From her studio in western Massachusetts, regardless of material or scale, Beckie Kravetz sculpts remarkably human faces, even when they're abstract.
Some pieces are as large-as-life, others small enough to fit in your hand. And sometimes her canvas is a real human face — as Kravetz is also a makeup artist, most recently for the Berkshire Opera Festival.
This summer, in a renovated barn in Lenox, Massachusetts, a gallery hosted Kravetz's most recent sculpture exhibit. In another room, Kravetz was putting on a makeup demonstration. A couple of opera fans looked on as Kravetz slowly transformed a young woman into a jowly old man.
Kravetz's tools on this day were lipstick and pancake. Most of the time, she works in clay and metal from her studio in Cummington. But she loves, and maybe even needs, to remain a part-time makeup artist in the opera world.
“I think part of what's fun about my story of who I am as an artist is that I am many different kinds of artists,” Kravetz said. “I didn't go to art school. I went to theater school. I was trained as a theatrical mask maker.”
Early in her career, with no opera background — and at one point, with a distaste for the music — Kravetz was hired to make masks for dancers at the Santa Fe Opera company. All the while, through rehearsals and shows, she closely observed how the makeup staff transformed singers, for operas like Verdi's "Otello" and Bizet's "Carmen."
“Often in opera, the transformations the makeup artists do are quite dramatic and in fact mask-like,” Kravetz said.
With her curiosity, a few lucky breaks and a job opening, Kravetz became an assistant makeup artist in Santa Fe, then a few years later, a principal makeup artist for the LA Opera. Show production was, and still is, a thrill.
"Wagner calls it the 'gesamtkunstwerk' — the complete artwork," she said. "It's all these different layers of visual and aural and vocal and literary stuff coming together onstage. And I love that."
But as a young artist, early in her career, full-time work at the opera limited Kravetz's own creativity. After a few years, she took her newfound love and knowledge of opera, and like the dozens of braided wigs she'd made, she wove the music around her own pieces.
After the makeup demo, Kravetz sat on a bench and flipped through a portfolio of past work. She pointed out her "Sculpted Arias" — a series of wooden masks, bronze sculptures, and 3D tableaus that capture aspects of opera characters like Violetta from "La Traviata" and Mozart's Queen of the Night.
“These are all storytelling pieces,” she said.
Violetta is a small bust. Kravetz hollowed out the back of the sculpture and put in the space a miniature version of a letter Violetta receives in the final act of "La Traviata." It says her lover is returning.
A different collection of heads and figures make up Kravetz's most recent exhibit. It's called "Talk to Me."
“There are so many ways you can say ['talk to me'],” Kravetz said — casually, or with anger, or almost crying. "And every one of those different ways of saying 'talk to me' became a potential sculpture."
Around the barn gallery, clay and bronze sculptures are set up as scenes. Some pieces are poised as if in conversation, some are isolated, but in a crowd. The subtitle of the show is contemporary figurative sculpture, but Kravetz’s work is also considered classical.
“They’re anatomically accurate faces, some of them,” she said, pointing to a giant head hung on the wall. “I mean, it's definitely a real person's expression, but it's a very abstract shape.”
Nearby are two nudes side-by-side on a pedestal, apparently walking and talking. A few feet away is a tabletop piece of a female bronze figure. She's in front of a wooden frame. Her hand is on her hip, and she's looking for something to wear.
“And what is hanging in the closet are five little masks, each with a different expression,” Kravetz said.
Each tiny mask is a mold made from the figure’s face.
"She's saying, 'OK, all the different parts of my personality, all the different people I can present to the world, talk to me. Who am I today, or who do I need to be today?'" Kravetz said.
Kravetz uses her technique and experience to push at that central question.
She has lots of reference books about bone structure and mouth shapes, but she said she really learned anatomy at the tips of her fingers doing makeup.
The tiniest movement of her thumb, in clay or eye shadow, can really transform an expression.