Q&A With Jennifer Neil, Ersa Fibers

This is the first of what will hopefully be many posts featuring Q&As with beautiful people doing beautiful things.  I hope these will serve to remind all of us to take our ideas and ambitions seriously. Here's my tiny pep talk: The world needs the unique things only you can bring to it - get to work!

Jennifer Neil’s work first hit my radar when I stopped in at a coffee shop in SE Portland and was immediately dazzled by the textile art on display. The colors, shapes and quilted textures paired with hand-fabricated brass hardware stopped me in my tracks. That led me to her Instagram and her website, and then to asking her if she’d be willing to do an interview. She generously agreed!

Learn more about Jennifer and her work below, and visit her website Ersa Fibers and her Etsy shop to take a look at available pieces, see her current inspirations and more!

Is there a story behind your business name, Ersa Fibers?

My full name is Jennifer Neil and when I first started my textile journey I envisioned myself operating more as a shop that would create lines of pillows and blankets that I would sell on Etsy.

At the time, I decided that I didn’t want to use my real name because it’s such a common name and I wanted a more interesting shop name so I came up with Ersa Fibers. The name Ersa is derived from greek mythology; she’s the goddess of dew, and to me it symbolized the start of a fresh journey. Although, now that I operate as more of an independent artist I’ve considered changing my website and Instagram handle to my real name.

Do you remember when you really began thinking of yourself as an artist?

The first time I designed and created a piece with primary colors was when I realized I had a talent. It was the first time that I created something that I liked. It was the first time in my life that I was actually inspired by myself, which is a truly wonderful feeling. It was such an empowering moment.

After that, it was as if I had tapped into a well of creative energy that I never knew was there and after years of fumbling around with painting, ceramics, and weaving I felt like I had finally found my medium and my voice.

"...it was as if I had tapped into a well of creative energy that I never knew was there...I felt like I had finally found my medium and my voice."

What is your relationship with color? How do you think about the choices you’re making in your work?

I don’t choose my colors they seem to choose me. I can tell when I’m on to a new palette when all of a sudden it’s the only colors I can see and I know when I’m done with a palette when I no longer feel excited when I look at it.

The first palette I fell in love with was primary colors. Which was unexpected and inexplicable because in many ways I find primary colors to be grating and almost irritating and in my personal life I gravitate towards softer colors. I think I liked the challenge of creating palatable pieces of work with colors that aren’t always easy to digest.

After the primary phase I took a very necessary break from bold colors and started digging into a neutral palette. This also wasn’t a conscious choice, at first I really battled with my sudden gravitation towards neutral colors. I felt like I was presenting a dulled down version of my work; a less interesting version of my work but over time I embraced the series and felt soothed by it.

Pieces from Jennifer Neil's portfolio on her website.

I’m currently on my third series of work and much to my dismay I’ve been pulled into a rainbow palette. I think after doing neutrals for so many months I’ve been starved for color so the transition was probably inevitable but I’m still trying to come to terms with so many colors. I haven’t quite gotten a good grasp on it yet but I’m having fun re-finding my voice in this new chaotic chapter.  

What do you do when you’re just not feelin’ it - whether it’s getting stuck on a particular piece you’re working on, or just in general?

I have two things that I do when I’m in a creative drought. Usually, I do what I call an “easy win” which is when you design something that’s easy to finish but the end result looks really great. Just the act of finishing a small project always reminds me of how good it feels to complete a piece and usually gives me the energy to tackle whatever it is that I’m avoiding.

And if I’m really stuck, I try to find my happy place by doing an improv piece or I “treat myself” by learning something new like trying to sew a shirt or a swimsuit; just anything that will make me feel a sense of accomplishment. That’s really the driving factor for me; feeling like I’ve accomplished something.

If you had a chance to magically become super-proficient in another artistic medium overnight, what would you choose?

Probably metal or wood. I’ve always wanted to design jewelry or furniture and I wish I was the type of person who could have a side hobby but I’m unable to “dabble” in things. If I were to take a woodworking or metal smithing class I would completely abandon sewing and jump head first into that new hobby.

You mention on your website that you want to elevate the art of quilting - that it’s been overlooked because “it has mostly been used by women out of their homes.” Can you say more about that?

What I mean by “elevate” is that I want people to start seeing the medium of quilting on the same level as painting and sculpture. Right now, quilting is seen as a craft or a woman’s hobby while being a painter or sculptor is considered prestigious. The medium of quilting hasn’t been taken seriously because throughout history women have not been taken seriously. I believe that if women had been treated as equals we would see textiles (i.e. quilting, weaving, embroidery, etc) right next to paintings, in museums across the world.

Hannah Hill, who’s an embroider, made a piece of work about textiles not being taken seriously that really sums up my feelings on the matter: here it is.

"The medium of quilting hasn’t been taken seriously because...women have not been taken seriously. I believe that if women had been treated as equals we would see textiles right next to paintings in museums across the world."

Tell us about one of the visual artists that’s meant meant the most to you, and why?

There’s a contemporary artist that I found on Instagram named Gina Gimenez and she has a piece that inspired my first primary quilt design so I contribute my artistic birth to her. She has a lot of abstract geometric designs that really speak to me.

What’s something you wish everyone understood about your work that’s sometimes hard to convey?

This was the hardest question to answer because my work is purely aesthetic, there’s no hidden meaning behind the pieces, so it’s only real intention is to provide joy and inspiration. I find real joy in seeing my visions come to life and when people see my pieces I hope it makes them feel inspired and happy.

"I find real joy in seeing my visions come to life and when people see my pieces I hope it makes them feel inspired and happy."

Who or what can make you laugh really, really hard?

My friends and family. I grew up in a household with a really wild sense of humor. It’s how we communicated with each other so my sense of humor is all over the place from Eric Andre Show to The Office. I also go through phases with Youtube videos where one video will make me laugh for months on end. Right now my favorite video is a Tim and Eric video called Quilting with Will it just kills me.

What art is hanging up in your house?

Sadly, not much. I currently only have 3 spaces where I can hang up work and right now they’re occupied by strange goodwill finds. Although, I’m dying to redecorate my apartment so hopefully I’ll get some new pieces (that are actually meaningful) very soon.

What does success look like for you as an artist? How are you defining it for yourself at this moment in time?

The funny thing about success is it’s never truly attainable. You achieve one version of success and then the goal post just moves. Right now, I’m pretty happy where I’m at; I’m regularly being contacted for shows, I’m selling pieces on a consistent basis, and I managed to get a job in the textile industry (I’m a sewer at a small leather bag company). So right now, I’m living in my own version of success.

But moving forward, I’d like to start seperating my work. Right now, Ersa Fibers is kind of straddling the craft world and art world. Eventually I’d like to create another account strictly for craft projects and keep the Ersa Fibers Account for my artwork and change the handle to my full name. I’d also like to release a line of full size quilt patterns and video tutorials with the hopes that I will eventually start getting some freelance projects.

Long answer short, my current version of success is producing higher end pieces under my own name and freelancing.  

Thanks again to Jenn for taking the time to share her thoughts here. I'm so excited to watch her work evolve!