It’s been awhile since I’ve featured an Interview with Someone I Admire here on Today is Going to be Awesome. But I’m back today with a good one. Today I talk to Jen Hewett: artist, pattern designer, print maker & gifted teacher. Full disclosure: she also happens to be one of my closest friends. I love Jen for all kinds of reasons, including her sense of humor and her pragmatism (and of course her adorable dog, Gus). And I think you will also notice here that Jen is humble and reflective about her journey, whip smart, and open hearted about sharing her process. She’s also got a keen and unique aesthetic, mixing pattern and color together in ways I don’t see anywhere else. I hope you’ll enjoy this interview with her!
Lisa: Tell us a bit about how you got started as an artist. Did you study art? Are you self taught? When did your creative “journey” begin and how did it evolve over time?
Jen: I am almost completely self-taught. I have a bachelors degree in English Literature, and a minor in French Language. Not exactly the most marketable degree, but not having a zillion job offers upon graduation made me scrappy. After a few years of working in education, I decided that I wanted to start a stationery company. This was 2000, and the dot.com boom was in full force in San Francisco. My friends were going to work at tech startups, and I was selling paper.
I did all the illustrations and layout for my company. I was very pleased when, at trade shows, buyers would ask me where I went to art school. I’d managed to create a great line that was sold in places like Anthropologie, Paper Source, and Neiman Marcus – without an art degree. But, despite all my scrappiness, I made some business mistakes and sold the business after I finally came to terms with just how much debt I had taken on while growing my business.
I then worked for an e-learning/interactive company doing operations and finance. That allowed me to pay off my debt and save up some money so that by the time that company folded during the height of the Great Recession in 2008, I could survive on unemployment and my savings until I was able to find a job.
I’d taken a screenprinting class at the Mission Cultural Center a few months before I was laid off. It was originally just a creative outlet for me while I worked a non-creative day job, but I was quickly hooked. I posted a couple of pieces I’d printed on Etsy, and they sold. So, when I was laid off and was unable to find a job because the economy was so bad, I’d go to the studio to print, in between job hunting. My work started to get noticed – it was the early days of both blogging and of Etsy – and I realized that I might be able to make a living as a printmaker… eventually.
I did eventually take a full-time “regular” job, but that job was such a bad fit that I quit after five months and started consulting part-time and making art part-time. I was also still so scarred by all the debt I’d amassed in my first business that I decided that I’d have a part-time day job until I absolutely knew I could support myself full-time through my art. It’s nice to be able to pay the bills, and not have to worry about money all the time. And yes, I still have the day job.
Lisa: Tell us about how you got into print making as your “thing.” What kinds of print making techniques do you do and/or are your favorites? Also, what is it about print making that appeals to you over other kinds of art making processes?
Jen: I like the physical, operational, and strangely meditative nature of printmaking. There’s a process – especially with screenprinting – and I love it. I like navigating all the steps that go into creating a print. By the time I actually start printing, I’m ready to switch away from the more cerebral part of the process and instead “think with my hands.” Your mind stops blabbing, and your hands do the work. I was a competitive runner in high school. There was so much training that went into getting ready for a meet. But once the race started, all thought stopped.
I know that other media are like this, that this is what flow is, but I achieve this most often through printmaking.
Lisa: You teach classes on print making, most notably on fabric. How did that start? What do you enjoy most about teaching? Where can people find out about anything new or upcoming you might be offering?
Jen: In 2014, I launched my 52 Weeks of Printmaking project. Every week, I created and shared a new print. I’d originally intended to explore printmaking, and work with a lot of different print media, but I consistently waited until the last minute to do my print so I would only have time to work on a block print. That meant, though, that I got to be pretty decent at block printing, even though I was self-taught.
Block printing is fairly accessible. You don’t need much special equipment, and you’re rewarded immediately for your work. I’d always wanted to teach – I’d led trainings and workshops in my non-art career, and am pretty comfortable talking to small groups. I pitched a block printing class to Makeshift. I loved teaching that first class, and the students really took to block printing, so I lengthened the class and found locations that could hold more students.
Every time I posted a photo of my work, or of a class I was teaching, on Instagram, I’d be asked if I could teach a class in Vancouver/Portland/LA/Sydney. It’s not economically feasible for me to travel to all those places to teach, so in December 2014, I launched an e-course.
