When Eric Auger and Joe Pari decided to bring their love of expression and costume to WaterFire nearly a decade back, they hadn’t the slightest idea how their passion for performance art would develop into a full-fledged studio and staff. The long-time friends began by crafting and donning their now-iconic Gargoyles as they came to life on the fire-lit banks of the Providence River for a bit of fun. As the public gathered to admire the intricate craftsmanship and immersive creativity, interest piqued and it wasn’t long before queries started rolling in.
Thus Ten31 was born, taking its name from the holiday where everyone embraces their imagination and make believe, Halloween. “It was validation,” Pari said of the initial response and public interest in their living statues. Suddenly, the pair were creating for a reason. First came the crew of Nutcrackers commissioned for a holiday event, closely followed by the White Birch trees. Each custom-order was a new undertaking, with Auger and Pari handcrafting and painting unique designs that were carefully fabricated pieces of fine art while remaining wearable.
Their costume collection grew as customer requests diversified, with finishes from bronzes and gold, to white marble and patina, and characters spanning history, cultures, nature and professions. Once a new costume was debuted, it came back to the closet, ready for future events and engagements, and as the closet grew, so did Ten31’s team of craftsman and women, producers and performers.
When I visit their new workshop space in Pawtucket, the true artisanship shines through. Boots with shiny new buttons line in a row and golden floral masks just back from a Boston Ballet benefit await careful cleaning and return to their categorized place. No detail goes unnoticed.
As I step into the closet, rows and rows of costumes hang in garment bags and open cabinets reveal gilded hats, masks and an array of accessories. It’s a dress-up-lover’s dream, and Auger and Pari have been eager to open their cabinet of handicrafts to the public at recent in-studio events. They proudly share that 90% of the costumes are still produced in-studio – sewn, painted and perfected by a team of local artists. One look at their mermaid tail, covered in over 1,000 hand-cut and custom painted scales, and the worksmanship speaks for itself.
Ten31’s three-dimensional experiences allow art into unexpected places. Whether faces of hall-of-famers past for opening day at Fenway, topiary centerpieces at a wedding, or even a Jimi Hendrix statue that’s seen his fair share of private parties, the characters are all brought to life by a producer-performer team. Auger tells me that a storyline is integrated into each act, allowing audience to see past the per- son or the sculpture and be immersed in the beauty of the art. It’s art that is universally accessible. Some people get swept into their imaginations. Others tap into memories. Even the most reluctant viewer can relate to the humanity behind the mask.
“When you’re wearing a mask in front of someone, it gives people permission to speak freely,” says Auger of the unique and sometimes overwhelmingly personal audience reactions. At WaterFire, it’s not uncommon for a visitor to lean in and tell the Gargoyles a secret. It’s all a part of the connection, “transforming the energy the way any piece of artwork will successfully do,” says Pari.
The performers not only acknowledge these powerful moments, they embrace them, taking the energy from the crowd and both utilizing and recirculating it. Whether through silence or through movement, anyone who’s watched one of the statues in action knows that even the smallest of acknowledgments fail to go unnoticed.
Time seems to slow down around the pieces of living art. People hush, and contemplate, much in the way they would in a museum. There’s something spectacular about seeing that same reaction re-contextualized. It’s the moment when the public eye first sees the art in the everyday.