Born in Chicago and raised in St. Louis, Jan Huling began her career in product design, eventually exploring her true calling as a beadist.
She holds a degree in fine art from the Kansas City Art Institute and started off her career in design with Hallmark Cards.
Jan’s beadwork covers a broad spectrum of fascinating creations, spanning kazoos to table tops and everything in between. She continually finds new and exciting ways to push her own boundaries as a beadist, taking ordinary objects and turning them into ornamental masterpieces.
Jan hones her craft and creates her stunning, signature artwork from her studio across from the Hudson River in New York.
In 2012, Jan had several necklaces she created featured in 500 Beaded Jewelry and is one of the 50 artists in our 3D Mixed Media Textile Art book. She has also been featured on HGTV, and was the winner of the first annual Lyons Wier Bazaar award in 2009.
We were thrilled to chat with Jan Huling. In this interview, she reveals how she successfully bridged the gap between commercial and contemporary art without having to sacrifice a hint of passion.
A Pez dispenser covered in beads
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Jan Huling: When I was at art school (KCAI) I took classes on pattern and embellishment. I was a design major and ended up working as an artist for Hallmark Cards before moving with my husband to NYC and beginning a freelance career, which lasted some 30 years.
One of my pretty steady freelance gigs was designing textiles for apparel and home furnishing, strictly surface design. I loved it!
Each time I worked on a repeat pattern it was like working out a puzzle and each color way I needed to come up with taught me more about color.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I’d have to say that my mom was my earliest influence. She’s a quilter, a really great one, though when I was a kid she mostly was a knitter, embroiderer, and needlepointer.
Although from my earliest memory I always wanted to be an artist. I was raised a firm believer in the power of craft. As an adult making a living as an artist who mostly worked with pencils and brushes, I always liked having a craft to fall back on for pure personal enjoyment.
I played with all sorts of stuff; embroidery, decoupage, jewelry making, yadda yadda yadda, and I enjoyed them all but none truly grabbed me. Until my fabulous, nutty, wildly creative sister came to visit and showed me her latest project which was a Pez dispenser covered in beads! Too hilarious, I had to try it!
So I started beading kazoos and from the first one, I knew I’d found my thing. Pretty soon I was beading a kazoo on HGTV and before I knew it I had a piece in a show at the Jersey City Art Museum. That was really when I realized that my craft was also my art, so I quit my freelancing day job to dedicate myself to beads.
Kilos and kilos of beads
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques?
Short answer; I glue beads on stuff.
Longer answer; I find forms that appeal to me, sometimes Frankensteining forms together, and then I cover them in beads, chain, buttons, tokens, but mostly 11/0 glass seed beads, mostly from the Czech Republic.
I mostly use Aleene’s Quick Dry Tacky Glue which is non-toxic and dries clear. I string the beads in patterns and glue them down by the row and pull out the thread. It’s slow and quite meditative, and I always seem to learn something new about color and form that keeps it interesting to me.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
That’s a tough one. I’m terrible at “art speak” and, having defined myself for most of my life as a commercial artist, the world of contemporary art is still quite new to me and in so many ways remains a mystery.
My work is a true labor of love and I create each piece to amuse and delight myself. That’s how I started and how I still approach each new project. The fact that others are inspired by my stuff is a joy to me! I’m particularly pleased that kids love it.
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
When I begin a new piece, I like to go through all the great crap in my studio first. When I’m out and about I always, always have my eyes peeled for interesting forms, new bead colors, cool buttons and bing-bongs that I might someday want to use.
I have boxes of broken jewelry, lost buttons, junk shop finds from my travels and, of course, kilos and kilos of beads. My studio is a wonderful room in my home filled with stuff that inspires me; books and music, great artwork done by friends, and junk that makes me laugh.
Do you use a sketchbook?
No, I don’t. I don’t plan my designs. I just jump in with both feet. Having been a commercial designer for so very long, I feel pretty secure with my abilities.
Also, when I was a commercial artist, I had to show sketch after sketch and get approval for everything I did and, quite frankly, I don’t want to do that step anymore. Not having a plan makes the work that much more exciting to me because I’m never sure where I’m going or what the final result will be. I like letting the patterns grow organically. Free range beading! Making art without a net! That’s for me!
Everything inspires everything
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I’m very much inspired by Mexican art, particularly the beadwork of the Huichol Indians. Also the colors and pattern in artwork from India. But everything inspires everything, doesn’t it? If I hadn’t gone to Maine last summer, would I be using this shade of green today? Maybe, who knows?
The artists I admire – I could go on and on! And if I answered this tomorrow I’d probably come up with a totally different list, but I’ll try to name a few:
Nick Cave, Jennifer Angus, Alphonse Mucha, Tim Burton, Rick Phelps. Wild creativity, fine craftsmanship, a soupçon of humor – these things inspire me.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
Each of my pieces has taken me a long time to create, so I have time to really bond with them. I think that my favorite might be ‘Taming the Tiger’ which I made in 2014.
I’d had this ugly, shiny black panther sitting in my basement for a couple years and my gallerist (the wonderful, wonderful Duane Reed) asked me to work on a large piece for an upcoming show. The first thing I did was spray paint the panther in a dark matte green and, lo and behold, I could finally see the form and fell in love with it. I started with the eyes and he immediately took on a life of his own. I hugged and kissed that tiger every day! I learned so much working on him. He sold before I was halfway done with him and even though he has a great home, I still miss him terribly.
Believe in yourself
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
Well, it’s certainly got bigger! Right now I’m working on an eight foot long praying mantis. Stay tuned!
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Believe in yourself. Walk on the grass. Don’t give a shit.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
My favorite books are the Lark Books 500 Series. I have work in a few of them, including Handmade Dolls, Beaded Jewelry, Tables, and Teapots Vol. 2. But my favorite is the first one I bought, 500 Beaded Objects. I didn’t know about the series when it came out, so I’m not in it. Dammit.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
That’s easy! My AirPen changed my life! It’s a gizmo that works kind of like an airbrush; it’s attached to a little generator and when the air hole is covered up, air pushes glue out through a plastic tip in a nice, even, thin line. I used to use a crafting syringe, but it was hard on my hand. This baby takes no effort at all and allows me to work for hours on end.
Opportunity leads to opportunity
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so, where can readers find information about these?
I’ve given a couple five day workshops at Peters Valley School of Craftbut I don’t have anything else scheduled at this time. I’ve been asked to do one day workshops, but I have so much junk that I need to schlep with me that it’s just not worth it. The five day gigs at Pine Valley were great fun, though!
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
My major gallery is in St. Louis, the Duane Reed Gallery. They take my work all over the place so I really don’t have to think about it. I also show with Porter Contemporary in NYC and the J. Willott Gallery in Palm Desert, CA. And when I get requests to be in shows, I almost always accept. Opportunity leads to opportunity!
Where can readers see your work this year?
Besides at those three galleries, I’m going to have a show at the Hoboken Historical Museum and I’ll have a piece at the City of Irvine Fine Arts Center in a show called ‘History Repaints Itself’.
Other than that, I’m not sure what Duane has up his sleeves for me!
For more information, please visit: janhuling.com.
Jan Huling is one of the 50 artists featured in our first book 3D Mixed Media Textile Art.
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