Welcome our visiting artist, Jennifer Reis! Reis hails from Morehead, Kentucky where she is currently an assistant professor and gallery director at Morehead State University. Her work explores surface embellishments and textile assemblages. In preparation for her arrival, we ask her a few questions about her background and practice, check it out!
CC: Tell us a little bit about your educational background. Any specific training or special mentors?
Jennifer Reis (JR): I have a BFA from Columbus College of Art and Design in studio art, focused on printmaking, an MA from Syracuse University in museum studies, and an MA from Morehead State University in studio art and art education. Other than a week long intensive class with Susan Shie where I learned a lot about embroidery and embellishing on fabric more than a decade ago, I am primarily self taught in textiles. When I was about 10 years old, a close family friend taught me the basics of quilt piecing and sewing, which made a big impact on me as well.
CC: Can you talk about your conceptual inquiries? What themes you explore, and how have these themes evolved over time?
JR: The conceptual aspects of my work regardless of the media has always been about subjects I am experiencing directly, whether its geographical, cultural, religious, or gender-related. Early embellished textile pieces, starting around 2002, were about mental health, addiction, and the feminine personae, usually within a religious context. Then, a few years later, my work began to focus on the theme of “Appalachian Pastoral”, primarily featuring content related to rural life again within a religious context. Looking back, even though the pieces are humorous, for instance in the piece, The Last (Church) Supper), featuring chicken and a stag as stand-ins for figures, these pieces were about making my place in a rural environment as someone who grew up in urban and suburban Northeastern Ohio who now lives in Eastern Kentucky.
Currently, my pieces are returning to an early theme – the feminine personae – but in what I consider to be a more nuanced and perhaps a little unsettling way. I see these pieces as “power figures”, utilizing paper dolls within a religious framework. The environments the figures live in are highly ornamental, and the figures themselves are often adorned with embellishments. I am interested in “armoring” these figures, much like fashion (a big influence is Alexander McQueen) can be not only expressively decorative, but acts as armor and concealment as well, like camouflage.
CC: Can you talk about your current body of work, the embellished textile assemblages? Describe the process?
JR: I call my pieces “embellished textile assemblages” because I am approaching the material like a found object artist. And my assemblages or highly tactile collages just happen to be made primarily out of embellished fabric. My way of working is highly methodical. Ideas do come quickly to me, but then I wrestle quite a bit with how to construct a composition and use the appropriate visual elements (including the intensive embellishments).
Right now I am struggling with a piece I intend on calling “Letting Herself Go”, and I think I finally figured it out in my head. Once that happens, I go through my fairly large (surprise!) collection of fabric, found objects, trims, etc., and lay things out, either on a table or on my “visualizing wall” where I can pin up pieces and step back from the piece in progress. Sometimes when I am struggling with how the elements will work together, I take a number of photographs of different compositional iterations to then review digitally. Once I have the main elements put together, I take another picture to remind myself of the composition. The process is very labor intensive as all the sewing and embellishing regardless of material (and I use paper, metal, costume jewelry, plastic animals, religious metal votives) are all stitched down by hand taking about 1 hour per square inch. Most of the works are created on a quilt structure with silk dupioni being the background I work on, although I have also been working on pre-stretched canvases that I paint, wrap with fabric, and stitch/embellish directly onto like a square or rectangular embroidery hoop. This is a class I have taught at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, The Craft Alliance, and now in November, at the Society for Contemporary Craft. It is a very exciting way of working that by its nature is cross-media.
CC: What advice might you give to young artist?
JR: First, I would say that the most important part of the word “artwork” is WORK. Especially in the face of rejection, lack of inspiration, and so on. You need to set a schedule for working in your art making space, even if that means you are straightening up or doing something you may consider to be fooling around. Secondly, find a concept or inspiration that lends itself to doing a number of pieces – don’t get caught up in doing the one precious piece that might not turn out the way you what (very frustrating!). If you work on a number of pieces about one theme, you are giving your permission to grow and experiment. Finally, READ and learn about lots of different things, including that which is outside of the “art world”! Your work may end up being more interesting and relevant.