I’ve known Jeannette Froese LeBlanc for a number of years, ever since she launched the fabulous Metal Clay Artist Magazine. The Magazine was a great success but sadly closed after five years. (Digital copies are still available.) I still miss it but Jeannette is now running the awesome Creative Fire website. I wrote artist profiles for the magazine and now I’m writing them for Creative Fire. It’s about time I did a profile on her!
Given her many talents and the multiple pies she has her fingers in, I asked Jeannette what she considers to be her ‘job title’. “I’d like to say artist, but I think it’s more of a hyphenated job title…artist-writer-editor-mother-teacher.” See what I mean? It’s amazing that although I’ve known Jeannette for a long time, it wasn’t until I interviewed her for this profile that I found out things about her that I didn’t know.
Based near Ottawa, Canada, Jeannette told me a bit about her family. “I live with my husband, two children and a growing menagerie of pets. We live in a one-room school house…that we’ve added on to over the past 20 years,” she explained. When not working on Creative Fire or her jewellery, Jeannette is a college professor and teaches sociology.
Jeannette had an interesting childhood. “I spent parts of my childhood in three vastly different places, Newfoundland, Eastern Ontario and Manhattan,” she began. “My father was a minister and so we moved several times for his job and my mother’s family is from New York City. I think I was fortunate to experience these places when I did. Newfoundland and NYC are both a part of my heart and soul. When we lived it Newfoundland in the ‘70’s, people still fished. There were cod out to dry on the rocky shores and wild horses ran through the streets of our town in a cloud of dust.”
She went on, “I went to a really small school and made lifelong friends. When we moved to Ontario I didn’t fit in. I had an accent, my dad was the town preacher and my mom was American, all of which seemed to be fodder for school bullies. Another issue I had was that I was bored in school. The solution was to let me be ‘home schooled’ part of each school year. Really, I went to visit my grandparents in New York City. They were still working, so some of the time I hung out at a very ritzy department store (B. Altman and Company) where my grandmother worked, or with my grandfather who was a building superintendent. I loved spending days with them, especially with my grandfather in his large workshop. He repaired everything from the building’s boilers, to the elevators, to electrical and other handyman type jobs. I loved all his tools and I’d go with him on jobs. Sometimes the elevators would break down, and he’d ask me to pass him tools. I felt really important being his assistant. He liked showing off to his staff that I could pass him a specific tool.”
You may be surprised to learn that Jeannette was in the army, here’s the story of how she landed up there. “My mom was a college professor and when the arts department had a visitor night, we went and learned about pottery. I was absolutely smitten. I started to look at schools where I could learn about pottery. I was in grade twelve at the time, and I decided I wanted to go to university for fine arts as I also wanted to be an art teacher. But of course, that meant finishing high school…which felt like a jail to me at that point given that I had 2 more years. The previous year, I was an exchange student in France and really enjoyed my time there. It made me want to travel and learn and sitting still all day at my old school was hard. My father proposed the idea that I was either in school or working. Enter Army recruiter. I hatched a plan to join the army, complete high school by correspondence and then go to university for art.”
She continued. “Having grown up believing girls could do anything was I dismayed to be told that my training options were nurse (nope…faint at the thought of blood), Admin…or finance. I took finance as the men were paid in the field, and so all finance clerks had to be combat trained. Luckily, I only had to put in a few years in the finance department when the government changed the rules and women were allowed in combat. Despite my WW2 Vetran grandfather’s advice, I chose to be transferred to the RCR, which was an airborne unit and I learned how to parachute. It was an awesome experience. I sometimes got lost in the view when jumping. In my ‘old age’ my arthritic hips seem to remember every bad landing!”
Jeannette started her creative journey early. “My mother tells me that I sewed my first Barbie doll dress at three…using her scissors and sewing machine,” she laughed. She never steered me to kid’s art and my parents made all kinds of supplies and materials available for me.” Jeannette told me more about her upbringing. “My family is very creative,” she began. “My father used to make us toys and games by hand. My mother and my grandmothers were always making something be it bread, clothing or playing the piano. If my father had been given the luxury of time in his shop, I’m sure he could have built anything. He made many pieces of furniture and cupboards for our homes. Manses (minister’s houses) were often rather run-down, so he honed his skills rapidly repairing roofs, wells, windows.”
“I learned how to Batik when I was five! When I showed an interest in sewing and was starting to hog my mother’s sewing machine, my dad repaired one that a neighbour had thrown out. It was a black Singer sewing machine that could only sew in forward and reverse…but it was fast!! And it could sew through denim and canvas! I still have it. My father’s mother was a couture seamstress. She designed and made ball gowns and was a wonderful tailor. I started to spend weeks at a time with her and she taught me how to sew. She was very strict. So strict I still hear her voice in my head when I sew and I want to take a short cut. I enrolled in Fashion Design School when I was 21, but left when my name came up for U.N. duty training with the army. When I came back to the school, the program had been cancelled, so I finished my studio arts requirements in ceramics—and then a master’s degree in Education.”
I asked Jeannette when she first found out about metal clay. “I discovered metal clay in an ad and my husband sent me on a certification course as a birthday gift. I think PMC had been out for a year or two at the time. My first impression was not good. I was a professional potter, so in comparison to ceramics I found metal clay to be dry, and brittle. I wasn’t impressed and didn’t do much with it until an artist friend came to visit and we bought a pack of clay and decided to make rings. We torch fired them and hot-damn! I had a ring! I was so pleased, I wore that ring for about seven years straight.”
