Threads of change

Revolutionizing an art form through justice, tolerance, and jazz –

Fiber artist Leanna Leithauser Lesley’s stitched portraits will be on display at the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center through May 5 as part of the exhibit “Connexus,” created in partnership with the Morgan County African-American Museum and the Steffen Thomas Museum of Art.

By Tia Lynn Ivey –

When Leanna Leithauser Lesley was just eight years old, her mother taught her to needlepoint as a hobby. Neither of them expected that Lesley would one day stitch together an eclectic career, revolutionizing needlepoint as an art form to tell the powerful stories of social justice, civil rights, and jazz music.

Now in her mid-40, the Birmingham, Alabama-based fiber artist has spent decades honing her needlepoint skills to “paint canvases with yarn.” She uses her talents to create intricate art portraits comprised of colorful yarns that reflect the legacies of her personal heroes, and in recent years, portraits that encapsulate the struggle for civil rights through the legacy of American Jazz musicians.

“My jazz musicians are civil rights icons,” says Lesley of the dozens of portraits she’s stitched to life. “It’s become very clear to me in the last few years that this is the greatest story to tell. It’s the story of the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of jazz musicians.”

Jelly Roll Morton was an early American ragtime and jazz pianist.

Lesley’s collection of portraits don canvases, tapestries, vinyl frames, and even furniture. Her work has been displayed in various galleries and museums throughout the Southeast including an upcoming show at the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center in February. The likenesses of jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Blakely, Ethel Waters, and Dizzy Gillespie, who is considered to be one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time, are all among Lesley’s ambitious exhibit.

“You’ve got this quiet, beautiful, methodical stitching that’s mixed together with this sort of unrestrained jazz,” Lesley said in a recent interview. “Anything that requires a level of creativity and planning and thought and experimentation is an art form,” she says. “I want people to see needlepoint as a modern kind of art.”

But the massive undertaking to create these jazz portraits was not one Lesley planned for herself.

The Civil Rights Institute of Alabama first asked Lesley if she would be interested taking on the project after one of her pieces won first place in an art show at the institute. Lesley, who describes herself as a “child of 70s” and daughter of a musician, long incorporated music into her needlepointing. Once she entered college at the Auburn University in Alabama, she began experimenting with recreating the likeness of musicians and album covers she admired. Crosby Stills and Nash, The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix were all among her early works. But when the Civil Rights Institute asked her to delve into jazz music, she declined.

“I immediately said no,” remembers Lesley.  “It seems like such an important subject and I didn’t want to come across as somebody who thinks they know something that they don’t.” Instead, Lesley suggested an art exhibit centered around the Blues. “I know the Blues,” says Lesley.

But instead of letting her off the hook, the director of education at the Civil Rights Institute asked Lesley to meet with Dr. Frank Adams, who was the director at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame at the time. After spending just one hour with Dr. Adams, Lesley changed her mind.

“He converted me. I was on board,” says Lesley.

Throughout the 1920s, Langston Hughes made a name for himself as a prominent American poet, social activist, and playwright.

Intimidated by the enormity of jazz’s cultural impact during its heyday, she delved into a world of musical artistry under the tutelage of Dr. Adams to help create her own art capturing the spirit of jazz and the musicians who brought it to life. Before picking up her needle, she immersed herself in jazz records while discussing the history and culture that birthed American Jazz music and read copiously on the subject. She soon discovered, just as with many art forms, that pain is one of the underlying components to the rise of jazz music.

“As I went deeper and deeper into it, it’s become more of a history of America and a Civil Rights story just as much as it is a jazz story,” explains Lesley. “You can’t separate the two. It’s a story of adversity and revival and being pushed down and coming back up again and just the story of this crazy ride we have been on since the 1850s that started in New Orleans.”

In an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Lesley characterized jazz music as a crucial testament to a complicated history. “It’s the story of America. “It’s not a pretty story and I didn’t want to ever get that wrong.”

After her initial meeting with Dr. Adams, Lesley visited him weekly, listening to jazz music with him as he told her the stories behind the groundbreaking music. “He truly mentored me,” says Lesley, who filled three legal pads with notes from her time with Dr. Adams. When Dr. Adams passed away in 2014 at the age of 86, Lesley vowed to keep alive the stories she learned from him through her needlepoint artwork.

“I made it my mission to carry it forward, to keep telling that story he told me,” says Lesley.  “I am trying to tell this story, and there are so many important sub-stories in the story of jazz music. I get inspired by them,” says Lesley.

Jazz singer, Sara Vaughan, is captured in mixed media for this stitched portrait.

Once Lesley familiarized herself with the legacy of jazz music, she was ready to use her talents to create the one-of-a-kind exhibit. Years of experimenting with needlepoint and art training prepared her for the task.

“I have a degree in visual arts and have spent most of my life drawing and painting. For fun, I’ve always needlepointed. Until college, I needlepointed painted canvases that were purchased in a needlepoint shop. Once in college and unable to afford pricey hand painted canvases, I started designing my own,” says Lesley.  “My work has evolved into stitching portraits. Though I don’t draw or paint the image onto the actual canvas, my ability to draw helps me needlepoint in that I look at a photo while I stitch just as I would look at a still life as I draw. I follow the line and form, lights and darks. In fact, it is a great marriage of both talents.”

According to Lesley, just one portrait can take between 40 to 60 hours, with some pieces taking up to 300 hours. This is why Lesley advocates for needlepoint to be taken more seriously as an art form.

“It’s as important a form of expression as a painting, or a drawing or sculpture,” she says. “It requires thought, creativity, emotion and planning.” Lesley wanted to invest all her “thought, creativity, emotion, and planning” into her jazz exhibit, spending years crafting the ever expanding collection.  

But Lesley did not want her exhibit to solely focus only on the giants of Jazz, such as the iconic figures like Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. She wanted to pay homage to some of the pioneers of jazz.

“I want people who love jazz to come to this show and see something unexpected,” she said last year at the recent American Craft Council Show. “Not that there’s anything wrong with Miles Davis, but when people talk about jazz there are so many names.”

Lesley’s work has earned her praise from respected art institutions and media outlets. The Hoover Public Library officials were in awe of Lesley’s art for its attention to detail and compelling subject matter.

“Though she has used many mediums throughout her career, personal inspiration as an avid needlepointer and music lover has led her to her present fiber arts endeavor. She has dedicated the last sixteen years to creating stitched portraits and raising the awareness of needlepoint as an art form. She creates her own needlepoint designs with a unique ability to render the smallest detail, making faces of her subject of choice. She uses no patterns, but an image is stitched freehand into the canvas much as a painter renders using a needle as a brush and yarn as paint, making every creation one of a kind. Each piece is then personally hand sewn into a tapestry, furniture, a pillow, a purse or a framed piece,” reads a statement from the Hoover Public Library.

According to Lesley, the secret to her work lies all in the eyes.

“Everyone is drawn to everyone’s eyes – that’s where you see people. That’s how people truly experience people and communicate with each other, through each other’s eyes,” explains Lesley. “If I can get the eyes right, then the rest follows.”

For Lesley, the journey through art is nowhere near finished.

“It never ends,” says Lesley. “It’s this ever evolving journey. My needlepoint has been with me from the very beginning – through every single solitary incarnation, that has been the thread, or the yarn, that has run through it all. It has kind of kept me who I am, I guess – my little addiction that I found a way to make as my career.”

To connect with  Leanna Leithauser Lesley, visit needlepointfaces.com, follow her on Instagram @needlepointfaces, or like her Facebook page at facebook.com/LLLNeedlepoints.

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