Interview of Eric by Michael J. Epstein
Wonderful images by Jaclyn Tyler here: https://jaclyntyler.smugmug.com/EricOctober2016/n-fN7tJM
Can you give a brief overview of what you do?
I am mask maker, or mask artist. I also design and build puppets. My work entails a wide variety of arts involvement: research, drawing, painting, sculpting, performing, teaching, public lectures, consultations, etc. I distribute my work internationally for theater, opera, dance, corporate promotions, masquerades, private commissions, parades, rallies, protests, rituals, cosplays, and conventions.
Are there some past projects you would like to mention in more detail?
I won a 2016 IRNE award for my mask and puppetry work (17 pieces!) for Company One’s Shockheaded Peter. This included a wide variety of pieces built in an unusual aesthetic, from a diminutive infant puppet to a giant 10’ high puppet with 20’ arms and giant hands. I have worked with Bethesda Softworks creating 3D masks, costumes, and events to promote their last 5 video games, including Dishonored, Skyrim/Elder Scrolls, and The Evil Within. One highlight was having my masks shown at a major international video game event at Versailles in Paris. Last year I made 3 giant puppet heads representing Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West for an award-winning hip-hop video produced in Atlanta.
How did you begin making masks? what was your original interest in masks?
My interest in masks began after college, when I was involved with a variety of studio and performing-arts activities, which included illustrative graphic arts, large-scale portrait drawing, abstract painting, sculpture, dance and theater, as well as my personal interest in reading international folklore, fairy tales, and mythology. In the early 80's, I was increasingly drawn to work with local dance and theatrical productions that included masks, and even made a moon mask for the Boston Ballet.
But I was stretched thin with my activities. In one show, I designed the program illustration, choreographed the dances, designed and created the masks and face painting, and performed as well. By the mid-’80s I stopped dancing and began to focus on mask work more exclusively. In 1986 I traveled to Southeast Asia and studied mask making with master carver Agung Suardana in Mas, Bali. In 1990, I established Behind The Mask Theatre, presenting original dance pieces and a few short theater pieces. I continued to design and build masks for outside groups, but I began adapting fairy tales into original mask theater. I was developing pieces like Once Upon a Time with local band Dreamchild, which we performed for a season at King Richard's Faire.
After returning from training in Italy with renowned mask maker Donato Sartori, I wrote and designed Masks of Odysseus. Later, we won grants to create Asian-themed pieces, Cat Mountain and Monkey King Tales. We have since explored other multi-cultural themes, including works based on Zapotec and Venetian themes, and Liondancer: How Laughing Buddha Saved Chinese New Year, which explores the origins of Chinese New Year. Since then we have also produced a Commedia-inspired piece, Capitano’s Delight. Looking back, I'd say that my enduring interest in masks is based on the power of certain stories that need to be told, the combination of skills and collaborations that open up during the creative process, and the experience of masks presenting an inexhaustible source of inspiration for me.
What kinds of masks do you make?
Mask making has been my window into a wide variety of subcultures and has given me an opportunity to explore the aesthetic models and individuals in each field. I have made masks for commission, professional theater, ballet, modern dance, and opera, for installations, rituals, exhibition, and for sale at our online Etsy store (currently mostly inactive, but stay tuned), as well as at conventions and holiday events. Our masks take many forms and sizes, and are made of a variety of materials. We are creating and developing designs every day.
What are your masks made out of? What are the materials?
We are always involved with research and development of new and traditional materials. Although my formal training was in carving wood, forming leather, and using Italian carta pesta, most of my work is in other, mixed media which include: steel wire, muslin, various papers, Fosshape, Wonderflex, wire mesh, paper pulps, brass plate, furs, a variety of plant and animal materials, and our own non-toxic, structural lamination system.
What's the typical mask-making process?
