Artist Leanna Leithauser-Lesley’s needlepoints portraits of jazz, rock and blues artists. She has an exhibit at Theatrical Outfit. Credit: Shelia Poole
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Needlepoint portraits celebrate jazz icons

At 44, Leanna Leithauser-Lesley was a student again.

And like every new student, she was slightly intimidated by the subject – jazz.

If that wasn’t enough, her teacher was none other than Frank E. Adams Sr., the influential jazz musician and a charter member of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.

In 2006, the Birmingham needlepoint artist had been commissioned by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to create an exhibit featuring portraits by some of the genre’s most legendary voices and musicians.

The problem was, Leithauser-Lesley didn’t know a lot about the music.

Master and pupil met for weeks in his office of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, his desk piled with stacks of sheet music. They listened to the likes of Art Blakey, Coleman Hawkins and Gil Evans, and they talked about the music in depth. On her own, she read articles and books on jazz.

Nina Simone is on display as part of an exhibit by Leanna Leithauser-Lesley at the Theatrical Outfit. HANDOUT
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

She filled up three legal pads with notes.

From that research was birthed a stunning collection of portraits – some framed, some adorning the backs of chair and others woven into tapestries.

“It’s the story of America,” said Leithauser-Lesley, who was born in Rome, and now lives in Birmingham. “It’s not a pretty story and I didn’t want to ever get that wrong.”

Her work is on exhibit during “Simply Simone: The Music of Nina Simone,” which runs through April 15 at Theatrical Outfit.

The exhibit includes about 20 intricately stitched portraits of jazz icons.

The music seems to come alive as you view them. You can almost hear Simone belting out “My Baby Just Cares for Me” or “I Loves Porgy.”

“I want people to who love jazz that come to this show and see something unexpected,” she said, during an appearance of the recent American Craft Council Show. “Oh the same on Miles Davis. Not that there’s anything wrong with Miles Davis, but when people talk about jazz there are so many names.”

It’s not often that theatergoers are also treated to an art show for the same ticket price.

“It’s the most ideal exhibition to put our show in context,” said Clifton L. Guterman, associate artistic director, for Theatrical Outfit. “Several of the icons and civil rights leaders are named in the play. Nina Simone knew Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes, and she talks about Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr. To be able to see the show and experience this art work in our gallery – it’s just a perfect fit.”

John Northrop, former director of the Alabama School of Fine Arts, is a collector of Leithauser-Lesley’s work. He first saw it at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute several years ago. The two had known each other through the school.

“It was surprising to see a portrait in needlepoint,” said Northrop.

He and wife, Ericka, bought a portrait of Sun Ra, a jazz bandleader, composer, piano and synthesizer player.

“I liked the soulfulness of it,” he said. The piece is a rich tapestry of gold, maroon, black, white and gray. Sun Ra’s name in stitched in gold near the top of his head, almost creating a halo sensation.

“There’s a beautiful soul coming off the surface and that’s the thing that just got to me. I don’t know how anybody can do that with needles.”

In addition to jazz figures, Leithauser-Lesley has stitched portraits of civil rights leaders, rock musicians and artists.

To create a portrait, the artist lightly sketches an outline on the canvas, but the creativity really happens when she starts stitching. One portrait can take from 40 to 60 hours; some pieces have taken up to 300 hours.

Leithauser-Lesley acknowledges that some people don’t consider needlepoint as fine an art form as, say, painting, but she disagrees.

“It as important a form of expression as a painting, or a drawing or sculpture,” she said. “It requires thought, creativity, emotion and planning.”

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