Artist Profile: Jenn Neil, Creator of Ersa Fibers - Portland, OR
Hi Jenn! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name’s Jenn. I’m a 28-year-old, self-taught, textile artist. I’m originally from Texas but I’m currently living in Portland, Oregon, where I’ve lived for the past six years.
What is your background (i.e. education, previous jobs, experiences that led you to create)?
I have no formal design education... or really any real education. Structured learning environments were never really my thing. I barely passed High School with a 1.9 GPA and dropped out of college 4 times and never decided on a major.
When did you begin working with textiles?
Textiles entered my life during a particularly low point. At the time, I was working as an office manager at a fairly successful photo editing app. The job itself was mind-numbing and the management was toxic. The founder had a terrible temper and would have audible tantrums which were amplified by the library-silent office. His right-hand man, who was directly over me, was a radio DJ who was completely unqualified for the job and was constantly making sexual jokes. One time, he told me he purposely frequented a specific coffee shop with the intention of watching a small group of new mothers who met at the same time every week to breastfeed and chat. I asked him why and he said, “If they’re allowed to whip their breasts out in public, I’m allowed to watch.” I was astonished by how far he went to make these poor women feel uncomfortable and that he was brazen enough to tell me such a disgusting story. It still makes my stomach turn. For the life of me, I don’t know why I didn't quit right then and there.
On top of my grim work environment, I had three people from my hometown commit suicide within months of each other. It was heartbreaking. I felt like I couldn’t go a month without finding out another person in my old social circle had killed themselves. I was desperate for a distraction so I decided to enroll in a weaving class. Then, just a month after I took the class, I was unexpectedly fired without cause. I was already planning to quit but the unexpected blow took me totally off guard. I was devastated.
I ended up being unemployed for about five months, during which I threw all the energy I had into textile work; it was the only thing that could distract me from the uncertainty and the subsequent anxiety. Within that frantic period of learning and exploration, I bought a stash of beautiful vintage fabric with muted pastel tones but none of the pieces were big enough to make an item out of so I decided to quilt them together to form a pillow front. After that, I was hooked and for the first time in my life I felt like I had a true talent for something.
What drew you to quilting? We love that you are making quilted pieces in wall hanging form!
I love how challenging quilting can be. The challenge of taking an original design and editing it down to a “quiltable” form is a very satisfying puzzle to solve because it’s such an unforgiving and limiting medium. It’s not like painting, you can’t just add and subtract things with ease. Once you’ve attached a piece, it’s there to stay unless you physically rip it apart which can take a lot of time and effort. It’s also very restrictive in terms of what shapes you can quilt. Anything outside of a circle, triangle, square, or rectangle is going to take a lot of creativity to achieve. But, beautiful things don’t come easy, and I’ve never liked doing things the easy way.
What does your design process look like and when did you use your skills to create your business, Ersa Fibers?
My designs come to me very suddenly. Usually, sparked by very small details. For instance, this morning I was in the shower and noticed a manufacturer’s sticker in the corner of the glass sliding door, it was silver and had the name of the manufacturer and a cylinder with a triangle next to it. That small design inspired me to start quilting cylinders.
Once I have a design in mind, I mock it up in Illustrator, which can take me anywhere from 30 minutes to four hours depending on how straightforward my vision is. Sometimes, the translation from my mind to the computer screen is seamless, other times I find that the idea looked better in my head than it does on “paper.” When that happens, I’m usually able to take a small element out of the original design and expand on it to form a new one.
After I’m satisfied with my mock-up, I spend an additional 30 minutes to two hours figuring out the best way to piece it together. I like my designs to be ultra clean and prefer to keep the amount of seams down to the lowest number possible so figuring out the best way to achieve the smallest amount of stitches is key.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in the most extraordinarily mundane objects. I find it in patterns on cement sidewalks, crossing signs, building awnings - I find it everywhere.
Why do you think it's important to shop small and support local makers and businesses?
Big box stores are turning our once vibrant communities into homogeneous two dimensional blobs. They’re starving people from expressing their individuality by giving them access only to mass produced items that lack personality. When you support local businesses that support local artists, you’re also investing in a one of a kind object that’s unique to you and represents your community.
What makes you passionate about the work that you do?
I love the feeling of conquering a challenging design. It’s a kind of addicting high that keeps me motivated to grow and learn new things.
What are some of the setbacks or challenges you face with your work?
Money and a lack of coherent direction in terms of how to make it are two of my biggest issues. I’m so fixated on designing new pieces, that monetizing my work tends to become my lowest priority. For the longest time, I wasn’t sure what direction I ultimately wanted to go in with this work. I wasn’t sure if I should work towards producing expensive one-of-a-kind pieces, become a pattern designer, or a focus on mass producing a few compelling pieces for wholesale. It’s taken me a couple of years, but just recently I’ve started to gain a stronger idea of the direction that might be feasible for me to transform my love for quilting into something I can make money with.
