The Contessa's Confidant

No Excuses

Posted by Jennifer Syas on 31 January, 2019 0 comments

I use the phrase a lot, no excuses. I feel like it's time to explain what I mean by that. I feel like it sounds... aggressive. Like I'm saying it to you. No excuses! But I'm not. I'm saying it to myself. I realized at a certain point that there were a lot of reasons NOT to work on my art. Life, kids, medical conditions. It was really easy to put off prioritizing my art, and if I let those reasons get in the way... I would put it off forever. So I made the conscious decision to stop finding the excuses not to make art and to just do it. That's where the 100 Days and 365 Days of Arts & Sciences comes in. Even if it's only 10 minutes a day (though so far, not a single day has been only 10 minutes!) I'm going to work on my art every day. I'm making it a priority. Any time I start to think, oh I'm tired, my back hurts, dishes still need to be done... I stop my self. Say "No Excuses" and just do it. There will always be reasons not to, it was time for me to find the reasons TO do it.  I don't know that this mentality will work for everyone, but it's working for me. If it helps you too, then awesome! We all have to find what motivates us to be our best selves.

Phoenix Mask

Posted by Jennifer Syas on 09 April, 2017 0 comments

The inspiration for the Phoenix Mask came from seeing a peacock take off in flight at a zoo. You don't see many pictures or videos of peacocks flying around. Most of the images are of the peacock standing still, displaying the full fan of his tail, but the moment I saw that peacock take off, and the way his tail flowed behind him, I understood why eastern style art depicted phoenixes as looking more peacock like than eagle like. So even when I first designed the peacock mask for a friend of mine, I already had that desire to show a flying peacock as a phoenix. 

Something that may seem surprising is the the Phoenix Mask is probably the design that takes me the longest. Cutting out and carving the mask is much the same as the peacock mask. It has pointier wing feathers, some sparks coming off the wings, and different feathers coming off the head. 


Both the peacock and the phoenix are very detailed to paint. The main difference is that while the metallic paint may take two or three coats to get good coverage over a dark dye, the flat paints can take 5 or more! The blending, layers and details take a considerable amount of time.

    

The painting of this mask alone takes me 11 hours or more. The yellow alone takes 7 or 8.



This is why I say my masks are a labor of love. I may not be making a lot for the hours put into the design, but I feel that it's worth it, because it is such an eye catching and striking mask.

Making a Mask

Posted by Jennifer Syas on 09 January, 2017 1 comment

One of the questions I get most often is, "How do you make a mask?" On seeing them, some people don't realize that masks are made of leather. A lot of people think I use some kind of mold, or form. I don't, I often rest them on a Styrofoam head to dry, but just so they stay the way I formed them. Some designs I can let dry just standing up on my desk.

It can be a long process to explain, and I don't think the list really helps people picture it, so I've created a time lapse video of the whole process, start to finish. (The one step I don't show is spraying it with sealant, since I do that outside.)

The steps I go through are as follows:

     • take a piece of 6-7 oz vegtan leather and soak it in cool water. 

     •dry off the leather so it's not dripping

     •trace the pattern onto the leather

     •cut out the mask

     •carve the design into the mask

     •round of the edges of the leather on the front and back (there is an edging tool for pieces with a simpler outline, but since it doesn't fit in between the feathers of the wings, I just use my Xacto blade for the whole thing. Also, I normally do this step before the carving, but making the video made me a little nervous so I did it out of order.)

     •mold the mask into the desired shape

     •set the mask to dry, usually overnight.

     •dye the mask

     •paint the mask, with multiple coats

     •sign the mask

     •(this is when I would seal the mask, not shown in the video)

     •cut ribbons, melting the ends to prevent fraying

     •attach ribbons

     •The mask is finished! 

     I hope you enjoyed our video! If you have any questions or comments, we'd love to hear them. If you have an ideas for future blog posts, we'd love to hear that too!

