Carving A Career Out Of Mardi Gras Masks
Bryan Berenson credits his career to fate. At 21 years old, he was diagnosed with arthritis.
“I was a diesel mechanic,” Berenson said, “I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was literally crawling on my knees.”
Berenson quit his job and took a trip to Europe with his wife. He enrolled in an Austrian woodcarving school he’d read about in a magazine. Berenson spent five years in an apprenticeship program, eventually becoming a certified master sculptor. Berenson says it was difficult because he had to refine his carving skills while learning another language.
“The exam is in German,” Berenson said, “I did excellent in an exam, and everything worked out.”
Berenson now works full time as a sculptor in his Waukesha County home. He carves and restores statues, signs and artwork for clients around the country.
“Every day it’s something new. It’s something interesting,” Berenson said, “I typically have two, three projects going on at one time.”
Owning his business allowed Berenson to set his own hours and manage his arthritis.
“I can’t stand too long and I can’t sit too long,” Berenson said, “I do a combination of the two, and it seems to work out.”
During class in Austria, he saw his teacher working on a mask. That’s when fate carved out Berenson’s most unique project.
“He told me this mask is going to America, and I said ‘Really, where?’ and he told me Milwaukee, and then I thought he was kidding me,” Berenson said.
That mask was going to a member of the Muller Fasching Verein, an Austrian Mardi Gras club based in Milwaukee.
“It turned out these guys were performing right across the street from where I lived and I had absolutely no idea about it,” Berenson said.
Berenson joined the club when he returned to the United States. The Mullers perform at events around Milwaukee between Three Kings’ Day in January and Fat Tuesday in February or March. Milwaukee’s Mullers are connected to a sister Mardi Gras club in Innsbruck, Austria, and strictly adhere to their sister club’s rules. During performances, members dress up in Austrian attire and wear cartoonish, and sometimes creepy, wooden masks. Berenson not only dances in the group, he was eventually hired to carve all of their masks.
“They’re typically very creepy, very scary masks,” Berenson said, “There’s a lot of character in them and that’s what I enjoy about them.”
A typical performance consists of several choreographed dances that are meant to scare away winter and welcome spring. Berenson usually plays a witch, his mask sporting a sunken face with wrinkled, pale skin and a large, bird-like nose. Other masks range from goat-like creatures to human faces with haunting missshaped features. Even though the masks are scary, the performances are upbeat and fun. Audiences seem to enjoy saying goodbye to winter with the Muller Fasching Verein every year and Berenson is happy to play his part in creating the show.
Having a Master Sculptor in the family comes in handy during Halloween. Bryan Berenson describes crafting special Halloween masks for his son.