Research and design precede any mask construction, since there are so many approaches to building. The purpose of the mask will help dictate design and materials. Typically, our mask making includes one or more of these three techniques: positive casting, negative casting, and free-building, and we offer many classes and workshops (contact us for current programming) at different levels to address each approach. Positive casting entails applying a skin over a sculpted piece, pulling it off, and then strengthening and refining it into the finished piece. This is the easiest method; negative casting involves creating a negative mold of a sculpted piece, pressing and laminating materials into it, then removing the piece from the mold. This is the technique for our museum-quality pieces that employ the structural lamination system; free-building is the term we use for a variety of techniques where everything you use to sculpt the mask remains in the finished piece. Here special attention is given to balance structural strength, sculptural versatility, with lightweight material choices.
Over your career, how has your mask-making evolved: subject matter, materials, interests?
My work has evolved directly from my childhood involvement and love of art, faces, and folklore. I just never stopped making art even when most people give up their youthful pursuits and get a real job. My family were entrepreneurs and I learned to create my occupation, rather than to work 9-5 at an office. More and more, the scope of my vision requires a team of designers, builders, performers, choreographers, musicians, and educators, not to mention administrators, marketers, interns, etc. As an example of the eclectic path of my work, here was a short list of current programs from about 5 years ago: In addition, I have become the chief designer for a line of figurative motorcycle helmets at Headless Helmets in Jamaica Plain and created a set of phallic masks for the popular holiday burlesque, The Slutcracker. I launched several performance/workshop programs at the Peabody Museum at Harvard and was the Artistic Director/Mask Designer for A Glimpse Beyond, a huge arts event at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, complete with dancers masked as angels, birds, and green women, with musicians playing an eclectic mix of choral music, Balkan, Klezmer, and original compositions. Every season has a new mix of unique and varied arts activities!
What are some of the biggest and/or most intricate/complicated masks you've made and why?
Every year brings new creative challenges, and we welcome opportunities to outdo ourselves each season. The largest mask we have made has been the puppet head of beloved storyteller Brother Blue for the Cambridge Arts Council's annual River Festival parade. It is over 8' tall and 8' deep. There are giant hands that dance alongside it, and a bevy of giant butterfly puppets that follow and surround it. Originally, it was to be carried by one person, and ended up carried by two. Last year, it was fitted temporarily to a cart, and this year we are in the process of commissioning a local Somerville artist, Skunk, who leads the local art-bike group Skul, to design and build a custom wheeled structure for the giant puppet head. This piece has been on display in Central Square for several years now.
Another large piece was a giant Anubis head and bust that was worn on stilts with a full costume, and giant arms to go with it. This piece was used by the Boston Lyric Opera, performed at the MFA Boston, and walked the Millennium First Night Boston parade. Other challenging masks have more to do with timing, technique, and artistry, like the 13 masks in three weeks for Underground Railway Theater's recent production of Galileo, 17 elaborate masks and puppets for Company One's Shockheaded Peter, the giant mask of Iranian dictator Rouhani for a large protest in front of the United Nations in NYC, or the complex Phooka (see Brian Froud's book, Faeries) mask for Contemporary Theater of Boston's Midsummer Night's Dream, which required a 12-part urethane rubber and plastic mold, and complete body makeover to transform actor Julie Becker into the terrifying goat-headed entity. Other pieces require puppet mechanisms to make blinking eyes or moving jaws, and I've collaborated with mechanical artists to make internal motors for stationary pieces for installations.
What/who are some of your artistic influences?
I am inspired by the the films of Guillermo del Toro, the work of illustrator Brian Froud, the designer Alexander McQueen, illustrator Dave McKean, mask makers Donato Sartori, Agostino Desi, Bernardo Rey, W. T. Benda, Tomihiro Kono, Julie Taymor, the tribal masks of sub-Saharan West Africa, the Noh masks of Japan, the Inuit masks of the Arctic, and the wide variety of Balinese masks.
Is there anything new you’re working on, or an event that’s coming up?
