Local multimedia artist Gwen Meking was gracious enough to invite me to her new studio on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon. The shared space is tucked away on the east end of downtown Jacksonville, practically underneath the Matthews Bridge, in the studio complex at 700 East Union Street.
Her clothing line, Aunt Gwen, has been cultivating quite a following since its launch early last year. The focus of Aunt Gwen is taking a garment that may otherwise be overlooked or discarded and making it unique and interesting. Gwen sources vintage and thrifted garments, then prints her own designs and drawings on them using hand-carved rubber stamps, giving each piece new life.
Gwen greeted me outside of the massive warehouse where her studio lives. She’s got strands of gold tinsel tied into her dark curly hair, which she explains were put in by her friend who is a certified fairy, which I quickly googled after I left.
She had been excited to show me the “super cool, old, kinda scary” freight elevator, but informed me when I arrived that it was sadly out of service. I was able to take a peek at it though, and I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to ride in it anyway.
We walked up several flights of stairs to what Gwen called “The Crows Nest,” which is what the residents lovingly call their massive chunk of studio space. Her area is nestled between several other artists, including a space belonging to a boudoir photographer, complete with a full bedroom setup.
There’s not a ton of light, just what shines though a strip of high windows on either end of the building. Gwen’s area is small but cozy and functional, with a couple of garment racks, a large working table and some of her sculptures made from recycled materials peppered throughout. There’s a giant face on the wall, seemingly watching over the space.
The inception of Aunt Gwen was pretty organic. As she tells it, Gwen and her partner had a large bag of clothes destined for Goodwill. She had just purchased some block printing supplies and decided to try it out on one of the soon-to-be donated shirts, and it took off from there. Gwen started wearing the shirt around town, and people constantly asked her about it and whether she’d be willing to make and sell them one.
What’s your process for sourcing garments? How do you choose what print to use?
“On Sundays I go thrift shopping. I try to stay within a certain color palette, natural colors, burnt orange, I try not to go outside of that. That and anything that’s not knit because it’s hard to print on. I try to grab every single kind of style because I just want it to be available for everyone. Once I’ve done that, I come back here, cut all the tags off, hang everything up, and then I kind of just step back and look at everything.”
She then goes through each garment and tries to get a feeling for what print will look the best, and what type of composition she wants to achieve. It’s a longer process than it seems because each garment is printed on the front, then has to take a few days to cure, then it’s printed on the back, and then another few days of curing.
Currently there are just a handful of designs to choose from, one of her most popular is a line drawing of a face, reminiscent of an early Picasso illustration. It’s just a blind contour, she explained, which is a common exercise in basic drawing classes. She showed me the stamps from a family portrait she did for a client. There’s also a stamp on the table that’s simply an eyeball. It was one of the first stamps she made but has just recently started using it. She then showed me a simple, low-cut slip with the eyeball stamped right at the bottom of the breast bone where the neckline plunges. It’s so gorgeous I contemplate grabbing it and running out, but luckily she very sweetly offered me another silky blue slip as a gift.
As with many small business makers, Instagram has been a friend to Aunt Gwen. Several boutiques have reached out to collaborate or to set up wholesale orders, including We Are Sincerely Yours in Kansas City and East Village Vintage Collective in New York City. In the future, Gwen hopes to open a shop of her own, but is happy to do pop-ups for now.
The next big thing for Aunt Gwen will be the launch of its spring collection during the Phoenix Rising Festival, held at Phoenix Arts District at 2336 Liberty Street, March 24 and 25.