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The man behind the masks

Eric Bornstein makes magic with paint, papier-mâché, and endless imagination

By Peter DeMarco
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2010

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Eric Bornstein’s art studio is a wild, cluttered, paint-strewn den overrun by hobgoblins, Egyptian deities, forest nymphs, and Father Time himself. As big as oxen heads, his papier-mâché masks of gods and monsters dangle from hooks and jut from walls like phantasmal hunting trophies — dazzling, colorful, and insane to behold.

You wonder whether you’ve stepped into the prop room from “Pan’s Labyrinth.’’ Or, as a friend puts it, Jim Henson’s creature shop.

“I’ve never talked to anybody who hasn’t walked into Eric’s studio and gone, Oh my god,’’ says Jason Slavick, artistic director of the Performance LAB theater company, which featured a Bornstein mask in its last production. “It’s stuffed to the gills with these massive, gorgeous masks of all different kinds of creatures with 6-foot sun faces and dragons and monsters and princesses and you just want to touch them all and play with them all. I think audiences have a similar response.’’

Bornstein is Boston’s preeminent theatrical mask maker, having produced hundreds of masks over the past 30 years for local plays, operas, museums, art exhibits, and First Night Boston’s grand procession. Though his is an obscure, even fringe, art form — how many mask makers do you know? — Bornstein’s works are nevertheless all around these days, from the Museum of Science to Harvard University, from Brookline Village’s Puppet Showplace Theater to Beverly’s Endicott College, where 42 of his strange creations are now on display through Wednesday.

For today’s Cambridge River Festival, he’s created his greatest mask yet: a giant, 6-foot mask of the city’s legendary storyteller “Brother Blue’’ Hugh Morgan Hill, who died in November, to serve as the celebration’s centerpiece.

Bornstein, 51, is every bit the dreamy, energetic, mad-scientist artist you’d expect him to be. He fell in love with masks as a kid watching classic horror films starring the mummy and the wolfman. During a recent visit to his Somerville studio, aptly named “Behind the Mask,’’ he’s carving sheets of pink Styrofoam into giant butterfly wings, oblivious to the shavings stuck all over his tousled hair and “More Cowbell’’ T-shirt.

Shaking a bag of deer claws — eccentric art materials are his passion — he slips one over a bent knuckle.

“Aren’t they awesome?’’ he asks, pretending to claw at your face.

But don’t be fooled by Bornstein’s playful side. “I usually work in the dark,’’ he says, closing the blinds and flipping off the lights.

There, in the semi-darkness of his cinder-block garage, the craggy faces, long snouts, and sinister stares of Bornstein’s masks close in on you, like animals in a forest. He clicks on a small lamp and swings it over the head of a hideous clay beast he is creating on his workbench, a minotaur figure for this month’s seductive adaptation of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream’’ at the Boston Center for the Arts, running through June 19.

As Bornstein slowly moves the light across its face, shadows catch the intricate furrows of the minotaur’s brow, the ribbons of its horns, and the ridges of its lips — and it seems to awaken. When Bornstein carves into the clay skull with his stylus, you almost expect the creature’s eyes to glow with anger, or smoke to shoot from its nostrils.

Here is where Bornstein’s serious side takes over, where his studies in Italy and Bali under the masters of his craft come to the fore, and where his own creative talents — Bornstein is a painter, sculptor, actor, yoga instructor, and jujitsu teacher, as well as a husband and dad — overflow.

He works in the dark, he says, so he can better see how the mask will appear under stage lights as the actor’s head moves. Tilted up, he might want the audience to see anger in the face; tilted down, he might want them to see fear.

“At one time the director was saying I want [this mask] to be more bestial,’’ Bornstein says. “So at one point I had it very demonic. I had horns sticking out of everything. And it looked like a friggin’ demon on a heavy-metal band T-shirt. I’m like, It’s lost its dignity.

“So I took it way, way, way down so that it’s brooding and dark and foreboding rather than RAAAAAR! I don’t do that kind of mask: I want beauty and balance and a mystery.’’

Eventually, when every line, bump, and indentation is just right, Bornstein will use the head as a mold for a papier-mâché mask, which he might spend dozens of hours painting and decorating. But getting the mask to look great is just half of it: The actor wearing the mask has to be able to see and breathe while running, jumping, or dancing on stage, too.

“I want my pieces to be gorgeous works of art when put under scrutiny at an exhibit,’’ he says. “But they have to function.’’

That’s been the case with the masks he’s made for Boston’s New Year’s celebrations, where performers have paraded wearing giant headdresses of fiery Chinese dragons, and old Father Time.

Brother Blue’s mask, flanked by enormous puppet hands and butterflies (the latter Brother Blue’s favorite symbol of harmony and peace), will require no fewer than 10 people to hold it aloft as it leads the opening procession at the River Festival.

“At noon, after we’ve had everyone together, we will strike a bell and his mouth will open and butterflies will shoot out,’’ says Jason Weeks, executive director of the Cambridge Arts Council.

Would Brother Blue like to be remembered in such a way?

“Are you kidding me? He’d be psyched,’’ Weeks says. “He’d be in the procession right ahead of it, telling it where to go.’’

For Bornstein, creating the Brother Blue mask is a fitting tribute, as the Cambridge poet was a longtime friend and mentor. Over three weeks, the piece has morphed from a simple PVC tube outline into a massive smiling face.

Such dedication is typical for Bornstein. Whether performing children’s folks tales through Young Audiences of Massachusetts, staging a private celebration of Galileo with masked dancers at the Museum of Science, or tackling a Yiddish operetta at Harvard, he throws himself into his endeavors.

Bornstein grew up in West Peabody and dove into mask-making after graduating from Clark University, essentially teaching himself the craft. Later sojourns to Bali, where he learned wood carving under a village master, and Italy, where her studied under Donato Sartori, a master of Commedia dell’arte leather masks, refined his skills. In 2000, he earned a master’s in fine arts through Harvard Extension School.

“Making masks has always been what I wanted to do,’’ he says. “It’s sometimes hard to synch it up with raising and supporting a family and all of that. But I have to remind myself to have faith every day, because it’s what I believe in.’’

Theatrical masks, which have been around since the first Greek dramas, might never crack the mainstream, Slavick says. But so long as people like Bornstein are around to make them, they’ll never lose their magic, either.

“With a green screen and computer graphics they can make whatever happen in the movies,’’ he says. “Whereas you take a mask — it’s right there, live, in front of you, and it’s actually three-dimensional. And it uses the audience’s imagination to make it go.’’

The 31st annual Cambridge River Festival takes place today , rain or shine, from noon to 6 p.m. on Memorial Drive between JFK Street and Western Avenue. Visit www.cambridgema.gov/CAC

Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com.