If you choose to go out in public, remember to follow social distancing guidelines (at least six feet between you and anyone else), wash hands often and thoroughly, and wear a face mask.

There’s going to be a lot of pandemic-inspired art coming our way in the next few years, but Houston designer Alan Gonzalez is already one step ahead of the game. His new exhibition, Behind the Mask, which is on display at Sawyer Yards through August 29, takes the accessory that has become a necessity in our day-to-day lives and turns it into a form of creative expression.

Each of the face coverings featured in the exhibit is available for purchase, and proceeds from the sales are going to the Pablove Foundation, an arts education organization for children with cancer, which works with young Houston shutterbugs through Sawyer Arts. “As artists, we reflect the times,” Gonzalez tells us. “What better way to show that than through masks?” 

Like many, Gonzalez saw his life change dramatically because of the pandemic. After competing on season 18 of Project Runway, he moved to New York City at the start of the year to fully embark on his fashion journey. Then Covid hit, and everything was effectively cancelled–there were no fashion shows, no events that call for his signature evening wear designs. So he packed it up, moved back to the Bayou City, and found a way to help others. “Everyone needed some kind of protection, so that’s what started all of this,” says Gonzalez. “Because we weren’t doing a collection, I asked, ‘What can we do?’ This was the answer.”

Since returning to the place where he got his start, the HSPVA alum’s been busier than ever. He and his team have spent the past few months sewing thousands of masks for hospitals, working with Mayor Turner on Houston’s Mask Up initiative, and releasing a line of masks, all while assembling Behind the Mask. Aiming to memorialize our new way of life, Gonzalez collaborated with the artists of Sawyer Yards to execute his vision, providing them with blank masks and giving them free rein to design their masks in a way that spoke to them. 

And that’s exactly what we see in the exhibition. Walking into the East Gallery at Silver Street Studios, you’re met with a wall of masks—each one completely unique—all centered around a huge black cloth face covering painted with a subtle galaxy design. The surrounding, smaller masks are eye-catching in and of themselves. Some have stuffed animals sewn on the side; another has what appears to be an entire garden collaged onto it. Others display more literal messages, like Jen Lam Parmer’s Illusion, which features golden lettering and accompanying face chains, and Lajuan Ellis’s neutrally colored mask emblazoned with the words “Dream Big Little One” next to the image of a cartoon unicorn.

The masks have not only been a fun project for the artists who took up Gonzalez’s challenge, but they’re also a perfect illustration for just how varied the scope of Houston art truly is. Deborah Ellington, who usually works with glass, set out to design masks that were creative but subdued enough to go with any outfit. Inspired by the opportunity to try her hand at a different medium, she ended up creating eight masks for the exhibit, each with a design done in acrylic paint. Meanwhile Julia McLaurin says she was able to create a mask that fits in with her usual multimedia work of colorful, pop culture-inspired photoshopped prints by making a meticulously crafted bejeweled mask.

With over 40 masks on display, no two are alike, and each one makes a statement, whether you want a face covering that’s going to go with every outfit or something eye-catching from well beyond six feet. So if you still haven’t found the mask that speaks to your soul, let the artists at Sawyer Yards change your mind. 

Thru Aug 29. Free (prices of masks vary). Silver Street Studios at Sawyer Yards, 2000 Edwards St. Visitors must wear masks and follow social distancing practices. More info at alantude.com.