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Free Spirit Artist Trio: An Interview with Fabric Designer, Jenean Morrison

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There are people I meet who are sweet. Others who I'd describe as nice. And those I put in the creative column. But, every so often, I stumble upon someone who is sweet and nice and creative. Meet, Jenean Morrison: terribly talented and terrifically personable, she has been a joy to work with since our first conversation. We'd admired her previous collections for Free Spirit Fabrics: Moondance, Picnic Parade and California Dreamin', and so were thrilled when Free Spirit suggested Jenean and her new Silent Cinema collection as the focus of our first Artist Trio Series with them. Today, you'll get to meet Jenean and find out a little bit about the brains behind the beauty. Later this week, she has a Guest Tutorial for you. Then, later this month, our friends at Free Spirit will sponsor a Great Giveaway with some Silent Cinema fabric plus a mystery Free Spirit Grab Bag.

Jenean is a true "surface designer." You can find her artwork on everything from rugs to stationery to fabric. And, as if we weren't already feeling like underachievers, she is also an accomplished painter, with paintings in over 300 rooms of the new Aria Hotel at City Center in Las Vegas as well as in numerous rooms at the Mirage Hotel. She even collaborated with her husband on an art installation for the Bellagio in Las Vegas in 2009. She slowed down long enough to chat with us about the winding road that took her from waitress to well-known designer, what inspires the complex motifs and wonderful palettes of her collections, and how it feels to be a winner on The Weakest Link!

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S4H: I found some mentions in my research of your mother being an artist. What type of art did/does she create and how did that affect your own artistic hopes and dreams?

JM: There is so much seriously creative talent on both sides of my family. And yes, my mom is an amazing artist; she can draw anything so beautifully! Drawing skills aren't my strong suit, and it took me a long time to realize that even though I can't draw as well as her, I am still an artist... my work is just different from hers. I grew up assuming drawing came easily for my mom and wondering why I found it so difficult. I later learned she taught herself to draw by looking at fashion illustrations in newspaper ads and redrawing them. She said it took a long time and a ton of practice. She has illustrated several textbooks with pen and ink drawings. And a few years ago, she did a series of stunning colored pencil drawings, which she sold as prints.

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My mother was a big inspiration to me as I was growing up, and now I have become an inspiration to her - both with my career choices and in my design style. She's been doing some really cool, stylized drawings lately. I love her new direction so much, I've incorporated one of her drawings into my Fall 2011 fabric collection. She's so excited about it, although now I think she wants a fabric line of her own!

S4H: You are quoted as saying you didn't get serious about your design career until you were in your early thirties. What did you do before? I think our readers are always inspired by tales of someone discovering his/her true path – especially if that path has lain hidden for a number of years.

JM: I waited tables. I had a college degree from the University of Memphis, yet I wasn't sure what I wanted to do in life, so I kept the job I'd had while in school. I waited tables, tended bar, then worked in the office... all at the same bar/restaurant on Beale Street (a famous music area around here, sort of the Bourbon Street of Memphis). The entire time, I knew I wanted to do something creative with my life; I just didn't know what it was or how to get there.

Then, a series of exceptionally cool things happened to put me on the right track. First, new owners took over the restaurant and let me do their graphic design work. I designed menus, ads, flyers for shows, table tents, anything and everything I could get my hands on. It became my favorite part of the job and reawakened my creative spirit. I loved it so much, I went back to school, this time at Memphis College of Art, to learn Graphic Design.

Next, I tried out for the daytime version of the game show, The Weakest Link. I was selected, flown to LA a few weeks later and ended up winning. I spent half of the money on a brand new iMac and another large chunk on a tabletop trivia machine for the restaurant. The iMac propelled my design skills. The trivia machine sat on the bar where people fed quarters into it from open to close. For the record, this was not a gambling machine, simply a machine that lets you play different games by yourself or with friends. I split the earnings with my employer, and pretty soon, the money I took in each week became a decent source of income. I invested in a few more machines and put them in other clubs owned by my boss. The more money the machines brought in, the fewer hours I had to work at the restaurant. This freed up my time and allowed me to get back to being creative and trying to figure out where I really wanted to be.

The biggest, greatest thing of all happened when I met my husband. I should say "re-met my husband" as we had dated ten years earlier but drifted apart. The second time around, it "stuck"! Something about him and our relationship allowed me to relax and become very focused on my future. It was only after we got together that I became truly serious about finding my path and discovered the confidence to pursue it. After lots of thought and tons of research, we headed to New York in 2005 for the Surtex and Licensing Expo. I left my job on Beale Street, sold the trivia machines to the club, and invested all my money in my new career. I've been steadily making art ever since.

