Freedom in Disguise
Imagine yourself at a Halloween party or a Mardi Gras ball or maybe the costume contest at a sci-fi convention. Suddenly you see someone wearing the most incredible mask. Maybe it's black velvet with a purple plume sweeping down over one ear, or a blue and gold lace concoction with a dragon's head perched on the brow.
You race through the crowd and manage to catch the cloaked reveler. "Who on earth made that fantastic mask?" you ask.
Chances are very good the answer will be Judith Rauchfuss of Leopard's Leap, mask maker extraordinaire.
Crescent Blues: How did you start doing masks? Did you start in the fine arts or the fiber arts?
Rauchfuss: I started as a performer, actually. I created masks because I'm a dancer, and so I made masks for myself, for my own choreography, my own performances. I had been doing that for years.
Then I started doing a production called Osiris that was put on by a group of women here who started a dance studio called Dancers Supporting Dancers. That was when I started to realize that the masks were something that I really enjoyed making, not just for myself but for other people.
I did a whole production of the Egyptian gods and goddesses; all the headpieces and all the costumes. They came out just amazing, and so I got inspired to start creating them for other people. The next progression was that I actually juried and got into the local New Mexico art show here, which is every summer. That's when I started selling to the public.
Crescent Blues: How long have you been making and selling masks to the public?
Rauchfuss: I started my company, Leopard's Leap in 1986. I was doing masks before that, like I said. So I've been doing masks for about eight, nine years.
Crescent Blues: Do you consider them art or craft or costume or what?
Rauchfuss: That's a good question. A lot of people buy my work simply to hang on the wall as art.
Crescent Blues: Does that bother you?
Rauchfuss: No, no! I appreciate all forms of whatever people call it.
Crescent Blues: It's flattering that people would treat the masks as art, although, they wear so well. Several of your masks, for example, are perfectly designed to accommodate spectacles. I've never seen any other masks that let people wear their glasses.
Rauchfuss: Yes, I do create masks to wear. That's where my heart is. One of the reasons why I started making them is that I love to see that transformation when people put them on.
Crescent Blues: Your customers become different people, depending on the mask?
Rauchfuss: It frees people up. Takes them to another plane, and I really like seeing that happen. Although I don't care if people buy them and hang them on the wall either. Most people don't wear them all the time anyway, so usually they're hanging on the wall for part of the time.
Crescent Blues: Your masks are certainly not the sort of thing you put in the closet when you're not wearing them; you'd want to be able to look at them all the time.
Rauchfuss: Yes, I encourage people to display them. I have hangers that I make for that purpose, that sort of thing. I want people to see the masks, of course -- for the masks to be out there.
Crescent Blues: Where do you get the inspiration for particular masks? Do you look at other costumes?
Rauchfuss: I think my deepest inspiration comes from winged beings, mythical combinations of half-human, half-animal -- that sort of fairy world. I want people to be on another plane when they wear it, not a human.
Crescent Blues: A hybrid of some sort.
Rauchfuss: Yes. But as far as making the actual pieces, my inspiration comes from a fabric swatch sometimes, or a shell sometimes. It comes from a variety of things. Sometimes it's just a color. I just think of this really vivid purple, and I know I'm going to make this mask all in purple.
Crescent Blues: So it can be the image of the mask first, or an object that inspires the mask -- depending on the mask?
Rauchfuss: Yes. It really comes in a variety of ways. And that's one reason why I started doing masks. I felt there was a lot of depth to what I could do, where I could go with it and what I could do as far as themes and ideas. I'm still not tired of making them; I still really love going to my studio and creating them, and that's very important as an artist. Because as soon as it becomes boring or tedious, you can't do it any more.
Crescent Blues: I think the people who love them can tell whether the artist loves them as well.
Crescent Blues: I could tell when you were trying on your masks for us at DragonCon that you loved wearing every one of them.
Rauchfuss: I do. I really love the process of selling them, too, because every person that comes along and buys one -- it's sort of like I made it for them. I know that sounds silly.
Crescent Blues: Do you see a person come up and say, "Ah, I have the mask for that person!" Or do you just experiment and see which one works for them?
Rauchfuss: Every once in a while, someone will come up and I'll know. I'll try to get them to try on a certain mask because I can see that it might be good for them or perfect for them. But usually I just let people just come to me.
Crescent Blues: They'll find the one that's right for them.
Rauchfuss: Yes. And that's why I don't really name my pieces either, because I feel like once they've gone from me, whoever buys it adds their personality to that mask. So they really need to name it. I've had a lot of people ask me if I name my pieces but I don't.
Crescent Blues: Do you see a development in the kind of masks you're making over the years? Are you growing in a particular direction, or how have they changed?
Rauchfuss: The masks have changed; they've made several big changes. When I first started making themů