Birmingham artist immortalizes jazz and blues musicians through needlepoint portraits

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A needlepoint portrait by Leanna Lesley depicting Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, known as Jelly Roll Morton.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Fiber art portraits of legendary jazz musicians adorn the walls and furniture of Leanna Lesley’s home in East Birmingham.  

Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Erskine Hawkins are just a few of the musicians featured in her artwork. Their stories are told stitch by stitch through needlepoint. 

“It sort of allows people to see a lot of these jazz musicians in a way that they’ve never seen them before,” Lesley said. 

Lesley began working on needlepoint artwork about 20 years ago; however, the portraits of the jazz musicians almost never came to be since she initially turned down a request to make them. 

“If I’m being completely honest, because (a) I didn’t grow up with jazz music and (b) it doesn’t – it didn’t – feel like it was my story to tell,” Lesley explained.

Her mentor, the late Dr. Frank Adams who was the director of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame eventually convinced her to tell this story. 

Lesley listens to each artists music as she stitches them and the times it takes can only be measured in weeks, not hours. She said it has become a complicated and compelling experience since jazz tells the story of America, specifically the civil rights movement. 

“Jazz is America’s only true art form,” Lesley said. “It’s really the story of who we are and how we began and how we worked through trials and tribulations.”

Lesley’s work has been on display in Montgomery, Atlanta and Hoover City Hall. Her collection now includes portraits of blues musicians as well. 

Beginning October 3, her collection will be featured in the Arts Revive Carneal Building in Selma for a month-long exhibit titled Snapshots Stitches & Selma Blues. Lesley’s work will also be for sale and prices range between $500 to $5,000. 

Photographs by Roger Stephenson will also be on display as well as performances by various musicians. For more information, click here

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