Annie Libertini makes faces for other people to hide behind.
Most of her whimsical visages are of a folklore or nature motif, allowing the wearer to transform into a cunning fox, a bewitching butterfly or a foreboding crow. Made from sculpted leather that's then painted and embellished, Libertini estimates she's sold more than 500 of the handmade pieces, many to customers around the world. Most of them discovered her work online.
"If you Google 'owl mask' one of my pieces comes up right away," the Spokane artist says from her living room, a space filled with her creations.
Several leather masks stare blindly from the walls, while a larger collection of the eye-less semblances keep watch over the room from a glass-doored cabinet.
"At least half of what I make are owls," Libertini says. "Those are my favorite. I love how they look, and I love doing the feathers from leather. Owls also make for really good masks because the proportions of their faces go well on ours."
Libertini began working with leather as a focal medium more than a decade ago, and hasn't looked back. While mask-making dominates the expression of her self-taught skills, the artist also experiments with new ways of sculpting the supple, lightweight material. For a leatherworking competition, she made a lifelike falcon that mimics a taxidermy-mounted bird. Perched atop a high shelf, most observers wouldn't recognize the difference.
Considering the wide range of sculptable media available to contemporary artists who create three-dimensional bodies of work, leather may seem like an unlikely choice. Yet for making masks, its natural properties — it's durable, lightweight, forgiving and fairly inexpensive, compared to other materials — are ideal. Libertini buys all-natural, vegetable-tanned leather in large quantities. Since individual masks are made using a relatively small amount, this helps keep overhead costs down.
The process to bend, fold and coax the leather into shapes and ripples is surprisingly simple. When the otherwise stiff and flat material is wet, it can be bent and stretched into dimensional shapes. The raw leather Libertini uses is quite unlike the soft, chemically treated leather most of us are used to seeing in shoes, bags and jackets. Wetting a scrap in the bathroom sink, she demonstrates how easy it is to bend the leather into curves, and how it holds the shape when she lets go.
With a bachelor of fine arts in painting from the Cleveland Institute of Art, Libertini's finishing work on the details of each mask is exquisite. She colors the pieces using a combination of water-based leather dyes and acrylic paints, shading and etching the already natural surface to bring each face to life.
Working on the masks from her home has, over the years, become a full-time job for the artist. Orders definitely come in waves. The months leading up to Halloween, unsurprisingly, are her busiest of the year. Most pieces — priced between $90 and $130 — are sold through her online Etsy storefront, LibertiniArts, including custom orders, which can be higher in price depending on the level of detail.
"Even though [the masks] aren't cheap, people feel like they can make that investment on a Halloween mask and the rest of the year they can have it on display," Libertini explains. "Some people have bought them solely to hang up as art."
Outside of this wide-reaching online presence, she's been a featured vendor at an annual, juried Halloween expo in Southern California and a similar event in Seattle. This year, Libertini was a featured guest at Spokane's Lilac City Comicon.
Lately, she's landed some major orders and contract work from popular television shows, including the locally filmed Syfy series Z Nation. Last summer, Libertini spent most of her time customizing props and costumes for the show, work that included both creating masks and painting leather jackets and other costume pieces.
Just weeks ago, she shipped off an order of 15 identical owl masks for the FOX series Gotham. Back in 2013, a representative for ABC's ongoing fairytale drama Once Upon a Time bought some ready-made animal masks from her Etsy shop.
Hundreds of masks in, Libertini admits that she doesn't prefer to wear her own work. Even with one's face obscured, a mask brings attention and curiosity from others, which she prefers to avoid.
She does, however, treasure one of her more intricate creations. Naturally, it's an owl; a piece with a long fabric hood that drapes down her back and shoulders, with dark sunglass lenses to both represent the animal's eyes and obscure her own.
Libertini's more outgoing husband Mike is a much better sport when it comes to wearing and showing off her creations.
"I make Mike wear them more," she laughs. "He's shameless and will wear anything." ♦
See more of Annie Libertini's work at annielibertini.com, or on Facebook and Etsy, under Libertini Arts.