Home Jazz “Shaken by the Roots”: Needlepoint Artist Shines a Light on Jazz Bigs

“Shaken by the Roots”: Needlepoint Artist Shines a Light on Jazz Bigs


For Birmingham textile artist Leanna Leitauser-Lesley, the art of tapestry is a childhood hobby turned passion that deepened her connection to her Southern heritage.

As a self-proclaimed “passionate tapestry maker,” Leithauser-Lesley aims to create an understanding of tapestry as an art form through her affinity for jazz music and civil rights history.

His current exhibition, titled “Shaken by the rootsjuxtaposes erratic, uninhibited jazz music with needlepoint portraits, an art form that demands structure and regularity. The exhibit features nearly his entire collection of works and is on display at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center in downtown Tuscaloosa.

Leithauser-Lesley’s needlepoint portraits include jazz greats Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Sun Ra, among others. Many come from Alabama. The exhibit features a tapestry centered around Dinah Washington, a Tuscaloosa-born blues musician and gallery namesake.

Some pieces hang on gallery walls, while others are sewn into the backs of chairs, mixed with tapestries and quilts, or sewn together to form a dress modeled on a mannequin.

Leithauser-Lesley said she listens to the music of the artist she embroiders while she works on their portrait to better capture their essence.

“I think [the music] gets into the wire somehow,” she said.

Gallery director Daniel White said the embroidery is often overlooked because of its reputation as a craft rather than a form of expression. However, many artists who visit the exhibition are impressed.

“I think maybe for artists and for people who do embroidery, they understand how labor intensive the job is. … It takes time, planning and execution,” White said.

Aidan Miles-Jamison, an art history student at the University of Alabama who works at the gallery, said visiting the exhibit is a unique opportunity for art students because the University does not offer textile art classes.

“I think it’s a really good resource for a lot of us art scholars or art historians to see such a high level of skill and technical ability in this form of art,” Miles-Jamison said.

Leithauser-Lesley said her passion for embroidery began at the age of 8, when her grandmother taught her to sit still. She began learning the art form the traditional way by stitching pictures onto pre-designed canvases with matching thread.

In college, Leithauser-Lesley sewed her friends’ favorite album covers onto pillows for their dorm rooms. But these album covers never belonged to jazz artists.

In fact, Leithauser-Lesley never listened to jazz in his youth, and it wasn’t until the Director of Education at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute asked him to create an exhibit based on jazz musicians that she planned to focus on gender.

At first, Leithauser-Lesley declined the institute’s offer.

“They said ‘Why?’ and I said ‘Because it’s not my story to tell. I don’t know anything about jazz,'” Leithauser-Lesley said.

The director of education persisted and sent Leithauser-Lesley to speak to Frank Adams, who served as director of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. He convinced her to take responsibility for telling the story of black musicians in the South.

“I felt like if I did what they asked me to do, I would be an impostor,” Leithauser-Lesley said.

Adams put her at ease with the subject of her art. Although reluctant at first, Leithauser-Lesley met with Adams almost every Tuesday for a year to better understand Southern societal issues in the civil rights era and how those struggles were expressed in the music of the time.

Adams died in 2014, but Leithauser-Lesley said he was an engaging and supportive educator and an incredible musician. At the premiere of her show with the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, Leithauser-Lesley recalled Adams stopping at each piece she created, talking briefly about the featured artist and playing a piece of each piece’s work. musician on his clarinet.

“He changed my life. I didn’t realize it at the time and I regret it,” Leithauser-Lesley said.

Leithauser-Lesley’s feelings about jazz have transformed from her initial reluctance, and now music and history are integral to her passion for her work and her understanding of Southern culture.

“I feel completely and totally, 100% connected to this. I feel like I have the right to tell the story. I feel like I did my research. I mean, I live it. I listen to it every day. I mean, it’s become a part of who I am, so it’s become a lot more authentic to me now than before,” Leithauser-Lesley said.

“Shaken by the Roots” will be on display at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center through Friday, February 25.

Questions? Email the Culture Office at [email protected].