By Jessica Johnson
As is often the case, a time of ending can also be a time of beginning. So it was for local artist Leslie Thompson. After her mother’s passing, Leslie was given the opportunity to leave her career in the medical field to go back to school and study her lifelong passion – art. She began her new path at Cabrillo, earning her associate’s degree while pregnant with her son, Sid, now seven.
She then went on to earn her bachelor’s at UCSC. While at UCSC she was awarded the Irwin Scholarship, which recognizes artists for their “dedication to their own process and inspiration.” Currently, Leslie collaborates with several local artists and artisans while establishing her custom embroidery service, Santa Cruz StitchWorks, with business partner Holly Johnson. I have known Leslie since we were children, and it was a delight to catch up with her and learn more about her creative journey as an artist and mother.
How long have you lived in Santa Cruz?
I was born in Pasadena and we moved up here when I was three. My dad was the new pediatrician in town.
Has living here influenced your creativity?
Yes, in that people here are so open to someone being an artist. I know if you live other places in the United States, if you’re not working a very “serious” job you’re not “successful,” but here, luckily, people see a lot of success in being an artist. It’s encouraging.
Are there other creatives in your family?
My brother is a musician and my stepsister is a ceramicist. After my mom passed away, I found some really cool drawings that she had done. I think she had a true artistic side to her, but she was never encouraged to express it. I think that is why she was so supportive of me doing my artwork.
What is the first thing you remember making/writing/creating?
I used to sew a lot when I was a kid. And crochet. I remember crocheting outfits for my stuffed animals on a long road trip to Montana, just to pass the time. That was one of my first sculptural endeavors – creating clothing.
When did you first call yourself an “artist”?
Oh gosh, I still have a hard time calling myself that … I do! It’s a hard thing to consider myself, mainly because I don’t make a whole lot of money with my art. I still feel like I am evolving into an artist.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a project called Oceanic Scales with the artist Gene Felice. It’s about how different elements affect phytoplankton. It will be exhibited at the Museum of Art and History in October.
How do ideas come to you? Do they come in a flash or do they percolate?
I think it is a combination of both. I usually have a flash of something that might seem cool or fun, and then it’s a matter of getting through the Nitti gritty details of how I’m going to accomplish it.
Who are your creative idols? Why?
I went to an exhibit of Ruth Asawa in San Francisco several years ago. She makes crocheted metal baskets that are hanging sculptures and they cast really beautiful shadows. At the time I was doing a lot of crochet in my art and I really admired her work.
What local creatives do you admire?
Rigel Hunter from Hunter Design. He’s an artist, but his bread and butter is making very elaborate bronze and metal doorways, railings, and sculpture. He is someone I really consider to be a mentor and a great influence. Also Sean Monaghan, he owns Bronze Works Fine Arts Foundry and teaches at UCSC and Cabrillo; Jennifer Parker, who has been my mentor at UCSC; and the original Katie Perry at UCSC.
What never fails to inspire you?
I love the human body and how it works.
Do you have dry spells? What do you do when you do?
Oh yes! I do collaborations with other people.
Do you have a daily routine when you are creating?
It usually starts at 3 in the morning when I wake up and do my problem solving. I have learned to embrace that time of insomnia, when I figure out my plan. Then it’s just a matter of getting to the studio and putting that plan in action.
What is the best advice you have been given about being an artist?
To play — play with stuff, fiddle with things. You just have to get ahold of it If you see a material that looks intriguing, go and touch it, act like a kid, like you’ve never seen it before. Explore. I think that is the beginning of a lot of very successful pieces.
Tell me about a time you surprised yourself.
I surprised myself by going back to school and just getting it done. I walked down to get my diploma while I was pregnant! It was so exciting and new – a dream come true.
Why is being creative important to you?
It has a lot to do with my son and wanting him to see me work and succeed at something I am happy doing. I don’t want him to think that you have to settle for a job that is not going to give you the happiness you are looking for. Even though he sees me stressed sometimes, he knows that when I’m making things I am happy — whether it is cooking dinner or doodling with him.
Leslie Thompson’s work on Oceanic Scales by Gene A. Felice II & Jennifer Parker will be on display at the MAH from October 3 — October 23 in the Atrium. She can also be reached at StitchWorks at (831) 905-2202.
Raised in Aptos, Jessica Johnson is a freelance writer, author and blogger dedicated to helping others live brave, creative lives. Learn more about her at www.JessicaJanisJohnson.com. Email your questions, comments and creative suggestions to her at email@example.com.