ARTIST INTERVIEW: Jennifer Stilwell of All Hands
Jennifer Stilwell is an artist and founder of All Hands, the Los Angeles-based accessories collection. Before discovering her passion for working with raw materials, particularly leather, Jennifer worked in fashion handling castings for notable runway shows. Realizing there was something missing, Jennifer decided to depart her fashion career and life in New York for an opportunity to apprentice with leather masters in Argentina and the United Kingdom.
Upon completion of her training, Jennifer joined an artisan development fund that traveled the globe by sea. The aim of the organization was to support indigenous craftspeople and women’s collectives and it was during this time that she set up an onboard leather studio. Jennifer began putting her knowledge to use, conceiving of new ways to work with leather. Upon the conclusion of her journey, Jennifer returned to New York to begin her career as a leather artist. Working with high-end clients to create custom works from leather and other raw materials and establishing her collection of accessories, All Hands.
In 2015, Jennifer relocated to California where she now oversees local production of All Hands’ leather accessories as well as her own privately commissioned artwork. All Hands will be joining the Echo Park Craft Fair in December 2016 as a new artist, and we spoke to her about her creative journey.
Where do you see your work going in the next couple of years?
The short answer is: I don’t know! I find myself always being drawn to new mediums, and if anything, I constantly have to reign myself back in and back to leather- just to keep the focus. The one good thing about this uncertainty though, is that it always leads me to a new place with leather. I started making my leather planters because I wanted to try to make the leather conform into this new shape that was more rigid, so I figured that out, BUT they can’t hold water. So then that led me to mixing leather with terra cotta, so I made actual planters that can hold dirt & water, which then lead to glass and leather…you see where this is going? I try to make my process a natural evolution, one thing progressing into another, but sometimes I just go off the leather deep end and make some crazy stuff. In general though, I am happier these days working on objects for the home as opposed to handbags. Excited to switch it up and see where it goes.
Did you have any mentors or important creative influences?
Later in life I did, certainly. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some extremely warm, caring, creative people. I don’t think I would be a leather worker if it weren’t for all the people who took me under their wings and nurtured my sense of self, my technical skills, and my sense of exploration. I did make an admission recently to someone that they found rather shocking: it was that I had no idea art school even existed when I was in high school. If I had known, I certainly would have applied to art school! It wasn’t until my mid 20’s that a couple people had sort of a creative “intervention” with me and sat me down and gave me some real talk about how they thought I was super creative and had something to offer but that I had to focus and believe in myself. I didn’t accept that advice until way later, and when I did and I opened myself up to it- all the right mentors and supporters came into my life. All things considered, and even though I would have loved to have had a more formal art or design education, I feel pretty lucky about the people I’ve crossed paths with- and for that friend who gave me that serious “creative intervention” smack-down talking-to.
What do you do or where do you go to seek fresh ideas or renewed creative energy?
When I need fresh ideas, the 1st thing I do is hit the road. Travel, travel, travel- that’s my cure for all that my soul aches for. If I can do it alone, even better. Indigenous Latin/South American craft is always a huge inspiration for me, so I love to go to places throughout Central and South America that are off the beaten path – where the customs, dwellings, decorum have not strayed too far from those of their ancestors. Traveling alone can sometimes be scary, not just because of the uncertainty of a new place, or a language barrier, but because you are truly alone with your thoughts- only yourself to have a conversation with. I find that it is easier for me to force a good look in the mirror when I am outside of my comfort zone. It’s not always pleasant, but it always leads to some new level of self-awareness.
Did you have any artists or creative people in your family? If so, how did they influence you?
I am very fortunate to have been born into a family where there was ONE other black sheep. He was my uncle, Justo. He was a feral, beautiful, creative gay creature, who raised himself in the streets of NYC and reveled in the nightlife and the art world of New York City in the 70’s and 80’s. He was the person I called when I arrived at JFK when I was 18 years old and asked him if I could crash at his apartment. It was a Friday night and he told me to hurry because he was going out. When I arrived to his place, his friends quickly did my make-up and pulled clothes out of my luggage and dragged me out to all the gay bars in Queens and Manhattan. And that is really how my adulthood started. Justo was a painter and just one of those people that could turn nothing into something absolutely beautiful. He always had the most impeccable taste. He passed away 2 years ago after a super long slow-grind battle with HIV/AIDS and all the drugs he took to control it just slowly wearing down his body. He was such a fighter, and I think that was the greatest thing I learned from him. When he passed, I felt like that’s when it was time to leave NYC. He told me a couple years ago that the night I arrived at his apartment from JFK, that he thought I would last 2 weeks in NYC and return to California. Well, I ended up lasting 20 years, but he’s right…I returned to California eventually.
Do you feel like you are part of a greater community of artists? If so, describe why?
I do and I don’t. I have some wildly creative people around me, friends and colleagues I’ve known for 20 plus years who are doing amazing things, and we bounce ideas off each other all the time, feed each others spirits, help each other with contacts or production ideas, etc, but ultimately- I’ve always felt very alone on my journey. I am a fighter for re-inventors, for the people who feel that creative itch and don’t know how to scratch it, for the people who have no formal training and feel less-than, for people who are trying to make something out of nothing. My favorite part about owning my own business, or getting any little amount of press, is when I get a lone email here and there from someone younger, or someone older who’s looking to change careers, who read about my journey and wants to pick my brain and ask me how I did it. I want to be that person’s cheerleader and look them in the eyes and tell them, “you can CHOOSE to do whatever you want. Just start putting one foot in front of the other. CHOOSE happiness. It will not be easy, but nothing worth fighting for is. You CAN change careers; you CAN pick up a new skill. I am proof of that!” My life has taken so many twists and turns and I never thought I would be making art, or furniture, or handbags for a living, so I’m pretty stoked that I chose to learn leatherworking and just started putting one foot in front of the other.