Exploring What’s Behind the Mask

It’s a brisk fall day when I visit Behind the Mask Studio and Theater, but the workshop itself is balmy with the preparations of masks headed to Paris in the afternoon. The masks are of Lady Boyle from the video game Dishonored and will be shown at a large video game convention that draws all the big names in the industry. Beyond the masks that are currently being worked on, the studio is littered with masks that have been used by the Boston Ballet, for the annual Slutcracker shows at the Somerville Theater in Davis Square, for performances at the Oberon Theater in Harvard Square, at anime and video game conventions and in puppet theater.

“We’re shipping stuff all over the world,” said Eric Bornstein, owner of Behind the Mask, who was scurrying around the studio, working on masks while we spoke. His studio assistant Anya Malkina was working on the red Lady Boyle mask, a hauntingly beautiful piece that seemed both sturdy and delicate at the same time.

Bornstein has been working in theater for decades and has studied with some of the world’s most renowned mask makers. He describes his style as mytho-punk and says he creates folkloric images that are both ancient and modern.

While many people only think about masks in the fall when they play dress up for Halloween, Bornstein said that a renaissance of subcultures has brought masks out of the shadows.

“Mainstream America thinks about masks once a year for their kids at Halloween,” Bornstein said. “Masks are big. People really respond to these archetypal images. People are really engaged in this identity play.”

Bornstein said that after years of masks being seen as a false face, they are gaining ground among people using them to explore their true selves. Bornstein said the smoke and mirrors and political malaise of modern society has led people to explore the fragmented aspects of their identity through masks.

“People are so lost in the shuffle,” Bornstein said. “Masks help us understand the shifting faces of identity. Nobody’s introspective anymore. There’s no time to daydream. I’m thoughtful. I’m an introvert living an extrovert’s life.”

Bornstein creates his masks out of clay, plastic casts and rubber laminate as well as other materials, as evidenced by the bin of roses that were to be affixed to the Lady Boyle masks. He has stayed away from many of the toxic chemicals often used in mask-making, developing his own materials that are gentler.

“I’m a nature boy at heart,” Bornstein said. “I grew up next to a forest. I’m drawn to rocks and the ocean as well as images that come from nature.”

Bornstein said that while he is deeply drawn to the natural world, he also craves the culture found in the city. He draws inspiration from both the natural and created worlds in his work.

“This is what man creates,” Bornstein said of culture. “This is the universe I inhabit here, a forest of faces. In a sense it’s our re-creation of nature. Art creates culture, art drives society. You don’t write about art with passive verbs.”

A Cambridge resident for 25 years, Bornstein moved to Somerville eight years ago and says that events like the recent Honk! festival are part of what make it such a great city for artists to live and work in.

“There are amazing artists in Somerville,” Bornstein said. “It’s the new mecca. Davis Square is the Paris of Somerville. I really love it, especially having a child.”

Bornstein has found a home for his family and his studio near Davis Square where he can create his masks using certain tenets he holds dear like “all art is invention, we’re not here to copy things.” Or that all of his masks should be elegant and well-made. He also believes that big ideas don’t work without small details.

“You can’t make a statement with shoddy work,” Bornstein said. “I think, ‘what image can I put out there that is going to blow people away?'”

Bornstein’s commitment to his work has clearly paid off. He has several large commissions in the pipeline and recently won an Excellence in Production Design award at the New York Musical Theatre Festival for his work on Le Cabaret Grimm.

“My work is my life philosophy,” Bornstein said. “You should hold a true image before you.”

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