Friday, March 15, 2013

Visual Poetry: Handpainted Tiles by Lea-Way Designs

Leann Johnson
Artist Statement:

"I feel a person's home or space should be his or her sanctuary. It should be a physical and spiritual sanctuary, where you can go to re-energize away from the rest of the world. Why not surround yourself with things that create a place of calm and affirmation?"

 I met Leann Johnson at the Springboard Work of Art series.  Leann is both a Graphic Designer (L & J Graphics) and a Tile Artist (Lea-Way Designs).

When I saw her tiles, I was not only impressed with the beauty of her work but also the functionality of her pieces.  Her hand-painted tiles are inspired by mudcloth designs and Adinkra symbols.  One of Leann's more unique items is the Two-Way Tile Tray™ which can be used as a serving tray, and the tiles can also be taken out to use as individual coasters.  What a great gift idea!

Using Adinkra Symbols in Graphic Design
Example of a Two-Way Tile Tray™

Long before Leann worked with tiles, she discovered Adinkra symbols.  Adinkra symbols are used in West African pottery, advertising, and textiles.  They were originally created by the Akan ethnic group of Ghana and the Gyaman of Cote D'Ivoire to convey concepts, beliefs, expressions or proverbs of the African culture.  For example, the pronged symbol of the spider's web means wisdom and creativity, and the Wawa Aba pattern is the seed of the Wawa tree which means hardiness and perseverance.

While living in Rochester, MN, Leann answered a call for artists to design a stained glass window for a new library that would represent the four non-native cultures that had settled in the area.  (African American, Latin American, Native American, and Southeast Asian)  "I wanted to be thorough and respectful," she says.

She decided on a circle design to avoid any hierarchy issues and sought out artists from the other cultures to get their feedback.  "I knew I was on to something when I learned from a Native American artist how powerful the circle is across cultures," she says.

Unfortunately, the funding was cut for the window project, but all was not lost as Leann began applying the symbols to her other graphic design work.  When she started working with two public schools, Harvest Preparatory and Seed Academy in North Minneapolis, she decided to use Adinkra symbols in their advertising materials. "I wanted something that spoke about African American education without using a silhouette of the continent of Africa. The results really resonated with my audience."

Graphic Design Segues Into Tiles

"What got me into tiles," she says, "was a freelance design gig that went off-kilter.  No one's fault; it was just one of those situations where the company I was working for was acquired.  There was so much chaos and broken communication that I didn't know what to expect when I walked in each day.  I was so crispy around the edges from that gig, that I decided:  For however long I have, let me do something to feed my creative soul."

She began by painting already glazed tiles, but the "ah-ha" moment for her came when someone asked, "Can you put these on a backsplash?" Realizing she didn't know much about tiles at the time, she began experimenting at Doin' the Dishes, a pottery and tile studio (no longer open), where she glazed her own tiles and had them fired at the studio.  She gleaned all that she could there, and also became a sort of "ad hoc" artist, answering questions for other customers.  Later, she joined the Handmade Tile Association and learned even more about the process.
L to R:  Rust Mudcloth, Sage Mudcloth,
Wawa Aba (seed of Wawa tree), Ananse Ntontan (spider's web)


Along with Adinkra symbols Leann uses mudcloth patterns to inspire the designs on her tiles. Mudcloth is created by sewing strips of hand-woven fabric together, adding mud as a resist, letting it dry, and then dying it. 

"The reactions to my work have been varied," she says.  "Some people gravitate toward it, and other folks back away because they don't understand the Adinkra symbols and think they're satanic."  Leann often displays a chart with her artwork to explain the meaning of each symbol and answers questions when people ask.  "Most people react well to the mudcloth designs," she says, "because there are no assigned meanings to the work."

Tile jewelry with Adinkra symbols

More recently, Leann has been creating jewelry from her tiles.

"I don't wear much jewelry, because it gets in the way when I work," she says, "but then a friend asked me for the Adinkra symbols and then, one day, she came over to my house with six rubber molds she had made, a template, 2 settings, and a hunk of clay, and said, 'We're going to do this!'" The results were successful - wearable art that's flexible, light-weight, and sturdy.

For my last question, I had to ask Leann how her background informed her artwork.  Growing up on a dairy farm in Ohio, she learned the value of hard work, good food, and teamwork regardless of gender.  "The cows had to be milked; we had to get the harvest in.  If you were able-bodied, vertical, and cogent, guess what?  You're part of the team!"

Leann appreciates the foundation her parents gave her because the dinner table was the forum or the "conference room" where everyone in the family could exchange their ideas.  "I've been trying to re-create that as an adult - that you can leave your armor at the door, relax and be yourself."

Leann's home was also the place where space and resources were limited.  Her father was creative in how to keep people with "get rich quick" schemes away from his family, and her mother knew how to take what was available and make something nice looking and useful.

"For me, to have something that is pretty but also functional is the key," she says.  "That's the beauty of the environment I grew up in."

In 2011 Leann was awarded "Best Use of Detail" in the Minnesota Tile Festival.  To see more of her work visit Lea-Way Designs.

Leann's next show:

2210 Bryant Ave. N., Minneapolis. 

She'll be displaying her work alongside of 11 other artists and hosting demos where visitors can create their own mudcloth using miniature tiles. 

Fri., May 17    5:00-10:00 p.m.
Sat., May 18        Noon-8:00 p.m.   (with a neighborhood BBQ)
Sun., May 19       Noon-5:00 p.m.

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