Home grown textile and performing artist, Karen E. Griffin the E stands for empowered, educated, excited, and engaged every day, could never imagine while growing up that her mother, grandmother, and ancestors would become her greatest and sweetest inspiration. She is the owner of the production line, Jazzy K Productions and doing business as Art by. E Lewis. Her studio is located inside of an art gallery in Kansas City at the Bunker Center for the Arts, giving the artist a workable studio /gallery in her own space since 2019. She and her one sewing machine at the time took to the task at hand and in the studio as Griffin puts it there is always a textile explosion. Griffin is honored to be given the torch of carrying on the artistry of her mother. When she takes on the entity of Ida B. Wells, Zora Neale Hurston and her newest library addition Elizabeth Betsy Coleman, she does so in the spirit of cultural and ethnic contribution. It also gives her an instant palette while having all three sisters inside of her head. Wanting to make sure everyone knew that she wasn’t the tidy up and clean type she laughingly talks keeping her space untidy intentionally even with the camera rolling. Her beautiful smile is certainly magical, and even while creating the next piece, upon observation, one can sense the energy of the gracious and focused movement of her hands.
Her journey began at age seven not realizing what her mother was doing although Griffin felt that she knew exactly what she was doing and that was how it all began when she took the artist little brown hands and placed them on top of hers. In the garment industry for sixty years seeded the artist gifting her with the power and intuit of a “griot” a living graphic storyteller. Griffin talked about how it felt to watch her mother who suffered from Alopecia.” In those days women were really enthused with the idea that a woman’s heritage and cultural right especially black women was to have hair. Her mother suffered tremendously feeling embarrassed and made to feel that her femininity and sexuality were somehow linked to her not having hair and not her as a talent and intelligent person. Griffin feels proud that her mother taught her so much and shared so much of her life with others through textile, music, and feminine wit. Initially, Griffin did not want to be a seamstress. She wanted to be an artist and would draw all the time so much so, that drawing was all that she wanted to do. Around age thirteen the artist/performer started drawing however it was age seven when she understood the humming of her mother’s machine but didn’t understand the purpose of why it was humming. “When you take two pieces of fabric, thread and then you open it up, there’s artwork, she proclaims. Clothing is artwork”. By the time Griffin got into Junior High School, her 7th-8th grade teacher, Gwendolyn Cook, exposed her to seven different mediums. Her mind was lit. She thought this is heavy and developed a way to move life forward by hanging out at the Boys and Girls Club on 19th street. Looking back, Griffin says, “I’m pretty much back in the same community where I started to learn art forms”. She takes great pride having come full circle. Before her discovering her true calling, she wanted to go to college for a career in track and field; but that didn’t work out and so she ended up working at Hallmark cards for twenty-four years. Griffin whether understanding so or not is certainly gifted at manifestation, going from one institution to another and learning a great deal from each experience. Presently, the artist is very happy with having such an accessible studio/gallery however credits most of her journey to the moment when someone asked her the question, “would you be willing to play the role of Zora Neale Hurston. Her response” whose Zora Neale Hurston”? she realized that black women may not have necessarily heard of any of these women. When asked to do Betsy Coleman that’s when it hit that she had the opportunity to do a reenactment of a sister who laid down the foundation for her to build a legacy upon. After successfully enacting Ida, the sewing increased. In 2019 making a move the studio at Bunker Hill Center of the Art she didn’t have a clue as to why she was there or how she would survive while being there and with only one sewing machine. Now the artist owns four sewing machines with one additionally presently being paid for. Although Griffin is very excited to have machines, she had not yet fully understood what task she had been given. September of 2020 after the passing of a mentor Griffin took a leap of faith and someone who believed in her told her years before in 2017 that she had it. What did they mean, have what, Griffin asked”? The person told her that she had the gift of talent. Griffin said to the person, “No! I don’t this is just me”. At the time she had stated to dress up to do storytelling and was using vintage styled clothing to do it. Because of the enacting of Ida, Zora and Betsy the performer, storyteller and artist has a vintage collection that’s out of this world which includes stockings with seams. Griffin says that her storytelling really took off when she was invited to Australia to do a story on the Australian Jazz Museum that’s when she really knew she had it. That thing. The gift that someone saw in her way back in 2017. The invite also gave her carte blanche to the title of Ambassador to Kansas City genre for Jazz.
Griffin is a certified national and international storyteller as she has been outside of the US to share her gift of storytelling. So one day when she was sitting at one of her machines and saw her mother’s hands and not her own, the performing artist said to herself, so is this what you wanna to do then lets go. Griffin said that she had two creative ancestors that she could feel close to her for two years. The one who is creative I will sit there, and she tells me what to do, what to draw and how she wants it to look and the feel of it and here comes the other one who will tell me the story. Her story in textile is not complete until after she inserts a pearl in the left-hand corner of in honor of her mother. Ida’s Journey to Save Colored Men in America is her piece of note presently on display in Minnesota at the Soul Virtual Art Center the Black Archives and the Inner Urban Art House. The piece has four pieces and tells story of lynching’s attached to it. Her most powerful piece is one her ancestors she had her to make it. The title was the Door of No Return but then she changed the name after she looked at it and added the chains to it she called it “Enslaved Parade”. She said that when thinking about it, our ancestors were the first parade. To date she has done 21 solo and group exhibitions in a year, 21 a magic number for because for her first show she displayed.
She is preparing for a group exhibition at Buttonwood and three of her new pieces were accepted. One is called Trumpetini. A trumpet turned upside down and it looks like a Martini glass. One piece, Practice Hard Play Loud”, is a tribute to jazz trumpeter, “Charlie Bird” Parker after finding out that they went to the same high school . The third is called 12th and Brooklyn. The piece was inspired by a photo taken by her on the corner of 12th street in Brooklyn. It looks like a downtown scenery with sunset. The pieces are not being shown on the website because they are being donated to the Samuel Rogers Community Center in honor of women who do not have health insurance and because her mother suffered from, Alopecia she had no insurance coverage for it. In the 70’s when she grew up she remembers being called an Afro-American not black. After her mother lost all of her big beautiful blonde afro because she was a seamstress, she started wearing matching headwraps that went with the outfit of the day. Mother never talked about it until later in life when she told me that she had Alopecia. The artist performer designed, and entire collection called, “Crown” that is set to be donated to the Samuel Rogers Community Center. Griffin explains how it took such a long time for her to be accepting of her natural hair and will exhibit in the Fringe exhibition at the end of July www.artby.elewis.studio.