Bob Pierron has never led a particularly quiet life. A jeweler for 30 years, he also ran jewelry classes, exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, produced sculptures in wood–including an abstract series for the Woodwork Corporation of America–and made tiny masks out of silver and gold wire, which he sold out of his gallery, Studio 23, on Lincoln Avenue.

Now 82, he lives in a dark two-bedroom apartment just west of the Brown Elephant on North Halsted. When he put away his tools in 1984, he quickly discovered that retirement wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “I was bored,” he says. So he started wandering around to pass the time, picking up pieces of junk he found in resale shops and alleys.

Over the past 17 years, Pierron has found new uses for Tupperware lids, cutting boards, plastic Easter eggs, wheels from toy trucks, wooden bowls, drawer pulls, furniture legs, and picture frames. He’s back to making masks.

“I wind up with a lot of odds and ends,” he says, “and I put them together–the backs of trays, fragments of furniture, plastic containers, a lot of coasters.” There’s a sardine can on the wall of his kitchen with pieces of a child’s puzzle used to make eyes and a nose. On his window ledge is a hair clip with plastic eyes. If it weren’t bright purple, you’d swear it was about to crawl away.

Pierron is especially happy when he finds bottle caps or a box of the white plastic rings used to reinforce holes in loose-leaf paper. “Those are great for eyes,” he says.

For years he sold one or two of his masks each month through the Raw Art Gallery in Lakeview, fetching about $150 for each. When the shop closed last summer, he lost his sales outlet, but that didn’t stop him from creating. The walls of his apartment are lined floor to ceiling with masks. The faces are confused, scared, happy, goofy, pensive, angry, frustrated. “This whole place used to be an apartment, then it became an art workshop, now it’s a warehouse,” he says.

Recently, a friend convinced Pierron to donate several hundred of his masks to the Brown Elephant, not only to clean out his apartment but to introduce his work to a wider audience. “There’s a masklike quality to Bob’s face, with his glasses and everything,” says the store’s general manager, Michael McGuire. “He is not quite an outsider artist, but definitely there’s a naive quality to his art.”

A diabetic, Pierron eats a lot of Wheaties, storing the boxes in his glass-fronted kitchen cabinet. He heats his food in a little toaster oven, which is good since his actual stove is heaped with cardboard boxes. Pull open the oven door and you’ll find a stack of masks.

He’s already given 113 to the Brown Elephant. He knows the number exactly. And he’s boxed up another 143 to be sent over. Some of the more fragile–and interesting–ones are Kabuki-like heads made of construction paper and decorated with Magic Markers. Others have an African design.

In his bedroom is Seven Samurai, a set of masks created by pasting yellow paper onto hospital trays, then decorating them with black calligraphy. On the wall hang his versions of Adam and Eve, made from wooden cutting boards. Eve has a wig and bigger eyes.

“Why do I make them? To see who comes out of these various parts,” he explains. “I don’t know what they’re going to be. I’m always surprised at their expressions. I wonder what they’re happy about.”

The masks are currently on display in the windows of the Brown Elephant. “We’ve always had an interest in promoting local artists, and you can’t get more local than Bob,” says McGuire. “This promotes recycling materials, selling them a second time, making more than one use of them. It’s what the Brown Elephant stands for too.” He expects to price each mask in the $50 range, and–like everything else in the store–all proceeds from their sale will benefit the Howard Brown Health Center. “This is a long-term commitment,” he says. “We’ll have them on display for the next two years.” Pierron says he hasn’t decided what he’ll do next, but “I think I’m done with the masks. Now on to my next project.”

The Brown Elephant will host a free reception and showing of Pierron’s collection on Friday, February 23, at 6:30 at the store, 3651 N. Halsted. Light food and refreshments will be served; call 773-549-5943 for more information.

–Vicki Quade

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J.B. Spector.