Summer camp has a magical nostalgia and Sarah Jane Harper knows just how to capture it. With embroidered merit badges, printed pillows, and a stuffed campfire, all one needs is a peek into Sarah Jane’s booth at the upcoming Maker Market to feel that magic again. Not only is she inspired by nature and her time in the 4-H club she also finds inspiration in the day to day moments and creates usable items that celebrate the simpler things in life. Sarah Jane Harper took some time to explain her creative process, her passion for family and home, and her ever evolving work.
Maker Market: When did you first start making things by hand and what inspired you to do so?
Sarah Jane Harper: I got started making things by hand at a pretty young age. My mom was always making us outfits, costumes, and blankets by hand, and even at a young age, my most prized possession was my baby quilt that my mother had made for me before I was born. My dad was and still is a talented carpenter, and was always willing to share his talents with us. I grew up on a small farm and started 4-H in first grade. That’s when I really started making finished projects that I would show at our county fair. I started with things like sewing, cross-stitch, carpentry, and fine art. It just kept growing and manifesting each year into more projects, and a wider range of skills. I ended up showing my projects at the county fair for thirteen years, and really appreciate the opportunities I was given through 4-H.
MM: Are you self taught?
SJH: At a younger age, I was primarily taught by my mother and father. I ended up really starting to find my love for art in high school, and started looking into colleges. I attended the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design for printmaking, and I can not say enough positive things about the printmaking program at MIAD. With my background in textile and fiber arts, I began merging the two together into what I do now. From that point, I started expanding on the knowledge from my parents and schooling, and explored everything further. I always did and still do a lot of reading about embroidery, sewing, and printmaking. I am constantly continuing to learn.
MM: Can you describe your aesthetic?
SJH: Once in college during my thesis, I was criticized by another student for making “grandma art.” I fortunately didn’t take this as a criticism. I believe in making things by hand, and putting a great deal of love and time into it to create a sort of preciousness. That type of art has withstood the test of time. I definitely like to create a sense of home in my work which evokes comfort, warmth, and happiness. I combine fine art mediums, like printmaking, with fabrics, embroidery, and sculpture to create objects that you can display in your home, or use on a day to day basis.
MM: Would you call printmaking your main focus? Is this the most fulfilling form for you?
SJH: I definitely try to incorporate printmaking into a lot of my art. I have also done projects that were solely embroidery, or only drawing or painting. I love being able to print on fabrics, so I have the option of incorporating other mediums and processes into the finished product as well. With that said, I LOVE printmaking! For me, printmaking is a cathartic experience. I love the process of going from a rough sketch on a piece of linoleum or wood, and working through the entire lifecycle of idea to print.
MM: You seem to have new and exciting ideas every time you set up for a market. From printed tea towels and pillows to merit badges, it always seems fresh. Where do you get your inspiration from and what is your process like?
SJH:I like the idea of creating art that people can use, like printed tea towels, baby onesies, or pillows. I also gather ideas from day to day experiences. I started making merit badges because I was back at my parents’ house a while back and was looking through a box of my old stuff. I had a little sash of merit badges from when I was a kid, and thought it would be fun to re-create those for adults. When my sister was pregnant almost 3 years ago, I started making baby onesies as gifts for her, and thought it would be fun to make a whole series of them. I get antsy if I keep making the same things, though, so I like to try to have at least one new project/product for every market, and expand more on my existing ideas by making a new linoleum cut or embroidery pattern.
MM: Do you find it an easier fit for you to use many mediums as opposed to sticking to one main focus?
SJH:I definitely like to use many mediums. Even in college, I took printmaking, photography, sculpture, and book-making classes. I love learning new things, and I feel like my knowledge I have been able to acquire by learning these other processes has only benefited my skills and creativity as a printmaker.
MM: Your imagery is very nature focused. Do you spend a lot of time outdoors? If so what are some of your favorite spots in Wisconsin?
SJH: I love being outside. I am lucky enough to be an assistant director at an after-school program, so I get to be outside during a large portion of my day. I work at St. Ann Center, so I love taking the kids for walks in the seminary woods, or walking to the lakeshore in Bay View to skip rocks. As a kid, we always went camping and rock-climbing at Devil’s Lake, so it holds a very special spot in my heart. From age 5 until about age 19, I spent a week each summer at a 4-H camp in the Dells area, along the Wisconsin River, and the hiking and exploring through that part of the state was incredible. We would crawl into caves, go on night hikes, and canoe down the river.
MM: What are some of your best sellers and what new things can shoppers expect to see from you?
SJH: My pillows and tea towels seem to be the best sellers right now. I started to move away from the tea towels for a little bit, but customers kept coming back to buy more each market, so I have started printing them again. Shoppers can definitely expect to see usable household printed items, like the pillows and tea towels, but I want to expand more on some textile printing. I want to make more prints that are specific to certain items, like printed handkerchiefs, or clothing that is made out of a printed textile that I design and create. I also want to keep expanding my embroidery onto more 3 dimensional items. I started making embroidered jewelry, and that is a very fun avenue to keep expanding on.
MM: Do you sell online? What advantages do you see to selling directly to your customer at Maker Market?
SJH: I don’t sell online right now. I have had an etsy set up for years, but haven’t gotten around to putting items onto it. I have a hard time with it, because I love being able to talk to my customers in person, and see their excitement toward something I have created. I love hearing their stories about giving the item to someone as a gift, or how the imagery is personal to them, so they are buying it to put into their house. I’m sure at some point, I will bite the bullet and start selling online, but for now, I am very content selling at the markets throughout the year.
MM: What is currently inspiring you? Blogs? Ig accounts? Music? Artists? Film?
SJH: I am inspired by a lot of personal relationships in my life. My soon-to-be husband is an antique dealer, and he is always picking up incredible textiles, naturals, and old prints that are so inspiring. I am also inspired by my family, and the imagery of my home and my experiences with them. Some of my favorite artists are Monica Canilao, Margaret Kilgallen, and Leonard Baskin. I have the privilege of being constantly surrounded and inspired by my immensely talented friends and family who are so creative and push me to continue to enjoy art. I also recently found out about a guy named Ben Venom who creates these insanely beautiful quilts that are a crazy mixture of fine art, craft, and references to punk rock, heavy metal, the occult, mysticism and folk art. I love listening to the Slits, Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, Flying Lotus, the Books, and Althea & Donna when I’m making art. Instagram is an endless abyss of beautiful art, and I find myself gravitating toward National Geographic’s posts, and pictures of quilts, tattoos, and anything from Tugboat Printshop. I love pulling inspiration from unexpected places, like a goofy thing a kid said at work, or something I saw on a walk down by the lake, or a memory from my childhood. In using that inspiration, I end up finding more out about myself, and enjoying the day to day memories.
Check out Sarah Jane Harper at the upcoming Maker Market. Its an exclusive opportunity to pick up her goods made with love and hard work. Do not miss out on any of the amazing vendors this Sunday in the parking lot of Colectivo in Bay View.