People–and how they communicate without saying a word–fascinate artist Leni Wiener. Through fabric collage she captures gestures and attitudes that express the human condition without a word being spoken. Leni always begins with a photograph, discerns the key elements and lines, then uses fabric as her paint palette–commercial prints she finds in fabric stores–to capture the elements of an image with texture and skilled use of value.
Tell us a bit about you and what you do.
My art quilts can best be described as figurative, representational fabric collage. Most of my work focuses on the universality of human body language and what it tells us about the people around us.
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I consider myself a storyteller; as a former photographer, my works begins with photographs I take of strangers, unaware of the camera. They are caught in those unremarkable and familiar moments that pass without notice or reflection. Backgrounds and environments are less important than the expressive body language; it tells us so much about these people we have never met. Viewers of the artwork are invited to bring their own life experience to the story in each art quilt.
I use only commercially available cotton quilting fabric, building the complexity of the image with a layering of unexpected patterns. I pay as much attention to the ‘value’ of the fabrics I choose as their color. My raw edge machine appliqué technique frees me from tedious piecing. It also allows the fraying and puckering that is the inherent characteristic of fabric.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
NEVER kicking and screaming! The creation of art is supposed to be fulfilling, satisfying; if it is a source of stress, who needs it?
There are days I am searching for what to do next, then there are days when I have one piece on the design wall, one ready to start, ten in my head and twenty more on the computer. This frequently changes before I get to them; I can be working on one thing and another comes along that just can’t wait; it moves up to the front of the line. Sometimes I start a series and grow bored with it after a few pieces and I move to something else. Sometimes I will revisit a series, others end where I stop. I am always evolving, always looking for ways to move forward while still maintaining my own style.
Why textiles? Why art quilting?
Good question. I have asked it of myself often. For one thing, I don’t like messy. I don’t dye, paint, stamp, print. My mother was an interior designer and my grandmother a custom milliner, so fabric was always around. I guess I fell in love with the colors, the patterns, the texture. I started sewing in junior high school—thank goodness for home ec—and always had sewing projects. Most of my projects were clothes, home dec and traditional quilts.
At some point I decided to combine my love of photography and my love of sewing. I thought I had invented something new. Then I went to the International Quilt Show in Houston representing the fabric store where I taught traditional quilting. I saw art quilts for the first time. So many, and so beautifully done. My head nearly exploded. From then on I worked and looked to figure out where I fit into this wonderful world of artistic expression.
What inspires you to create?
There are many artists, writers, creative people in a variety of fields who will tell you they HAVE to create. It is as necessary as food and water. I am one of those people. For as long as I can remember, I always had some self-motivated art project in progress. I can’t say why, I just needed to. I have two children; one has the same drive to create, the other does not. Many people identify with this need, while others don’t get it.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I think what distinguishes my work is my use of printed fabrics, most often in unexpected ways. For example, I might use florals and geometrics to create faces. When I started working on fabric collage faces, I was frustrated by the lack of the appropriate solid beige fabrics available in fabric stores. Most stores have a section with solids which contains a beige, a khaki, a coffee color and a peach. The different tones are almost always the same in value. That doesn’t work when trying to do the shadows and nuance of faces and skin tones. So I moved to using beige and brown printed fabric, always abundantly available in quilt shops (Civil War reproduction fabrics are wonderful neutral beige tones). These fabrics allowed the blending of one fabric into the next, opening more possibilities, and my work expanded from there.
The other thing that distinguishes my work is my subject matter. I don’t do landscapes or abstract studies; I do people, mostly random images of people photographed when they are unaware of the camera. That feels so authentic, so universally human. Ironically, because so many of my images are introspective, some people think of me as the artist who depicts homeless people.
That leads me into the discussion of “finding your unique artistic voice”, something about which I am quite passionate.
Your “voice” simply means a technique or techniques, a color palette, subject matter or visual style (or combination of all of these) that is unique and easily identifiable as your own. You wouldn’t confuse a Rembrandt with a Matisse, because each has a distinct voice. The voice can grow, evolve and change, but it usually has a thread of continuity as it does.
When an artist moves from hobby to something serious, developing a working style with a unique, identifiable look becomes important. When I lecture about finding your voice, I often recount a story from my early career. While I stood near one of my pieces in a large national show, two women moved in for a closer look. One said to the other, “I think this is a Leeny Weener”. Her friend looked at the card and said “you are right, it IS a Leeny Weener”. I stepped a bit closer and said, “it’s pronounced ‘Lenny Wyner’”; she stammered back at me that I was incorrect. That was a very exciting moment for me. It meant that this woman, who clearly did not know who I was, recognized my work. I had a voice.
Tell us about Art Quilt Voice Coaching. Is there a commonality among those who participate? How often are they surprised at their discoveries?
