An incredibly friendly and open human being, Jenny Evans is a talented textile artist and also a successful entrepreneur running her own business in Plymouth. We had the pleasure of spending a few hours in her company, conversing about the milestones of her creative journey, her sources of inspiration and ambitions for the future.
What can you tell us about Jenny before Jenny Evans Designs?
It’s strange to look at how much I have done before and since Jenny Evans Designs in such a short space of time! My dad died when I was 16 and I think that was a catalyst for me to look at my life and ask myself what I really, truly wanted ‒ which was no regrets, a life filled with excitement, creativity and passion. I modelled professionally for 3 years, which was fun, but didn’t challenge me creatively. I went to Oman on a 2 month conservation expedition ‒ living in the desert and tracking the Arabian Leopard. Then I lived in Australia for a year with my boyfriend and then I came back, set up my business, and started a textiles degree in Cardiff. I think before Jenny Evans Designs, I knew I had a passion for nature and art but I didn’t know quite how to combine them. Since starting my business, everything has clicked into place and I’ve just run with it!
What or who inspired you to step into the world of art?
I can’t really pinpoint it to a specific event, everyone used to say I was born with a pencil in my hand. I was very lucky with my childhood, my Mum was always encouraging me to make, draw and paint things. I also had a childminder who was incredibly encouraging, we were only allowed to watch television in the evening for an hour, for the rest of the time we played outside, drew and cooked. I think my general experiences during my childhood meant I was always going to do something creative, I just had to figure out what that was going to be.
Have you always wanted to be a textile designer?
No! In fact, I didn’t study it at school. I left school convinced I absolutely did not want to go to university. When I went to Oman, a lot of my teammates were post graduates, and they convinced me I would love university. When I got home, I told my Mum I had changed my mind about going to university. She knows me so well (and how stubborn I am) she had saved the perfect course for me until I was ready. She showed me the textile course at Cardiff Met and it all just clicked into place. A week later I had an interview and an unconditional offer to attend the course after I came home from Australia. I got home, sat down and realised I didn’t know how to use a sewing machine. I taught myself to use my machine and my business went from there.
What was the moment when you realised that your talent can take you places and open doors to future ventures?
When I did my first textile piece on my sewing machine after teaching myself, my Mum loved it so much she wanted it framed for her Birthday. We took it into a gallery to be framed. The owner, Sean, asked who had made the work and if he could have some in his gallery, and my business was born! It was such a lucky moment, I now have a studio in his gallery. Sean has been so fantastic and guiding me and my business to success, as well as my amazing Mum. It was that first moment in the gallery that made me excited, I just remember thinking ‒ this is the first piece I have ever made ‒ I can’t wait to see what I can do after a degree and years of making.
How important is travelling to you and why?
As a family, we went on camping holidays in France for years, but when my dad was diagnosed with cancer the first time (when I was 10) that’s when we started going on amazing holidays all around the world. Being exposed to different cultures is so inspiring to me. I am a keen photographer, and travel photography is so much fun, everything is different ‒ even the light quality a lot of the time. More recently, I’ve spent a lot longer in places, like Oman and Australia. I really enjoy immersing myself in a different culture, it opens my mind to other possibilities and is such a humbling experience. I recently visited India on a university trip. The textiles, art and history were just overwhelming, my brain is still processing everything I saw. It’s influenced a lot of my drawings recently, as well as some of my designs for my course at university.
Your trip to Oman seems to have been a challenging one. What was the most important lesson that you have learned there?
Oman was the most polarising experience I will ever have (well, aside from childbirth I expect.) It was incredible, and so, so hard. I am not a sporty person, at all. Not even a little bit. I have been described as a spider on roller-skates in the past. Going trekking for two months was slightly insane ‒ which people made very clear to me when I told them what I was doing. Stupidly I definitely didn’t train enough, I cried from exhaustion too many times. I had food poisoning for three days, and I had to keep trekking in the heat. I was out of contact with my family for the whole time. At one point I realised if the Queen was assassinated, which would be the biggest news story of the century, I wouldn’t even know. I didn’t know anyone on the expedition before going, and you definitely see the very best and worst of everyone in the group. It’s strange to see people in their rawest form. The relationships you form in an experience like that are so intense, everyone shares everything ‒ some people drive you mad and others become like your family.
