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Florham Park artist’s ceramic masks come to life

Nov 12, 2022 01:42PM ● By Jillian Risberg

It’s hard to remember a time when there weren’t a sea of masks, thanks to COVID-19. But artist/maskmaker Leslie Jacobsen has long been fond of and sharing a different kind: her unique one-of-a-kind ceramic art masks. 

She says mask making is a meditative joy and endeavor that makes her smile.

“I like to bring out the humor or subtle emotions: whether surprise, fear, joy or wonder,” adds the ceramic artist. “Working with clay is a playful experience for me.”

Jacobsen is drawn to faces. 

And in these trying times with many struggling through the lingering pandemic, where real functional masks cover people’s faces — she hopes they will connect in some way with her mask’s faces. 

From the Mask Museum: cultural masks are known to have been worn long before human beings developed written language. The earliest surviving masks date back some 9000 years and were made of stone or seashell.  Wood masks were probably used for living masquerade much earlier, but due to weathering few have survived. The oldest such (crest) mask discovered in Angola represented an aardvark and dates back to about 900 CE. 

“Many masks are primarily associated with ceremonies that have religious and social significance or are concerned with funerary customs, fertility rites, or the curing of sickness. Other masks are used on festive occasions or to portray characters in a dramatic performance and reenactments of mythological events,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Jacobsen says her masks become individual characters with their own personalities as she creates them.

The artist has introduced raku to her work to experiment with an array of vibrant colors — from metallic bronze and brass underglazes, bright colorful underglazes and acrylics, to more subtle glazes and iron oxide.

And she always makes sure to include other details; such as hair, glasses and accessories.

“Over the years I have adorned my masks with ribbons, beads, feathers, leather, fabric, glass, and metal,” the mask maker says there are influences from African, Asian and Native American art. “Although my imagination plays the biggest part in my inventions.” 

It all started during a visit to Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico in Sept. 2001.  

The artist caught the work of Doug Fountain, a Native American artist whose brightly decorated gourd masks adorned with feathers fascinated her.  A small mask he made in honor of 9/11 hangs in her home.  

“Later, during a visit to Seattle I again found wonderful, colorful carved wooden masks of the Northwestern Coast Indians,” says Jacobsen. “These came to life in the stories and plays of their culture.”

Her creative journey began at the University of Pittsburgh, where the mask maker studied art/art history and education. During her college and post-college summers, she took sculpture classes and workshops.  

In the early 1970s, Jacobsen was a student of Abstract Expressionist Pietro Antonio (Tony) Narducci in Denville. And she had the pleasure of being guided and encouraged by the late Don Thieberger in recent years.  

Since summer 2006, she has been creating colorful, expressive one-of-a-kind ceramic masks that she conceived as wall art, rather than functional masks — made from white stoneware.

You can often find the artist displaying her handmade ceramic wall masks at the Florham Park Public Library, pop-up exhibits at the West Orange Arts Center and she is a member of the Potters Guild of New Jersey. 

Creativity is in her blood, inherent — coursing through her veins; and the multitalented maskmaker dabbles across more mediums than just the one she is known for.

She has also experimented with printmaking, glass and jewelry making.

At the end of the day, the ceramic artist says the face is all about deep expression. 

We all have emotion, feeling — and it reads on our faces.

When it comes to Jacobsen’s masks, they always seem to elicit a poignant response from folks who get a glimpse.

The mask maker speaks about them with love and passion.

I know why. They are cool, special and their very own entity, full of character. We see you. 

For more information, visit @art_maskslesj on Instagram.