S4H: Not that I want to make you sound less than perfectly organized, diligent and clairvoyant with a razor sharp vision of exactly what you wanted and how to get there, but... it does sound like you "stumbled upon" a lot of your knowledge. Can you make us all feel a little better by telling us about your slightly rocky road to success? How you went from a handmade calendar and a self-printed box of fabric swatches to the licensing powerhouse you've now become?

JM: "Licensing powerhouse." That has a nice ring to it, thanks! However, I don't always feel like that, believe me. There are so many things that go on behind the scenes, the things people don't see when they look at a successful artist. I received my first licensing contract when a handmade calendar I sent out landed on the desk of an Art Director on the very day she was looking for geometric designs. I also happened to approach Free Spirit Fabrics with small scale designs right when they were in the market for some. While there is something to be said for being in the right place at the right time, the truth is, if you put yourself out there enough, and if you work hard enough, things like this are bound to happen.

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I don't talk a lot about the rejections, maybe I should, but trust me... there have been plenty of them. For every company that says yes, there are between 50-100 who say no. That is a lot of rejection, and it can be hard to deal with at times. I choose to focus on the clients I have instead of the ones I don't. When things look easy on the surface, know that underneath there is a lot of work, time, energy and preparation that goes into all of it. It's important to have a business plan, because it can be so easy for an artist to just focus on the creative side of things while ignoring all the aspects of running a successful business. It's a learning process, definitely "rocky" at times, but so much of it is keeping a positive attitude and just showing up every day. And my number one advice: do not take the above-mentioned rejections personally!

S4H: The official term for what you do is called, "surface designer," which means the world is your blank tablet. Your art adorns everything from stationery, fabric and rugs to water bottles, notebooks and napkins. I've heard you've even dreamed of seeing your designs covering a VW Beetle! What are the differences between designing for a flat surface versus a dimensional surface?

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JM: So far most of my designs have ended up on flat surfaces, with the exception of the water bottles and some dimensional scrapbooking elements. I haven't noticed much of a difference so far. They all start the same way. There are a lot of products I would love to see adorned with my art. And while I dream of spotting a VW Beetle cruising down the road covered in one of my California Dreamin' designs, I don't think it gets much better than to have the support of and be in a relationship with a company like Free Spirit . Designing entire coordinating fabric collections is about as much fun as it gets!

S4H: I understand you design your fabric on computer using Adobe Illustrator. I think learning something like that can seem intimidating to some. What is your best advice to the up-and-coming fabric designer for conquering the fear of the mouse and the paintbrush tool?

JM: I learned the basics of Adobe Illustrator in a class at college. Much of what I have subsequently learned has come from experimentation, trying out new techniques I've found online or in design magazines. Lately I have been taking online classes from Lynda.com, because while I know my way around Illustrator, I also know I'm only using about 10% of its capabilities. I recommend checking out online classes or seeing if anyone is offering classes near you. Illustrator is my program of choice, but textile design can be done in plenty of other programs as well as by hand. If you are willing to put in the time and effort to learn Illustrator or Photoshop, it will make your life a lot easier in the long run.

S4H: Every collection has a "focus print." What is Silent Cinema's focus print? Was it the first one from which all the others evolved or did it make itself known further down the line?

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JM: For this collection ,"Intermission" and "Zoetrope" are the main prints. "Intermission" was the first print I created, and almost every other print in the collection was created by pulling elements directly from that print and giving them their own spin. Not to play favorites, but right now, I'm pretty partial to "Shadow Play." It's a dense, small-scale, all-over floral design I'm finding works well in the quilting projects I've started.

S4H: Silent Cinema is, as its name implies, a softer collection than your earlier ones. It reminds me of finding a vintage card at the bottom of a drawer: warm and lovely and a bit nostalgic. Can you tell us a little about the evolution of the design and where its name really came from?

JM: Oh, what a wonderful description... thank you! For a lot of designers, color comes first. For me, the designs come first. And, I generally start creating with bright colors. My trusty standbys are pinks, greens, oranges and yellows. I love these colors! When creating Silent Cinema, I came up with the designs and plugged in my usual colors as I worked, creating the design elements and putting them in repeat form. When the time came to start figuring out the exact colors for the collection, I was inspired to toss in some grays. Then I chose slightly softer shades of the colors I'd originally been working with, and I mixed these with the grays and some muted blues. I've done collections that are purely bright and sunny, and I've done collections that are completely soft and muted. With Silent Cinema, I wanted to bring these two distinct color worlds into one cohesive collection.

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I mention all this about the colors because they really influenced the name. I was watching a lot of silent movies while working on this collection. My husband is a big reader and he likes to read in bed at night. I prefer to fall asleep to the television. Silent movies were the perfect compromise: something for me to watch but quiet enough not to disturb my husband's reading. I can't help but think these old silver screen gems worked their way into my collection in the form of color, tones and drama.

S4H: The circle, the medallion the dot... what do you suppose it is about this shape that is such a constant source of inspiration to you?

