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The saga of the stag mask

This is one of my most often copied designs. Like most original works, the design process took considerable time and effort, evolving over the course of many experiments and iterations.

Antlered Stag leather mask

The concept began in 2009, as a mistake that I liked and decided to explore further.  Over the next year, I created several variations before settling on this version. Since then I’ve created various renditions with different color schemes and embellishments – but they’re all based on this one. These masks are attractive and affordable, and they’ve been good sellers for me. I’m certainly not getting rich off them, but over the years those sales have added up to pay my mortgage and they’ve fed my family many times. Please don’t mistake this as “money for nothing” – it’s the fruit of hard labor. I’ve been a working artist for nearly 30 years, so I’ve invested quite a bit of time and energy into honing my skills and developing my own style. Even after all these years, it still thrills me that the work of my heart and hands can not only feed my soul, but feed my family as well.

Sadly, this mask has been copied more times than I can count. Some do it for personal use – and while I certainly dislike that (if you enjoy my work, please respect, support and credit me) what really irks me are the copycat vendors! Over the last many years of selling this design, I’ve seen it copied by at least 8 other “artists”. These people misrepresent their crappy knockoffs as original work and then sell them alongside mine – often at wholesale or less. Between the cheap pricing and the fact that the design no longer seems original, it becomes harder and harder for me to sell it anymore.

I’ve also found people teaching this design. One class was offered at a popular leather store just a couple of hours away from me. It’s not clear whether the teacher offered the design, or whether a student asked them to help reverse engineer it – but that detail is irrelevant. An honorable teacher won’t show you how to copy off the internet, because to do so is counter to the spirit of good craftsmanship. If your instructor can’t offer original designs, find a new teacher – not only for the ethical reasons I’ve already described, but because it demonstrates a lack of knowledge and experience.

After that fiasco, I considered discontinuing the design and offering the pattern free for personal use only. I imagined this as a sort of ceremonial letting go; not only letting go of the design, but of all the drama and trauma surrounding it. Then my husband pointed out that with so many unethical creeps out there, offering the design for free might be seen as an invitation to copy all my work. Perhaps humanity is better than that, but based on these experiences, I’m not sure I’m willing to chance it.

Unfortunately, the saga of the stag mask doesn’t end there. Last fall, I was studying SEO and checking my keywords when I noticed an Etsy listing that looked oddly familiar. Upon further inspection, it was yet another copy of my design, and this time the copycat was from China. These guys were offering it for $19.99, which was a new low. In addition to stealing the design, they were using my photos to sell their counterfeit works. These photos came from a photo shoot that my daughter modeled for. So just to drive that point home: they were using photos of my child to sell bad copies of my work, for less than 20% of my price. “Pissed off” doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of my feelings about that!

I filed a complaint, and Etsy quickly removed the counterfeit listing. A month later I found the same design – once again with photos of my daughter – listed by a Chinese seller on eBay. Additional photos shown in that listing lead me to believe that they purchased one of my masks and flattened it out in order to reverse engineer the pattern. Once again, I was able to get the listing removed … but not before finding two more. These other sellers offered my stag mask along with several more of my designs – also using my photos. These last several months have been a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. I get one listing removed, and another crops up. It’s frustrating, time consuming, and costly… because all the time and energy that I’m spending to get these listings removed is time taken away from creating and selling my work. While this is definitely a business, it’s hard for me to detach emotionally from my creations (and my kid!) so this has really slowed down my creativity as well. That’s especially sucky, since this is my actual livelihood and not just a side hobby.

By early 2017, I thought it was over. Then friends began discussing the pros and cons of a well known overseas wholesale site, and I foolishly looked. Damn it, why did I look?! The mask is there, now offered in a variety of colors of laser cut felt. It looks terrible, and just when I thought it couldn’t be cheapened any worse, they’re wholesaling knockoffs of my mask for 79¢ each. Sadly, I’ve seen this happen to other artisans too – these knockoffs end up in cheesy party shops and dollar stores. So much for selling my masks as handcrafted art.

So, I’ll renew the battle and pray that I don’t find my design at Value Village come Halloween. In truth, it’s probably a lost cause at this point – between wanna-be artists, bad teachers and now Chinese knockoffs, I’ve lost my heart (and any future profit) for this design. But it’s the principle of the thing – I’ve been a working artist for more than half my life. In that time, I’ve aspired and succeeded at creating original, high quality work that feeds my spirit and pays my bills. I just can’t let these lowlifes exploit that effort without putting up a fight.

