The walls of Jane Simpson’s Dublin home are covered in art, and upstairs is a tiny studio, barely big enough for a desk and a twin-sized bed.
“In our working spaces as artists, we do surround ourselves with things that inspire us,” said Simpson, 59, a winner of Ruth and James Ewing Arts Award in the two-dimensional category.
With a small skylight overhead, her space is overflowing with artifacts she’s picked up at junk stores and from friends cleaning out attics. Bins are full of black-and-white photos, aged envelopes and handwritten letters on yellowed paper. A small shelf is packed with old books, one wall has countless spools of thread, and Simpson opened a box on the floor to reveal a stash of honey locust thorns.
She laughed at her studio: “It’s nuts.”
Only a handful of pieces of her art hang on the walls here, reflecting the major transitions in her work over the years. A papier mâché hen nests in her house, once part of a large diorama decades ago, and a frame hangs over the desk with two spoon-like shapes made of scrap metal and wire.
And then there’s a pile of her latest works: sketches on old postcards and envelopes, composed with sewing notions. In the corner of one piece is a fragment of a vintage card for garment snaps, orange with big letters: “SNAP! It stays.” Simpson found an old photo of a dog, sketched that onto the page and added several pieces of clothing clasps to look like bones. Altogether, it resembles an ad for a brand of dog treats, created from recycled scraps.
While this period of her art is still new, Simpson said she’s enjoyed giving life to artifacts that have so many untold stories and might otherwise be tossed away.
“I feel like I’m sort of hanging on to these bits of history as well,” she said. “It’s sort of like a chronicle of mankind, in a funny kind of way.”
From a young age, Simpson learned to use a needle and thread from her mother, Sally, and made garments in a 4-H Club. Sewing sparked Simpson’s passion for art, though it wasn’t always clear to her.
“I guess when I was younger, I always felt that art needed to be either painting or photography or printmaking or sculpture, and it wasn’t until quite a bit later that I realized that art is much broader than that,” she said.
Over the course of different art mediums, Simpson said sewing has always poked its head through, proving to be “the ‘thread,’ if you will, that kind of pulls it all together.”
Her daughter Paige, 30, lives in Hudson, N.Y., and is also an artist, specifically a printmaker. Simpson smiled as she noted that thread appears in her work from time to time, too.
Originally from Stratham, Simpson graduated from Keene State College with an Associate of Arts degree. She left for a while but quickly returned to the Monadnock Region for the slower pace of life not found on the Seacoast, she said.
After college she got a job in picture framing in Rye and discovered an interest in piecing together components to build a finished product. Her daughter was born, and in 1989 she started her own business, J.E. Simpson Picture Framing, on Grove Street in Peterborough.
With a newfound interest in tinkering, Simpson began experimenting with dioramas of papier mâché figures. They grew in complexity as she added layers and created a story, but the project became time-consuming and eventually her interest drifted to other materials.
As her framing business grew, her efforts to find balance in her life were reflected in her art.
“I don’t want to say that I ever completely gave up my art, because I didn’t,” she said. “But I felt like my head was in two places. It was like the survival mode and the art-making mode.”
In that division, Simpson began a subtle quest for simplicity. She began running outdoors and swimming, both as means to exercise but also for the meditative aspect.
“I think that being out in the woods especially and noticing how sunlight looks on pine needles or, you know, how grass turns in the wind, those simple things I found very inspiring, beautiful,” she said. “... I think I needed that meditative quietness in my life, and it came out in my work.”
Early pieces during that phase were minimalistic, Simpson noted. A small frame in her living room has only honey locust thorns standing up along the bottom with bits of mica sparkling in the background.
Simpson said she used “typically very ordinary things, like blades of grass or pine needles or stones,” and sought to put them in a different context.
“So, it’s sort of like taking the ordinary and making them into something, or transcending them into something else,” she said.
As with any artist, Simpson said, the content and medium continued to shift, but the infatuation with recycling and composting materials carried through her work for more than a decade. Fascinated by the cracks, she put together a few pieces with broken glass from her shop. For a series about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Simpson used shed snakeskin and cactus spines to look like phytoplankton.
And in these and most of her work, she incorporated stiches or sewing notions.
Simpson’s most recent transition from complex builds to two-dimensional work was inspired by a simple gift: a pencil. Specifically, it’s a Palomino Blackwing 602 pencil.
