Locals collect Mardi Gras masks for their beauty and intrigue
It is as if a cage sprang open and the subsequently freed birds found perches on the walls inside Mary and Lee Branum’s historic island home in the 3400 block of Avenue L.
Granted, they represent fowl never before seen, each unique in the true sense of the word, birds disguised as Mardi Gras masks.
Mary Branum, as Christmas began to give way to Twelfth Night — the onset of Mardi Gras — showed a visitor around, pointing out the couple’s select collection of such masks, each handmade, each more elaborate than the one before it.
Mary Branum began collecting these rare Mardi Gras masks some 30 years ago, a matter of serendipity coupled with an eye for artisanal skill.
“I was attracted to them because of their beauty,” she said of the handmade masks she acquired, most from New Orleans, one in Venice, Italy, which boasts its own centuries-old Mardi Gras celebration. “Each of these masks is a true work of art. Each one is so unique. It’s like walking into a gallery, and a piece of art catches your eye.”
Each of the old-school relics is an amalgam of feathers and felt, each an elaborate, almost seductive, mask that at once hides its wearer’s identity even as it reveals elements of personality otherwise typically concealed.
“My family moved to New Orleans from San Francisco when I was 11, and that’s when I experienced my first Mardi Gras,” Mary Branum said. “I’ve loved Mardi Gras ever since.”
Mardi Gras originally was a Christian celebration of the day — Fat Tuesday is the English translation of the French phrase — that precedes Ash Wednesday, which ushers in Lent.
The latter is a period of sacrifice leading up to Easter, the culmination of the religion’s origin story, that of the resurrection of Christ on Easter morning.
“In the beginning, masks worn during Mardi Gras allowed wearers to escape society and class constraints.” according to Mardi Gras New Orleans. “When wearing a mask, carnival goers were free to be whomever they wanted to be, and mingle with whatever class they desired to mingle with.”
The first year Mardi Gras was celebrated on a grand scale in Galveston was 1871.
Today, handmade masks are increasingly difficult to find. For one, they’ve never been inexpensive, and for another, mass manufacturing has undercut the artisans who create them.
One such Galveston purveyor is the Star Drug Store in the city’s historic downtown.
“We keep our prices affordable, from, I’d say, $8 to $45, because they’re not handmade,” said Natili Monsrud, owner and manager of the popular eatery, while standing inside the horseshoe counter and greeting a visitor as breakfast diners funneled in. “We have the luxury to do so because we’re not in the retail business.”
Star Drug sells the masks year-round.
“A lot of people buy our masks for masquerade parties other than Mardi Gras,” she said. “Others buy them for proms and theme parties. Some also wear them for after-Christmas parties.”
Yet, Mardi Gras remains the biggest lure.
“Leading up to Mardi Gras, we’ll sell around 100 masks,” Monsrud said.
Mardi Gras masks — handmade or by commercial means — have one thing in common: They are almost all feathered — plumage plucked from peacocks and chickens, from turkeys and pheasants, even the common crow and the esoteric marabou, an African stork known for its unique, almost rope-like plumage.
While Galveston’s historic downtown prepares to accommodate thousands of locals and visitors this Mardi Gras season — Fat Tuesday is Feb. 13 this year — many will don masks, some simple, many elaborate, all containing an element of the uncommon.
“Each one is so unique,” Mary Branum said of her and her husband’s collection, which occupies walls throughout their 1867 house.
“History means so much to us,” Lee Branum said. “And Mardi Gras, like so many other things, helps develop a sense of history and a culture that no one ever wants to lose.”