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Navy Man’s Hobby Masks an Obsession

Times Staff Writer

A walk through Navy Cmdr. Ron Wildermuth’s office makes a person wonder about reincarnation. Did he live in Africa, another lifetime ago? Was he a warrior? A tribal chieftain? Or merely an artist in an earlier age, obsessed with abstract expression?

Wildermuth doesn’t know. He can’t explain the motive behind the masks.

Wildermuth is a public affairs officer for the Navy. He has been in the service 20 years. Were it not for the dozens of cryptic, elaborate masks that line the walls of his office, Wildermuth’s work space would be ordinary, inconsequential, even mundane.

As it is, it’s like a corner of a vast museum.

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Questions Asked, Answered

To say that such creations as the Marka Fable Mask are conversation pieces is to say that the Navy plays an important role in San Diego history. Wildermuth, 44, who has been in San Diego two years and three months, spends a lot of time answering questions about the masks.

No, he will tell you, they are not part of a collection he acquired in Africa. (He has never been to Africa, although he desperately wants to go.)

Yes, he made them all himself, and no, he never had formal training in art. He goes to the library, checks out a book, reads about an African tribe, sits down, draws a picture and then makes a mask.

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He started making them several years ago while stationed in Washington. A tireless runner, Wildermuth sometimes jogged past the Smithsonian Institution and the African museum near the Capitol. One day, he ventured inside the African museum--actually part of the vast Smithsonian--and never really came out.

He acquired a hobby that became a passion and then, he says, a beautiful obsession.

Diversion From Job

“It totally takes my mind off work. I work a minimum of 12 hours a day, from 7 in the morning until 7 in the night. This kind of work in the Navy is really rather stressful. Public affairs officers work for admirals.

“If somebody gets in trouble, if there’s an accident, you’re on call 24 hours a day. If the (aircraft carrier) Vincennes rescues 26 Vietnamese refugees, I’m on call to handle that. A beeper is a part of my wardrobe.”

Wildermuth is a quiet, unassuming man from Moline, Ill. He is married and the father of two children, one of whom shares the passion.

His son helps him label each mask, which tells a story such as this:

“Marka Fable Mask: This is an adaptation of a mask used by the Marka tribe of southern Mali to present fables and stories. The masks are brightly colored or covered with metal and are worn by men in pairs for wooing women. They are also used as marionettes to act out fables. The tribe is known for these narrow masks, with their sharp, austere chins.”

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Art From Antelopes

“The most beautiful art is in nature,” Wildermuth said. “The horns of an antelope (his office has many of those) are art. Natural sculpture. I’m fascinated by the art in human nature.

“So-called primitive cultures were not as primitive as people thought. Most showed a high degree of civilization. The early Indians were the ones who invented democracy. They had a democratic government long before the Constitution or Bill of Rights ever came into being.

“A lot of the fun of this is in the research--uncovering secrets about cultures lost or forgotten long ago. The fact that some of these secrets suddenly emerge in the form of masks is, well, a little bit like magic. I like this kind of magic.”


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