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By Rita Vainius
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Designer Jean Smith is a master of "artistry in flowers." Best known for her hand painted canvases of floral designs, she has a second career which evolved as a result of her passion for plants - garden design. It is safe to say that Jean is perennially surrounded by blossoms, whether in her own backyard, studio or when creating a garden for a client's home.
Jean has always loved to draw and "color," and throughout her school years took as many art classes as she could fit in. She credits wonderful art teachers with giving her an excellent artistic foundation. Majoring in Art at Michigan State U, Jean studied black and white, 3-D and color theory, augmenting her understanding of visual art concepts and their execution. Though clearly engrossed in art, she knew jobs were scarce. She graduated with a Fine Arts degree in Elementary Education, intent on using art in the classroom.. During her second year as a teacher, her first child, Scott, was born. Four years later, an unexpected suggestion would have tremendous repercussions for her future. She had painted a large mural on Scott's bedroom wall of a giraffe playing with butterflies. A neighbor, Mary Robertson, who managed a needlepoint shop, Peacock Alley, saw it and remarked that Jean could easily apply her talent to painting needlepoint canvas. After brief instruction, a whole new world of possibilities presented itself. Painting canvases drew on skills which Jean had not used in years. She likens it to painting from still life, reproducing what the eye sees. She needed only to revive these dormant abilities.
When Jean began painting needlepoint canvas she was not a stitcher. A few months later found her with needle in hand. She has since acquired a remarkable facility and versatility as a needleworker, employing techniques such as goldwork, blackwork, pulled and drawn thread and darning patterns, to name a handful. Learning to stitch influenced her designs adding greater dimension, complexity and texture, as she became cognizant of the myriad ways a design could be interpreted.
After 7 years of teaching, Jean's daughter, Shelly, was born and she decided to work at home as her schedule allowed by painting canvases for Peacock Alley. Being at home enabled her to pursue another long-held passion - gardening. Jean began reading voraciously on the subject and experimenting in her own backyard. When Shelly began kindergarten, Jean felt it was the right time to begin her own design company, which she named "All Things Wise and Wonderful." Initially her inspirations came from antiques and sketches of her garden. The name was later changed to "Jean Smith Designs," as stitchers came to associate her name with her designs.
Jean has now plied her design trade for over 25 years and has developed a distinctively personal style. Her early work was comprised of reproducing designs, but she was soon creating her own. These were copies of antique Chinese porcelains and other similar pieces. Her very first design was a rendition of a Gaudy Welch English Ironstone sweetmeat dish. Today, she would never dream of just reproducing an item. Though still inspired by antique pieces, the characteristics of a certain piece may find their way into a design as a motif but the interpretation is totally her own.
Where her early work portrayed realistic, stylized images with clear cut lines and shapes, akin to graphic poster art, her work now emanates from a free-form approach and is much more creative. Designs are more complex and detailed with an overall painterly look, enhanced by an Impressionistic palette of crisp, clear and vibrant colors which project a luminescent quality. Jean has been enormously successful in interpreting stylistic influences in novel ways to achieve a unique effect. Her garden still provides plenty of inspiration for designs. Other sources of ideas come from reading, research and travel. As Jean points out: "Design is everywhere."
Earlier in her career, Jean pondered how a stitcher should interpret her design when stitching it. She kitted some of them, with that consideration in mind. Her attitude about this has done a turnaround, having decided that each stitcher should interpret the design using whichever threads, techniques and stitches makes them happiest. She does not provide stitch guides but rather allows and encourages stitchers maximum freedom of expression. Her designs are particularly well suited to the sophisticated, adventurous stitcher.
The most memorable experience and a cathartic influence on her design work, was two days spent at the National Embroidery Institute in Souchow, known as the "Venice of China" in 1984. It was there that she became enamored with the Long Stitch, traditionally executed in the Orient with silk threads. Adaptations of this stitch have become a mainstay in her work and account in part for her trademark painterly look. Jean's free pattern "Matisse's Bouquet," exemplifies this style, employing a variation of the Long Stitch along with an Impressionistic color scheme.