Art never sleeps! There is always a current project. Right now I am working with an Iranian human rights group, building a giant 4’ high puppet head of the Ayatollah Khamenei to be performed at a rally in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at the United Nations building in NYC. This will pair with the giant Rouhani puppet head I made for them last year. Just today, I confirmed a new job with the government of Jamaica, to build 12 giant puppet heads of their beloved cultural icons, starting with Marcus Garvey, a proponent of Pan-Africanism. I expect Bob Marley to be included in this list :-)
Is Halloween, which is most commonly associated with masks, typically your busiest time of year? What activities were your masks involved with this past Halloween?
I have finally come to terms with Halloween. The low-brow nature of the holiday had always confused me. As a full time professional mask maker, I have always worked hard to establish the legitimacy of my chosen art form, so I used to be very skeptical of Halloween aesthetic and party protocol. I once went to a party with a mask contest, partly to win a piece of jewelry for my girlfriend. I also thought it would be a great opportunity for group-supported transformation. I went as a Great Horned Owl, with wings and blinking eyes, and only spoke in deep, dark poetry. I acknowledged each character, from superheroes to fairy tale characters as the identity they had assumed. Within a short time, most of the party-goers had their mostly store-bought masks up on their heads to better drink beer, and were perplexed that I wouldn't break character. They'd ask, “Who are you, really?” I won the contest, slipped out and changed from the trunk of my car, and reentered the party. I was amused that everyone was telling me about that owl character guy, without realizing it was me. I was happy to have the brooch, but disappointed that the community was unwilling to transcend their daily identities more. So I became a snob. For a long time, I hid out and made masks “with integrity” and boycotted the holiday.
Of course this was neither a wise nor practical response to the major mask-aware holiday in our culture! Years later, I became intrigued with Gallery 242's Freaky Fridays Halloween Art exhibits, in which I eventually began to exhibit, and was really inspired by the playful, quirky, and powerful works that were shown. I met Mass Art Illustration professor and Halloween mask aficionado Mark Reusch, who delighted me with his enthusiasm for the holiday. He later recommended the book Halloween Nation to further educate me as to this amazing national holiday and its rich and diverse subcultures. I had grown up loving classic monster movies and zombies, but had neglected them for decades in my professional work. This year I began designing some delightful zombie masks, and creepy, sinister pieces that still fit my ideas of artistic integrity. And yes, I have loosened up and allowed myself to be more playful with the Halloween season.
Typically, my Halloween season includes regular seasonal commissions, as well as specific Halloween projects. The only problem with Halloween now is that it is too short – the marketable window is the week of the holiday. On November 1, Frankenstein is old hat, and it's time for me to create December-themed pieces, like solar and fire images for winter masquerades, Krampus imagery, and of course, faerie Santa and others magical winter creatures, reclaiming the more non-human aspects of the holiday faeries.
What kinds of workshops have you taught/where/for whom?
I have conducted workshops, classes, or residencies for almost every age group, in public and private elementary and high schools, colleges, art camps, adult education, national conventions, and assisted living facilities. Classes vary widely according to time periods available, audience demographic, and budget, and are usually designed to augment and compliment existing programs. Topics range from dozens of mask building themes, as well as related topics like performing the mask, lecture/demonstrations, portrait drawing, and giant collage murals.
Why do you do what you do? What’s something you get out of it?
The mask and puppet work is a never-ending source of inspiration, and a window into a wide variety of social issues, aesthetic models, character development, and other important dialogues in our society. I utilize every skill I’ve ever learned, and grow every day as a human being through the practice of my art. My art is my religion, and a panacea for all existential pain ;-)
Why are masks important today?
