Conversations with Our Relations: Duane Isaac

Photo: Duane Isaac

Aanii! Dolly Berlin ndizhinikaas.

(Hello! My name is Dolly Berlin)

I am a burlesque showgirl, event-producer, and proud Indigiqueer/Bi+ mixed Ojibwe woman based in Tkaronto. Since the start of 2021, I have been collaborating with Never Apart to bring you this column highlighting Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer folks making waves in the arts.

Though I am currently spending much of my time in a new full time position away from the stage, my weekly cabaret is back in action. It’s certainly been strange adjusting from being fully masked and visored when outside the house only a few months ago to working with the public and moonlighting in an environment where patrons can remove their masks at the table next to me. In the immortal words of Valentina, “I’d like to keep it on, please.”

But beyond the piece of fabric I never leave home without, I have always loved theatrical and dress up masks. Even a tiny bandit’s style eye cover or masquerade mask adds an air of mystery. And of course, we’re coming into the best time of all, “spooky season,” so it was the perfect time to chat with 2Spirit Mi’gmaq photographer Duane Isaac. “I like to dial everything up to an 11,” Duane says, when I remark that their work reminds me of real life graphic novel characters. In addition to slick shots of beautiful people, Duane builds and photographs intricate masks that often completely cover the subject’s face. The images are stunning, and at times a little unsettling. With a variety of embellishments such as birch bark, fringe, or florals, and layers of accoutrements, the combination of the mask, model, and photography is otherworldly.

Let’s get to chatting with this creative force!

Photo: Duane Isaac

Hey Duane, Introduce Yourself!

Ooh, first day of school vibes. Well, I’m an Aries…

My name is Duane Isaac, I’m from Listuguj, QC and I’m a photographer; that’s the basics.

Your website has a pretty big catalogue of work, both masks and other photography. Which came first?

Photography was the first thing I played around with. Most photographers are there to capture something that is already there, whereas I wanted to be the one to create the image. That’s how the mask thing really started too. “How can I spice this up?”

I would love to hear more about the origin story of your masks. How did you get started?

I was at Dawson College and we had a lot of free studio time. At the time I was basically shooting stuff to post on tumblr; I was very active in the tumblr community for a bit. I would shoot a little session with my friends and post online, and I thought, “how can I liven up my work or make it more visually appealing?” I bought this generic Halloween mask from Dollarama, and thought “I’m going to embellish it and repaint it.” It started with that, and then I would be waiting a year for the next Halloween stock. Why? I needed to find a way to make them from scratch. I sort of felt compelled to allow myself to make them year round instead of waiting for once a year. It’s really secondhand to me now, I could make one with eyes closed. It comes to me easily, like all things that are done with repetition and practise.

Photo: Duane Isaac

Do you consider them more wearable pieces, sculpture art, or a muse for photography? 

They are kind of all three; part sculpture, part prop in a sense, and it’s really when the photo is taken that they come to life. They take on a personality that depends on what sort of mood they evoke and the way I set up the shoot and the editing. It all depends on the feelings and spirit that it brings about.

A lot of your masks have a dark or sinister vibe. Are you a fan of horror and the macabre in general?

There are definitely influences there, from horror. I want to invoke the natural and the unnatural together and with the more demonic, sinister stuff, that definitely comes from my love of the occult and paranormal and horror genre.

I can imagine being alone working on them almost being scary.

I tend to scare myself. I’ll be working on something and take a look at it and be like, “oh my god, what’s wrong with me?”

It’s almost like an exorcism of myself where I take all this bad juju and put it into this piece of art. I work at a local elementary/middle school and when I post work online, I have coworkers say “what is going on in your brain?” They’ll say “I love this one but that one scares me, I’m kind of worried about you.” But I swear I’m fine!

I would love to know that you have an entire room that you open up and it’s a wall full of rows upon rows of masks. 

Basically they’re stacked on every available surface. Above the cupboards they are carefully placed like tetris. The most intricate ones have to go on top.

Do you have any shoutouts or favourites in the realm of horror?

My favourite horror series growing up was Scream. I feel like that one identifies with my age group.. there were some masks there!

I’m into Creepypasta. I love any sort of shaky Youtube video with a guy running into a supposedly haunted house…and then a door door slams. There’s “Lazy Masquerade,” he does short form stories that people submit. Basically all of r/nosleep. No Sleep is something I’m always looking forward to reading, some of them are very hokey but the ones that have good writers are compelling. I also love vintage clowns. There was a horror movie, not the best, but it’s called “Clown at Midnight.” Basically students have to clean up an old theatre and this very Pagliacci type clown starts stalking them in the theatre and murders them all one by one. And I read this great book recently called “Clown in a Cornfield” by Adam Cesare. A clown is the mascot of this town and of course it turns into a slasher situation. “Clown in a Cornfield”… that sentence oozes with creepiness. A clown anywhere they don’t belong is instantly scary.