She went on. “It was at that time I opened a bead store with a classroom space. Jackie Truty of Art Clay USA came up and taught me all I needed to know to offer metal clay classes and I was off and running! Then I wanted more information and there just wasn’t any good sources. I poured over any article I found…but there wasn’t enough. We needed our own magazine! And so, I started Metal Clay Artist Magazine.” (Image: Metal Clay and Glass Cab bracelet. Glass by Paula Radke, Bracelet by Jeannette, image by Lisa Barth) “Working on the magazine with a fabulous international team was an outstanding experience in my life. I’ve never met a more generous group of artists. We produced a top notch publication. Every issue was really beautiful! I’ve mourned the loss of our magazine and our team for a few years. It was terrible to lose it the way we did.” [The magazine’s distributor withheld sales and then declared bankruptcy.]
I asked Jeannette to tell me about her studio. “Oh, my studio is my happy place…despite being utter chaos,” she laughed. “I have tried to tame the mess…I’ve even written about the process of trying to clean the mess. I have so little time in there that when I am there I just want to work. Plus, it is cramped as I try to fit jewellery making and sewing and show booth storage and… all in one 12×14 space. One time I was working at my bench and a friend came over. She knocked on the door…I hollered…she came in…and could not see me. It may be time to cull my collections of materials for future projects.”
I’m always interested in what influences people to make the pieces they create. Jeannette explained what influences her work. “I was a professional potter for 15 years. I could throw a dinner set if needed to make sales, but my real love was hand building. I started out hand building tea pots and then house sculptures. I eventually moved into making tiled back splashes and fireplace mantles. And then I found metal clay. I went from working with hundreds of pounds of clay to mere grams. What started my foray into jewellery was the fact that I felt that I needed some cool jewellery to wear at shows. I started out making raku beads and adding glass and gemstones. But I was never happy with purchased findings and after I saw an article about metal clay, I was curious.”
She went on. “Looking back over my work as a whole, I see that I am repeatedly producing art that attempts to stop time. My jewelry references the art nouveau period and my nature studies capture a time of day or season. I am drawn to collecting memories and retelling them in my art.” (Image: “True North” Fine silver and polymer clay. Photo by Howard C. Davis)
“Currently I’m exploring making tiny buildings on rings out of silver metal clay. I have always loved seeing how themes in architecture stay within a geographic area. For example, in rural Quebec many old farmhouses have roof lines that curve up on the outside edge. An Ontario farmhouse is either built out of limestone or is clapboard and there is a porch and dormers. Being a minister’s daughter, I’ve seen a lot of churches and through art history studies at university I learned about different periods and influences and I became even more fascinated with how buildings are built.” (Image: “SS#15” Sterling Silver)
Jeannette doesn’t only work with metal clay. “When the price of metal clay spiked, and I was trying to recover from the loss of the magazine I needed a creative outlet. My good friend Kathleen Nowak Tucci invited me to visit and enjoy some sun and time in her studio. She was experimenting with aluminum etching. We stayed up day and night for a week to figure it out and then when I went home I spent about six months refining the technique to the point where I am now. I enjoy this process, despite it being very dirty and labour intensive. Now I pair metal clay, aluminum and polymer clay in my jewellery. I make all my own findings and sometimes the focal pieces in metal clay. I have been experimenting with polymer this year as I wanted to add some colour to my work. A few years ago, I used polymer in my work as an accent. Lately it’s becoming the focal.”
I asked Jeannette what she’s currently working on. “My new work has me really excited. I don’t know where I’m going with it…but I seem to be making bigger and bigger pieces. I’m combining etched aluminum, polymer clay and silver.” (Image: Polymer and Etched Aluminum necklace.)
“I also have a line of memory jewellery that I sell through my Etsy shop. I have been very happy with the contacts I’ve made through Etsy, although most customers end up sending me material and payment separate from Etsy, so my shop doesn’t look that active. Maybe it’s the nature of the work. I am sometimes working with original images and documents and the project is very personal to my clients. A few orders have been rather emotional to make, such as etching the signature and little drawings of a child who had passed away, or etching the images of lost precious pets. I am always honoured to hear their stories and to make these pieces for people.”
I asked Jeannette where else she sold her work apart from Etsy. “I sell through some boutiques and a few local shows. When I was a potter I did all the big shows…the ones where you build walls, and need a moving van to take your stock. I travelled all over and did them all. But I grew weary of the shows. About 10 years ago I started to notice attendance dropping and sales dropping…and that there were more and more and more shows. So, I pulled back. My criteria for going to a show includes the question of whether I can come home at night and sleep in my bed. I guess I’ve lost my sense of show adventure! I stayed in some pretty awful hotels while at shows so that I didn’t blow all my earnings on where I slept.”
Jeannette told me about a piece of her work that is important to her. “I made a locket out of silver metal clay. The shape was inspired by a coffee pot my grandmother received as a wedding gift in 1938. The art deco curves inspired the shape of the locket. On each side I carved the names of my children. I paired it with large amber beads I bought at an estate sale.” (Photo by Lisa Barth)
Finally, I asked Jeannette what she wants to achieve in the future with her work. “I’d love to have enough time in my studio to find my style and develop a body of work. The magazine was an amazing experience…but it took me so far off my own studio work as there wasn’t enough time to create. And since the demise of the magazine I’ve taken every part-time job I could so that I can pay off the remaining magazine debt and so that I can be home with my children. To me, being creative is like breathing. Without time to be artistic I feel as if I am holding my breath. Fortunately, my kids love art, so we always have something going on and often I’m inspired by their work and the joy they have while they create.”
Julia Rai is an award winning artist, teacher and writer well known in the international metal clay community. Her work has featured in a wide range of publications and she writes regularly for print magazines and online. She teaches in her home studio in Cornwall and travels to teach by invitation.