While acting as exhibition coordinator for an artists’ group, it became clear to me that many people were working in a variety of styles, influenced by the classes and books they had used in their journey. Some people love to constantly try new things and that is fine, but to exhibit work (especially in invitational shows), teach or publish, artists need to develop their singular “voice”.
I started “coaching” emerging artists who needed help growing into who they really are as artists. I ask questions that make them think things through; help them evaluate what aspects of what they are doing they really enjoy and what parts they dislike. Then we talk about how to combine the enjoyable parts of the process and get rid of the rest. Developing a unique style means one has to throw out anything in the process that doesn’t bring you pleasure and work with the rest to develop a cohesive and consistent working method and visual style.
The surprise for most people I coach is that our discussion and conclusion simply confirms for them what they wanted to do; they just needed the confidence to push forward and do it. They also tell me they needed permission to let go of all the “rules” they thought they had to follow.
Anyone interested in having a voice coaching session (it’s all done on the phone) can contact me at [email protected].
Your Park Bench Stories feature anonymous people doing everyday things. What is it about a scene or a person that compels you to photograph and render in fabric?
I have always enjoyed watching people sitting in a sidewalk café, out a window, in an airport or train station. I like to think about who these people are, where they are going, what their lives are like. It’s fascinating that I can see a total stranger in an unguarded moment and identify with what they are feeling through their body language alone.
Park Bench Stories started with a single photo taken in the Plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a woman sitting on a bench, shoes off, face to the sun. I took other photos in the Plaza that day. I intended to make a series of just those photos, the half dozen or so from that place, that day. But when I came home and added them to my photo files, I realized I had hundreds of photos of strangers on benches taken all over the world (and very close to home) over quite a few years. The series grew, and while I was working on them, the Grants Pass Museum of Art expressed interest in exhibiting the pieces as a solo show, where Park Bench Stories opened in 2015.
Since then, the subsequent show has been in museums and galleries across the US and selected pieces have travelled to Europe. Its final exhibition was at the National Quilt Museum last fall.
What makes Park Bench Stories unique is that each figure is the outline of the piece; they are not contained in a background fabric, but are free standing and sit out from the wall to cast their own shadows. The environment, even the bench is left to the imagination of the viewer. Each piece tells a story, but that story may be different for everyone who views it.
The full show (forty pieces) is on my website at http://leniwiener.com/park-bench-stories/, where you can also purchase the full exhibition catalog, if you are interested. In addition, now that it is no longer touring, many of the unsold pieces are now for sale. If something strikes your fancy, email me at [email protected].
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
Some pieces progress so quickly it is almost as if they make themselves; others are a more laborious process. That is usually because one or more fabrics aren’t right. When I figure that out and change it, things move forward more fluidly. The “wrong” fabric is almost always the incorrect value, and making it lighter or darker as needed solves the problem. I have learned to trust what is in the photo, rather than use my brain to try and imagine what it ‘should’ look like. The advantage of working from a photo is that all the information I need is already there for me. I don’t have to invent anything (and when I do it never looks right).
My biggest challenge is working large. Most of my pieces are relatively small, some as small as 12” square. But often a particular exhibition will require a specific size, often quite large and out of my comfort zone. The challenge, and frustration there is twofold; I usually collect small cuts of fabric and often don’t have enough of what I need while working; in addition, a large piece is so cumbersome to manage and handle—especially in the sewing machine. Working in sections that later are combined can solve that problem, but sometimes that isn’t an option.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I am lucky enough to have a dedicated space to work, formerly my son’s bedroom. It is nothing fancy or special (I have studio envy when I see the glorious workspaces of some other art quilters), but it holds all my necessaries and allows me to work unhindered. It would be near impossible to create not only a body of work but four books if I had to put away what I was doing at the end of each session. I will often pop into the room to do one simple thing, sometimes even in the middle of the night, when one nagging change keeps me awake.
Sharing photos of my studio feels sort of personal, like nude photos! You can see from the photos that the room is a far cry from the gorgeous studio photos I see in magazines. But I know where everything is, and the work surfaces are clear (well, mostly clear!) for me to work. It is nothing fancy, but it works for me. Now you all know my “dirty” little secret about the space in which I create.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
When I started down this path I was using an old, and relatively inexpensive, sewing machine. For straight sewing garments, pillows and curtains it was fine. But when I started doing free motion and more precision work, and sewing for hours at a time, I realized the importance of a really good sewing machine.
I bought my first BERNINA around this time. It was like going from an old jalopy to a sportscar. What a difference it made. The sticker shock of the first machine made it hard for me to take it out of the box when I first brought it home. But I use it all the time, and it is the most important piece of equipment I own and use it more than anything else. I have more than gotten my money’s worth from it.