I continue to teach in-person classes in the Bay Area, at Handcraft Studio School and at Yonder Shop and I’m offering my e-course again in May. More information about all those classes is here.
Lisa: Your designs are very distinct and very beautiful. I love your use of color. When you are designing prints to adorn bags or clothing, what do you think about or take into consideration? Both in designing (the more aesthetic part) and also in knowing you will be printing by hand? (ie; the more technical part — there must be things you must consider differently than if you were printing digitally).
Jen: I like constructing things, which is also why I love to sew. Printing really appeals to the operational part of my brain. Particularly with screenprinting, I have to think about the number and placement of colors, because each color requires a separate screen, and a separate “pull” (the process of pulling the ink across the screen). I also have to think about how the print will align (“registration” in printing terms), which can be extremely difficult when I’m printing two or more colors. Each color adds another layer of technical complexity. One of the ways that my silkscreened fabric is very different from a lot of other work out there is in the number of colors I use in each print (many small textile printers print just one or two colors). Another difference is that I mix most of my ink myself, instead of using the standard, store-bought ink colors without any alteration. When I run out of a color, I have to mix it again, which means there are variations in color between print runs.
Size is also key – the larger the screenprint, the more difficult it is to print. The largest size I can comfortably print by myself is 18” in width. Anything larger than that requires two people to print simultaneously (both holding the squeegee on either side of the screen). I don’t have the space to screenprint on large pieces of fabric.
Finally, the scale of an image is really important. This has really been driven home this year, as I’ve started to block print yardage for clothing. A print that looks great on a small scale – on a zippered pouch or a dinner napkin, for example – can get lost when used on a larger item, like a skirt. The opposite is also true; a large image that isn’t very interesting on a bag or a napkin can look fantastic on a skirt. Block printing fabric for clothing has been a fun, challenging, learning experience.
Lisa: I love the way you approach your creative process. You also work part time as a human resources consultant, but you still manage to create all kinds of interesting projects every week. You also share a lot of your process, even your mistakes. Tell us about how you approach your creative process, including your thoughts on risk taking, experimentation & work ethic.
Jen: I can’t yet fully support myself from my art and my classes – though this will probably change in the next couple of years – so I need to have a day job. I think that my part-time day job (and, therefore, a steady income) is crucial to my creative process right now. I can create work for its own sake, and I don’t need to worry about whether or not it will sell. I’m allowed to experiment, and to have flops.
For my first few years as a printmaker, I would release a new item whenever I felt like it. It was a great way for me to get lots of practice designing and printing (and it was also great content for my blog and social media), but after a few years of that, I decided that I wanted to create more cohesive collections that I’d release twice per year. My 52 Weeks of Printmaking project was really born out of a need to create and share work during the times when I didn’t have a new collection to show!
I am not the most organized person, but because I have a day job, I make myself create regular schedules – and stick to them. The time that I have to create is precious. It is finite. If I slack off on a studio day, I can’t get that day back. And because printing is so physical, I have to do it regularly to build up my muscle memory.
A lot of my creative process is about discipline, about doing work on a regular basis. I think that a lot of creative people spin in circles – worrying that what they haven’t yet created won’t be good enough, spending a lot of time doing research, thinking about everything that could go wrong. For me, the best way to move forward is to just get started. I do the Pomodoro technique when I’m feeling especially futzy.
I’m also a recovering perfectionist. Until I was in my thirties, I lived with massive amounts of anxiety, and was terrified of making a mistake. After a couple of panic attacks, I finally got help. During our first appointment, my wonderful therapist told me that my assignment was to intentionally go out and make a mistake, and then to let her know what happened. Guess what? The world didn’t fall apart. No one shamed me. Life went on. Over a couple of years, I let go of that perfectionism. There’s no way I would be here today if I hadn’t. When people ask me what I’m most proud of, I tell them that I’m proud that I learned how to be a confident person as an adult.
So, experimenting is much easier if you’re not a perfectionist. Mistakes aren’t fatal. Bad work is just bad work. I sometimes share my flops because I think it’s important for people to know that flops are just another part of the process.
Lisa: Do you have a “dream” project or two? If so, what are they?
Jen: I’d like to do more licensing, so that my work will be on products beyond just those items I create myself. I’d especially like to license for fabric and tabletop. Licensing will be more of a focus next year, after I’ve done some work putting together a portfolio.
Have a great Thursday, friends!