Jennie Frederick documents ancient papermaking traditions of the Otomi people of San Pablito, Mexico, using the method in her own art to honor a dying culture that has been in place for nearly two millennia. Her work often features the circle, a Mayan symbol of rebirth. Frederick lives with her chocolate labradoodle, Rosarita, on a bucolic 13 acres in a Kansas City, North, home that is half modern, connected by a breezeway to an older home that is half 1940s lodge and half 1836 log cabin, once owned by former longtime Star editorial cartoonist S.J. Ray, Jennie’s great-uncle.
Your home is so different from one side to the other. How do you explain that?
It’s the two parts of me. My studio is the Italian/Japanese/Asian side; the other is my Santa Fe away from Santa Fe. It’s funky and colorful. I want things clean, and without clutter, but if I’m going to have clutter, it’s got to be over the top. I’ve been going to Santa Fe for 30 years, and I’ve collected a lot of folk art.
You come from an artistic family — your great-uncle was a cartoonist and your mother was a pattern maker for Nelly Don. How did that shape you?
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There are lots of black walnuts on the property. My uncle showed me how to make ink out of them, and I remember drawing with the ink. My mother was artistic, too. She made all my clothes growing up. She could whip up an outfit for New Year’s Day in 30 minutes. I would go with her to Nelly Don. I learned how to do purchase orders and how to package supplies. I got to see the professional side of it, to grow up with it and see people making a living at it, which was important to me.
How did you get into textiles?
I had been exposed to fabrics and textiles my whole life. I went to the Art Institute to specifically work with Joan Livingstone, a feltmaker. It was there that I got into textile collection. A classmate, Fifi White, had a textile collection from Guatemala and she traded some of her huipiles for my work. Then, when I was teaching at Maple Woods early on, I realized we were lacking in Latin American art and pre-Columbian art and got an action plan grant to Mexico, and it was during that first trip when I began documenting the Otomi that I started collecting seriously.
How has your life of travel influenced you?
It has informed my work. I took my first trip abroad at 19 to study art history in Vienna, Austria, for a month, and I was in a couple of museum shows in Germany. Following that, I started traveling to Latin America. I love documenting indigenous people doing what they’ve been doing since the fourth or fifth century. Then to be able to share that in my teachings has been very important to me and influential to my work.
You actually use ancient methods and materials in your art. What is that process?
I use kozo, the inner bark of the mulberry tree. You cook it in wood ash or soda ash to make it pliable. You lay it out and beat it with a lava stone. You can’t really take a break, unless you do it in sections. It has to remain wet until you’re ready to beat it. I’ve done pieces as big as 4 x 8 feet, and that’s really labor-intensive. It’s so soft and pliable that just doing two circles takes time, but something that large is really grueling. You have to do either it in one day or keep it wet with towels over several days to get it ready to beat. And you have to beat it all at the same time. Then let it dry and it just peels right off the plastic.
That must make for a long day. Do you listen to music while you work?
I like to listen to the birds. I have Baltimore orioles that come right up to my porch. But in winter, I listen to music — opera, Latina music, traditional music from Peru and different cultures. I love Bach.
How do you come up with your designs?
The Art Institute always stressed multiple-element construction and repetition. I’ve always used repetition in my work. I’ve also been influenced by textiles in Latin America and open-weave construction. Every piece of mine is different but similar because I use the same technique.
What is the meaning behind your art?
(One piece) and another one called “Beached” came about because of my great sorrow about what’s happening to marine life with all the plastics in the oceans. (One piece) was in an invitational show at the Truro Art Center in “P” town (aka Provincetown) last summer. It was on the East Coast at the Cape, and I really wanted to talk about that issue and how they fill themselves with plastics and then suffocate and die of starvation. “Beached” has a lot of stuff inside of it. This one is a little more simple; it’s sort of a whale hide. I wanted it to be beautiful but foreboding.
You were the first person to ever acquire an MFA in Papermaking. As someone who was a pioneer in the industry to then teaching the craft, what do you see in the next generation of graduates?
They’re creating their own paths with it. When I started, we were in a renaissance of papermaking, as in all crafts — letterpress, bookbinding, feltmaking. Now I see a shift to more industrial-looking pieces.
You’ve retired from teaching, but you still do private workshops?
I can do one-day or four-day workshops in both encaustic monotypes and the techniques I’ve developed with the kozo. I can teach Mexican papermaking, Japanese papermaking and western papermaking.
Has anything changed for you since retiring?
It’s always been important to me to continue working. At Maple Woods, where I was head of the department, we always had Fridays off, so I had three-day weekends to work on my work and I continued to show. All the work in my book I’ve done in the past year and a half. Right now, I’m focusing on weeds and trying to get the garden under control.
What is your life philosophy?
It’s about balance. My time in nature, in the garden, time to make art and to also spend with dear friends and people I love in other countries. I love to cook and eat well, do yoga. It’s always been that way, even when I was teaching full-time.