Sketchbook Crafts is nestled in a light filled studio brimming with looms, felt, wool, rivets, and color. Situated in an old high school classroom with blackboard and transom windows still intact, you know immediately upon stepping foot in the door that a reverence for the past is inherent here. Amber Jensen is the designer/maker behind Sketchbook Crafts, which hand-crafts beautiful utilitarian bags. As her quiet rebellion against mass production, Jensen focuses on small-batch creations: something personal for the client, lusciously tactile to the touch, and meticulous in its construction.
In her own artistic practice, Jensen explores natural materials like wool, leather, felt, and canvas. In 2011, while doing an independent study at the Eugene Textile Center, she fell in love with weaving. Her weaving practice has a foundation in tradition, but Amber’s approach is unique and forward thinking. Wanting the freedom and time to explore this practice further, Amber decided to dedicate the past year to experimentation. “Weaving takes time. Good design takes time. I am trying not to rush while finding patience within myself. My focus is on creating something special and with a lot of intention.”
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Jensen received her B.F.A. in Studio Arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design with an emphasis in drawing. With a few stops in between, Amber has landed in Marshall, North Carolina, where she walks to her studio each day to put her hands to work.
Intrigued yet? We certainly were. Read more about Amber and see some photos of her work and studio below.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 2004 I received my B.F.A. in studio arts from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design with an emphasis on drawing. After some traveling and intentional pondering about art and its role in my live I decided to focus my time on creating small batches of creatively designed, functional goods. Simultaneously, my partner was working on starting his own small business making custom steel bicycles. Working so close to each other informed my work, which led to creating a line of both backpacks and other various cycling bags.
For the next 10 years, I dedicated my entire life to making these items that I shipped all over the world for people to make their own journeys.
What influenced you to pursue textiles and weaving as a career? How did you define what you would create?
The foundation for creating my backpacks was finding a balance of form and function. These items are made to be used; and more importantly keep your belongings safe and sound inside. I spent a lot of time researching the right materials but it was important that they also harmonized with my aesthetic (natural canvas, wool, and leather). This is when I fell in love with wool and its utilitarian and aesthetic properties.
In 2011 I decided to take an independent study at the Eugene Textile Center in Eugene, OR to explore further my interest in how wool fabric is constructed, to reach a little deeper into the raw materials of my craft, and to wrap my mind around something as perplexing as weaving. I fell in love with this exciting medium.
After a decade of making backpacks I decided that I would dedicate this entire year to experimenting: to allow the time and freedom. Weaving takes time. Good design takes time. I am trying not to rush while finding patience within myself. My focus is on creating something special and with a lot of intention.
Could you describe your studio practice and what your typical day looks like? How do you keep your days balanced?
Balance is such an important practice for me. I spent many years in the past overworking and draining my brain. This ultimately never led to a good mindset to be creative.
I think of my studio practice like any other full time job. I live and work in Marshall so I make sure that I always walk to my studio each morning. This has turned into a sort of ritual for me. The 10-minute walk resets my mind and reminds me to be aware of all the beauty of my surroundings. I always stop at a coffee shop on my way, trying to make a conscious effort to interact with one of the many special souls that make up this community.
By 10 am I usually arrive at my studio on the Island. I try to break up my day into the practical business tasks that need to be done and the creative free flow of making. My recent work has been broken up into a few different mediums: drawing, paper cutting, weaving, and sewing.
At about noon I break for lunch and walk my packages over to the post office. This is a short break that revives me and keeps my creative mind charged.
After lunch I try to keep my door open at the studio in case of a chance visitor that can liven up my afternoon.
Then I work until 6 before I leave for the evening. It is important for me to be able to walk away at this time in order to create a healthy separation between life and work.
Additionally, I try to not work on the weekends. This is a time where my partner Brad and I try to spend some quality time together and get out of Marshall and explore all of these wild and beautiful mountains that surround us.
What have been the biggest obstacles, or most difficult aspects of being a full time working artist?
On this journey as a maker I keep discovering more about myself through the work that comes out of me. It has become clear that I most drawn to fine details. This is something that challenges me daily as I try to create work that can also support me as a career. As a product designer your job is to simplify and streamline for manufacturing and the bottom line.
With an eye for detail these elements are usually one of first things to get cut out of the process. It either takes too long to make or the materials are too expensive for production. I find this balance of making something truly special and keeping the bottom line in mind to be a constant struggle.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
One specific response that still resonates with me was when a community member told me that I was creating heirlooms. If she were to own a piece one day she would pass it down in her family. She could see the care, time and love that went into making it.
What is the most valuable lesson(s) you've learned in life or your journey as an artist and/or best advice you’ve ever received?
As a visual learner I think the biggest life lessons I have learned are ones observed by example. This year has been a huge risk for me in terms of letting go of a relatively secure career and risking it all to live an authentic art-filled life. This decision came to me from conversations with two friends about wildness and a desire to reconnect with the things that truly matter in our lives.
From that, a friend shared this quote with me that I have been reading regularly.
“The soul is like a wild animal-- tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of the tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.” –Parker Palmer
Where do you go for inspiration or trends? Any go-to blogs, websites, shops, or Instagram feeds, etc?
Selvedge Magazine was founded around the same time that I became very interested in textiles. This magazine has and continues to be my greatest source of inspiration: especially their articles about the fascinating, under-appreciated histories of specific textiles.
What is your dream project?
My dream project is creating a community-centric studio and curated gallery space. A place where individuals would bring their own unique talents but were also open to working as a team. This collaborative “I help you, you help me model” could not only create a rich lifestyle for each maker but provide visitors with a deeper understanding of craft and the experience of making it.
Any favorite designers, makers, shops, restaurants, bars, etc. right now? Yes, this is a very broad question!
Beam and Anchor-- a shop l that I had the privilege of being a part of when it first opened. Their community studio model is part of my dream project inspiration.
Karen Nicol--British artist and master clothing embellisher.
Japanese clothing labels like Arts and Science for their simple, classic silhouettes, and Mina Perhonen and her playful prints.
One of my favorite things to do in NC is harvesting blueberries along the Blue Ridge Parkway. On my last visit home to Milwaukee,WI I ate something that I am still thinking about—a salad with smoked blueberries. The Restaurant was called Story Hill BKC.
To make it even more broad… All principles of form and function within Scandinavian design.
And, one from left field. If you were a drink, what drink would you be and why?
A good cup of black coffee. I would describe myself as sensitive, detail oriented, humble, and warm. I think a good cup of coffee is often deceiving. It may seem plain on the surface but to make a really good cup requires a lot of thought and preparation.