Spotlight: Leslie Tucker Jenison, Artist, Contemporary Quilt Maker and Fabric Designer

Leslie Tucker Jenison

Spotlight: Leslie Tucker Jenison, Artist, Contemporary Quilt Maker and Fabric Designer

Leslie Tucker Jenison makes contemporary quilts – works of art in fabric. Anything can spark an idea – for a single piece or for a series to explore a subject with depth and breadth. Starting with a plan, she allows improvisation along the way as the work develops its own identity. Working in her wet studio, she translates sketchbook thoughts and drawings directly to cloth. These designs take on new life for quilters as quilt shop fabric.

Leslie Tucker Jenison headshot

How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?

I suppose I’ve always been on an artist’s path. As a kid, I loved to paint, tinker, and create. There have been long periods of time when the creative process was sidelined but I somehow found my way back to it. As a young adult working in the medical field as a registered nurse I found quiltmaking as my avocation, which became an important balance to the stress of working in a clinical area. My work is always evolving.

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How would you describe your work?

I identify as an artist. I make contemporary quilts and design fabric for the quilting industry.

What is it about working with textiles that engages you?

I have a theory about the appeal of working with cloth. We have a very intimate, life-long relationship to cloth. After all, it is the second thing we have contact with after we are born! There is just something about the malleability of it that holds my interest. I think of the quilted surface as “2.5 dimensional” work.

Interstitial by Leslie Tucker Jenison
“Interstitial”
50” long by 30” wide
In anatomy, something interstitial is situated between the cells of a structure or part. I created this quilt to honor my past life as a registered nurse and my ongoing obsession with all things cellular and microscopic.

What inspires you to create? What is it about a subject that inspires a series of pieces?

Inspiration to create a piece, even a series, can come from anyplace. Generally, the work of a series has to do with not enough “room” in one piece to contain all the ideas. I often get several ideas whilst working on one piece, then more on the next. Or, I’ll think, “Oh! I wish I had done this or that. Oh well, I’ll make another!”

Pollinator Display
Objects created with “Pollinator” in the RJR booth at Fall Quilt Market 2018

Tell us about designing fabric for RJR. How did that come about? What is the process for getting a collection to market?

I really wasn’t looking to be a fabric designer. I think it sort of found me! I’ve created cloth with personal imagery to use in my own work for many years prior to being approached about becoming a designer. The idea of creating a collection is challenging in a very different way than my work as a contemporary quilt maker. It pushes me to continue working at the print table, drawing, and experimenting with dye and paint.

I work on the ideas in my sketchbook through drawings and writing, and then take those forward by working directly on cloth with dye and paint using a variety of tools and techniques to generate the imagery. A lot of things get tossed in the process! Truthfully, I make a lot of really disappointing stuff in the process of getting to the things I consider successful. I accept this as part of doing the work: not everything will be fabulous. It is just a fact of life for me. The “gestation” of a fabric collection for me is honestly about 15 months or so from the studio work to it landing in quilt shops! I work closely with the artistic director and her colleagues to get it all done.

How does your studio setup contribute to your work process?

My studio was remodeled to better suit my work about 3 years ago. I have just under 1000 feet of dedicated space inside my home. Part of the studio is a wet studio, or dye and printing space suited to working with paint and dye, and the other is a design space.

Wet Studio area
Wet studio area

Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? Any that might surprise us? How do they improve your work?

The indispensable tools that I have in my studio vary from my wet work area to my design space.

In the wet studio I have a large stainless steel sink with a powerful spray nozzle. Putting this in my wet studio was a game-changer for me! A deep sink makes rinsing screens of paint and dye so much easier and the powerful spray nozzle makes short work of it. I have a stackable washer/dryer that allows me to keep all my dyed cloth separate from the rest of the house.

Wet Studio Sink
Wet studio sink

The very best things about my design area are the fantastic LED lighting and the many linear feet of floor to ceiling design wall space. I worked closely with an architect who has a background in interior architecture and we carefully researched lighting. The end result is that I have a studio that offers well-distributed light throughout the space so I can work day or night and have perfect conditions. Most of my storage shelving and tables are on wheels so I can adapt and adjust things according to what I am working on.

Design Studio
Design studio

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?

I often listen to audiobooks while I am sewing, music when I am printing, and I need silence when I am working at the design wall or drawing. I like silence, or music, to fill the studio. And I listen to all kinds of music! Same with audiobooks, but for some reason I like to listen to those with my Bose noise cancelling headset on. I guess it is easy for someone to tell what I am doing depending on what is, or isn’t playing!

Planner or improviser? How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce?

Am I a planner, or improviser? How about a little of both? I do have directives about the work I’m doing but I am always improvising on the fly. The current work I am doing related to quilt making is “planned improvisation”. I generally make a drawing of the overall concept and then lay it out on the wall. Then the fabric is cut improvisationally with a rotary cutter and no ruler or pattern. So things are continually subject to change, but there is is an over-arcing plan to it all.

As I design fabric it is similar: I have plans and have to produce a number of pieces to get close to my vision. The mantra in my studio is to ask “what if” and keep moving forward. Making more work generates more ideas. I don’t see any way around that.

Ode to Cecil by Leslie Tucker Jenison
“Ode to Cecil”
63” long by 40” wide
I am very captivated by the work of collage artist Cecil Touchon. This construction attempts to capture the gestural quality of his work.

Do you approach your work differently when you are creating for a juried show? How?

I honestly don’t target work for a specific show very often. Rather, I make the work I want to make and then try to find a category it fits into. The exceptions have been the previous ten years of curating for Dinner At Eight Artists (now on extended hiatus) as I have had juror’s pieces for nine of these shows which all had specific themes and size parameters. I have found that I must plan the work for a themed exhibition in a fairly specific way, particularly if there is a size parameter given. So I like the challenge of it!

