MHAF Featured Artist | Jennifer West: Crafting Anatomical Masterpieces Through Textiles
Jennifer West, Artist and Entrepreneur
I am just a girl trying to make the world a more beautiful place. First, I am a mother of an amazing autistic 6-year-old boy who inspires me each and every day. Second, I am an artist, an entrepreneur, a lover of learning and anatomy and physiology who happens to have autism. I create art that is educational eye candy for the people of the world to understand that they themselves are just as beautiful as the art I create. – Jennifer West
Born and raised in Dallas, TX, visual artist and entrepreneur Jennifer West attended J.J. Pearce High School where her artistic talent bloomed. Because of her love of people and anatomy, Jennifer intended to pursue pre-med studies in college, however, she followed another passion instead – art. In 2002, she graduated from Centenary College of Louisiana with a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art and a minor in Latin. After college, Jennifer spent several years in the fine dining industry while creating art on the side. With ambitions of pursuing her love of anatomy and helping others, she enrolled in nursing school. Jennifer is now a Certified Emergency Nurse following her dream of incorporating art and anatomy. Jennifer was diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult after her son received an autism diagnosis. She is currently working towards a doctorate in nursing and continues to grow as an artist. Visit www.jenleewest.com for more information.
Please read our January, 2016 interview with Jennifer below to learn more about her and to see her bold and vibrant representations of the human body.
Interview with the Artist
How long have you been creating art?
For as long as I can remember! My mom kept a box of all of my elementary school art that I’ve recently revisited, very amusing and special. When I was 3, she framed one of my watercolor on construction paper pieces, which I still have.
How did you get involved with art?
It came naturally as a child and has always been an integral part of my life. My love and talent of art grew in high school, where it was my main focus. I received a Bachelor’s of Art in Fine Art in college, but I have not taken any formal classes since.
Where do you derive your inspiration?
From life itself. I find human anatomy a beautiful portrayal of life. Art is about life and living, and anatomy is just that, so it makes sense to merge the two in a beautiful, interesting way.
How did you learn to sew? Who taught you? What kind of machine do you use or do you sew by hand?
Surprisingly, I have no clue where to start when it comes to a sewing machine. I am a self-taught sewer by hand. I think sewing by hand makes the art even more organic and alive. My anatomical hands threading the life into these pieces, there’s something special about that.
How do you choose the fabrics that you incorporate into your art pieces?
The colors and patterns are my own inspiration. Sometimes I’ll find a fabric I just love and will use it as a central theme for all the other colors and patterns I choose. Other times, it’s just the patterns and colors I like together, and making the fabrics I have found or have on hand work together.
What piqued your interest in the human body?
As a little girl, I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up, but at the time of choosing a major, my love of art won over a pre-med major. After graduation, I quickly learned that starving artists did exist and became a bartender in the service industry (which completely brought my painfully shy personality “out of the closet” per se. I was forced to speak with people to make money, and this I believe is where I finally learned the social queues of the real world, began mimicking others to get by, like a lot of Asperger women do.) But, back to the question: I then continued to be so haunted by my love of medicine, anatomy, and helping others, that I went back to school and became a nurse. Through the rigorous classes I had to take, Anatomy and Physiology was my favorite. And, with a creative, artistic mind, I searched for a way to merge the two. My very first piece was actually a gift I gave my anatomy and physiology teacher. It was a 12″x12″ animal cell, completely made of fabric and hand sewn, stretched on a canvas, then I made her a matching plant cell to go with it. I’m not entirely sure how fabric came into the equation, but I do know I had purchased a lot of 12×12 crappy canvases with boring computer generated images (got a great deal on them) and had removed the fake canvas to be left with a square frame. I didn’t have any canvas to stretch on it, so I thought it’s be cool to use a piece of fabric instead, and I just happened to have this silk skirt that I loved the pattern and colors but it just never fit right, so that’s what I used! A Gap skirt played as the backdrop of my first fabric artwork. This made my creative juices go wild, and soon after, I created my first large heart out of nine of those crappy canvases stapled together!
