This year’s Hard Twist Exhibition is the eleventh annual edition of the Gladstone Hotel’s group fibre art show. Jen Wilson is one of the participating artists, who puts her own spin on portraiture using psychedelic embroidered patterns, transforming familiar faces into eye-popping mazes of colour and line. We interviewed the artist about her art practice, her love of graffiti, and her appreciation of both Justin Bieber and Justin Trudeau.
On Her Work
I embroider faces with colourful designs. They look tribal, and are created through stream of consciousness imagery. The pieces are vibrant, textural and each one is unique.
Developing Her Process
I fell in love with graffiti in the mid-90s, and that influenced me a lot. I wanted my work to be like that – colourful, funky, and different — with an edge. I started by documenting the graffiti scene in downtown Toronto, and did that for 15 years. But actually, I wanted to be a graffiti artist myself. I didn’t like working with paint, so I dabbled in poster and stencil art instead. I took photos of the work I admired and tried a few things out.
At the same time, I was experimenting with drawing on faces from magazine ads, like when I was kid, but instead of moustaches and black eyes, I’d make colourful designs. I liked how those looked, so I made a bunch and pasted them up around the downtown core. My discoveries eventually led me to embroidery — it was only later that I decided to print the faces onto cotton, and embroider the designs.
When I look back at my childhood, I remember that I used to work with textiles a lot. I sewed dolls using nylon stockings that I would stuff and then stitch the features into. I love to work with my hands, with textiles and sewing, so it really is like rediscovering the joy I had a kid.
I always incorporate my tag, “jenr8,” weaving it somewhere into the design, like in graffiti. There are also some more obvious symbols in the designs; the moon and sun, or feathers, or lightening bolts, for example. These all stem from my interest in the spiritual and the magical, so these symbolic items are a part of my visual library, and I use them based on my feelings about the person I’m working on.
A Modern Twist
My embroidery is an element of each portrait, not the portrait itself. People see the face first, and then notice the overlay of stitches on top, raised like icing. Then when they start to look at the embroidery, they see the face peering out from underneath the colours and lines. It’s a bit unsettling, and I think this changes the way people view embroidery. Instead of consisting of traditional imagery, my urban and psychedelic influences infuse the work with a modern twist.
Picking Her Models
I tend to choose people I admire, personal heroes, and friends. The patterns are based on the shapes and lines of the face; I don’t want to obscure the face too much. I want the the designs to reveal something in the face rather than hide it.
I decided to embroider Justin Trudeau and Justin Bieber because despite their obvious similarities (their first names, nationality, and fame) they represent two different sides of Canada and of fame. Less obvious similarities reveal themselves too — the world is constantly watching both of them ‘perform.’
Inspired by Graffiti
I’m always being inspired by graffiti I come across. Artists I’ve encountered such as Bunnie Reiss (@bunnieluvrocks) and David Polka (@slowcoolassault) use amazing imagery, line, and colour. I’m also getting inspired by other modern textile artists like Ben Venom and Faig Ahmed, who are using traditional mediums to explore current ideas. I love juxtapositions like that.
Slow and Steady
Working on a piece is like down time for me. I sit in a comfortable chair and usually listen to music. I love a slow cool groove or a funky dance beat. My mind wanders and plays while I stitch. There’s a lot of work staring at the piece and wondering where it’s going. I draw lines first, and then work on the colours, Once I start stitching, I can see what works and what doesn’t. I stare and stare until it feels right.
Catch Jen’s art and more amazing work at Hard Twist 11, running in our gallery from August 26 – January 9, 2016.
You can follow Jen at jenr8art.