Taking It Slow
Anishinaabe designer Jenna Wood talks art, creativity, and slow fashion
By Jillian Manning | Sept. 10, 2022
The fashion industry—particularly fast fashion, defined by trendy and inexpensive items—has been spotlighted in recent years as one of the world’s largest polluters. Hong Kong-based nonprofit Earth.org reports that 60 percent of clothing is made with plastic-sourced materials like polyester, and 85 percent of all textiles produced end up in landfills each year.
That’s a lot of long-lasting waste just so we can get our $5 “Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice” T-shirts to wear twice a year.
“I would be an advocate for slow fashion, swapping clothes, and thrifting,” says local Anishinaabe designer Jenna Wood, explaining that “slow fashion is creating something yourself as well as repairing garments that you’ve had or repurposing things that you had before…basically a paradigm shift of what this world could be.”
That’s not exactly what you’d expect to hear from someone with a degree in apparel and textile design. Wood acknowledges this, noting that there’s a fine line between doing what she loves and having to make a living.
“I am still trying to figure out my path and what I want to do,” she says. “I love that other Native artists are being brought to the forefront, with their beautiful patterns and all that, but I think that conceptually, that type of work doesn’t necessarily resonate with me because overconsumption and fashion is having an impact on this world.”
Wood has been an artist and creator since her earliest memories, which include sewing pillows, stuffed animals, and doll clothes with her grandmother.
But Wood’s true start in the fashion and design game came in a time of great upheaval at the beginning of the pandemic. She had been working with quill boxes—intricate and delicate containers decorated with porcupine quills—when the idea to make a quill mask struck. That mask (pictured), has gone on to appear in the Dennos Museum Center’s Close to Home exhibit (2021) and is now in a traveling exhibit through MSU.
Wood calls the mask project “transformative for my career,” and says that quillwork in general has a special place in her heart.
“As you look at the materials, and how they’re gathered, and how they’ve changed over time, and the colors people used to use in the past, you can trace lineage all the way back to the designs,” she explains. She says her type of quillwork is not only specific to her tribe (the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians), but that the gradient quills of the Midwest porcupines are unique from those in the rest of the country.
Quill boxes inspired her, a mask put her on the map, and now Wood leans toward a mix of avant-garde fashion and environmentally-focused art. But all of that work happens slowly and intentionally, in keeping with her desire to avoid the fast-fashion trap.
“I want to encourage slow fashion because the process of me gathering, taking apart, and putting back together materials is a very slow process,” she says. “That’s definitely what I found that my work is—basically I take it apart and put it together in tiny pieces to create this crazy, textured, and dramatic larger piece.”
Wood describes her creative process as something of a free-for-all, at least in the beginning. “The designing stage is where you can have the most imagination because you don’t have the burden of gravity or space,” she says, noting that her first attempt at a new design or piece of art doesn’t have to be “totally logical,” and that even mistakes or bad ideas can “lead to something more beautiful and more connected to the concept.”
She’s all about asymmetrical silhouettes to allow more movement, and calls herself an “abstract designer-artist” rather than someone who focuses on perfection. In addition to porcupine quills, some of her favorite materials to work with include birch bark and other rustic, colorful fibers and natural products.
“The reason I wanted to combine fashion and my natural materials is so I could appeal to a wider audience, because I think especially the younger generation is drawn to fashion.” Wood says. “I also think that fashion can be socially transforming.”
Social transformation—and the important conversations that guide it—is another passion point for Wood. Her work is currently displayed in an installation titled I SEE YOU at the Great Lakes Children’s Museum in Traverse City. Her piece, Nibii, features a loon and a sturgeon, two Anishinaabe water spirits. She says the purpose of the collection is to raise awareness about the Enbridge Line 5 project.
“I went out west last October, and I was speaking to some people, and they had never heard of Line 5. So I was like, ‘Oh, I really want to do something that can just make people aware about it.’ I’m not trying to push any opinions on anyone, I just want people to know this is something that exists. Whether you like it or not, it’s a threat to our natural environment. … I really just wanted to open up the pathways for conversation.”
Speaking of conversations, our talk with Wood is happening while she’s completing an artist-in-residence program on Mackinac Island through The Mackinac State Historic Parks. This fall, she heads to Cross Village for the Good Hart artist residency. In both residencies, she’ll be creating what she calls “traditional artwork” that is focused on creating a visual voice for nibii (water) through art and design. Meanwhile, Wood is also building an online store for her work.
Her parting advice as we return to the concept of fashion is to take the time to do it right…or do it yourself.
“I think when you create a garment that is a beautiful color or fabric or something, and you put your time and energy into it, then you’re also more apt to take care of it. It’s a whole different level of connection and relationship that you have,” she says.
“I also think that anybody can create their own garments. A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, I don't have the patience for that,’ or ‘I could never do something like that. I’m not creative.’ … I think that’s a myth, because creativity is [in] the eye of the beholder.”