4 of Hearts
What is your state of mind while you are creating art?
I am hyper-focused when creating art. I will forget to eat or drink at times, spending hours looking at various colors and patterns, but once my mind is set, I take off.
About how long does it take you to complete one of your textile works?
It takes a while and completely varies depending on my free time and creative inspiration. The most time consuming part is choosing the fabric. I take into consideration the textures, patterns, colors, whether the fabric frays (this is a major issue working with fabric) and overall composition, etc. Sometimes I’m limited to the fabrics I already have, or will go out either online or to a store to find fabric I like, which will take even more time. If I’m limited to the fabric I already have, then it can be frustrating if I feel those certain patterns and colors are not working well together. I try to use what I have, but I’ve found the best result is when I know how many fabrics I need, and I go out and find what I can that works well together. Another part that I take into consideration is the size of the pattern and where it will go on a particular piece. For instance, if I have a large part of an organ, do I want a bigger sized pattern or small intricate pattern? And the fabrics that will be directly next to it, what size patterns will those be? Needless to say, it is a very daunting process, and I sometimes have to just throw in the towel until my frustrations settle.
When were you diagnosed with autism?
After my son was diagnosed with high functioning autism and having an unrelated genetic test completed showing I have a genetic variant (not sure if this is correct term) for Autism, I began to re-evaluate my childhood for signs. Also, after doing extensive research on women and girls with Asperger’s, since as you probably know, there are significant differences in gender, I made the self-diagnosis. I then, took my extensive research to my psychiatrist, whom agreed. So, as for your question, I was just recently diagnosed. It has truly changed my life. I have become more accepting of myself and my differences. I never knew what was wrong with me, only that I was different, which in this world can mean “bad,” so I started to believe that. It is hard for me to keep jobs, hard to connect with others, and therefore, I am hard on myself. This led to deep depression, anxiety, and loneliness. So, this diagnosis has opened my eyes to accepting myself for the beautiful unique person I am, which is a most wonderful gift you could give yourself!
Do you think your autism helps you in your artistry? How?
Absolutely! I am a perfectionist, and my attention to detail helps create art that is anatomically accurate and beautifully made. I also get hyperfocused on the art I am creating which helps me complete pieces.
What has been your greatest success as an artist?
My greatest success is seeing the eyes of viewers light up and smile when viewing my art. It’s about creative process for me, and seeing how it changes other peoples view of the world. My ultimate goal is to educate and provide a platform for curiosity about human anatomy, I want people to know that just as these pieces are beautiful so are they! What they don’t realize is that our bodies are made up of millions of beautiful patterns that help us not only live but thrive. Our cells, our organs, our bones, are all the fabrics that make us who we are! With these pieces, I have been in a local gallery, sold a few. I also had a very successful senior art show in college, and have sold other art throughout the years, but I do not create art to sell it, I create it, because it is who I am, and it is my contribution to the beauty of this world.
What has been your biggest challenge as an artist?
Learning to let go. Because I am a perfectionist, I can be really hard on myself.
Are you currently working on any new pieces?
I am currently not working on any specific fabric anatomy art, but am always creating, it’s in my DNA to create.
Also, I am a single mother of an amazing autistic 6-year-old boy, have a part-time job at Methodist Health System in Dallas, and have my own company making custom gourmet fortune cookies, so my time is limited, as you can see. Now, the fortune cookie company is a whole other story in itself! (Buy them here!)
If you could tell the world one thing about living with autism, what would you tell them?
I would tell the world, being a female living with autism is a challenging, yet beautiful experience. It’s a painful disconnect with people but a beautiful connection with life itself. I may not be able to truly connect with others, but I can always truly connect with other parts of life, trees, animals, art … I see and think about things in a very unique, creative way. The pain I’ve endured through my life as a result has made me the person I am today – stronger and wiser. It’s a constant struggle of trying so desperately to fit in socially and an acceptance of my uniqueness. Autism is not a disease, it is a beautiful state of mind, one that I wouldn’t change for the world.