“What I make is inspired loosely by my childhood. I loved My Little Pony and Care Bears. This is a strange mutation of that, the adult version.” Hill has been taking sweet-faced toys apart and re-inventing them since she was a teenager. Now, after years of waiting tables then assembling her sock oddities, plush animals, and dolls late into the night—her work is getting noticed.
“I’m an acquired taste, but there are people out there who like it.”
One of them is director Zach Helm, who selected JennyMae Creations for the movie Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, the story of a magical toy store starring Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman. The movie’s art department found Hill’s website (jennymae.com) and showed her designs to Helm. But they left her off the final list of toy suppliers for the film.
“The director said, ‘Where’s the girl who makes the freaky stuff out of socks?’”
So, Hill was back in. A lucky break but not an easy assignment. “They wanted 40 the next day. I said whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. That’s not much time. They said ‘we can give you a week.’”
Jennifer sews each of her plush dolls by hand. “I worked day and night.”
Then, the movie requested replicas of the same 40 dolls, so that they could be painted gray. “Thankfully, I took pictures of everything. But I had to tell them I can’t make them identical, no matter how hard I try.”
Jenny grew up in Chapin with an interest in theater and art. “I was making weird art all through high school. My mom was always supportive. In the beginning, I think it was unusual for my dad. When I got in this movie, he said ‘oh my God, really?’”
After high school, Hill attended a college theater program, but became frustrated, left school, moved back, and started working at the Columbia Marionette Theater. There, she met her husband Lyon Hill, the theater’s art director. “I was very much inspired by him and the things he was making.”
Her first works were collages. Then, she picked up a kit and sewed a sock monkey for Lyon. That led her to play around with stuffed toys. “I’d never sewn anything before. Just six months ago, I learned to use the sewing machine.”
Commissions are an interesting part of Jenny’s work. “People give me fabric with sentimental value…an ex-boyfriend’s t-shirt, a baby blanket falling apart.” She turns that fabric into characters like No Girl, the two-headed I Love You doll, and Brokenhearted Goat. “They are very therapeutic for people. That includes myself. I make things I would like to have.”
Jenny may have stories in mind for these characters, but she keeps them to herself. “I like it when people give them their own story. One woman’s is her co-pilot in her car. People email me the stories. I wouldn’t want to take that away.”
Her creativity extends beyond inspired stuffed creatures. She creates collages and voodoo dolls. On her worktable is a potted plant she’s making from mismatched doll parts. “It’s so hard to explain when people ask what I do. You should hear me blabber on, trying to explain.”
The tiny voodoo dolls, packaged in their own wooden boxes complete with pins, have a following in Great Britain. “A little store called The Twilight Zone sells these. I sell many of them in England for some reason.”
Hill sees herself as part of a large community, where artists connect to one another’s websites. “If you find one of us, it leads you to others.”
Missing in Columbia, she says, is something like the Austin Craft Mafia, “a group of women who own these cool indie stores online.” In Columbia, she says, it’s more likely that visual artists “hole up in their homes and work on their own,” much as she does.
Jenny’s own home is filled with items that inspire her. It resembles an emporium—of dolls, art, and parts that the house is near-bursting to contain. There are clouds painted on the living room ceiling, marionettes hanging in the back bedroom the couple uses as their studio.
“We collect pop-up books,” Hill says, gesturing to a bookcase crammed full of them. A series of prints by Seonna Hong hang over the sofa. Jenny’s husband proposed to her on Disney’s Small World ride, because Mary Blair, the ride’s designer, is another of Hill’s favorite artists. She sets a laughing clown doll in motion. “He’s from a thrift store. He laughs a long time. It’s really scary. I had to own him.”
“I’ve always loved Tim Burton. I’m a big fan of his for sure.” She’s drawn to art, she says, that “blurs the line between grotesque and scary and cute and pretty. I like that place.”
She realizes that’s not a place for everyone, that not every person is comfortable with her work. “If everyone loved them, they’d be way too general.” When she sells her plush creatures at craft shows, which she describes as “the worst,” she says kids want to buy, “but I listen to their parents talk them out of it. Kids really do love them.”
Hill feels momentum building, aside from her movie debut. A December show at the Columbia Museum of Art was a success. She’s featured in the January issue of Fiberarts magazine. Her website is generating orders. “I have been doing this for seven years. It’s been a slow progression.”
In the works now is a new studio, going up behind her house. Meanwhile, she’d like to get her work into more stores and ultimately, have her late night projects become her day job.
“Waiting tables frees me up to do these creative things. I work five nights a week, usually late at night. I do most of my work on the couch. I watch bad cable television and sew.”
“I never want to stop doing the handmade stuff. But to have this become a full-time business, stop waiting tables, that would be my dream.