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! 
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