JM: Design is only half my career; the other half is fine art. I have painted for years, and, I don't know why, but the dot has always been the major building block of my paintings. The shape just organically migrated right into my surface design work and took up residence there as well. There is something inherently feminine about round shapes, obviously, and I see a certain "girl-power" in both my paintings and designs. Maybe it's because I began my artistic career later in life than some, but painting and design have always been a source of empowerment for me on many levels. It's a gift to live a life in which I create every day.

S4H: We had some email exchanges about how you are just learning to sew. Since S4H is all about getting new people interested in the art of sewing, can you wax eloquently about what it's been like for you to learn to sew?

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JM: I've been doing some minor sewing for a couple of years now, but I'd always looked at quilting in the same way some people probably look at leaning to use Illustrator: way too complicated and with no idea where to start. So I grabbed my fears by the lapels and signed up for a quilting class through Memphis College of Art's Community Education program. I've felt so involved and welcomed by the quilting community, and now I am finally, happily on my way to making a quilt.

S4H: How important do you think blogging, Facebooking and Tweeting is to today's design world? Is it a wonderful, free-flowing stream of conversation? Or do you wonder what to say and if anyone cares to listen?

JM: I think it's all very important. People want to hear from designers about their designs, new collections, new patterns, new products. In addition to sharing about yourself, it's a great way to keep up with others and support them in their endeavors. I want to be as encouraging as possible to other designers, artists and creators. And it works both ways. I get great encouragement from other designers as well as experienced sewers and quilters who generously share their knowledge with me. I enjoy it and enjoy meeting people and exchanging ideas.

S4H: In the introduction to our interview, I touched on your painting and how impressed I was to know your reproductions are hanging in some of the most famous hotels in Las Vegas. Wow! What is it like to switch between computer design to the tactile work of painting. Can you actually feel your brain shift gears?

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JM: Yes, I can feel it, and sometimes it takes a little while to make that shift. Often, when I start to paint, I'll put down some paint and then have the thought of trying to hit "Command Z" ("UN-DO" on the computer). Even so, I do love going from the computer to painting or crafting, and now to sewing. If I've been on the computer for a long time, I find I look forward to stepping away and making something with my hands. Then I love to switch back to the computer. I think it keeps all my work fresh.

S4H: Can we peek into your every day world? What does your own creative space and living space look like? Are there any empty walls or solid colors?!

JM: My creative space stays pretty messy. I am great at making a mess, but not so great about cleaning it up. Every now and then it reaches a state where I can't go on any more and I clean it all up. Then I have a nice clean slate, which I immediately start messing up again. I try to keep my living space clean and simple, mainly for my husband's sanity. He needs and deserves to have a few places in the house that aren't being used for my creative projects. And he and I are both able to relax better when our living space is clean and neat .

S4H: Finally, what witty and insightful question have I forgotten to ask? Anything you just feel like chatting about?

JM: Your questions were the best! I think I have chatted more than enough, hopefully no one dozed off. Thank you so much for inviting me to do this interview. I love Sew4Home and am thrilled to be a part of it!

Visit Jenean's website & blog


Comments (12)

Diane Richter said:
Diane Richter's picture

I am interested in making a rug from fur fabric. can you tell me what i would need

Carolina Ellis said:
Carolina Ellis's picture
The thing I like most about Jenean's fabrics is that although many use them for making quilts, I use them for other projects including clothing and I never feel like I am wearing a quilt. Jenean must have a very happy disposition - it shows through in her designs. Loved getting the insight to her world. I have come back and reread this post several times. Each time I have gleaned something new from it. Thank you, Carolina
skernal3 said:
skernal3's picture
Wonderful interview! Is the pattern for this sundress available? LOVE IT!
subuh said:
subuh's picture
This interview made me to put more effort to bcome a designer like Jenean.Love her design! Thanx sew4home for this inspiring interview and i've followed ur twitter smilies/wink.gif
ladycrafts said:
ladycrafts's picture
Very inspiring interview on this designer. I found many surprises in her words on how she went nothing but up in her career, all the way to the top. Yes, very inspiring words. Congratulations, Jenean, congratulations.
olive_and_ollie@yahoo.com said:
olive_and_ollie@yahoo.com's picture
Great interview! And I agree, Janean is an amazing talent and such a nice, sweet person too!
LCO said:
LCO's picture
I really enjoyed reading this, and I love that Silent Cinema fabric - so pretty! I want that bike and that sundress - both are too cute! smilies/grin.gif
Melissa P said:
Melissa P's picture
Thank you for the lovely interview. Hearing how others have started down the path of their creative life never fails to inspire.
Allison E. (allycat79225) said:
Allison E. (allycat79225)'s picture
Love this. Very nice. Fabric prints are awesome. Hard to find prints like this.