Art imitates life

issue 02 | spring 2023
Jessie Kanelos Weiner ’08 painting with watercolors

Jessie Kanelos Weiner ’08 moved to Paris just a month after graduating, and in 2013, she shared notes on these pages about hanging out at the famous Harry’s Bar with her fellow Denison Parisians.

During the intervening decade, Kanelos Weiner has experienced a creative renaissance. Today she’s a successful entrepreneur and illustrator with a wide range of clients — Cartier, Free People, and Nespresso among them.

She’s also the author of three books (with a fourth in the making), has expanded her repertoire to include visual essays, humor, and animation, and has even achieved one of her life goals — to be published in The New Yorker. Not to mention becoming the mother of an adorable 3-year-old.

In 2010 you were in New York designing costumes for the stage and film. Why the switch from costume designer to illustrator?

It became clear pretty quickly that I didn’t have the right connections to utilize my skills as a costume designer in Paris, so I began to look around me with different eyes. I saw a lot of illustration work all over the city — and I always loved drawing and took studio art classes at Denison alongside my theatre major. In my free time, I just started sketching the world around me. I basically taught myself how to watercolor.

At first, I wanted my work to be very realistic. Today, after 10 years of drawing, my work is looser and more whimsical, and much more conceptual and idea-driven. It’s a lot like learning French. There was a moment when I knew the basics, then my “fear wall” fell down and I could just do it.

What are some lessons you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?

I think one of the greatest takeaways from studying theatre at Denison is being able to generate my own projects, whether that’s by project managing, writing proposals, collaborations, or doing visual research. For me, it really is about generating my own work and not waiting for someone to call me.

As an artist and a working mother, your time becomes limited. Sometimes it’s hard to be an artist and to feel productive. I’ve learned it’s important to give yourself grace.

You’ve written and illustrated books in both English and French, co-authored Paris in Stride and New York in Stride, and your publisher is asking for another. Tell us more.

A friend and I decided to collaborate on the first In Stride book, and another author co-wrote the second with me. They’re about our favorite walks around each city with the twist of quirky illustrations instead of photographs.

The book I’m writing now is about how to tell your own story through watercolor. I’ve started teaching first-year drawing at a college this year, which meshes really well with writing the book. Many of the exercises I teach are inspired by my lessons with my studio art professor Ron Abram, and we continue to talk. I feel like we’ve come full circle — now I’m teaching 18- and 19-year-olds, too!

You’ve expanded your range to include visual essays, humor, and animation. What drives that?

I’m a deeply curious person. I’m always looking at new ways of illustration for opportunities to apply my work to other formats.

Humor is vulnerable. It’s not always comfortable sharing yourself, but it’s what I know. I can share something truthful that no one else can do. My work is also my superpower. And that’s how I got into The New Yorker. I’ve always been a big fan and I just started pitching to them. I must have sent them 20-30 ideas before I finally sold them a story a few years ago.

How do you cultivate your creativity?

Routine is important. Every morning just after waking up I take a jog and notice things like the changing of the seasons, and little details in my neighborhood I didn’t see before. I continually choose to be inspired by Paris.

It’s important to stay in sync and pay attention, and find those moments when I see the wonder in the world around me.

Paris or New York?

Paris is my husband; New York is my lover.

Published June 2023
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