Oman for me was such a self reflective experience. Sleeping in a desert in just a sleeping bag, watching the stars, is both incredible and humbling. Pushing my body and mind to their very limits built an inner strength and self belief in me that wasn’t there before. I think it showed me I can achieve anything if I keep pushing. This is all horrendously cheesy stuff, but it’s so true. I thought a lot about what I wanted from my life in those months and it made me more determined to have more incredible moments in my life.
You lived in Australia for a year. Why Australia and how did this experience influence your career pathway?
When I came home, I met my boyfriend, Sam, and we just decided quite early on we wanted to live in Australia for a year. Sam had family friends in Sydney, so we decided to start there and see where it went from there. I managed a homeware store in Bondi when we were working, and in that time I learned a lot about ethnic textiles, which really inspired me. It was such an amazing year, I think most people thought we were crazy moving to the other side of the world together, six months after meeting. We knew it would be make or break for our relationship and it definitely made it. I think going to Australia was just always something I had wanted to do, and we both just threw caution to the wind and went for it. I am so glad we did!
How did the University trip to India inspire Jenny the textile designer?
Without writing a book length feature on all of the ways India inspired me, it’s hard to cover it all! India has been at the top of my travel list for a very long time now and I was so glad I went. The colour, texture and patterns were amazing, if you isolated one from the other, it wouldn’t be the same. India is an immersive experience, and all of the components added up together, the smells, noise, chaos… collectively it is inspiring. It’s so hard to describe without going there. India has definitely influenced my designs since returning, I embroidered some Nike shoes which I was particularly pleased with. I also seriously miss the food ‒ give me a paneer butter masala and a garlic naan cooked the Indian way, takeaway is just not the same!
What made you decide to start your own business?
My business started by chance, just by chatting with the owner of the framing gallery. I just ran with it, and said yes to the opportunity, as I always do. I think it taught me an important business lesson though; talk to everyone, be polite and friendly to everyone, and don’t be afraid to say hello ‒ because you never know who knows who, and who it will be to give you your big break.
What did being a runner up Student Entrepreneur of the Year for Wales mean to you and to your business?
Getting that award was such an incredible experience for me. My university has been an incredible support to me and my business. The Centre for Entrepreneurship and the lecturers on my textiles course have been particularly amazing. I had three members of staff attend that event with me, which meant so much to me. I was convinced I wasn’t going to win ‒ I was up against so many business businesses. You know, the non art kind that seem legitimate.
Coming Runner Up suddenly made me think, wow, people see me as an actual business woman, not just someone playing at a hobby - which is a common perception of the art world, that I think I had been secretly carrying around with me. Winning that award gave me the confidence and credibility to start seeing myself as an entrepreneur and not just an artist. I love the business side and the art (almost) equally. Since then, I’ve gone on to come Runner Up for Best Business Idea in the Big Ideas Wales Awards, too. I have lots of exciting things planned for Jenny Evans Designs ‒ I can’t wait to implement them soon!
You recently delivered a lecture on running a creative business to students at Cardiff University Business School. Have you always aspired to be this kind of inspirational figure?
Since I came home from Oman I have delivered lectures on multiple different topics. Public speaking is something I love to do, so I have done talks on Oman, how to fundraise and access opportunities similar to that, what I do as a textile artist and I’ve also worked with a child bereavement charity, Jeremiah’s Journey and delivered talks on my experience of bereavement.
Public speaking is scary, but I was terrified about this talk. I was delivering a talk to business students and lecturers, who are trained for years on the subject, and little old me was delivering a talk on (gasp) an art business to them. Before I went in I had nightmares of them laughing me and my cute little hobby business off the stage. How wrong I was! They responded so well to my talk and again, it was such a wonderful confidence boost. I really enjoyed opening students and lecturers minds to the fact that artists can be entrepreneurs, too. It was such a rewarding talk, even though I was terrified, I would definitely do it again.
Could you name three of the most challenging obstacles that starting your own business entails?
‒ Having the confidence to stick to your price. I’ve had customers question my price in the past, which is really hard to stick to your guns when that happens. My work is priced for my time, materials, framing costs and the galleries 50% fee.
‒ Knowing who to trust. Starting a business is all about experimenting, and people are no different. I’ve worked with quite a few galleries now, some are fantastic, with wonderful owners who want to help their artists flourish in a mutually beneficial relationship. Unfortunately, as is life, some people want to pull you down and take from you ‒ learning to spot those people before it's too late is definitely a learning curve when you start any business venture.
