"From the beginning of time people have always wanted to be something or someone else — even if it's just for one day or a special occasion. The queen wants to be a courtesan. The peasant wants to be royalty. It goes all the way back to when man created those cave drawings depicting humans wearing the heads of animals."
John Maskerville knows well the allure of transformation.
He has been in the business of it for more than 16 years, ever since he pitched cigarettes, booze and his given name of John McBride, and traded a hectic, high-powered consulting job and the high rises of New York City for a career as a mask-maker in the tropics of Florida.
His masks are meant to be comfortable, yet sturdy enough for those who would rather cover a wall than their face. Tools of the trade include X-ACTO knives, hot glue guns and benign, wearable materials such as vegetable-dyed leather, hypoallergenic felt and buckram, an old millinery material made from cotton and flour.
Then there are the feathers — "all recycled from birds that have been eaten," he says, and bathed in lavender oil before the plumage is gingerly plucked from the pelts of 25 to 30 different species of fowl: golden pheasants, ring necked pheasants, peacocks.
His creations are often elaborate, the kind of thing that might catch your eye if you saunter into the Uptown Gallery in Dade City, where Maskerville has a couple of examples on display.
Still, he's not comfortable with the "artist" label.
"I see myself as a craftsman," he said. "This is labor intensive work; meticulous and repetitive work."
Work that has an appeal in the global market.
"Masks are a cultural phenomenon. They exist in every single culture on the planet," said Maskerville, 63, who was born and raised in the shadow of Robin Hood's Sherwood Forest, in Lincolnshire, England. "They have existed throughout history. They are used for protection; for celebration at Carnivale and other festive occasions. Hockey players wear masks. The medicine man wears a mask, as does the tribal hunter. Some are necessary, like the surgeon or executioner's mask."
But transformation is the key for Maskerville's clients, who pay anywhere from $20 to $600 for his creations.
"When you're putting on a mask you can really become anything you want to be," said Maskerville, whose patrons include celebrities such as Madonna, Emmylou Harris, Dustin Hoffman and a therapist in Hawaii who uses masks to help treat withdrawn patients. Add to that the costume designers for small and large stage productions, costume shop owners, strippers and others simply in need of a fix for Halloween, Mardi Gras, a masquerade ball or perhaps a fanciful wedding where the bride's option "can be princess or goth."
Maskerville started out small in Key West, just dabbling in a favored hobby of his late partner, Gregory Kay. He was originally responsible for running the business side of their mask-making venture, but when sales were suddenly boosted by hoards of paradise pretenders at Key West's 10-day Fantasy Fest, he started helping out in the workshop.
"As it turned out, I was pretty good at it," said Maskerville, who became the sole proprietor after Kay's death from pancreatic cancer in 1999.
It took off from there. Soon he was coming up with his own designs, including a bug-eyed mask made with clear, plastic globes covered with fishnet stocking material for Key West's mosquito patrol.
He opened a small shop there, but also took his show on the road, selling masks with artisans of all sorts at Orlando's Nude Night and at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. That's where he was discovered by Cirque du Soleil. Eight years ago he submitted his first design and joined a small stable of mask-makers supplying wares for the Cirque's traveling shows. The turn from retail to commercial and the need for more work space, along with a spate of hurricanes, prompted his relocation to northeast Pasco.
Halloween and Mardi Gras are typically boom times for Maskerville, who also sells a good portion of his masks online along with selected tiaras, head dresses and lamp shades. But business has been brisk lately, with a big order for Cirque du Soleil that has him pulling all-nighters to churn out hundreds of feather masks from his modest workshop on a vast, wooded spread that he shares with three cats.
Maskerville figures that only 10 percent of the population would ever consider wearing one of his masks. But everyone wears a mask of some kind, he says.
"You're a different person when you talk to your mother, than when you talk to your child, your lover, your friend," Maskerville said. "Bosses wear them when they fire people. Sometimes you have to internally steel yourself, so even though you might want to cry, you wear a mask. You change into something else."