The age-old appeal and value of masks is to help explore our natural rights as shape-shifters. From the moment we are born we are inhabiting different identities, and as we grow and integrate into society, our identities multiply. Many people focus on one or a few identities to avoid uncertainty or conflict, but life is ever changing, and our ability to adapt, survive, and find a place in society relies in part on our ability to devise suitable identities. The problem is that many adopt false faces to fit in. Therefore, the literary device of a mask is usually as a coverup. My idea of masking is as one of many true faces that exist within us, that we explore to become fully self-expressed. This journey is more about unlocking our true selves and integrating them into our societal roles. This may sound very serious, and it is, but it is also very playful and joyful.
More than ever, we, as individuals and as a society, are involved in an active investigation of identity. Our post-9/11 world has been turned upside down. The last decade of economic downturn has shaken almost all levels of society, so that people can't take for granted many of the rights and pursuits that will be available. Especially for professional artists, who operate on the fringes of society, we have also been forced to recreate ourselves frequently to survive. Fortunately, this is fertile grounds for most artists, and being forced to examine our relationship to local business, government, and arts organizations vis-à-vis their expressions of popular culture shakes individual artists from their comfortable niches, and forces us to connect in a meaningful way to non-artists. This has also helped artists to explore their relationships with other artists and their works, fostering new dialogues that might not happen when artists follow their more introverted visions.
What inspired you to pursue the arts? What got you involved in doing what you do? Is there someone or something that was important in getting you on your way? (A big break you got, or a mentor who helped you, etc.)
I have been practicing art since I was a child. I always knew that this was the only profession for me. I am of no use in anyone’s office. In contrast to other artists who’ve had support, mentors, and encouragement to get started, I had very little of any of these. I have my internal dialogue, and my directional compass, that guide my direction. I’ve learned to believe in myself 100% and to never let others second guess me. Along with this, I’ve evolved as a perpetual student, always learning from everyone I can, always preserving a sense of wonder and curiosity. I have come to understand that all art is invention, and strive to always imagine more and differently.
We are living in a rich and amazing time for our culture. There are many new subcultures emerging, developing, and fusing with each other: the neo-vaudeville movement, burlesque, circus arts, Japanese street, traditional gothic, euro-cybergoth, steampunk, faery arts, fetish, fantasy, dark fantasy, and many more. I am finding that young artists of every kind are embracing a more fully self-expressed lifestyle. We have named our subculture style Mythopunk, to encompass the wide array of inspiration we derive from both modern and ancient sources. We seek to liberate not just our inner child, but also our inner adult.
A profession in the arts can be difficult. Can you talk about some of the challenges?
The problems? What we all know: very little funding or infrastructure to support individual artists, shrinking grant funding, very little ingenuity as to how to create better environments for non-traditional artists. We are a “vital” part of urban culture, but often can’t afford to live here with anything resembling comfort. Part of my professional development is in reading, traveling, and daydreaming - all pastimes I have very little time for while always paying bills and putting out fires. The solutions? Always the same things: Never give up. Stay positive. Process all the challenges by making more good art every day. Remember, it is always the best of times and the worst of times. We artists know better than anyone else, that we choose which to define ourselves by.
Any thoughts on the local Somerville, or Boston-area creative scene?
I love this area. I was born here, and it has been my base since 1980. Over the last 8 years, the creative scene has exploded, with so many brilliant artists in all fields. I am amazed at their vision, ingenuity, and courage to create here in these risky times for professional artists. I am honored to co-create with my local colleagues, and always make time and opportunities for collaborative projects.