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Halloween Ordering Info 2016 (or “he who hesitates is lost”)

leather masks in progress
leather masks in progress

As this photo suggests, I’m already up to my elbows in Halloween prep! I’ve had several requests for custom costumes, so it seems like a good time to let everyone know that commission spots will be very limited this year. Like, extremely limited. So if you’re hoping to have something made from scratch to your specifications, you should definitely contact me soon! To order a one of a kind costume piece, please visit the “Custom Work” section of my website, and fill out the inquiry form there. This form outlines the info that I’ll need in order to understand your project, and it will really streamline the process for both of us. My commission spots fill up quickly, so please don’t put this off!

If you’re simply hoping to have one of my existing designs painted in your colors, I can usually be a bit more flexible. My turn around time for these types of orders is generally around two weeks before shipping, though that wait time gets longer the closer we get to Halloween. You can check out my “Made to Order” section to find mask styles that can be made in your choice of colors.

If you’re in a hurry, please visit my “Ready to Ship” section, for a selection of masks that are in stock and ready to ship quickly. 

Last but not least, I’ll be adding a small selection of unique, one of a kind masks and costume accessories this year. Keep an eye on my website, as well as my Facebook fan page, in order to see these pieces as they’re added.

And just to reiterate: Halloween commissions will be very limited this year. If you’d like a custom costume, now’s the time to get in touch. Please don’t be one of those silly people who contacts me three days (or even 3 weeks) before Halloween in hopes of commissioning a one of a kind piece!

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Be honorable

"Venetian Bird Mask"
“Venetian Bird Mask”

I designed this original leather mask in 2013. It’s part of an ongoing series that began in 2001 – each one is unique, but shares similar lines and details. It would seem that the design has recently been copied by another artist, who is marketing it as his own.

Sadly, this stuff happens daily. If it was an isolated incident, I might be more able to let it roll off my back – but it’s not. It’s extremely frustrating, but I try to keep my mouth shut, because everyone tells me to take the high road. To “be better, not bitter” – and honestly, I want that too. Unfortunately, there are so many of these copycats these days that the “high road” is starting to feel like a lonely ledge… and it gets harder and harder to make a living doing what I love (or to love what I do for a living) from that place. 

This really hits me where I live, and I don’t know how to put a “positive” or “professional” spin on it. To my fellow aspiring artists, I cannot encourage you enough to be respectful of your peers (and yourself). Be honorable, be original, and don’t steal.


This gallery showcases many (but certainly not all!) of the designs that I’ve done in this series. It’s included to give you a sense of the time that I’ve spent honing and evolving these designs, and also to show how many people have commissioned these signature pieces from me over the last 15 years. Please be respectful of my art, my livelihood, and the wonderful people who have helped to support that process.

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WIP – Lady of the Roses(?)

Lady of Roses leather mask
Lady of Roses leather mask

This piece is a work in progress. It’s a new iteration of my “Lady of the Leaves” design, which I usually create in either summer  or fall colors. She was inspired by the first blooms of spring.

When I shared this piece on my facebook fan page, and asked for suggestions for a name, “Lady of the Roses” was the one that I liked best. It fits well with the rest of the series … and I suppose that once she’s finished, I’ll need to create a “Lady of Winter” too.

 

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Artchain Day 2

Artchain Day 2 – I was nominated by Mary Tafoya to post an item of artwork a day for 5 days (and to nominate others…).

Here’s a more recent example of my mask designs. It’s a mask/headdress set (shown together and separately) that I did in 2010. Sculpted leather, peacock and pheasant feathers, vintage brass filigree + genuine turquoise & jasper beads and cabochons.

Roots and Wings mask © 2010 Andrea Adams
Roots and Wings mask and crown © 2010 Andrea Adams

 

 

Roots & Wings Mask © 2010 Andrea Adams
Roots & Wings Mask © 2010 Andrea Adams
Roots & Wings Headpiece© 2010 Andrea Adams
Roots & Wings Headpiece© 2010 Andrea Adams

 

 

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Artchain Day 1

Arthchain Day 1 – I was nominated to post an item of artwork a day for 5 days (and to nominate others…).