Golden Summer of Love by Leslie Tucker Jenison
“Golden Summer of Love: A Moment Under Crystal Pier”
62” long by 63” wide
During a morning walk on Wrightsville Beach I stopped under the end of Crystal Pier to take a photo. Inspired by my photograph of the angular architecture, I created this composition.

What do you look for when you curate works for an exhibition? What advice do you have for artists who want to submit their work?

It is always an honor to be invited to curate work for an exhibition.

My method is to first look quickly through the submitted work to get an overall feel for it. Whenever possible, I like to do this several times. Then, I look at each piece on its own merit and ask myself a series of questions about it, such as: does this piece meet the criteria for the category or theme (if any). Does it fit the required size parameters (if any). I look at overall composition, use of the space, figure-ground relationship, color and value, etc.

The majority of jurying I have done has been via images submitted to an online jurying site. Therefore, the image(s) should be of the highest quality: good resolution, good lighting, well-cropped, white or black background, with NO objects other than the one being juried. The piece is only as good as the photograph that shows it. I cannot overemphasize this particular point. This is SO. IMPORTANT. If the artist does not have a good setup for photography it is important to find a service for this.

My advice for artists who want to enter is to always put your best work out there. Unless you consider the work to be represent your best, don’t submit it! Then be bold and do it! And then, if the piece is declined, keep moving! Keep trying! Don’t let that stop you from making and entering shows. Each of us who has been in a show, won an award…you name it, has been rejected MANY more times than we have gotten in! Trust me – we’ve all been there! The people who are entrusted with jurying/judging work do their best but they must select from many, many entries and often they must make difficult choices. So please remember that many things go into why a a jury accepts or releases a piece. Enter the same quilt next year or find another venue for it. Do not give up.

Smith County Courthouse
“Smith County Courthouse”
72” long by 68.5” wide
The quilts in the original Gee’s Bend exhibition reminded me of my paternal grandmother and her beautifully rendered “courthouse step”. This quilt, reminiscent of the traditional courthouse steps block, is improvisationally cut and pieced and is my third exploration of the “housetop” style of construction.

When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?

I think I’ve always known I am a creative person because I’m a maker, a problem-solver. I like the challenge of figuring out a process, and I think that is what I like about surface design and improvisational quilt design. Each has both a technical aspect to it as well as a “creative flow”.

Do you think that creativity is part of human nature or is it something that must be nurtured and learned?

To begin with, I think humans are inherently creative. The trick is to hang onto this while so much around us is trying to contain or remove it!

When I teach workshops I always ask my students to think about the people who discouraged their creativity or told them they “couldn’t do that” (everybody has at least one or more people who did this to them!), then I tell them to silently ask those people to “leave the room”. Because we really carry that stuff around with us as baggage, it is tough to shake it off!

Being creative involves making a conscious decision to be open and engaged, and it can be a bit scary because we are so conditioned to strive for “perfection” (whatever that is) and it is scary to embark on something that may or may not lead you to the desired result (and sometimes that is incredibly great).

Leslie & Bizzi, her assistant (a dog)
Seated in my studio with Bizzi, my assistant, and her lookalike pillow made with my first fabric collection, Urban Artifacts

How would you say your creativity has evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new mediums?

I honestly believe that my own creativity has evolved as a direct result of my experiences. Whenever I read, look at art, travel, and expose myself to new things is an opportunity to fill my cup.

My morning walks in my garden give me so much inspiration: maybe as much as traveling to a new place. I never know what might trigger my creative impulse, but I do know that staying in the moment, paying attention, and truly savoring all the little moments that come along play a big role in my own creative inspiration.

Tell us about an artistic challenge. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?

Sometimes my inner editor, that harsh internal critic, will get center-stage and then really trip me up. So in other words, I get stuck. And when stuck in the middle of a project I can really let the old tapes play in my head. You know the ones: “you are not capable of working this out”, “you aren’t good enough”, “Who do you think you are, anyway?!”., and on….

The best thing I can do is side-step to a different medium for a while to get out of my own way. I’ve learned over the years that sometimes the “getting stuck” is what happens right before I have a breakthrough, if I can stick it out and not cave in to the inner-critic. So I paint, do some mindless printing, go outside and take photos, and eventually I can come back to it with new eyes.

TeddyBear created for the Rare Bear Project
TeddyBear created for the Rare Bear project using Urban Artifacts fabric

Who are your biggest influences?

A lot of people influenced me in very specific ways at strategic intervals. My paternal grandmother was the town seamstress in a small north-central Kansas town and was a quilt maker. I worked with an RN in labor and delivery, a quilter, who took me under her wing when I expressed an interest in it.

Later, Jane Dunnewold, Claire Benn, Cas Holmes, and Carol Soderlund taught me so much about surface design and working with dye. Hollis Chatelain, Libby Lehman, and Nancy Crow have generously given me knowledge, sometimes challenged me, and uniquely influenced me along my creative journey. There are many others.

What is on your design wall right now?

At the moment I am making a large outline of my next construction on my design wall. Knee surgery has sidelined me, so I can’t wait to get started!

Leslie Tucker Jenison Quote

Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?

I am now limiting my lecturing and workshops to one or two events per year. While I absolutely love to do both these things I am finding that I need to protect my studio time. You can usually find me at the annual Craft Napa mixed media event in January. Please visit my website at http://leslietuckerjenison.com or you can catch my daily wanderings on Instagram:
@leslietuckerjenison.

Interview published February, 2019.


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