Artist Judith Rauchfuss (59) is the owner of Leopard's Leap and sells work in Venice and New Orleans. She has made masks for Cirque du Soleil and is also a seamstress, painter and sculptor.
What is your favorite piece you've made and why?
I've been doing this for 35 years so that's a hard question. One thing I've learned over the years about myself is that the finished piece is not what I love the most. What I love the most is the process.
Your family has a tradition of working with their hands. Is mask-making a tradition or is it a branching out from something else?
When I said I wanted to make masks I remember my mom saying, “Are you sure?” (laughs) My mom is an absolute fabulous seamstress and she makes quilts now. She taught me to sew when I was eight and a lot of what I do has to do with fabric and my upbringing and what my mother taught me. She was very patient. I would use her sewing machine and she would let me—I remember sometimes she would let me in junior high and high school sew all night. I would make these fabulous outfits that were crazy and wild. She would let me wear them and I just had the best time. She was always supportive of my creativity. And my dad is an incredible wood-worker. I saw him work with his hands my whole life and he did teach me a lot about working with wood and electrical machinery and power tools and stuff like that. We've always been people who’ve worked with our hands and created. My father made beautiful things and my mother still makes beautiful quilts. It's a whole family that has always done that.
Other that what your parents taught you, what kind of training did you have to be able to put your masks together?
I took art classes in college. I mean, art college classes aren’t great, but it did show me that I have talent and that creating feeds my very soul. Like, it’s what makes me want to live. I also took a class or two in theater. Other than that, it’s been, “Oh, I want to learn how to dye the velvet.” So I would go do it. It was mostly just my self-motivation and my ability to research things and go do them.
From where do you draw inspiration?
Nature, for sure. I'm fascinated with how a leaf connects to a stem, how animals move through the air—I've always been fascinated with things like that. Fabric and textures are also really important me. I love the texture of velvet which is why I chose it to cover my masks. Vivid colors ... all those things. The other thing I like to do [is] to take a normal animal and put something fantastic on it. Like, I have a painting of a tree frog but he's got the nose of a man. Things like that—that you might dream but you'd never really see. Other artists inspire me, too: Brahms, Michael Parkes, Daniel Merriam.
How long does it take you to make a mask?
Anywhere from 15 minutes to weeks.
Is there any personal meaning behind certain pieces?
They’re all personal. I mean they come from inside me. Some are more meaningful that others obviously.
Your inspiration for Leopard's Leap came from a series of dreams. Tell me about those.
I was a special education teacher—I have a Master's in that—and I worked for APS after college. I worked in APS for about seven years and it was hard. I got really burnt out and I left. When I left—I knew I always wanted to be an artist—always, even since I was a little child. I loved it. I really wanted to be an artist again. Teaching wasn't working for me. I loved the kids but the system was dysfunctional and I was a good teacher but I wasn't a great teacher. I want to be great at what I do. I let go of that and I started having a series of dreams where I was approached by animals. And they were powerful animals. The leopard was the first one. And I transformed into that being—so I became the leopard, the leopard became me. I had a series of dreams like that with a bear—one of the most powerful dreams was a wild horse. I knew I wanted to be an artist and I knew I wanted to make my living from my art. Deep down in my soul I knew that's what I should be doing. So I went to the big, tall bank where you have to get you license to start your business. I didn't know you had to have a name to get a license. There I am in this bank and they said, “We can't give you a license until you name your business.” I went to a corner and I thought “Leopard's Leap!”
Do you wish people could wear masks every day or is it the events that make them special?
Oh, people wear masks every day anyway. We all put on masks. We have to.
Advice for the world?
If you have a dream and you really want it, just never give up.