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Leather masks.

The art of maskmaking weaves a common thread throughout human history spanning many centuries. Evidence of maskmaking has been discovered on all continents, in many forms, using a variety of materials.

Historically, the role of the mask was to hide the wearer's identity from others, to acquire the identity that the mask represents, or to protect the wearer from harm. The mask portrayed a new level of being--an act of power. It became a tool for altering consciousness to bring about a new awareness.

As a modern act of creation, my graduate craft students combined this ancient art form with another symbolic material--leather.

From humankind's beginnings to the present, we have utilized leather for many purposes. Due to its unique and varied qualities, leather is viewed as a functional medium, as well as an aesthetic one. Artists have used many approaches to leathercraft. Molding, carving,

stamping, sewing and tooling are among common techniques.

Choosing the Right Leather

Different leathers possess different qualities and are therefore better used with certain techniques. Qualities such as the manner in which the skin is tanned, the size, thickness, color and grain should be considered before choosing the appropriate leather for a particular project. Only vegetable tanned leather is suitable with the technique of wet forming. Wet forming, a process done by manipulating wet leather by hand or by draping it over a mold, allows leather to reach its maximum potential as a sculptural form.

Leather is sold by full or partial skin, or by the square foot. Scraps may be purchased by the pound. Since each skin is unique and may have imperfections and inconsistencies, it is advisable to take your pattern along when making a selection.

The Process

In creasing our masks, we used a lightweight leather called kip. The lightness of kip allowed us to pick up greater detail and to create a form with many folds. These folds added to the design, and created a structurally stronger mask form.

The first step in the process was to take an impression of a student's face. Vaseline was applied to the face and a second student carefully applied plastercraft gauze strips over the face. Attention was paid to the subtle details around the eye, nose and mouth areas. The plastercraft was allowed to dry thoroughly--about ten to twenty minutes, before the plaster mask was removed. A hair dryer hastened the drying process.

Once thoroughly dry, the mask was covered with Vaseline. Plaster was mixed and poured into the mask to make a positive mold. The plaster molds should be shellacked before they are used to wet form leather.

After a paper pattern was made, it was traced onto the leather with a modeler or pencil. The leather was soaked for three to four minutes in a bucket of warm water until limp or slippery to the touch. The leather was squeezed to increase the amount of absorption, and excess water was removed by pressing the leather between paper towels or an absorbent cloth.

Next, a piece of leather larger than the mold was laid over the mold, rough side down. Using fingers and molding tools, the leather was stretched and compressed working from the center toward the edges. The moisture was removed gradually with a hair dryer as more of the detail was picked up. The heat was kept close to the leather for only a short period to avoid burning the leather. Sections that needed additional work were wetted again with a spray bottle filled with water.

Dressing It Up

The many different ways the masks were finished gave the project an even more exciting edge. Some students chose to leave their leather masks in their natural state. Others decided to color theirs with dye, markers, acrylic paints or even shoe polish. Some were stained and varnished, and the most flamboyant were decorated with theatrical makeup and hair.

Ann Cappetta is Art Coordinator, North Haven, Connecticut. She also teaches graduate craft classes at Southern Connecticut State University.
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Author:Cappetta, Ann
Publication:School Arts
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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