Where We Work: The ‘Mask Man’ Displays His Collection

Posted: November 11, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Christopher Anzalone

Walking into Professor Michael Behrmann’s office, one is immediately greeted by an array of carefully sculpted faces looking down from the walls. Behrmann’s office in Krug Hall is full of masks: dark wooden masks from Africa, Inuit masks from Alaska, and carnival masks from New Orleans and Latin America. The variety and quantity of these masks, along with statues acquired from around the globe and a Tibetan rug displayed on the floor, make his office one of the most unique at George Mason.

When he was in the midst of his doctoral studies during the 1970s, Behrmann’s “workaholic tendencies” began to emerge, so the director of the Helen A. Kellar Institute for Human DisAbilities and a professor in the College of Education and Human Development decided to strike a balance between work and home. “It was back then that I made the decision to work and work on the job-not at home,” says Behrmann. “I spend long hours in my office, so I very rarely take any work home with me.” It was because of those long hours that Behrmann decided to create a work space that was pleasant and enjoyable.

He received his first mask, one from Alaska made out of caribou and wool, from a friend in high school. His interest in masks continued throughout his years as an undergraduate student, when, even as a biology major, he took “lots of art history courses, from African to Asian.” Although he has yet to visit Africa, an entire wall of Behrmann’s office is covered by African tribal masks, including some purchased by his parents during a trip along the coast of East Africa.

Michael Behrmann
Michael Behrmann with part of his mask collection.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

The remainder of his collection is made up of a wide array of masks from other world regions. “I actually have so many masks that my wife won’t let me hang them all up at home,” laughs Behrmann. “So, many of the masks in my office are surplus, when my wife said, ‘Okay, you have enough of them on the wall at home.’ I actually have a basement room full of masks at home.” Among the pieces Behrmann has collected are several masks he purchased while traveling in Asia, including masks from Japan, South Korea, and China.

One of the jewels of Behrmann’s collection is an Alaskan mask carved from the vertebrae of a whale that dates to about 1830. From St. Lawrence Island, this two-sided mask was originally used to hold down the side of an Inuit tent. “When the village patriarch would die, they would take the mask off the tent, turn it upside down on its head, and leave it there until a new baby was born, when they would put it back,” says Behrmann.

One bird-like mask, from the Indonesian island of Bali, looms down from the wall with enlarged, piercing eyes. “One of the deals my wife and I have is that all the ‘scary’ masks come here,” says Behrmann. “When my children were young, she didn’t want the ‘scary’ masks around the house. So, most of what she calls the ‘evil’ masks wound up in the office.”

His office also includes a woven rug and a mask made by Tibetan refugees in India, which Behrmann purchased while he was teaching. He has also hung up a mask of a pirate that one of his sons made in third grade. A papier-mâché mask made by his other son hangs at home.

Behrmann says that his office art is much different from the theme he and his wife decided on for their home. “There are more paintings and photographs of people,” says Behrmann. “And the masks at home mesh with them.”

The Daily Gazette profiles the unique and interesting work spaces on Mason’s campus. Do you have a creative way of decorating your office space? E-mail gazette@gmu.edu and let us know about where you work.

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