11 Questions: Jess Flegel

As the gallery director of Make.Shift, Jess Flegel is one of the unsung heroes of Bellingham’s art scene. Month after month she works with local artists creating some of the best and most talked about gallery shows in Bellingham – all of which she does as a volunteer. The fact Jess does what she does without making a dime shows her love for art and it’s place within Bellingham.

Who are you and where did you come from?

I’m Jess Flegel and I’m from Chicago, Well, Elgin actually, but it’s pretty close. I spent my childhood picking on my little sister, catching frogs, playing sports, and building killer snow forts. When I got a little older, I dated boys, went to concerts in the city, and studied art. I was born and raised and went to college in the same town, so by the time I was done with school I was especially ready to get outta there.


At what age did you realize what art was and how it could affect people?

I’ve been making things for as long as I can remember. When I wasn’t able to take art classes as a freshman at the Christian school I attended, I decided to transfer to the public school the following year. I knew for sure then, if not sooner, that art was important to me and that I wanted it to be a full time part of my life somehow. Studying architecture and design in college reinforced the importance of being surrounded by things that are beautiful and well made. Art can communicate ideas and emotions that are difficult to articulate with words.


What brought you to Bellingham and what has kept you here over the years?

I have a sister and niece in Portland, but have never seen myself living there. One of my best friends at Judson College was from Mt. Vernon, and I used to come visit. Bellingham seemed to have a bit more going on than Skagit and I figured I’d be able to find a roommate. So, after graduation, I packed up all of my earthly belongings and drove west. This coming summer will be my 10-year anniversary!


As Make.Shift’s Gallery Director, what has been your favorite showing and why?

That’s tough. I haven’t been in this position for a year yet and I have 3 or 4 favorites already. Pin-Ups last December was the most work and the most fun for sure, but the Vices Show last October is also high on the list. Jessica and Karie Jane put together a rad group of artists, and all the work was so different which made the show super interesting. I love having the walls totally covered with art, though more formal shows are great too The space comes alive in a different way when we have the walls packed out.


Do you have a post-gallery walk routine? Something you do to celebrate another show coming together?

Honestly, Art Walk is the celebration! After all of the planning and coordinating that goes into every show, not to mention the wall patching, measuring, hanging, labeling and finishing touches, I finally get to host an awesome party. Thank goodness for our incredible volunteers! Come 6 o’clock on Art Walk night, they take care of all of the business and I get to hang out and relax and enjoy it all. After that, I’m usually in my jammies and into bed pretty quick.


What is your favorite medium for artistic expression? Why?

For a long time it was photography. Being alone with the stereo blasting in the darkroom in college was one of my favorite times and I’ve always felt that there’s something magical about the old process. But my current obsession is quilting. There is so much amazing design happening in the field right now. I love working with fabric; I can’t get enough of the patterns and colors, and endless combinations. Even though my style is not traditional at all, I value the rich history of the medium and its role in communities, families, and storytelling. I think that my past in photography informs a lot of my approach to quilting. I’m hoping to get started soon on a new series of quilts that are based directly on photos that I’ve taken.


What is your favorite season of the year?

In this town, summer. It’s all bike rides and swimming and BBQs all the time and it’s the best!


When you’re looking for inspiration, a pick me up, what is your “go to” meal?

I have the hugest sweet tooth. I’m a little embarrassed to say it, but if I’m being honest, my go to might be donuts and a glass of milk. Or ice cream and beer. I do enjoy good food, but when I’m in project mode I just eat whatever is handy and fast so that I can get back to work.


What was your all time favorite birthday present? Why?

A three hole punch, a stapler, pair of scissors, and desktop tape dispenser, really nice ones(staples & tape too)! My dad was tired of me borrowing his all the time and never putting them back quickly enough, but I was pumped! I love tools, any kind of tools. I think there’s a special place in my heart for office supplies in particular.


You volunteer your time at Make.Shift and spend seemingly countless hours working on the shows (from planning to set up). What about the non-profit keeps you so inspired?

Seeing people so excited to have something that they created shown in a gallery for the first time is a pretty big deal. Earlier this year, we showed BJ Ott for his gallery debut. BJ and I have been friends for a long time, and I’ve been on his case for almost as long to both make to show his work, but he was always hesitant. His show was not only was it a good experience for him, but was a total hit! I’m really lucky to be a part of seeing artists like BJ take that step and get that confidence boost. Also, Cat Sieh is unbelievable. I’m still so pumped and flattered that she asked me to fill this position at Make.Shift. Pretty much all of the staff and volunteers love Make.Shift and this community so much. It’s an awesome thing to be a part of.


What is your favorite aspect of the Bellingham art community?

Although nothing is perfect, I think it’s great that we live in a place that supports and encourages so much creativity. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first set of sketches or if you’ve been painting for years and have fine-tuned your style, this town has so many venues that are really accessible for showing work. I had my first real show at the PaperDoll in 2009 and then started hanging work in coffee shops around town. That, and attending Art Walk religiously was how I got to know everyone hosting and showing work in town and how I eventually got plugged in at Make.Shift.


What is your favorite non-art related hobby?

Organizing things! & Dr. Mario!!


What’s next for Jess Flegel?

My two biggest goals for this year are 1. to get back into making art of my own again after taking a break for almost a whole year. 2. to start teaching sewing workshops for beginner sewers and for quilting. I think they just might happen in my new studio at Make.Shift!