These are some of the oldest masks that I can find photos of (though they were made a few years into my mask making journey) and they’re quite different from what I’m doing now. They used a lot more of the intricate featherwork, and though none of these really show it, but I used to incorporate a lot of detailed beadwork and gemstones too. They were made while my family and I were doing the pow wow circuit, and each one told a story about the people and places we encountered along the way. These would have been mid 90’s – just as I was transitioning from wallhanging/art masks, to wearable art masks.

a.adams1996 changes 16133_186859229365_6497828_n

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Featured Artist – Aaron Silverman

Aaron Silverman of Silverman Workshop is a fellow mask maker. He was one of the winners in the recent “Mask of Death” contest over at the Leather Mask Art group on Deviantart; his entry is shown below:

Bog Mummy by Silverman Workshop
Bog Mummy by Silverman Workshop

In his own words: ‘I chose to model my mask after a picture I saw of a bog mummy named, “Tollund Man”. It amazed me how well his face was preserved! He looks as if he just laid down and fell asleep. I can even see ancient stubble that grew on his face. Because of his remarkable preservation in a Danish bog I would consider his face a mask of death.’

When asked for a bio, Aaron said “I’m not professional by any stretch of the imagination. I mainly just consider myself a tinkerer of sorts. I think since I’ve started about 2ish years ago I’ve really been trying to find a style of my own. Emotion is really what I’ve been wanting to convey in my mask making. Like the one I made for the contest and I made another like it a while back called the crying mask.

Really though, my collection of mask styles have been pretty diverse. I was enjoying making Mardi Gras or carnival masks just because they are outlandishly decorated and historically rich.

So yeah besides that I’m very much a hobbyist, though I’m not one to turn down a commission.”

I’ve just liked his facebook page, and I hope you’ll do the same. Between his innate talent and his willingness to explore and take risks with his work, it’ll be fun to watch him develop his style and skills. On that note, please enjoy these images of Aaron’s work:

The Crying Mask by Silverman Workshop
The Crying Mask by Silverman Workshop

He posted a very cool back story on this piece over on his DA page.

Royal Jester by Silverman Worksho
Royal Jester by Silverman Workshop

 

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Questions for the mask making community

A recent bout with copycats made me realize how many other artisans struggle with this issue. While it may seem like a personal problem, I think the long term effects are problematic for the whole community. Hopefully, prompting a discussion can also prompt solutions …

In the last few years, leather mask making has become wildly popular. What was once a fairly obscure craft is now a rapidly growing niche, with an abundance of newcomers. It’s great for the art form – new blood brings fresh ideas and energy, and established artists can pass along their techniques, ensuring that they won’t be lost over time. What’s not so great is that many hobbyists aren’t taking time to develop their own style before they start selling. Instead, they replicate established artisans’ work and sell the copies at discount rates alongside the originals. This practice is counter to the spirit of good craftsmanship, and it’s damaging to everyone involved: A flooded market decreases uniqueness, quality and value, and it confuses customers. Experienced artists are forced to compete with low quality copies of their own work (often priced at or below wholesale) and the copycats barely get paid for their materials, let alone their time.

I’m really feeling the impact of this and sadly, I’m not alone. Some mask artisans no longer show their work online, while others have simply given up the craft in frustration. It’s hard to feel excited or inspired when your ideas and livelihood are copied before you’re finished exploring them. That may sound like a whole lot of whining, but really does go deeper than that. When talented artists stop showing their work or leave the field completely, it’s a loss for the whole community. While experienced artists are giving up, there’s an incoming crop of artisans that aren’t actually learning to create. They’re hungry for (and sometimes demanding) free tutorials and patterns, yet they seem afraid to experiment on their own. A critical facet of creativity is being willing to take risks and make mistakes. How will the art form grow if everyone just plays it safe and regurgitates what’s already been done?

Let me clarify that I’m not hating on beginners. We all start somewhere. Some of the newer mask makers are creating outstanding work. They’ve used tutorials as a springboard for their own ideas, with innovative, high quality results. What’s more, they acknowledge their teachers, graciously showing appreciation and building community. With this mutually supportive approach, artisans of varying experience can build each other up and expand the art form. And why not? There’s enough room at the table for everyone, as long as we’re all being authentic and respectful. If you’re a mask maker, you’ve probably made (or will make) a dragon, skull, fairy, cat, owl, wolf or Anubis mask at some point in your career. This overlap is inevitable, but it shouldn’t be a problem if each artist is exploring these themes using their own vision and style.

So if you’re still with me, here are my questions:
How do we foster a healthier community?
Is it possible to share while still maintaining good boundaries?
Is there a way to teach skills and techniques, while also teaching ethics and craftsmanship?
How can we encourage people to refine their skills and personal style before jumping into the market? Likewise, can we encourage respectful competition?

Please forgive the length, and know that I’m not out to preach or put anyone down. I’m sticking my neck out here in an attempt to spark discussion and positive change.