‘Masked Men’ serve as painter’s muse

Who is that masked man?

Michael Slotwinski may have asked himself that question many times over the course of this past summer, while adding to his Hockey’s Masked Men oil painting series, now in its ‘second period’ touring Ontario Hockey League (OHL) arenas, including Budweiser Gardens this New Year’s Eve.

The Faculty of Education grad, BEd’12, has been “flying high” with the opportunity to showcase his artwork to thousands of hockey fans across the province.

“To many Canadians, hockey is life,” Slotwinski said. “Some people make it to the NHL as a player; I’m looking to make it as a painter.”

By combining his love for both, it has given him the chance to shake hands with many past and present NHL stars. Recently, he was invited to showcase his work at the annual NHL Alumni Gala Awards dinner in Toronto. There, he met the likes of Detroit Red Wings great Ted Lindsay and the Toronto Maple Leaf legend Johnny Bower.

“In my head, I’m doing leaps,” he said. “They are just people, but in such a good way. They are a great bunch of guys.”

Slotwinski did two initial goalie masks (Gerry Cheevers and Dominik Hasek) while a Studio Arts and Dramatic Arts program student at the University of Guelph in 2011; since, he has added two dozen more, each with their own personal back story.

“I would say each individual mask has its own theme,” he said. “The structure of the mask has evolved so much over time that they emit different emotions and have completely different aspects of craftsmanship and artwork than one another. A lot of the vintage ‘full-frontal’ face masks can look scary to people, but they also have more of an opportunity to depict more artwork across the mask because they don’t have the cage.”

Plus, Slotwinski added, as each one has its own unique depictions and colour themes, he must choose the correct way to represent each mask.

“Some are legendary; they had to be done. Some are artistic; some were an advancement in style or structure. And some are just cool,” said Slotwinski, who, after making a list of his own, sat down with his dad, brother and other hockey buddies to discuss which masks deserved to be done.

While on tour, he also listens to the suggestions of his audiences to gather ideas as to what they want to see.

“People attach their own interpretations to the masks. I try and put myself into the minds of my audience and show them what they’ve always thought about the mask, or maybe what they ‘haven’t’ thought of before,” Slotwinski said. “The (Mike) Palmateer mask looks chilling, and haunting with its hollow eyes appearing out of the darkness; it was (Gerry) Cheevers’ trainer who drew the first stitch mark onto his mask, meant to represent each scar he would have received had he not worn a mask; the (Jacques) Plante mask has pools of blood streaming under his mask.

“The trick is not to do all of the best ones all at once,” he added. “I need to keep a few heavy-hitters in reserve for next year to draw people out and keep them excited. It’s surprising how far away some people’s favourite teams are, or how obscure some of their favourite goalies are. But the conversations are great when I get a chance to speak with the viewers at my shows.”

As far as a personal favourite, Slotwinski goes with the Grant Fuhr mask.

“It’s such a unique perspective looking down from the top of his mask,” he said. “It’s reinforced by the balanced colours and design qualities of his mask that suggest a pop-art style as a painting. It was one of my original ‘dark and mystic’ paintings. And best of all, it’s riddled with battle scars. People look at the wear and tear and are reminded these masks actually served a purpose, which most people forget.”

Slotwinski takes regular trips to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto for inspiration, along with researching stock images and news photos. He tries to give the viewer something new and original to look at each time and perhaps even show them something they haven’t seen before.

“This is when you discover all of the unique ‘hidden’ qualities within each mask. You also learn the history, life story and even playing style of the goaltenders,” he said, “Many times, I’m able to interpret this through my paintings and insert cool things here and there. Each mask has a place in my mind. Being nose deep, an inch away from each of them for so many hours, I have a special connection with each one.”

Slotwinski realizes this second leg of the tour is in no way a money-maker; but the friends, connections and relationships he has built have make it worthwhile.

“It’s about getting my foot in the door and climbing further on up the ladder of success. It’s meant to be fun, exciting, cool and an event for the fans,” he said. “But it’s also meant to introduce myself to people. Believe me, the gears are turning and things are in motion. I’m still at the beginning of my career. I have so much more to climb, and I know I have so much more to show.”