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Andrea Masse-Tognetti is the talented enchantress behind Merimask Designs. This New York native has been making elaborate and beautiful masks with leather for over twenty years and her masks have been used throughout the world, even by Cirque Du Soleil.
Toonari Post (TP): How and when did you first start practicing your art?
Andrea Masse-Tognetti (AMT): I started carving leather as a hobby over twenty years ago and eventually became quite good at just that aspect, but it was your normal run-of-the-mill leather carving technique that anyone can easily teach themselves with the right tools. The masks happened by accident; I discovered one night that wet leather can be shaped, and if you dry it with heat it retains that shape. I’ve always loved sculpting… this is a very clean medium (leather) that not a lot of people use (I like it because it’s so unique).
TP: What mediums do you use for your artwork? Which is your favorite and why?
AMT: Initially, I loved painting with watercolors because it’s very exacting, and you need a good working knowledge of how the paper will react to the water and how your paint will behave, and I like that. I like media that tests your artisan skills as well as your artistic ability. I’m a throwback, that way. I like leather for the same reason; it’s tactile and cantankerous and requires you to experiment and develop a way of handling it that, incidentally, nurtures your own unique “technique.”
TP: What piece of your work is your favorite and why? Which one are you most proud of?
AMT: My favorite piece ever is “Fighting Bettas“. I came up with the design while sketching (doodling really), waiting for a flight out of Narita, Japan. It’s obviously influenced by all the beautiful art I saw while on my trip; it has a compact economy of design similar to Japanese Mon, but also a swirly grace.
I’m always most proud of whatever I did most recently. Right now, I’m very pleased with my new “Industrial Anubis” design. It came out of my head and onto the leather with no trouble, exactly as I envisioned, and that’s a very satisfying feeling when a design is “easy” like that.
TP: Your masks are quite elaborate, how long on average does it take you to complete one from start to finish?
AMT: Oh, it depends if I’m starting from scratch or modifying a design I already have (like a new version of a wolf or a lion, where I can base the design off something I’ve already worked out). I’d say that a really elaborate mask like “Medusa” can take 6 to 8 hours, but that’s because I already know what I’m doing, and I’ve had practice.
TP: I noticed that some of your masks have been used by Cirque Du Soleil, a production of Magicarade in Japan, and have even been featured in window displays such as Ralph Lauren. Can you tell me more about these experiences? What is it like to have your masks recognized on an international level?
AMT: Seeing my work being used in visual media or the performing arts is always a big thrill, but the opportunities that led me to see my masks featured as the centerpiece of a stage show in Japan were definitely the highlight of my career so far. When the performers first came out on stage wearing my masks (over fifty unique designs), I actually cried.
The attention, though, can be a little daunting. I do get these glamorous opportunities, but in real life I’m pretty shy, and so these occasional thrusts into the spotlight are wonderful and terrifying at the same time. Being on TV scares the heck out of me (though I do manage to rise to the occasion when that happens, because I know it’s important for my art that I “get it together”). But I’m no celebrity; I think of myself more as an anachronistic tinkerer.
TP: When you first started, did you ever hit any bumps in your art process? What were they, and how did you overcome them?
AMT: Oh, goodness, yes. The worst part about being an artist that uses leather as her sculpting medium is that people hear the word “leather” and always, always assume the wrong thing. I had to fight against stereotypes that leather is “utilitarian” or “craft”, constantly.
I was excluded from a few major art festivals (and not a few galleries!) because once the jury saw the word “leather”, it was assumed I was a “crafter”, and I was out. I often lied/generalized and called my work “fiber art” just to get past the gauntlet of people who could not wrap their heads around the concept of leather as art.
Getting online changed that, pretty quickly. Online media is all visual…100%. So, as long as my images were stunning, the materials I used became entirely secondary. Now, I always list my materials when I showcase a new design and I –still– am constantly asked, “What did you use to make this?” because no one even bothers to read the details; they just get blown away by the visuals.
Check out the rest of Andrea’s interview here.
Image Courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/pages/Merimask/103347893037722