When your passion becomes your business

Posted by Jennifer Syas on 04 January, 2017 1 comment

  I meet a lot of very talented people, and I get a lot of questions from people who want to take their craft or their art and turn it into a business. I want to be encouraging and supportive, but what screams inside my head is "This is not for everyone!" The old adage "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life", that's only partially true.  It might be more true if you find a ready made job you love doing, but when you take your passion and make it into a business,  you're no longer just doing what you love, you're also running a business. 
  The biggest frustration I see for people starting their own business is they make some things,  make an etsy page or a Facebook page,  tell their friends about it and then sit back and wait for the sales to come rolling in. It doesn't happen,  and they get very discouraged.  There are two main areas they may be neglecting: marketing and the market.  We'll start with marketing.  Telling your friends and asking them to spread the word is a great start, but you can't place the main burden of your success on them.  They're your friends,  not your employees. You need to spend at least as much time promoting yourself as you do actually creating things to sell. Building a professional website.  Social media accounts. Oh man, social media accounts.  There are so many ways to connect with your audience.  Use them. Build your brand. And give people a reason to follow you.  Your friends and family might like your Facebook page just because you're you,  but why should anyone else?  Pictures, contests, special deals, blog posts, and tutorials are just some many great ways to reach out to new customers and keep them coming back. 
  Once you give people a reason to look at your products,  you need to give them a reason to buy them.  Now we look at the market.  There are 3 main components to look at.  Is your product desirable? There needs to be an audience who wants or needs your product. Is your product valuable? The quality of your product needs to live up to what you are asking people to pay. Is your product unique? There's nothing new under the sun,  but it's important to have your own take on things;  express your own point of view. Having a personal twist or technique is part of why people want handmade items over mass manufacturing. 
  Part of the appeal trying to make a living selling your art is the draw of being self employed. Making your own hours,  being your own boss. Working when you want,  where you want.  And it's true that it does allow a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to things like picking up a sick kid at school,  or preferring to work from home at odd hours. But what it also means is that there no clocking out, no vacations,  no sick time.  It means you might work 100 hours one week and not get paid. Or worse yet,  work 100 hours and only spend money. Running your own business is like having a child. You need to take care of it 24/7/365, especially when it's young.
  The responsibility is on you,  the financial risk is on you,  and if things go wrong,  there's really no one to blame but yourself. But. You are in control of your own direction. Every success is your success. They sometimes say "There's no quicker way to hate what you do than to turn it in to a business",  but that doesn't have to be true either.  Through hard work,  perseverance,  creativity,  and more hard work,  you can build something you can truely be proud of, and share your passion with the world. 

Masks vs Glasses - Why Not Both?

Posted by Jennifer Syas on 29 November, 2016 0 comments

One of the most common things I hear from disappointed would-be customers is “I can’t wear masks, I have glasses.” I completely understand this obstacle. I wear contacts myself, but there have been times when I was stuck with my glasses for a while and faced the same dilemma. Without my glasses, I can’t see more than foot away from my face. Just taking them off is not an option.

 

What made me first tackle the problem of masks and glasses, however, was my oldest son, T. He’s 6 now, and he’s had glasses since he was 4. He loves that I make masks. He’s been trying to “help” since he was 2, he’s made some very cool leather projects of his own, and he’s always giving me ideas for new designs. (His most recent idea is a zombie head with lanterns coming out of its ears.) He tells me he wants to make masks for people when he grows up. So how could I not find a way for him to be able to wear masks of his own?

What I discovered after various trials is that there are a multitude of ways to work around glasses: work the glasses over the mask, under the mask, have the mask around the glasses, even building prescription lenses into the mask itself! The way in which I would handle working with the glasses would depend entirely on the design, but it’s really exciting to me to be able to know there are options. Glasses don’t have to define your costume or your cosplay or your garb. Finding creative solutions is one of my favorite parts of the art making process, and I look forward to more opportunities to bring these creative visions to life.

