Women’s Work: An Interview with Jenny Lee Maas

I was blessed to meet Jenny Lee Maas at one of my many coffee shop jobs — for real, the coffee shops of any city are overflowing with creative, intelligent, awesome humans — and we’ve kept in touch for the last four years with the intermittent adventure. She’s incredibly driven and creative, thus the perfect person for my third episode in the Women’s Work series. One of the things I’ve always loved about Jenny is that she truly believes the sky is the limit; I’ve never seen this girl give up, and she’s one of those people who will tell you the most heart-breaking story and end it with something like, “But hey, I learned a lot!” I’ll let her tell you herself.


Name: JLMaas or Jenny Lee Maas
Age: 32
City of current residence: Philadelphia
City of birth/childhood: the “nose” of New Jersey
Schooling/Provenance: Raritan Valley Community College, Peters Valley Craft Center, Maine College of Art
Current Employment: Freelance artist & designer

JLMaas portrait 10-2014

Jenny wearing necklace of her own design.

One of the many artistic endeavors you share with the world is fashion. How did you come to start making clothing and jewelry?

I started sewing and drawing dress designs in 4th grade. I would then sew clothes for my dolls, some of which I still have. I would also draw paper dolls with my own designs. I was obsessed as a girl with Tom Tierney, who is probably one of the most famous paper doll illustrators. I found his work at a bookstore in New Hope.

What was the first piece of clothing you remember making? What inspired you then? How old were you?

I remember watching Cinderella over and over. I tried to replicate her blue dress by cutting up and duct taping garbage bags together; I did a pretty good job. I hung it in my closet until it mysteriously disappeared (mom?!). However, I also remember making knee high boots out of tinfoil with my sister to be like some 80’s rocker superhero, like Jem. I was probably six years old when that happened. I loved building forts and playing dress up, which really informs everything I do now. And as far as making jewelry goes, same thing… I was always trying to make things that completed the costume or look.

Are your motivations for making clothes now different than they were when you first began?

Well, I make them because I like to and because I am picky, so I am always trying to create the vision I see. However ideas always transform when coming into reality so there is a certain amount of improvising and discovery.

Who do you make clothes for, in your mind’s eye, when you are designing?

In my minds eye the clothes I make are for my own daydreams and they become realities. That is why I make costumes as well as avant-garde couture designs. I am working on a series of short films based off dreams, so I make clothing for that purpose a lot of the time.


Atlantic City Fashion Week

You recently participated in a fashion show of your original designs in Atlantic City. Tell me about that — how did you get invited to participate, how was the experience for you, is it something you’d like to do again?

I was invited to participate in ACFW by luck — they found me after seeing my work and invited me. It was great, the first runway show for me so It was really a learning experience. And everyone there was cool, no nasty vibing anywhere, which is always important to make the best of anything. I have another fashion show this weekend with the Merge Arts and another planned for NYCFW January 2015. So yes, I would do it again!

What did you think you were going to be “when you grew up”? How does that compare to what you do now? What do you think the younger you would say about your current world?

Mmm, I always knew that I would be an artist. I remember every time I played the game of LIFE, I would pick the “artist” career. I know in the game it’s supposed to be a random draw, but I did cheat only in that area to be sure I was an artist even in the game. I think younger me would be proud.

Have you ever had a “straight job”? What kind of work did you do when you did?

I have had lots of jobs, several that overlapped for 2-3 years each: sales associate, sculpture lab assistant, hospital transport, artist assistant, Mural Arts assistant, janitor, nanny, welding lab monitor. For a few brief moments I was a server for a coffee house, a fancy tea place, drink sampler… jobs all over the map. But I like learning and experiencing from each environment.

Which ones did you like?

Well, anything art related was good, being a nanny was also good because they were an awesome family. The hospital was sometimes stressful, but good as well. I wanted to have experience with people in that atmosphere, I learned a lot about how art and music can aid healing.

Which ones did you hate?

My first job as a cashier at Wal*Mart. So many crazies came in there looking for a random human to treat like shit. But I had fun dealing with those people, and I never got mad. Just gave them some dry humor in return, sometimes jaw dropping.


Necklace and photo by Jenny Lee Maas. Model Chelsea Thoumsin.

Was there ever a time when you thought you would be better off with a straight job, or that it was your “only” choice — how did you metabolize that?

Of course a “regular job” has the financial stability, but I have tried it. I end up miserable. That’s why I have had so many part time jobs over the years. I don’t like over-committing to something that is a mere means to an end, that’s a guaranteed soul killer. I need to always keep time to focus on my own passions, even if it means just taking 10 minutes a day to dance like crazy alone in my studio. It raises my vibrations and keeps me focused.


Photo by Dan Cuellar

You also work for the Mural Arts organization here in Philly. How did you get involved with them? What is the work like, and what do you get out of it as an artist yourself?

Yes, I have worked on a bunch of projects with Mural Arts. I think nine so far. I learn all different processes for murals and mosaics — that is the most important thing for me, to learn the various approaches to making things. It gives me more to draw from in my own work. The community aspect is nice too, since I was a patient worker and nanny I do enjoy helping and teaching folks. I think the creative process is a very important one of self discovery, expression and realization, so pass art on.

Who inspires you?

Lot of people, but here are a few: Arthur Rackham, Dali, Alexander McQueen, Tom Tierney, Christian Lacroix.

Your video work is haunting and delves into fantasy — what little kernel of an idea started that series? I feel like initially you were planning one film and then now it has grow to ___ as a final plan. (You tell me!)

