Jen Siska / Roost Books / Anna Buckley

For Jen Hewett, becoming a successful artist of color meant letting go of perfectionism

July 09, 2018 10:30 am

Inside Blick Art Materials in West L.A., Jen Hewett led a block-printing demonstration at a cluster of folding tables. From her new book, Print, Pattern, Sew, she used a pencil to trace one of her design templates, a crocus plant with four blossoming stalks. When she finished, she turned the tracing graphite-side down on a soft rubber block (think an eraser the size of a small greeting card) and rubbed her finger across the top to transfer the image. Then she picked up a carving tool, and after a brief explanation of how to change the blades, hold the tool (the butt end in the center of your palm, your index finger resting across the top), and carve (almost parallel to the block), she started cutting. White bits of block came away in shavings and crumbles. All of us in the small audience watched, and two people said exactly what I was thinking: “You make it look so easy.”

Compared to drawing or painting, block printing is more of a mystery to those of us who aren’t professional artists. Most of us didn’t practice it in school (though my mom tells me she did in Japan in the ‘60s), it requires a new set of tools up-front, and even its most basic principle — carving away negative space around an image rather than drawing the image itself — sounds esoteric and advanced, or at least it did to me. I’d wanted to try printing with a block for years, after taking a potato-printing class at my local community college, but I waited for all these reasons. And then one day I came into the HelloGiggles office to find a copy of Print, Pattern, Sew on my desk. I recognized Jen Hewett immediately from Instagram, where I’d been following her for her prints, often floral and playfully abstract. Alongside her work, her students’ work, and photos of her Italian greyhound mix, Gus, she also posts occasional photos of her mixed-race family, her dad black and her mom Filipina, and has spoken out about America’s racist and xenophobic policies, the implications of which are not at all abstract to her.

“I’m only, what, four generations removed from slavery?” she told me after the event. “My mother came to the country on a tourist visa and then marshal law was declared in the Philippines, so she had to scramble to convert that tourist visa to something else. Immigration is much tougher than people think.” Hewett grew up in Country Club Park, a neighborhood of Los Angeles where her family lived among mostly black and mixed-race families. Because of their mom’s strong Catholic background, however, she and her brother attended Catholic school, where they were the only black students, taught mostly by nuns who had never worked with children of color before.

Jen Siska / Roost Books

The first time she felt different from her classmates, beyond skin tone, was during a class reading about Africa, when a few kids repeatedly “mispronounced the River Niger,” and looked over at her as they did it, until finally the teacher corrected them. “I didn’t realize how deeply offensive and hurtful some of those things were until I got to high school,” she said. Her high school, while also Catholic, took a more social justice-driven approach to the religion. “In so many ways, I got an extremely good education at that elementary school. And in other ways, it was a microcosm of a much crueler world that maybe as a child I shouldn’t have been subjected to without the requisite critical thinking.”

Catholicism and Filipino culture are closely intertwined. In the Philippines, more than 80 percent of people identify as Catholic, as do 65 percent of Filipino Americans, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest data. Hewett’s dad grew up Protestant, going to a predominantly black church, but he didn’t insist that his kids do the same. “That was one argument he was not going to have with my mom,” she said. “It was untouchable, and I think that was part of the agreement when they got married, too, that we would be raised Catholic.” Later, Hewett learned from friends that the black church was the place where they found community, where they felt comfortable and loved, which was not how church felt to her.

Now, she lives in San Francisco and identifies as “a post-Catholic secular humanist,” she said, “which is just my way of saying I’m pretty much an atheist.” As an adult, she’s found community among artists and makers, and she credits her elementary school experience with teaching her and her brother early on how to navigate different social worlds. Recently, she taught at a craft retreat in New England, where out of 13 instructors, she was the only person of color. “It’s a conversation that I’ll have with [the retreat organizers] because I think it just needs to be had,” she said. “There’s no bad intention there whatsoever. It’s just like, maybe you don’t see it. I’ll help you see it. For me to show up in places like that, I think, is really important, too.”

Jen Siska / Roost Books

Mid-way through the demonstration at Blick, Hewett’s parents walked in the door together. Her dad, who retired as a photographer for UCLA, walked around the perimeter of the crowd, snapping photos. Soon, the shop was full of her loved ones: her brother, several of her friends, most of them artists, and many wearing handmade clothes or jewelry. Rosemary Dardick and Robin Belcher, the artists behind paper goods company Ink + Smog Editions, came with their smiley three-year-old daughter, who is also mixed, and whom Hewett adopted as her assistant just in time to press the blue-inked crocus block onto a piece of white fabric. The child of printmakers knew what to do.