Unmask the Contessa

Posted by Dan Beaudoin on 22 November, 2016 0 comments

I am Contessa Esselia (Pronounced ken-TE-suh EE-seel-ee-uh), but behind the mask, I am Jennifer Syas, the sole artist and operator of Contessa Esselia's Curiosities. I began my career as an illustrator,  and a graduate of Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, MA. I married the love of my life the same day I graduated college. He's was wonderfully supportive and encouraging. Over time, however, I had to focus on a day job more,  and freelancing less. I still created,  but I tried new things.  I apprenticed as a tattoo artist for a while.  I learned I loved the way art could interact with the human body,  but the limited canvas space for each person and not being able to change things up for different occasions were down sides for me.  I got involved with a medieval fantasy larp, which introduced to some new mediums, including leatherworking. Tattooing and Leatherworking were interesting to me because they were both mediums which allowed me to feature my illustrations, but in very different ways. I had always loved the molded leather masks I had seen at Renaissance faires, so I tried that out and found that I could combine my interests into art that worked with the human body that would last, but could also be taken off and put back on as often as you could want. 
Shortly after we had our first son, in 2010, I discovered steampunk and feel instantly in love.  The combination of brown leather and brass is one of my favorite combinations ever. The whole aesthetic of the genre,  the call back to victorian craftsmanship,  spoke to me. It was a time when attention to detail and pride in your work really mattered.  I did my first show the following year with a mix of jewelry,  leather masks, and fascinators. I think I only has 3 styles of mask at that show.  The octopus, the 1st ivy leaf design,  and the flying raven.  Even being woefully underprepaired for a show,  even having a display so small that people looked at me and said "That's it?" the masks were already sparking an interest.  By the time my son was two I had a choice,  accept a full time position at my job,  and spend more money on childcare than I was making;  or really pursue this leatherworking thing,  and work on my own schedule doing what I love. That's a pretty easy choice to make. 
The rest has been a 5 year journey of growth and improvement. I try to go bigger for each show or each season.  I have so many ideas,  it's finding the time to execute them that's the problem. Our fastest mask still takes about 7 hours to make each one, but I love what I do.  Even the designs I have made dozens of by now,  I never get board.  Each piece is unique.  The curve of each line,  the bend of the leather,  the brightness of the paint;  no two ever come out just alike.  I want to make art that is functional, accessible, but beautiful; something that can bring a bit of fantasy into your life. 
My husband and I have two boys now,  3 & 6 years old, and Contessa Esselia's Curiosities is busier than its ever been.  It's a tough balance, and one I'm still working on. But I love this work,  and I wouldn't trade it.  I look forward to bringing more of my ideas to life,  and sharing them with all of you! 

The Story of the Wayfarer Mask

Posted by Jennifer Syas on 10 November, 2016 0 comments

One of my most popular designs, especially when seen in person, is my Wayfarer mask. This is the style that was voted on and will be given away on December 1st. (See our facebook page for details!) So, for my first blog post, I thought you all might like to know how this mask came to be.

5 years ago, a group of my friends embarked on an adventure. They decided to use their love of the classic quest adventure, and medieval fantasy to do good, and they called themselves the Wayfarers. They raised funds and awareness for cancer research, and in return, walked 500 miles through Ireland and Scotland while wearing medieval garb. As with all great quests, there were some unexpected mishaps, but in September of 2012 they walked their 500 miles and raised $17,000 in the process. It was such an exciting undertaking. I raised funds and spread the word about their work, but once it was over I wanted to find a way to commemorate their journey with my art.

So, I created the Wayfarer Mask. A brown leather mask with a hand carved map featuring the parts of Ireland and Scotland where they originally planned their expedition. The hand drawn look of the map was important to me. I wanted the mask to evoke a sense of adventure and mystery. Even though my hand cramps up every time I have to carve all those lakes and rivers, I still love making it. The dye is two colors of antiquing gel, to give it that aged monochrome look, while still letting the continents pop out from the ocean. The second dye is carefully brushed on with a small brush, going around each cove and peninsula, filling in each lake. A compass went perfectly with the design, it is a focal point, and a bit of brightness with the brass and copper colors I just love against the warm brown. More than that, however, it was a symbol of the Wayfarers, and it's a symbol I've always been drawn to. To me, it says that excitement and the unknown are coming. If you have a compass, you are ready for an adventure to begin!