Beyond the machine, there are the standard tools of the trade—an iron and ironing surface (I made a work table out of a board covered with several layers of wool blankets (my dad’s old army blankets from WWII) for pinning and pressing; scissors, lightbox, design wall (foam core nailed to the wall with picture hanger nails), rotary cutting mat, rulers and cutter, and last but not least, a plum line and a level–indispensable for making sure a piece is even. I always make sure I have plenty of good thread and good machine needles on hand—items it never pays to skimp on. I don’t, however, purchase expensive small scissors. Since I use them to cut through fabric and freezer paper together, these dull and I simply replace them frequently.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I cannot draw or sketch. I started my career as a commercial photographer, and artistically I produced abstract photographs–photos that looked like abstract paintings, which (by the way) no one got at all. To this day, I see the world as it appears through a camera lens. Everything I do starts with a photo (usually my own) and I manipulate it, add to it, erase elements from it in the computer until I am happy with the composition. My “journal” are the hundreds of photos in files on my computer, categorized so they are easy to locate when I need them.
I do not work intuitively; every piece is planned from the start. The only decisions I make along the way are fabric choices, which often go through two or more iterations before I am happy.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I am primarily a planner. I start with a photo, manipulate and change it on the computer, simplify it into an easily executed “pattern” using photoshop and print it the full size of the finished artwork. That allows me to use the freezer paper method of cutting out each piece of fabric and putting the whole “puzzle” together one section at a time.
Occasionally there is a section of the image that demands to be done intuitively—a natural element like a tree or water, for example, but even that follows a sort of formula. But I am not one for improvisational working; I feel better when I have a road map that allows me to accomplish the finished piece as I see it not only in my head, but on the printed pattern.
That is not to say it always comes out exactly as I had planned; it is always necessary to keep an open mind and make changes and adapt where needed.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Usually while I am working I listen to music, sometimes talk radio. But I find the talking can be distracting. Even the choice of music can impact the mood of the finished piece; if I listen to upbeat music I get a different result than when I listen to more soulful music. My favorites are flamenco, blues and bluegrass.
Of course by the time I get to the sewing machine, I can’t really hear the music or talking anyway and enjoy the steady sound of the machine softly chugging along. I love that sound and find it very meditative.
Which artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?
I am always looking at art, all kinds of art. I am influenced by different artists in different media all the time. Those who inspire my work change; often they are artists who are not well known but whose work speaks to me in some way—the way they handle line, movement or color. Often, but not always, these are figurative artists. I crave inspiration from those who have managed to successfully reduce the amount of detail in their work to only that which is absolutely necessary—something I am always striving to accomplish. I call it “telling the story with the least number of brush strokes”.
And I still find photography very inspirational. In photos, it is lighting that most intrigues me, the way the photographer sets a mood, highlights the contours of a face, or creates mystery with shadow that really moves me.
And then there is everything else. Moroccan tile, ethnic embroidery and fabric, fashion, even images on TV (I often pause and take pictures of the TV screen when something strikes me), the changing light outside my window. Add anything that moves an idea outside the box, those artists who are so innovative that they are doing something no one else has done before–that really gets my brain going.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your books, including, Pictorial Art Quilt Workbook?
I want people to take away from this book that they can do this. Lots of people look at a finished artwork and think it is too overwhelming and don’t know where to start. I want them to understand how to break a project down into little pieces, working one small section at a time and building until they have their image. The book contains one detailed project, step by step, just like a workshop. It even includes mis-steps, how I recognize them and fix them. The other less detailed project in the book outlines the basic steps for the famous “Afghan Girl” photo by Steve McCurry for National Geographic.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
The website does a few things. First, it is a record of my professional career. I even reference it when I need certain information—especially dates. It is the only place to view my body of work.
It is also my storefront; from my site I sell my books, the Park Bench Stories catalog, and a gray scale value card that is useful for many people to help them determine what “value” fabric they need and the “value” of their fabrics.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I was teaching workshops and doing talks a lot pre-covid. Because of the weather in the Northeast, which makes travel unpredictable, most years I would work in the studio from December until March and go on the road to teach from April to November. That was a nice balance, solitary half of the year and with other people the other half.
In 2020 when many other of my colleagues started doing zoom classes, I thought about it and decided against it. It is the interaction with people that is my joy in teaching. I love the connection with each student, going through their fabrics together, discussing and auditioning until they find the right one, and the look on someone’s face when their work starts to come together. That isn’t the same over the internet. So I haven’t done any teaching or talks in the past year, and hope to return to it in the coming months as we start to re-emerge from the pandemic.
Anyone who is interested in booking a workshop, talk or even a voice coaching for a group can contact me through my website or email me at [email protected].
Interview posted April 2021
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