At his home studio, metalsmith artist Tomas Wittelsbach handcrafts ornately detailed jewelry inspired by masks and figures drawn from Japanese folklore. Elevated into sculptural gems, Wittelsbach’s collection of Noh-influenced designs reach back into the artist’s earliest memories of traveling through Japan with his family.
As a child, Wittelsbach toured throughout Asia with his great grandfather, a Bavarian aristocrat. “He traveled to Japan fairly early after it was opened up,” says Wittelsbach. “He fell in love with it and felt that it was important to expose me to different cultures when I was young.” The family spent anywhere between two weeks to two months out of each year in Japan. As an adult, Wittelsbach, returned to Japan regularly, while working on web development for Sony and interactive games for Sega theme-park development for Sanrio Puroland.
Known primarily for House of Wittelsbach, the line of jewelry that the artist launched in 2005, Wittelsbach’s early work featured highly stylized skeletons and skulls exploring traditional and contemporary representations of death. When the artist wanted to explore creating more character-driven pieces, he turned to his memories of attending performances of Noh, bunraku and kabuki. “It was very other worldly and so different from anything I’d ever seen. It really stuck with me.”
Drawn to the expressive character of Japanese masks, Wittelsbach prototyped three beads inspired by several masks: Hannya (the spurned woman), and Raidin and Raijin, the gods of thunder and lightning who frequently appear in classical Japanese musical dramas. “They are very common tattoo images,” says Wittelsbach. “Recognition of them is culturally saturated.”
After receiving a positive response, the artist transitioned the objects from beads into rings and dived more deeply into researching other folkloric characters for his series. The design for Ko-omote portrays a traditional female character that represents feminine purity through her snow-white face and even gaze. The wild-eyed clown-like character of Hyottoko is frozen in the gesture of blowing fire (through a bamboo tube). Engraved inside each ring is the character’s name and kanji.
A number of characters from outside the Noh repertoire are also included in the series. “Tengu is much more of a fairy tale, or a ghost story. Same as the Monkey King,” says Wittelsbach. “They are just such expressive characters. Tengu has a bowl of water on his head. He has to keep the bowl of water on his head as he accosts children.”
Wittelsbach took nearly two years to design and create his Noh Mask series. Working out of his garage, the artist used software used for sculpting in the film industry to create his designs. Regarded as a pioneer in applying technologies used in film to object-making, Wittelsbach uses Zbrush and 3D printing in the production of his designs. He uses 3D printed waxes and traditional lost wax processes to create the molds from which he makes the metal castings. “The new printing machines are very detailed and clean,” says Wittelsbach. “The challenge is knowing what actually shows up in the prints – it depends on the printer you are using they all print differently. You have to design for the machine you are printing on.”
Trained as a sculptor at California Institute for the Arts, Wittelsbach spent several decades designing for Hollywood, before launching his distinctive line of jewelry which is featured locally at Greenlake Jewelry Works. Currently, Wittelsbach’s Noh series is only available online, though he aspires to have his work carried throughout Seattle, as well as internationally, in boutiques throughout Japan.