Lifestyle & Culture

4 Artisans, Inspired by Nature

Fiber artistry from (left to right) Jennifer McBrien, Susan Fay Schauer and Kate Leibrand pay tribute to the magnificence of the natural world.

By Janet Kelly

ONLY 16 more nights to sleep until the 41st Smithsonian Craft Show arrives at DC’s National Building Museum, less if you plan to attend the Preview Night Party on May 3. In either case, you’ll get a chance to meet and chat with the select group of artists who have been chosen to represent the finest American crafts.

Know what else? The show is also the chief source of fundraising that enables the Smithsonian Women’s Committee to select and pay for important projects that would otherwise go unfunded. Since its inception 50 years ago, the committee has awarded more than 1,000 grants to the Smithsonian Institution’s 21 museums, its National Zoological Parks and research and educational units affiliated with the Smithsonian. Revenue raised by the committee also provides funding for four endowments supporting fellowships and awards in education, innovation and research.

In observance of Earth Day this coming Saturday and the ever-present challenge of climate change, here’s a preview of the creations of three fiber artists—Susan Fay Schauer, Jennifer McBrien and Kate Leibrand—as well as jeweler Seth Carlson—whose work brilliantly illustrates their connection to and concern for the environment.


The daughter of a talented artist father (Thomas Alfred Schauer), Susan Fay Schauer was encouraged to express herself through drawing, painting and sculpture. She received her B.S. in biology at Denison University and a graduate degree in the neurosciences at Princeton University, while studying the arts on the side. In the late 1980s, she decided to turn her full attention to art, working out of her light-filled Easton, Maryland, studio overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.

Her current thread paintings are a series of pieces depicting wildlife found in and around the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, [which] intersects layers of reality and fantasy, life and reincarnation . . .  the viewer ‘knows’the subject right away, but something more lies within and that is the draw and the depth of this work.”

Schauer describes why she loved painting this sweet girl crab, made with hundreds of pieces of cotton fabric and threads: “She draws you in and ‘asks’ you to look closely at each part. There is an image of a reclining woman at its center. This ‘goddess’ figure is to remind the viewer that this is a mature female blue crab called a ‘sook.’ “(Once a conservation concern, thanks to a female-specific fishing management of the blue crab, the number in the Chesapeake Bay has remained stable.)


Baltimore artist Jennifer McBrien says her renderings of birds, plants and figures tell a narrative about the fragility of our world. Her process begins with ink drawings from observation or photos, which she then translates into the stitched line, adding color and form  with overlaying threads. “I get very excited about finding vintage and upcycled fabrics that have scenes that my subjects can interact with to tell a story.”

On this decorative pillow, all the line work—the Carolina Wren woman and nuthatch—is created by a freehand sewing machine drawing that is then appliquéd and reinforced stitched on toile fabric. McBrien sees her bird women as messengers to communicate their concern for how we are taking care of the environment. “Humans are the only species that don’t take care of their environment since we have not been living with, but more like against the elements.”

In any case, this one-of-a-kind pillow (with red velvet fabric on the back, piping and hidden zipper) would make quite a conversation piece for any couch or chair.


A fiber and interdisciplinary artist living in Philadelphia, Kate Leibrand received her BA in fine art from Elizabethtown College in 2011 and her MFA in studio art from Moore College of Art & Design in 2014. She also received a certification in botanical illustration from Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Gardens in 2020.

Leibrand creates her textile-based artwork with large-scale repeat patterns that resemble flowing fields of blossoms—or fungi and moss. Using mostly felt, her labor-intensive process includes cutting, painting, folding, stitching, gluing and pinning thousands of fabric elements onto a base. The dense mass of forms are inspired by her interest in nature and its ability to grow and regenerate. At first glance, Leibrand’s works are monumental and enveloping but as one’s eye lingers, the work rewards the viewer with the intricacies of the individual elements.


Carlson began his career as a studio artist in his father’s stained-glass studio. He subsequently earned a BFA in metals and jewelry from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2007. He also holds a graduate degree in Art Therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he researched and wrote about the therapeutic benefits of metalsmithing.

Through traditional goldsmithing and silversmithing techniques, Carlson captures the beauty and character of the fauna and flora encountered in Nature, with a focus on environmental preservation. He handcrafts each piece, using ethically sourced gold, silver, enamel, gemstones and alternatives. He considers contributing to and creating awareness of the natural world to be essential parts of mastering a craft.

Carlson, who joked about asking himself whether he wanted to hide out in a shell, designed this gold, gemstone-studded Eastern box turtle brooch during the pandemic in 2020.





The Smithsonian Craft Show opens to the public on Thursday, May 4, 2022. Want to be among the first? Tickets for the Preview Night Party—from 6 to 9pm on Wednesday, May 3—are $250. First Look and Visionary Reception—from 5 to 6pm—are $500.

Show hours: 10:30am to 5:30pm, Thursday, May 4 to Saturday, May 6 ; and Sunday, May 7, 11am to 5pm. You may use your ticket on the day of your choice.

Admission: $20 at the door or in advance online at Smithsonian Craft Show. You can find tickets at EventBrite.

Group tickets (10 or more) and students are $15 each.

The Smithsonian Craft Show is produced by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, an all-volunteer organization that supports the education, outreach and research programs of the Smithsonian Institution. The National Building Museum is located at 401 F Street NW (202-272-2448). The closest Metro stop is Judiciary Square. 


3 thoughts on “4 Artisans, Inspired by Nature

  1. Nancy G says:

    Looks like a wonderful show.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      Haven’t been in person, of course, in the last few years, but it’s impressive and the National Building Museum is gorgeous.

  2. I’m impressed by the originality and diversity of these pieces.
    Really stunning! Thanks.

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