At The Glossary, we believe in women working together and helping one another. Why do you think it is important for women to support each other?
Women make a better ally than a man ever could because when women support me, I trust them; I know their support is genuine. I can’t say the same for men because all the men I grew up with had no interest in supporting or recognizing women for their genuine talents or intellect, it always came with a hidden intention. In addition to feeling more safe around women, I also find that women are more helpful and humble because they are often more honest with themselves about their strengths and capabilities. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a meeting or learning environment and have watched all the women ask detailed questions while the men pretend they already know everything they needed to know. That type of “I already know how to do that” ego prevents personal growth from occurring and is just generally unproductive.
What creative women do you find inspiring?
This is a great transition from the above question because currently some of my favorite artists are artists that have recently supported me. Jessica Poundstone is a graphic artist who just featured me on her blog. Her work is stunning. She creates a lot of colorful geometric designs and manages to put out new work on an almost daily basis, which is absolutely incredible. I really admire her talent and drive.
Megan Krzmarzick is a visual artist that recently reached out to me to do a profile for her website. After she reached out to me I checked out her work and immediately fell in love. She creates a lot of abstract work with large chunky brush strokes and muted palettes. Her use of color is breathtaking. She’s also a breast cancer survivor and the shear mass of strength she seems to possess is astounding.
What have you learned from creating your own business that you think can apply to any creative endeavor?
Persistence and determination are more valuable than intellect or talent. Most people let the fear of failure prevent them from even trying. I think you have to view “failure” as a badge of honor. The more you fail and keep going, the more likely you are to succeed.
Do you have any resources that have been helpful to you that we should know of?
Honestly, YouTube and Google have been my biggest resources.
Is there someone who helped shape your career path?
My boyfriend is really good friends with Natalie Miller of Natalie Joy Jewels, they were roommates when we first started dating and her studio was right outside of his room. Watching her work for herself and make a name for herself as a maker was the first time I realized that there were other career options for me. Growing up in a small town in Texas, we didn’t have makers. It was honestly the first time it opened my eyes to makers in general. I think up until then I assumed that all the items that were sold in those beautifully curated shops were made in big fancy studios. Observing her work for herself suddenly made the idea of making money off of my passion seem more doable but it also gave me no false illusions that it was going to be easy.
How do you manage your time?
To make a long answer short: I don’t. Haha. It’s something I need to work on.
How do you deal with moments of self-doubt?
My biggest source of self doubt is that I feel like I’m not progressing fast enough. When I find myself spiraling down into that dark corner of my mind, I usually dig up pictures of some of my first designs to remind myself of how much progress I’ve made in such a short amount of time.
I also find that it’s so easy to be patient and supportive of my friends’ endeavors, but I hardly ever extend that courtesy to myself. So, if I’m really beating myself up about something, I try to remove myself from the picture and give myself the advice and comfort I would give to one of my good friends.
What are you trying to learn right now or what is something that you are wanting to learn?
I’m really interested in learning how to sew apparel. I’ve tried a couple of times and it was a complete disaster but I’m determined to conquer my fears and try again. I’d also really love to learn how to screen print.
Is there something that has really resonated with you recently (words, advice, a piece of media, a friendship, etc)?
My friend Amy Nieto from Little Bright Studio once said to me: “people will give you what you want if you ask.” And she’s right! You have to advocate for yourself. You can’t get what you need if you don’t ask, so email galleries for shows, contact people for collaborations, create a gofundme for support, apply for residencies, contact local shops about how to get your stuff in there - just start asking! The worst they can say is no and better yet: what if they say yes?
What are some of your favorite places in Portland?
When I’m not at a friends house, I usually frequent dive bars in my neighborhood. One of my favorite bars right now is called Bare Bones Bar. They have plenty of outdoor seating and old scuffed-up wood floors, but the biggest draw for me is one of their happy hour deals: a jumbo chili dog with a pint of Pabst for $5 - I’m a sucker for a deal.
My all time favorite bar is this place called Moloko. The bar is full of these HUGE extravagant salt water aquariums. My first hobby was aquariums so I like to go there to get my fix. They have an unusual variety of fish and each tank has a different little community of creatures; I find it fascinating. They also have one booth that has a Super Nintendo with two controllers and all of the games I use to play as a child. My boyfriend and I went there the other night and played Donkey Kong Jr. for almost two hours. It was great.
I also really enjoy Portland’s neighborhood movie theaters. There are a bunch of cheap independently owned theaters where you can eat pizza and drink beer while you watch second run movies or old cult classics. I try to go and see a movie at least once a month - I find the theater experience to be really soothing.
Then on Monday nights, there’s this really awesome free comedy show called “It’s Gonna Be Okay!” in the basement bar of this bar, Eastburn. I try to go to that as often as possible. I feel like a good comedy show always makes me feel rejuvenated.