‒ Knowing what to make. The start of any business can be an expensive experimental process. It’s only through seeing what sells, I can listen to my customer base and know what is in demand, so I can make similar pieces/a series that can be bought together.
You have become a successful textile designer in a short period of time. What have been the major forces behind this success?
In essence, because of three reasons. Firstly, I have a great network of people around me, my University, my galleries and most importantly my family. These people teach me where to go next, what I am doing right, support and help build up my ideas and encourage me to keep going.
I think listening is really important. Listening to people who are experienced, like other artists, has been vital. Learning from other people’s successes and mistakes is so important. More importantly, listening to my customer base. I feel like there is a stigma in the art world that sometimes surrounds commercial artists. I am a commercial artist! I am proud of being a commercial artist. I love what I make, and if that means that appeals to a wide audience of people ‒ great!
Lastly, talking to people. So many of my opportunities have come from having a spare business card to hand, a smile and a chat. I’ve worked with the British Dragonfly Society, WWT London Wetlands Centre, the National Marine Aquarium and my whole business began just from a smile, followed by hello. There are some wonderful, supportive and interesting people out there, so I just smile and start talking!
Out of all the pieces you created so far, which one is your favourite and why?
That is so hard! If I had to choose… Probably ‘Shoal’, in the Salty Scapes collection. I think that’s my favourite just because it’s inspired so many works since then, and so many people love it. It makes me happy to know how many people have a print of Shoal in their homes.
You have a keen interest in recycling and re purposing. Is this the driving ethos behind your business?
Absolutely! I am currently doing my dissertation as a business plan where I am exploring how I can further develop the sustainable element of my business. I am so passionate about wildlife, I would hate to think that the works I make out of love and skill damage the very creatures I try and celebrate in my work. I love how re purposed fabrics add to the story of my work, too.
How would you describe your aesthetic in a few words?
Coastal themed with nautical colour tones.
Could you talk us through your creative process?
It almost starts as an itch. I always have ideas swirling around my mind, but one will just start sticking and then I know that’s what I need to make next. I can start to see it in my head, so then I will research similar imagery in books, on Pinterest, outdoors… I collage all of my ideas and research together and then I just sew until it’s finished. I hate to leave projects incomplete, so I will tend to work into the night or if it’s a large piece, for days in a row. The pieces of work that are my favourites all happen like this. I just get a bit obsessed with them, and I can’t put them down until they are done.
How does it feel when your designs turn into three-dimensional objects?
I love seeing my pieces in frames. It takes my idea from something interesting to an amazing professional piece. I honestly can’t see my things as done until their in a frame any more. They wow me every time I see them in that final stage ‒ especially large pieces.
You spend your time between Plymouth and Cardiff. Can you tell us why?
I am studying in Cardiff, but my family, studio and business is mostly based in and around Plymouth. I love Cardiff, but I miss my home terribly when I am away. There is something so magical about the scenery around my hometown.
If you could live anywhere in the world where would that be and why?
I would probably live in Cornwall, close to Plymouth. I honestly could never run out of inspiration living where I do. I would love to live in a range of places before that however, I could see myself living in Udaipur for a year for example. Every time I travel, and the plane flies back over England, it just feels like home. My roots will always be in the Devon/Cornwall area, but I definitely want to have some more adventures before I settle.
What role does the Internet (Social media, YouTube, blogging, etc.) play in growing your business and networking with other creatives?
Social media is the best and worst thing to ever happen to creative people (in my opinion). On the one hand, it allows me to grow my audience, share my working process with my customer base and engage and be inspired by other amazing creatives. On the other hand, it’s this constant pressure to always be posting things and I feel guilty when I haven’t posted anything for a day! It's hard sometimes when things take longer, to generate enough daily content and a lot of the time, it takes up time that could be used for making. It’s a double edged sword and one I am trying to balance. I would like to think I am doing a good job but I don’t have enough hours in the day to post as much as I would like to right now.
Who would you like to collaborate with and why?
I’m currently talking with Shirley Kirkcaldy about doing a collaboration collection with her, which would be amazing if that goes ahead (her painting, me stitching). I would love to collaborate with the National Trust, as so many of my happiest childhood memories are based in their properties and gardens.
Most of my collaboration dreams are about my surface pattern designs though. I would also love to apply my designs to 3D pieces, like a collaboration with a car company ‒ that would be awesome. I am always looking to work with people, I have worked with a lot of nature charities already, just because we share a similar vision and focus. I learn so much from other people, collaborating with like minded, passionate people, is such a rewarding part of my job.