Award-winning Behind the Mask Studio was founded by Eric Bornstein in 1990, and specializes in mask theater programs, corporate event planning, arts education, custom made masks and costumes. Eric has studied with masters Agung Suardana in Bali, and Donato Sartori in Italy. He received his MLA in Fine Arts along with the Thomas Small prize from Harvard University. His masks have appeared most recently at Company One's Shockheaded Peter (winner of the IRNE award for Best Puppetry Design ), Liar's & Believers' Talk to Strangers, Gamm Theatre's Morality Play, Boston Ballet's Nutcracker, Boston Lyric Opera's Madama Butterfly, Peabody Museum at Harvard, Puppet Showplace Theatre, the 31st Cambridge River Festival, Contemporary Theater of Boston’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Performance Lab’s Le Cabaret Grimm, Babes in Boinkland's The Slutcracker; A Burlesque, Underground Railway Theater’s Life of Galileo, and the Harvard Yiddish Players’ Shulamis. Eric was part of the team that recently won an award for Excellence in Production Design at the New York Musical Theatre Festival 2012 for his masks in Le Cabaret Grimm. Behind The Mask has created masks and promotional events for Bethesda Softworks to celebrate award-winning video games Dishonored and Elder Scrolls/Skyrim. Over the last 30 years Eric’s masked characters have appeared in a variety of venues and the subject of numerous media features. Behind the Mask creations were a highlight of Boston’s First Night celebration for 15 years. His masks have also appeared at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, the Fuller Craft Museum, the Kennedy Library/Museum, the Boston Lyric Opera, the Boston Ballet, the Society of Arts & Crafts (Newbury Street), The Peabody/Essex Museum, King Richard's Faire, and Revels. Recent features include The Boston Globe, The Phoenix, NPR radio, and Artscope Magazine. He currently teaches classes in making and performing masks, and offers performances and residencies to schools throughout the state through Young Audiences of Massachusetts.
Please visit www.behindthemask.org
Statement: When I tell people that I am a professional mask maker, they’re usually speechless. They rack their brains for a relevant follow-up, searching for scant references to my line of work. Perhaps they briefly envision an African carver squatting over a piece of wood in a hut, or a Venetian artisan laboring in his atelier/shop. Some might think of The Phantom of the Opera or Julie Taymor’s work for The Lion King. But few can grasp just what I do, or the idea that anyone from America could have such a job.
Mask-making is as odd an occupation as one can imagine, but not for me. I’ve studied visual and performing arts throughout my life, earning degrees in studio art and art history. I have conducted academic research in folklore and psychology, and have traveled to Bali and Italy for formal training in native mask making. I don masks for intimate, children’s theater shows, and parade as a Chinese Dragon before tens of thousands on New Year’s Eve. It’s the type of resume that, well, one might expect a mask-maker to have. But why have I fallen in love with such a unique art? Why have I made this my life’s work? For starters, mask-making is a transcendent art, something that continually introduces me to new cultures and ages of history long passed. Mask-making is about rich storytelling, and fascinating characters – human, animal, and magical. When I create a mask, I celebrate the depth and diversity of the stories I love, the natural and mystical worlds we inhabit, and my very own soul.
If my task is to make the mask of an owl, I first ask, “What owl? Male, female, old, young, wise, or foolish?” Over the next 25, 50 or 100 hours – indeed, the most intricate mask can take that long to create – I explore the character through study, sketching, thought and visualization. I might be further guided by a script, a director, or a personal experience in my life. In the end, maybe the mask that emerges is that of a fierce, Great Horned Owl. Or maybe, it’s a nebbish little bird with thick bifocals.
Beyond the finished product, my work gives me balance. It’s rewarding, purposeful, and celebratory. When performing, I am interacting with fellow actors and a huge audience. But I also hold dear my solitary studio time. These are the most satisfying and exciting aspects of my path as an artist – the relationships with extraordinary individuals that emerge from my work, and the opportunity to explore my own artistic wanderings. With masks, the range of artistic motifs and personality types is limitless.
For a mask to be powerful, of course, the character needs to resonate strongly within me, and express something important about me. I might trudge to the woods or to a zoo to observe owls as they fly, hunt and rest. My mask must mimic their essential characteristics, but it must also allow the actor or dancer who wears it to move freely. What points do I augment, tone down, or accent? How do I fuse the bird’s emotions with those of the performer? Hopefully, with each incremental decision I make, the mask’s form, rhythm and texture emerge on their own. In that way, the mask exhibits my own personality as well. And for sure, it will be nothing like than the next one I create.