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Leigh Jennings Witty & profane embroidery

It's always great to throw the spotlight onto an artist whose discipline is entirely new to us and to our best knowledge we've never featured embroidery in Now Then. 

Leigh Jennings is based just over the Pennines in Macclesfield. Her work has had us chuckling for a few months with its witty juxtapositions and 21st century wisdom. Leigh told us more about her craft.

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Embroidery is not an art form we see much of these days. What drew you to it initially?

It's funny you should say that actually. I see embroidery and cross-stitch everywhere at the moment and so many people seem to be taking it up and trying to turn it into a business.

I think I've been stitching away at something forever. I started focusing on embroidery about 12 years ago at college and then again at uni. It's always been classed as a very feminine craft and at the time I was really interested in what makes something overtly feminine and what medium could best describe it. Embroidery was the obvious choice and has such a rich history to study.

I continued embroidery after uni as it was something I simply enjoyed doing, later I developed my work in to more commercial products as I was still playing with the notions of femininity in a juxtaposition with masculine swear words and phrases. It's now become a way to pass time. Even though I'm working on commissions or product designs, it doesn't always feel like work. It's something to concentrate my busy mind on and ignore any anxieties or worries. You have to focus quite hard on delicate designs and there's a therapeutic repetitiveness to the actual stitching.

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You seem keen to subvert preconceived ideas about embroidery, often in a humorous way. What inspires this approach to the form?

The more I studied the history of embroidery and found that the only real commercial forms were super twee, floral and old fashioned, the more I wanted to play up to being the extreme opposite. I didn't necessarily want a floral embroidered tray cloth on my bedside cabinet, so I played with how I could adapt them to make something I would enjoy and appreciate, and hope that others would too from a selling point. I still loved the juxtaposition of masculine topics against this feminine craft and used that as a starting point.

My work soon developed from there. Adding humour was almost an accident. I still blush when people say my work is funny as they're often quotes I've thought of myself. Swearing will forever be funny to me and the idea of these granny-chic floral embroideries with the worst words possible on them is so extremely opposite that it's laughable. I enjoy the shock against the safe, the floral against the sarcastic, and embracing why people might question why an embroidery can't be both traditional and contemporary.

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The detail in some of your pieces is quite incredible. Do you enjoy the challenge of conjuring up an image with only a needle and thread?

I really love the more detailed pieces and I've been embracing more of the delicate designs that require layers and layers of thread and colour. I like to think of it as a way of painting. You start with base colours and add details by adding more stitches in subtle tones. Sometimes on a pet portrait I can use eight different shades of brown or become frustrated at not finding the right blue-toned grey or green-toned brown. That I find the biggest challenge, though I know it's a challenge I put onto myself.

I want to build layers of colour rather than keeping the embroidery too flat. I use this approach mainly in pet portraits, botanical embroideries or when I've stitched versions of my partner Dick Vincent's paintings or my dad's wildlife photography. Turning a painting or photograph into an embroidery is a great challenge but one I truly love.

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Who inspires you most stylistically - any other artists or creatives in general - that you'd recommend we take a look at?

I often worry about whether or not I have a recognisable style or brand in comparison to other artists. Also, with it seeming that so many people are taking up embroidery, within the embroidery community everyone is so careful not to make something even remotely similar to another artists.

My inspirations for the quotes and sayings generally come from conversations with friends and family or remarks made on the internet that have made me laugh.

There's definitely some embroidery artists that I admire greatly and really make me want to work harder:

  • Alaina Varrone is incredibly skilled and can add insane amounts of detail through shading in the smallest of embroideries.
  • Tessa Perlow seems to work incredibly fast and combines floral pieces with original illustration while staying 'on brand'. I'd love to explore that more myself.
  • @ovobloom on Instagram has works on a giant scale but keeps tiny details. She uses unique stitches, hand dyed fabrics and wool rather than thread to make her work beautifully unique and natural. She has a strong 'style' that is simply hers.
  • @smart_barnett is fully embracing the not-your-grannies embroidery theme and opting for masculine and sexual self portraits while using traditional techniques and feminine florals. He has confidence in his work that I truly admire and aim for myself.
  • @stewarteaston is an artist I've followed for a long time on Instagram. I followed for his folklore inspired illustrations and stayed for his unique ability to translate them in to embroideries.

I find I'm constantly inspired by anything and always dreaming up new ideas. I visit galleries regularly, have hundreds of artists books and magazines, keep notes everywhere from conversations or bright ideas that someone's sparked in me. From walking outside in the fresh air to watching an old film, I'm never not working.

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What's happening in 2020? Is there anything on the horizon that we should be looking out for?

I want to re-visit the early days of inspiration from the masculine versus feminine ideas. I want to share more of my own illustrations, a part of me that I felt didn't connect with the embroidery side of my work, but why can't it?

I'd like to make more larger pieces and wall hangings, be involved in exhibitions again and attend more art markets this year. So I guess more confidence in my own abilities is on the horizon!

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