It started with a pair of feather earrings.
Walking down Haight Street in San Francisco in the early aughts, Sacramento-born artist Jenn Hall stopped in her tracks when she noticed the jewelry in a shop window. After struggling with creative block in her artistic pursuits — which had primarily been painting — the earrings invoked a flicker of inspiration, and she set out to make a pair of her own.
Hall continued creating jewelry. As she refined her trade, her affinity for natural materials inspired her to also experiment with leather, which she found to be a “sturdy” and “unexpected medium” to use. She went from adding leather parts onto big, decorative feather earrings to soon choosing leather as her primary medium and launched The Feathered Leopard, her leatherworking business, in 2007. The business has followed the nomadic artist as she moved around the West Coast and into Mexico, before returning to Sacramento in May 2017.
Hall paints, cuts, dremels and stitches leather into turquoise-studded cuffs and jewelry, purses, wallets, belts and iPhone cases — all using handmade patterns — in her lofty, high-ceilinged studio in downtown Sacramento. Hall sells her goods, ranging in price from $30 to $450, making the majority of her sales on Instagram, although she has jumped from digital platform to digital platform over the past decade in an effort to find the option that works best. Her leatherworking business provides supplemental income, as she bartends and rents out part of the studio space she owns to other artists.
“I’m not in debt to my business at all,” Hall says. “With all the tools and everything I buy, it’s expensive, but little-by-little I’ve built it up and continued it.”
Comstock’s caught up with Hall to discuss carving out a living as a nomadic artist, and the pros and cons of selling art online.
Were you self-taught [in leatherworking]?
I’m still, and I will always be, experimenting. It’s hard because there’s a lot of small businesses that specialize in one thing, and I like that, and sometimes I wish I could be that way … but I get inspired by something, and think, ‘What if I just make this?’ I like finding out how things are made and doing really detailed work. I’m sure there are easier ways of doing many of the things that I do. I like being self-sufficient and creating my own things.
How does ecommerce fit into your work?
It’s tough, because it’s changed so drastically … It used to be easy, on Etsy, I did a lot of sales, but I got off in 2010. I decided to step off Etsy temporarily because the market had become so saturated with similar style jewelry I had been making. I needed to take time to develop different styles, and work on more challenging designs.
Now the internet is wide open. It is hard unless you are super active and know the ways of Instagram. You get lost within the millions of people that are on there. It has gotten tougher trying to find the right places to sell your work, the right sites … Keeping everything updated is a lot of work on top of coming up with the ideas and creating the pieces, pricing, taking photos.
Are there examples of ways you feel like [ecommerce has] gotten more challenging?
I [now] do the majority of my sales on Instagram. You see people’s photos from a day ago, you don’t see them as they come up, so it depends on what time people are on Instagram and when they are viewing it. I think it was much better — usability wise — and easier to see photos than it is now. I think some things get passed up. Keeping up with all those hashtags, I try but, ugh. I’ll be 37 next week. I need an 18-year-old to do this!
You moved back to Sacramento from Mexico last year. What do you think about the current state of the arts in Sacramento?
I kind of just do my own thing. … There are amazing artists here, but, it’s a funny community with all the changes that are coming about, like raises in the cost of living. I don’t know, because I’m not a part of it … a lot of times I just kind of think, ‘Oh god, the arts scene? Give me a break.’ I feel like a lot of things get more hyped up than they should. It’s rad to have raw talent and not have to make a big deal about it. I think that’s what real artists do. I’ve grown into it — I just accept that this is how I live and what I do, which is good and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
What do you think that the City of Sacramento or the community here could do to better support local artists?
Here I am, a studio owner, renting these studios [to other artists]. I would love to make this space awesome, I’d love to have an art community up here. I think that improving the affordability of things [downtown], like having a small shop or store front, would be great. I think things are unaffordable, the overhead of having a small business and having a shop. I’ve always wanted to have a shop with a workshop in back, but that could never happen here.
You said you were infatuated with San Francisco during your childhood in Sacramento. What was behind that?
It was a beautiful place that seemed full of life. I still love it. I know it’s expensive, it always has been. It’s changed, but I like seeing the passion there. I like seeing the different people in their weird ways, it’s inspiring to me. … I feel like Sacramento is a different beast. I think the money is in San Francisco and people there are willing to buy outrageous stuff. They have style.
Tell me about a project or piece of work that you are most proud to have created?
Some of my purses. The purses are tough, doing the lining, all of the details, making sure everything is clean and straight. I make my own patterns, with all these different pieces and you hope they all work together — halfway through them I’m always praying, ‘Please, lord!’ –— and then they do. I haven’t been unsuccessful with them yet, but they are a challenge. My inspiration for that was never having the perfect purse. I would see different designs, and think, ‘I like this part but I don’t like that part,’ and I wanted to see if I could make my own. But there is no such thing as a perfect purse because you’re still always losing stuff in them [laughs].
What are some of your projects in the near future?
I am building a website from scratch. I want to have my portfolio on my website so people can see the custom work and things I can create. … I just went to Oregon and picked up a Singer cobbler machine for shoemaking, which is another thing I want to start making, leather sandals.
If you could collaborate with any artist, deceased or living, who would it be and why?
I’ve always been into fashion, so Vivienne Westwood. She is super punk and has some wild styles.
If you weren’t an artist, what career would you want and why?
I love to garden and grow things.
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