Jean has created many custom designs for private individuals and institutions. One which merits particular mention is a large tapestry which a church commissioned after a fire. "Anastasis," from the Greek word meaning rebirth, features a phoenix rising from the ashes, symbolizing the destruction and subsequent resurrection of life. Although Jean's designs range from small items such as coasters and bellpulls, she is best known for her remarkable rugs, rugs and more rugs! These range an average size of 4 feet square to 5 ft by 3 ft. These pieces are "top shelf" quality and make an dramatic artistic statement when displayed in a setting that presents them to best effect.
In 1988 a third transforming event became the stepping stone to another vocation which could not have been better tailored to complement both her artistic talent and love for gardening. She was working, and still does, as a docent at the Meyer May House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Grand Rapids, MI. Her interest in gardening had expanded to include historical gardens. She was approached to design the gardens at this prestigious historic home. To this day, she is responsible for their maintenance. Many visitors inquired about designs for their own homes and an adjunct design business was formed. It is safe to say that both professions reflect Jean's personal interests to an unusual degree and engage Jean's talents in a meaningful and eminently satisfying way. She has been so successful in both ventures that she now employs a crew to help her install and maintain the gardens she has created in the Grand Rapids area and keeps a staff of artists busy reproducing her canvas designs.
Although Jean is widely known for her floral designs, she also creates many whimsical ones for children which harken back to the mural on little Scott's wall that set her on her marvelous adventure. She prefers bold and "happy" colors, describing them as such because people are always telling her that her designs and colors make them happy.
Jean's children have grown up to be as artistically gifted and motivated as their illustrious mother. Shelly has joined Jean's company, playing an integral part in both the needlepoint and garden design businesses. Her training in communication skills and a Masters Degree in Marketing and Management is a great asset. Scott is in the culinary field with experience in restaurant management and is about to open his own restaurant with his wife in California. It is truly a family of entrepreneurial spirit!
Jean teaches seminars at trade shows, demonstrating which threads, stitches and techniques make her canvases really come to life. Many stitchers never venture beyond the basic Continental or Basket-weave stitch, unaware what an enormous difference other stitches can make. She recommends the Caron fibers finding that the unique colorings and textures found in the Watercolours, Waterlilies and Impressions threads perfectly suit her preferred palette and give her work such a luminous appearance. Jean strongly advocates that the more stitchers know about fibers, the more creative they can be.
Where most of us would be happy to possess enough talent to indulge in one passion and shine in its pursuit, Jean exhibits a Midas touch in several. Though she professes to want to work less and delegate more sometime in the foreseeable future, she is already entertaining ambitions to expand her creative scope by designing patterns for wallpaper and fabric, another canvas well suited to her talent and style. Whatever awaits her, we can be sure it will be another rousing success.
Jean Smith Designs are available at most needlepoint shops or ask your local shop owner about them. For more information on Jean Smith Garden Design contact
Jean Smith Designs, 2704 Boston, S.E., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 49506
phone: (616) 942-9212
fax : (616) 364-2901
Trunk show schedule for the coming year:
Sept. 24 to Oct.8, 1999 at Ruhana's Shop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Apr. 1 to Apr. 15, 2000 at Sign of the Arrow in St. Louis, Missouri
Apr. 20 to Apr. 29, 2000 at Eye of the Needle in Akron, Ohio
July 10 to July 21, 2000 at Needlepoint Junction in Hilton head, South Carolina
August 29 & 30, 2000 at Phoenix Needlecraft in Phoenix, Arizona
Schedule of Trade Show Exhibits:
Nov. 14 & 15, 1999 at the Regional Needlework Market in Deerfield Beach, Florida
Jan.15 to 17, 2000 at the National Needlework Association Show in Anaheim, California.
Feb. 2000 at the Regional Needlework Market in Dallas, Texas
June, 2000 at the National Needlework Association Show in Columbus, Ohio.
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