The Contessa's Confidant

Articles tagged as artist (view all)

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.

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!