Masks by Jen

Jennifer Harrison of Masks by Jen sits down with Pin Curl to talk about life before the Internet, leather, alcohol, video games, and art. You can find Jennifer and her masks this month at the Mid-Summer Masquerade hosted by Bewitching Burlesque.

Describe how you fell in love with masks. What drew you to them?

I saw a leather mask at Scarborough Faire one year.  I don’t remember the maker, but I do remember the mask.  It was a bat-wing mask, with ribs along the wings to accentuate the ‘bones’ inside.  I was intrigued by the whole idea, so I decided to make one myself. 

It wasn’t so much that I fell in love with masks.  It’s more like I fell in love with leather.  I’d been making small bags from leather for a while, and found that I just didn’t have the patience.  When I started making masks from leather, I really got into the whole sculptural process of working the leather and shaping it.

You mention that you learned to make masks through trial and error. Can you briefly describe your creative process?

I started making masks back in 1997 or so.  There was no Internet to research the techniques, so I really had to make it up as I went along.  I got some leather, and made my first mask.  Then I made another mask to figure out what didn’t work with the first mask, and then another mask to try out a different weight of leather…

I really like the medium, because it combines sculpture with painting.  Making masks involves so many different activities — planning the mask, creating the pattern, sculpting the leather, painting the leather — that there’s always something to interest me.  If I get bored with sculpting, I can go paint.  Or vice versa. 

And I have very little patience for a project that takes several weeks!  Making a mask can take me a couple of weeks, or it can take me a couple of days.  Sometimes I design a mask, then discover after I’ve made it that something doesn’t work right, so I have to start over.  I build some time into every project so that I have that flexibility.

Tell us about the birth of Masks by Jen. How did you get your start?

There’s a fantastic woman I know named Lori Thomson.  Every year, Fort Worth has Gallery Night, which is kind of a posh little clique-ish thing that the galleries put on.  Lori saw that a lot of fringe artists were being excluded, so she decided to set up a tent and have her own show, called ‘Untitled.’  She was looking for artists, so I said ‘Sure!’  I think I had maybe five masks at the time.  I sold four of them.  I was flabbergasted.  It had never occurred to me that I could create art and sell it to people who liked it.  So Lori is really how I got my start in the art world!

Where do you seek inspiration?

Alcohol.  And television.  Video games… And books… it all mixes together in my head, and then something will pop out.  I have come up with some excellent ideas while sitting at the bar, talking with my friends or sketching in my sketchbook.  I’ve also come up with great ideas while sitting at home, watching a movie.  My mask designs are as much about what the leather can do as what’s in my head.  Organic curves and swirls work really well in leather.  Some of my best masks have come from directly sketching on the leather itself.

You note that each mask is a one of a kind creation. In a world of mass production and cost reigning king over quality, do you find that people recognize the value and beauty of a one of a kind creation as much as you would like?

Leather masks are an odd market.  Most people look at the masks, and don’t realize what they’re seeing.  They like them, but they have no idea how much time I spend on each one, or how much work went into designing each one.  That doesn’t really bother me.  I had no idea until I started making masks how complicated it can be.  What makes it all worthwhile is the few people who really get into masks and enjoy them. 

What would be your dream assignment?

I’d love to do movie or theater work.  I’ve made masks for a couple of theater groups, but it’s always been a one-time deal.  I’d like to make masks for a movie that really pushes the envelope of mask ideas.

Our readers know alot about following their passions. How do you balance your time between your love for making art pieces with your 9-5 job?

I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007.  I had already begun selling my masks at festivals, and trying to start an online business, as well as working my 9-5 job.  (actually 12 to 8, but close enough)  Then the disease hit, and everything changed.  Now I feel like I need to use the time I have to be as creative as possible; make the most out of what I can do, while I can do it.  Sometimes I’m not always able to be creative.  My brain stops working, or fatigue sets in and all I can do is sleep.  But it’s motivation to do the work when I feel up to it – because I know that I might not have the chance in the future.

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