Photo: Duane Isaac

Let’s chat inspiration; how do you tend to start on a piece? What inspires you?

It’s sort of like I get a feeling about a certain idea and then say “let’s see how this would work.” Most of the time, I am out and about and I see something. “Oh, I could probably do something with this for a project.” I recently started making my own molds out of silicone. I used to have to buy 3 or 4 of every item to have enough pieces to create something. Now I can duplicate it with hot glue or resin. The most expensive supply I think I have is a foam clay that is malleable, so I can spread it about but it hardens into a beautiful smooth surface. But most of the time its hot glue. When I first started, I would basically take an already made hard surface mask and cover it in tin foil and cover the whole thing in hot glue. Like “how can I do this and make it rudimentary but faster?” I incorporated cardboard strips instead of glue, making it more lightweight but also surprisingly sturdier. I worked my way into this method where I can basically turn cardboard scraps into what you see in my posts.

The variety of embellishments are stunning. What are your favourite materials to work with? 

Basically it just has to inspire me. If I’m not inspired by the material, I won’t get anywhere. Tons of times I’ve tried to force it and if it doesn’t come naturally, I end up taking it apart. There’s a few that I’ve had to go back to the drawing board.

There are also some fetish vibes in your work so I’d love your opinion. Pre-pandemic, I think masks were viewed as a kink thing or maybe a queer leather thing, but now you see celebrities wearing fetish hoods to public events. Where do you see this going? 

The thing about masks is it allows you to erase the features that are there already; you can be anybody under a mask. That’s also the kind of aspect that I love about horror. A person in a mask is a wild card, you don’t know who is underneath or why. With fashion shows there is sort of this larger aesthetic if you bypass the person’s face. It’s just more real estate that we’re not really utilizing. Our clothes show our personalities. I’m all for them becoming more popular. I’m going to do what I’ve always done, I’m not worried about it being mainstream. If Kim Kardashian did a whole series of masks I’d be fine with it.

Photo: Duane Isaac

How has the pandemic affected your work?

Last year I had a lot of downtime so I made a lot of masks, but the problem is the human element, the models. I wish I could do a self portrait kind of thing but that’s not the case. Last year I had someone who lived nearby who could come around but now I’m being more cautious when it comes to covid and having to make sure everyone is vaccinated and hasn’t been in contact with any recent cases. I’m trying to be responsible but at the same time I’m wanting to get things done so it’s a hard balance. I feel like if I don’t produce work I’m going to lose momentum.

It’s also been the best year for me as well. In the last year I’ve gotten attention from different publications, and this year I did my first exhibition. I was a part of QAF; I always think “queer as fuck” and have to stop myself. Queer Arts Festival. We had a show, curated by Jeffrey McNeil-Seymour and SD Holman at SUM gallery in Vancouver.

They did a massive projection on the walls, 10 or 15 feet high; we worked back and forth as to which we wanted to pick. It was easier to project them rather than say print one image that would be that large. It offered up more variety as well; a revolving series of images didn’t limit what I could contribute.

I’m going to be doing a solo show too in February or March of next year so I will be working on some new pieces. Hopefully I can shoot them. So yeah, some magazine covers and exhibitions; for me it brought a lot of positivity which was a refresher.

Do you ever create on a commission basis or purely your own ideas and inspiration?

As far as the masks, I never like to copy someone else’s idea. I try to come from a place of originality, even though it’s almost impossible these days. The idea of making something that’s a specific character or person or thing is met with resistance.

And I’m afraid of how they’ll travel. I recently sent some to a collaborator, she’s a fabulous painter and is going to photograph people wearing the masks I made for her specifically and paint the whole scene. I think it’s going to be a great project but I had to get someone I knew to drive them. I can’t just stick them in a box and pray for the best.

What is next for you? Any plans for a Halloween mask?

I usually make my Halloween mask, I’m not really feeling it right now, maybe in a couple weeks I’ll get inspired to make a mask.

My solo show at the SUM gallery in Vancouver is what I have on the docket. We’re working on it right now, discussing what we’re going to put into it. It will physically be at the gallery but I always post my work. “Follow me on Instagram!”


Duane’s online store:

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