Well, I was making costumes and doing live performances while in Maine. Some friends wanted to see what I was doing, so it naturally progressed into film. Film wasn’t entirely new to me, I took classes before everything was digital. I loved it then but I think it was a fear of having to edit things on a film system that frightened me. That’s so much work. Digital video technology is kind of a blessing. The final series of films (20 expected, with the possibility of my lifetime) will be released in groups where these weird dream narratives tell a continuing story, a weird one.

book keepers, photo by Natalie Sharp, costumes by Jenny Lee Maas

The Book Keepers — photo by Natalie Sharp, costumes by Jenny Lee Maas

What’s “success” for you — both now and long-term?

Well, as for success now, I think I have it: It’s working hard to create more opportunities for growth. Long term success would be that I see all these current ventures become further refined and come into fruition, and continue that process with other ventures and a budget for assistants.

Does that differ from how your loved ones and family define “success”?

Kind of. But I feel lucky to come from a family of free-spirited engineers and artists who all love music. My dad has a regular job, but his free-spirited vice comes in the form of motorcycle rides with no plan. My mom is a helper to her older family members and her community. My brothers are both geniuses and adventurers, my sister is on her yogi path, working towards her own actualization. So they might think I’m taking risks sometimes, but they see or at least support the dream.

The art world is sometimes seen as being more progressive, but all communities struggle with being inclusive. Are there times when you’ve felt being a woman has been as asset or a detriment to your success that you’d feel comfortable sharing?

Well, this is a good question. It seems women have all these extra judgements to go through towards acceptance of our work. We are still very much in a patriarchal society, and yes, that reflects onto how I am treated. Assumptions about me have ranged from that I’m stupid, vulnerable, a slut, genius, and/or amazing. Most of those negative ones are based off others people’s projections, assumptions, and sometimes hopes. There is so much coding instilled onto the perception of females. Barbies and Bratz dolls are some of our contemporary symbols of women, yet when we mimic them it is assumed that we want a certain kind of attention that often amounts to harassment. That says it all.

I have been told and asked to ‘put out’ to forward my career, and it’s total bullshit. None of those slimy dudes that spoke to me in such a way would really give me anything. They are just takers hoping you won’t recognize their selfish intentions. And another truth is that the world is not exclusively sexist when it comes to mistreatment. I know my excitement and passion for doing as much as I can has threatened others whom I have worked around. Aside from the BS of peoples projections and assumptions, another reality is that just by following my dreams I am sometimes a reminder to others that they have given up on their own dreams. Those people are not generally good to be around. So I have been my own trailblazer. Maybe that is where I am a punk: if the system seeks to control or manipulate me or others for gross means, I want to avoid it. I want to turn it over, rebuild it better, positive, and efficient. As a female in this industry it is important to do so, so all the women after me have gained a little more equality. I notice a difference in my treatment when I am in my sloppy painting clothes versus cleaned up. I guess it’s kind of fun to experience that difference. It gives me a broader perspective.

Have you found allies in the art world who are helpful in this regard?

I think my allies are those whose intentions and attitude are good. It’s about demeanor.


Dress and jewelry by Jenny Lee Maas. Photo by Dan Cuellar.

Even as recently as our mother’s generation, art was not societally seen as a great way to make a living — for women or men. Obviously, people ignored that sentiment (and thank goodness they did), but do you feel that push-back still exists in today’s world? That instead of making cool shit, you should just pick a “real career” and get on with it?

Sure, but the best advice I ever got was that usually the right thing to do isn’t the easy thing to do. We are here to challenge, push our limits and grow, not to be complacent in a system that is far from ideal for all.

How do marriage, babies, a family fit into your world, now or in the future — or do they not?

Well, I was married. It didn’t work. Now I’m in a long good relationship, with someone who is equally focused on their own goals. We also work like a team when we need support. I think trust and team-like skills are the best thing to have in all relationships. As for babies, if the time is right, great. If that never happens, I love dogs too. But yeah, my door is closing on that one!

I know you play the didgeridoo, but how else is music a part of your self-expression? Also, how the heck did you get into the didgeridoo?

I make music for my films. I also jam out alone in my spare time, practice. I sometimes accompany my DJ friend Tantrum Tonic with the didgeridoo, because it sounds good. I got it by chance. A musician friend went to Morocco and met a local musician who gave it to him. He had a hard time with it. At a party (full of musicians) he said who ever could play it could have it, I got to it last and BAM! Right away, I could play it.

applique cu back

Jenny models her own necklace design.

What do you hope your projects give to those who view them?

Inspiration, trust, intuition.

What do you think it is about you that spurs the urge to create, and in such a wide variety of medium?

I like seeing how each medium yields to the same concept so differently. It’s fun, it’s like seeing the same conversation translated in different languages; some things are lost, some things translate in a different tone.

What piece of artwork that you viewed (any medium) would you say had the biggest impact? 

Walking in a Richard Serra swirl was pretty cool, the way the walls move throw off how people perceive space, some leaning with the walls when they didn’t have to. There is so much more I could write here…

What artist or teacher you worked/studied with influenced you the most?

A lot of my teachers have been important to me, too many to list really. I had awesome sculpture, drawing, and music teachers at RVCC and MECA. High school, too. Mr. Falacco saw me drawing all the time and insisted I signed up for his AP art classes; I never felt worthy of an AP class before that.

You can find so much more of Jenny here on the world wide web:
Jenny Lee Maas – Facebook
IndieGoGo – Send Jenny to NYFW
Artists On Artists – Video Part 1 \\ Part 2
Procession at Dawn
Pysche’s Lullaby

Women’s Work is a series of interviews with women who are redefining success as they navigate the modern world. No longer “young,” but far from old, the years following formal studies have exploded into a time more complex than simply settling down and beginning a family. Touching on work, love, art, music, child-rearing, our bodies, ambition, achievement and more, Women’s Work explores how we find the energy to do the things we love while we also do the things we need to do to pay our bills.


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