of artists and their work becomes. These specific artists emphasize the importance of drawing within their work. Because I am more of a drawer than a painter, it does become somewhat of a thing to find mentors that believe in the contemporary relevance of highly-rendered, highly-crafted figurative work.

Mel and Mike, 22" x 30", Colored pencil on paper, 2011. Image Courtesy of Michelle Ramin.


Michelle Ramin was in the recent group show “Good Counsel” at Incline Gallery in San Francisco.  Ramin often works and collaborates with a curatorial organization called Mosshouse and she has work in the Jimenez-Colon permanent collection in Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.


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