Who do you admire in your industry?
There is just too many to list. I follow about 800 people on Instagram, who I hugely admire. They all have their own incredible styles, and I love following their working process ‒ I wake up every morning by seeing what they have done ‒ it’s the best way to wake up, feeling inspired and wowed by artists, designers and makers.
The business woman in me also massively admires large brands, like Cath Kidston and Laura Ashely ‒ female led design companies, breaking through the glass ceiling to be household names ‒ such incredible inspirations!
What does a typical day in your life look like?
I feel like I have two typical days. At uni, I get up, spend the day (10-4) in uni with normally at least one meeting squeezed in amongst lectures, then I will go home and work in my flat until at least 10PM, then repeat. It’s long days, but I adore my course. I do take on a lot and I never make anything easy for myself, but it is so rewarding and stimulating.
When I am home in Plymouth, I will get up and go into my studio at ArtFrame Solution early (before 9) and I will work until 5. I love working there, because I have people working around me, whose opinions I value and are great fun to be around. Then I will go home, and spend time with my family. I enjoy this a lot more because I can separate my work from my social life, whereas in my little flat in Cardiff, it’s hard to separate the two, which means I end up having less of a social life than is probably good for me.
What are your favourite places in Cardiff and why?
I love the Roath Park Conservatory, it’s an old Victorian glass greenhouse with amazing tropical plants inside. I go there for inspiration for my course and to clear my head.
I also love St Fagan’s. It’s an amazing place, but the grounds are stunning. I love to sit by the lake and if I am lucky, spot a Kingfisher.
Attending University courses, running your own business, traveling between two cities can be stressful at times. What do you do to relax?
When I am at home in Plymouth, I live in the bath. There’s nothing better, or more indulgent than Netflix, chocolate, wine and a bubble bath ‒ such a treat! But I also adore beachcombing, going for walks in nature and baking. I absolutely love to cook and I love cooking for other people. I am my most relaxed when I am outside in nature however, I can literally feel the stress melting off me when I get outside.
What is your favourite recipe?
Here is my go to recipe, banana bread, I probably make this every other week. Super simple and always moist ‒ a firm hit with my family and friends!
• 140g butter, softened, plus extra for the tin (or use a non-stick tin)
• 140g caster sugar
• 2 large eggs, beaten
• 140g self-raising flour
• 1 tsp baking powder
• 2 very ripe bananas, mashed (or 3 small bananas)
Heat oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4. Butter a 2lb loaf tin and line the base and sides with baking parchment (or whack the mixture into a non-stick pan like me). Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then slowly add the eggs with a little flour (or after the butter and sugar are whisked together, chuck everything in and whisk again). Fold in the remaining flour, baking powder and bananas. Pour into the tin and bake for about 30 mins until a skewer comes out clean. (Normally it takes me about 45 minutes to cook ‒ so don’t worry if it takes a long time for you too) Cool in the tin for 10 mins, then remove to a wire rack and eat immediately.
What other disciplines are you interested in or involved with?
I love photography and early on I made a good decision to invest in a gorgeous camera, so I always try and take my camera with me on walks. I also love illustration, as I mentioned before I would love to illustrate some nature books, as it would combine my passion for drawing, photography and wildlife perfectly.
When you think about the future of Jenny Evans Designs, what are you most excited about and why?
I think I am most excited to see how my business grows. Having been recognised for my entrepreneurial spirit, I want to see how I can push that in a creative industry and see where it takes me. I love so many different things in the art world, that I am happy to see what people buy and respond to and travel down that path. What excites me, is so many doors are open and indeed, keep opening, I can’t wait to see what I do in the next few years!
What about your personal ambitions and dreams?
Honestly, running Jenny Evans Designs is me living my dreams! I would love for Jenny Evans Designs to grow bigger, expanding so that I have my own fabric and wallpaper line. Sure, I would love to have a household known brand ‒ but just being able to do what I love every day is so rewarding, I just want to be able to keep on doing it, and have enough money to live comfortably. I would love to illustrate a range of nature books, too.
Can you recommend us a book, a film and a song?
I adore Pride and Prejudice in both book and film form. It just feels so wonderfully English and I’ve always found the music and cinematography in the film incredibly inspiring for my work. I feel it celebrates British nature so well and beautifully demonstrates the changing seasons.