“Oh, my God, I just love the way it feels when it writes. It’s so smooth and velvety,” she said, drawing a few lines on some scrap paper. “… I guess it’s like this very simple pleasure of making this mark.”
The pencil was a gift from Paul Tuller, a longtime friend and neighbor and winner of a Ewing Arts Award last year. Tuller said he was impressed by the awards event and the promotion of the winners, so he quickly thought of nominating Simpson for the following year.
She runs her own business and doesn’t get much of a chance to push her own art, he said, so this seemed like a good opportunity to get her work in front of people. Simpson moved to Dublin shortly after Tuller’s family, he said, so their kids grew up together.
In the ‘90s, Tuller was researching Dublin’s history of artists in town in the 20th century and wanted to raise awareness. Meanwhile, Simpson had organized a small studio tour as a fund-raiser for her daughter’s preschool. Together with some other friends and volunteers, Tuller and Simpson combined their ideas and launched the Monadnock Art Tour, now in its 24th year.
When the Blackwing 602 pencils caught Tuller’s eye at an eccentric shop in Seattle, he said he knew Simpson would enjoy them. Made with Japanese graphite and California incense-cedar, the pencils reached cult-classic status after being discontinued in 1998 and were revived in 2010.
“I just knew she would appreciate this, something that’s super well-made and has a great feel when you draw on the paper,” he said.
While he was sure Simpson would like the pencil, Tuller couldn’t predict it would spark a new phase of her art. But it makes sense, he said.
“Jane is someone who looks very carefully at things she interacts with,” he said. “... It’s just because she’s so sort of tuned into things that she works with.”
Along with the gift of the pencil, Simpson also credits her dive into knitting a few years ago, a hobby that keeps her hands busy making pun-titled hats for her kitty Boris. (Case and point: “House Cat,” featuring a tiny woolen home with two chimneys like cat ears.)
In a digital world of social media and emails that are rarely printed, Simpson found an appreciation for the handwritten letters from generations ago, the discoloration of aged paper and the mystery of the notes scribbled in the margins and on the backs of photos.
Last year Simpson created her first pieces in this new phase of her work, which are housed at PULP in Holyoke, Mass., and will be part of the gallery’s show in September, she said. In the spring of this year she participated in a two-week residency with the I-Park Foundation in Connecticut. That focus and attention to her art, she said, allowed her to experiment with collage elements, reimagining sewing and stitching patterns into postcards to complement her sketches.
Simpson said she feels fortunate to be surrounded by art in her full-time job as well as at home, an opportunity some makers might not have. At her shop, she’s entrusted sometimes with valuable artwork, which she studies in awe, and also with pieces with emotional and personal weight to someone. Customers often tell her stories about their pieces and why they’re getting them framed.
“It’s the sentiment. That’s where the value is in most artwork that gets framed,” Simpson said. “And it’s a beautiful human thing, and I love taking care of that and treating it with compassion and honor and, you know, revealing its beauty.”
That passion to help others frame their art can sometimes take away from her own, though. When her daughter was young, she remembers burning the midnight oil in “manic” creativity, when the muse grabbed hold.
“… To go with that flow is pretty seductive, when everything is working, and the ideas are just flowing like a river. It’s a pretty remarkable feeling,” she said.
She referred to a TED Talk by the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert, who asserts that genius comes from an outside entity that channels through creators who show up and do their part. Simpson said she believes the muse notices when she’s present, even if she just sits at her desk and doodles or organizes her materials.
Lately, though, finding both the time and energy to commit to that ideal has been challenging.
“They’re not making more hours in the day, so I’m not spending as much time at my bench as I’d like to, so I don’t think the muse is as pleased with me as perhaps she has been in the past,” Simpson said, laughing a little.
But she also admitted that her expectations for herself might be higher than need be.
“You know, maybe the answer is, like, being OK with that,” she said. “That’s the way it’s been, and that’s the way it is for me.”
Grateful for the Ewing Arts Award and humbled by the honor, Simpson said she’s excited to see where this new phase of her art will lead her. Like the past chapters of her work, she knows this one will evolve, too, as she grows and continues to push her own boundaries.
“And I think that that’s sort of a metaphor for life,” Simpson said. “You bring elements from the past forward, and others sort of recede, but you can call upon them when necessary.”