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Yvonne Abraham

Death masks put a face on history

BROOKLINE — It’s an unusual hobby.

Bob Weeks collects death masks — casts of mostly well-known people’s lifeless faces. Now he wants to share them with the world.

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Time was, face casts were made of everybody who was anybody — some after death, some before. Over the last 10 years, Weeks has amassed a huge collection of 800 pre- and post-mortem masks, most of serious notables, like Pope Pius IX, John Dillinger, William Blake, Xavier Cugat, and Timothy Leary.

Weeks, 54, isn’t quite sure how he got to this abundant state. He saw his first mask, of Abraham Lincoln, at an exhibit in Washington, D.C., when he was 12. The fact that it had been cast from a mold that had touched Lincoln’s face made Weeks feel as if he had defied the laws of time.

A computer illustrator and history buff, Weeks remembers feeling the same wonder when he bought his first mask a decade ago — it was of Alfred Hitchcock. The director led to another, then another, and so on. Some of Weeks’s masks cost thousands, others considerably less. Some are cheap and crude, others finely detailed. He’s especially proud of his Bela Lugosi, on which there are traces of tobacco from the actor’s lips. What does one do with hundreds of items most people have no idea exist and might consider creepy if they did? Weeks wants to build a museum for them.

His International Life Cast Museum (“The term ‘death mask’ can turn people off,” he says) is currently on the drawing board and in need of funding. For years, Weeks has been sinking his own money into a dream not many people share yet. But his commitment appears undiminished. “This is an incredibly unique resource,” he says. “It is preservation of history in the third dimension.”

He sees the museum as a place where people will learn not only about well-known, long-gone figures, but also about little-known people with remarkable stories — like the Holocaust survivors whose faces he has been having cast for a while now. He wants their tales to be the museum’s centerpiece.

A few survivors gathered in a sunny room at Epoch Assisted Living in Chestnut Hill on Monday morning to have their faces added to the collection. There, Weeks stood by a table where he’d laid out some of his gems. The faces of Napoleon I, Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and Ludwig van Beethoven lay on velvet beds, looking rather peaceful. Now and then, residents stopped by and marveled at Weeks’s display. Others parked themselves in chairs to watch the survivors being immortalized.

First was Marika Barnett, a funny, stylish 78-year-old. The software engineer and photographer was a child when the Holocaust came to Hungary, and her family hid her with a succession of Christian protectors, with whom she had close calls as soldiers went through their homes, searching for Jews.

Artist Jeff Buccacio, who has been casting the survivors’ faces for the museum, put a trash bag over Barnett’s clothes and a cap over her hair and told her to relax. He piled thick, goopy alginate on her forehead and it rolled slowly down her face, over her closed eyes, her nose, her chin. She sat perfectly still as Buccacio worked the alginate into her features, then layered on plaster strips. After about five minutes, when the strips had hardened, the artist asked Barnett to wiggle her face, and he eased off the mask.

“That’s how I will look like when I’m dead,” Barnett said, delighted by Buccacio’s work.

Seeing the survivors’ masks, more immediate than any photograph, you find yourself hoping that Weeks’s quest isn’t as quixotic as it seems. It would be something to tell so many people’s tales in this confronting way.

So how did did Barnett remain so still while her face was encased in plaster? Pretty easily, Barnett said. She has a trick for maintaining control. “At one point, I felt like coughing,” she said. “I told myself, ‘I can’t cough, the Germans are searching for me.’ It works every time.”

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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