Zarco Guerrero is the perennial answer to, “Who is that masked man?” For more than 40 years, the Mesa native has captivated art lovers with his dramatic, ethnographical masks.
Shaping wood and fiberglass into striking facial art, the 60-something sculptor and performer has an international pedigree – he once studied Noh theater masks in Japan as a National Endowment for the Arts fellow, and later won a Governor’s Arts Award. Still, Guerrero is a community-minded soul who collaborates with Childsplay every spring to create El Puente Theatre Festival and Mask Procession, an event whose name (Spanish for “the bridge”) is a perfect metaphor for his message of personal growth and transformation. Guerrero also founded nonprofit Xicanindio Artes, which stages Día de los Muertos celebrations around the Valley every fall. We sat down with the artist to talk about what continues to inspire him today.
What drew you to mask- making and why have you continued to work in the genre?
I became exposed to masks at an early age going to the Easter ceremonies in Guadalupe (Ariz.), where they use masks extensively. Masks and mask transformations became a part of my experience growing up. When I pursued art, I kept being drawn back to it. I’m very fascinated with the power of the mask to transform a person into someone or something else. I’ve traveled to Mexico, Japan, Indonesia and Brazil pursuing my investigations, and those [trips] have given me ideas and more reason to continue. I consider myself a sculptor and a cultural activist.
Your masks are rooted in tradition, but how do you create pieces that reflect contemporary culture?
Everybody sees something different when they look at my masks. People will say, “Oh that’s very Northwest coast,” or “That’s very Japanese.” [The masks] are all of that. I take common elements I see in masks throughout the world and blend them into my own style that strives to express human emotion – laughing, crying, smiling, or a meditative look, the whole range.
How did you develop the belief that art is social service and how do you serve today?
That goes back to Cesar Chavez. He was such a huge influence on my life. One of my career highlights was being commissioned to do an over-life-size sculpture of him. When he came on the scene, I was still in high school and had no socio-political consciousness. I joined the movement for farm workers to have dignity and respect. He not only inspired civil rights, he inspired an artistic movement as we began to research our roots and culture, and express those elements in our work. He gave us confidence and pride in who we were. Then, we didn’t have identities. We were Americans because we were born in the U.S., but we were Mexican because we adhered to the culture… He gave us pride in that identity. And he inspired us to go into communities to educate through our artwork to create positive social change.
You’ve performed your one-man show, “Face to Face in a Frenzy,” more than 3,000 times, including for the Phoenix Police Department. What story does it tell?
I wanted to create something I could perform anywhere, anytime, under any conditions. I portray eight different characters – male and female; black, white, yellow, and brown. They are people that live on the fringes, who have a handicap, a disfigurement or a dilemma. They illustrate and narrate how they’ve overcome their problems and become proud individuals who contribute to society. It’s a celebration of diversity, nonviolence and the human spirit. It’s what I love to do most in my life right now.