A few years ago, at German Fest in Milwaukee, I spent some time in the Culture Tent watching a man carve masks. He was swarmed by people watching his artistry. The way he carefully chipped away wood to reveal a face, as if by magic. The special wooden masks or Larvae worn by the Muller Fasching Verein can’t be found in a store, they need to be carved by a skilled Master Craftsman. Luckily, the Wisconsin based group doesn’t have to travel, because Bryan Berenson, a master carver who trained in Austria, lives right in their backyard. But it’s not just wooden masks! Bryan’s favorite pieces are Nativity Scenes, large and small…he’s even done some amazing Church Altars.
So how did a man from Hartland, Wisconsin end up specializing in Old World wood and stone carving? I’m delighted that Bryan reached out to me to share his story.
Photos shared with permission from Bryan Berenson
The Road to Master Sculptor
After high school, Bryan joined the military. While stationed in Germany, he spent much of his off-hours touring churches and admiring the sculptures. His job as a military diesel mechanic came to an end when reactive arthritis made it too painful to continue. Back home he worked for a while as a diesel mechanic for Caterpillar, then went to school for mechanical engineering. But nothing felt quite right. Then one Christmas Bryan received an instruction book for carving a Santa Claus from his parents that must have planted a seed. What started as a simple hobby took his life in a new direction.
When he came across an advertisement for a two-week traditional wood carving course in Tyrol, he and his wife flew over for a vacation. Bryan felt right at home in Austria and at the school. As he told me, “It was then that I had a ‘lightbulb moment’ with the smell of pine in the air that I knew this was the career I wanted to follow”. He decided to stay.
This wasn’t just a whim or quick fix. The program at the Geisler-Moroder Woodcarving School in Elbigenalp (Tyrol) took 5 years to complete. Bryan would spend 3 or 4 weeks in Austria, then fly home for a month or two, then repeat the process. FOR FIVE YEARS! (and I thought 45 minutes was a long school commute! thank goodness for frequent flyer miles!) During that time, he learned woodcarving, stone carving, and bronze sculpting, all part of the requirements to become a journeyman sculptor.
While the school in Austria focused on wood, Bryan got to spend a month in Carrara Italy working on marble, taken from the same quarry where Michelangelo chose his blocks. “In Carrara Italy I was immersed in the culture of sculpting stone and in Tirol, Austria I was immersed in the culture of sculpting wood. Doubly Blessed!”
And, since all examinations are given in German… he added language lessons to his already busy schedule.
Then, after one final 8 hour exam, he was finished, and could finally go home for good. Sort of.
After a few years as journeyman, Bryan wanted more. He went back to Austria to take an additional 11-week sculpting course spread over two years, and yet another course on working with apprentices (required, because a Master can take on apprentices to pass along the skills). It was in Vienna that he visited the Bauhaus (building for workers) of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. He was allowed behind the scenes to see the attic workroom filled with scale models of the cathdral, as well as spare gargoyles and roof tiles, where another Master Sculptor spends his days creating and replicating carvings for the Cathedral. Standing on the unseen balconies high above the city gave him a close up look at the ornamental carvings that people on the ground never see. It was the experience of a lifetime. And it made dragging home the heavy piece of Sandstone rescued from the refuse pile well worth it!
It all ended in an week-long exam. The result… Bryan Berenson passed with honors and became one of the few master sculptors in the US, trained in the European style.
Mask Maker, Mask Maker… make me a mask…
While still studying in Austria Bryan noticed one of his teachers carving a crazy looking mask. The teacher told him it was going to Wisconsin, to a member of the Muller Fasching Verein. WHAT? This was happening near his home, so naturally, he joined. (But identities are secret… so I don’t know which character he plays) Today, he makes all the Muller masks, and many of the masks for the Narren of New Ulm, Minnesota.
Wooden masks present an interesting challenge because they need to be made-to-order to fit properly. Many of the “characters” are based on tradition, so the look is set. Although Bryan does say that each mask takes on a bit of the wearer’s personality. There is a lot more artistic freedom when it comes to the witches. Each of the witches is unique and based on a collaboration between Bryan and the wearer. Big noses, giant warts, long chins… I loved seeing them bustle around at German Fest!
(Naturally, I had to ask… Each weighs in at somewhere from 12-16 oz for the regular masks, and the witches are heavier, 16 oz because of the big noses! The heaviest masks are the Krampus and Perchten masks, because of the horns. Masks traditionally get carved from pine, because it’s lighter, and smells nice.) (I’m thinking they smell like beer by the end of the season…)
Nativity Scenes show the True Meaning of Christmas
Over the course of his career, Bryan Berenson has carved many beautiful pieces, including a rocking horse for his son and a marble statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. But by far, his favorite subject to carve is a Nativity scene. He tells me, “I have a deep passion for carving nativity figures. For one thing I feel that God has given me a talent to share, and nativity sets are a great way for me to glorify God and show what the true meaning of Christmas is. I believe my strength is in portraying emotion through my sculptures, and I feel that I can show all of the subtle different emotions in a nativity scene.”
He carves both modern and traditional nativities, changing the clothing, but not the emotion or body language, for each style. Every year he gifts his church a new figure to add to the set because, as he says, “seeing the reaction of people as they see the new figure each year is always a Christmas gift for me!”
And every year, he adds a new figure to the set he’s carving for his son. A priceless gift indeed.
Handmade, a Lost Art
Carving pieces by hand, the time it takes, the effort and skill, is becoming a lost art here in the United States. It’s quicker and cheaper to mass manufacture ornaments or accept inferior quality. Seeing a talented person take a simple block of wood or stone and transform it to a statue or mask loaded with personality, makes me wonder how we ever learned to accept less. These pieces are timeless, and everlasting, much like those statues that a younger Bryan Berenson admired in Germany so many years ago.
I want to thank Bryan for spending so much time with me to help share his story. He did most of my job for me!
Today Bryan carves mostly on commission out of his studio in Hartland, Wisconsin. You can see more of his work and contact him here.