Hewett’s earliest inspiration came from fashion magazines and the late Kate Spade’s “peppy, happy” aesthetic, which stood apart during the grunge era when Hewett was in college. “In many ways, it worked with the aesthetic that I was brought up with, which is very much both an aspirational, upwardly mobile black thing and a Filipino thing,” she said. “You always look your best. You always wear your nicest clothes. Your hair is always brushed. Your shoes are always shined. There’s no reason you should go out looking sloppy, right? So to see that portrayed in a fun way instead of a way that you had to look — it just changed things for me.”

After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, she started a stationery line featuring fashion illustrations. Although she sold her work to major stores like Nordstrom and Anthropologie, she struggled to keep the business going. “I think, coming from a background where you always look your best and you always do your best, it was really hard to make mistakes,” she said. “I didn’t want to make mistakes. One of the reasons I closed my business was the debt, but also the anxiety and the panic attacks of having that debt and dealing with a business that was falling apart because I was anxious. It was just bad.”

Jen Siska / Roost Books

For a while, she stuck to more traditional jobs, including HR consulting. At work, she met confident people who seemed to be able to speak up and present their ideas without worrying about being imperfect or shot down, and she decided she wanted to work through her anxiety so she could be like that, too. She found a therapist, who, during their first session, challenged her to intentionally make a mistake and observe what happened: “Nothing happened,” she said. “There was no fallout. No one laughed at me. I wasn’t fired. It was fine…By the time I was ready to be a working artist again, I thought, I can make this business be what I need it to be. There was this real sense of, yeah, it doesn’t matter what the outside world thinks. It’s really about what I want to do. As long as I’m able to support myself, it’s fine.”

As she worked through her anxiety, she also adopted a dog, a high-energy Jack Russell mix named Jake, and started going for long daily walks. “There was just so much that I was seeing that I hadn’t really seen before,” she said. “I was starting to notice things because I wasn’t in this cloud of anxiety.” In her book, she describes going on these walks with her current dog, Gus, in Golden Gate Park, where she finds fallen leaves, pods, and flowers, and takes them home to her studio to sketch. “I don’t try to create realistic drawings; rather, I try to capture each item’s essence, revealing just enough to evoke it,” she writes. “For example, an oak leaf’s basic shape is instantly recognizable, and a California poppy can be represented through only the shape of its petals and the thin frilliness of its leaves.”

Hewett now makes a living through a range of related businesses: teaching printmaking classes, selling hand-printed goods, licensing her designs, and more. Keeping her workload diverse relieves pressure to chase trends in her designs. Her parents, who worried that being an artist was synonymous with always struggling for money, are beginning to see that she’s making it work. Her first fabric collection, Imagined Landscapes, comes out with Cotton + Steel Fabrics this fall. Print, Pattern, Sew, which came out in May, is a beginner’s course in block printing that also includes patterns for 13 sewing projects, ranging from simple scarves to dresses and espadrilles. The book grew out of a personal challenge Hewett set for herself in 2015: Each month, she used her hand-printed fabric to make a garment, then shared it on her blog. The year before, she’d done a challenge called 52 Weeks of Printmaking, in which she created a new print each week, and in 2017, she did 52 Weeks of Printmakers, highlighting fellow artists through Q&A-style interviews.

Jen Siska / Roost Books

The point of these challenges was for Hewett to approach her craft with the kind of ease we saw at her demonstration, to cut away time for perfectionism and just do the work, quickly and consistently. Whether it turned out well or badly, she had to keep moving. This spirit suffuses her book, through multiple notes about working with or around mistakes. It shows up in her designs, too, many of which incorporate intentional carving lines outside the main images. The texture suggests movement, a beautiful imperfection, a happy vibrancy.

Print, Pattern, Sew: Block-Printing Basics and Simple Sewing Projects (Roost Books) is available now at Amazon, IndieBound, and more. You can find Jen Hewett on Instagram @jenhewett.

Images from Print, Pattern, Sew © 2018 by Jen Hewett. Photographs © 2018 by Jen Siska. Reprinted in arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc.