Duncan Eagleson, Photo by Steven J. Gelber.About

As a child, I was fascinated by masked heroes, like Batman and Zorro. Halloween was always my favorite holiday, and I used to make my own masks, and my own costumes, too.

In high school and college, I did a lot of theatre work. I didn't work with masks very often, but I did study makeup, and whenever our productions needed special makeup effects - old people, mostly, but once in a while weird creatures, ghosts, and monsters - I was the one who created the makeup (and about half the time, I was also the one who wore it).

For quite a few years after school, I didn't do much of anything with masks, as I was making my living as a painter, doing illustrations for book covers, magazines, comic books, and the occasional movie poster. During the 1980s, I did some work with another painter and cartoonist by the name of Phil Foglio. Phil was a mask collector. The masks he had on his walls were mostly African and Balinese, but they got me interested again in masks generally. Sometime in the late 80s, the lady I was living with at the time wanted an owl mask, and we couldn't find a good one anywhere we looked, so I undertook to make one for her.

The owl mask I made then was really more like a helmet - it covered most of the head, down to below the ears. I made it out of plaster bandages (sometimes called Pariscraft - it's the stuff they used to make casts for broken bones out of). I built a frame for it out of armature wire - which is aluminum wire that shapes easily, usually used for making armatures (skeletons) for clay sculptures - and then layered the pariscraft over it to form the shape. The beak area I sanded and polished smooth, and then painted with airbrush, and on the rest of the head, I glued hundreds of small pheasant feathers all over, laying different colored feathers down to reproduce the colored patterns of actual owl plumage (it was a Great Horned Owl). The finished mask looked very impressive - but it weighed a ton, and hurt her head to wear it. We had to put a foam rubber pad in the top to cushion it.

I made a few other masks this way, but they weren't very practical for wearing - like the Owl, they tended to be heavy and uncomfortable.

For some years, I had been working at the New York Renaissance Festival - during the week, I did their graphics and advertising, and on the weekends, I worked there as an actor, playing Sir Francis Drake. A mutual friend from the festival introduced me to a jeweler and painter named Lauren Raine. Lauren had been selling jewelry at the faires, and was looking for a new product to branch out into. Someone had shown her a shaped leather mask, and explained how it was done. Lauren went out and bought some leather, and started experimenting with it. She showed me what she had done, and I was immediately excited by the possibilities of shaping leather. Here was a medium I could use to make masks which would be much lighter and more comfortable than the plaster masks I had been making.

Several of my earlier masks.

A couple of years later, when masks had overtaken jewelry as Lauren's primary product, she and I began making masks together. For several years, we were business partners, traveling to renfairs and craft shows around the country, selling masks and jewelry. At that time, there were very few maskmakers working in leather in this country, and almost no books about this craft. We learned the craft by trial and error, with occasional help and advice from leather workers who did standard leather stuff, like belts and wallets and pocketbooks.

At about this same time, I met and became friends with magician Jeff Magnus McBride, famous for his stage magic with masks. Jeff is one of those rare larger than life characters who also lives up to the description "a gentleman and a scholar", and he proved an invaluable resource, graciously sharing both his extensive library and his own exhaustive knowledge of masks.

Jeff also became an important client and collaborator, commissioning many masks over the next few years, contributing suggestions and ideas not only for the masks I created for him, but for my own masks as well, and I would also later work with him doing production design and posters for some of his shows. Even more valuable than the business Jeff brought me, however, was the knowledge he shared about the psychospiritual potential of masks, their transformative power, and use in shamanic practices.

The Garbage Monster Puppet.My largest mask ever.
(Okay, it was a giant puppet)

In 1994, we exhibited at the Mask Market at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. There I met a number of other leather maskmakers, and was happy to discover that the techniques Lauren and I had worked out on our own were pretty much identical to the techniques many of these other artists used. I was also quite happy when our masks were voted Best of Show by the other maskmakers.

By 1995, Lauren and I had gone our separate ways, and I had discovered the world of the Internet. I had gotten tired of life on the road, so I quit travelling to shows, and started selling masks on my web site instead.

Today, I divide my time between doing illustration and graphic design, and creating masks. Most of my mask commerce comes from the web - I do very few shows these days, and those I do attend are usually in the New England area.

If you're interested in seeing what I do with graphic design & illustration, visit my Eagleson Design website.

I'm also responsible for a series of tales, in comics and animation, about an urban shaman named Brick, and his animal allies, the crows. For more on this series, visit my RailWalker site.

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Text & images ©2003-2005 Duncan Eagleson