Textile Artist Bagged the Urban A-List to Reinterpret Authenticity

Following a major merchandising coup, Amber Jensen fled to Marshall for art’s sake.
Photo by Rimas Zailskas

At age 35, Amber M. Jensen is already a master of reinvention. She’s been a sketch artist, complete with a degree in drawing from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design; a handcrafted-book printer with prestigious residencies in book arts; the bespoke maker behind the über-popular Sketchbook line of backpacks; a soul-searching weaver using Old World techniques; and, now, a well-rounded artist who feeds from all she’s been — and hopes to be — to create honest, important work.

“I started out doing art for art’s sake, which is why I tried so many different things,” Jensen says. “But soon after college, I knew I needed to figure out a way to make my art and also be able to live off of it.”

She moved home and spent a year learning to sew with help from her interior-designer mother, then started making backpacks under her Sketchbook brand.  Crafted of leather, waxed canvas, and cotton and often adorned with Nordic-inspired felted wool patterns and shapes, the packs were a unique combination of contrasting styles. They managed to feel at once nostalgic and rustic, modern and vibrant, utilitarian and fashionable. And they attracted an equally diverse following. After some unsolicited publicity in magazines ranging from GQ to O (Oprah’s magazine), the backpacks become a popular choice for urban hipsters, world travelers, and wilderness adventurers.

The success was gratifying for Jensen — but also, in some ways, suffocating. “I felt like I had been swallowed up by the product world before I had time to figure out who I really was as an artist,” she says. “I wanted to give myself time to make art again.” She moved her business to Marshall four years ago; then, after the O wave, put herself on a self-induced yearlong sabbatical. Today, she works at rustic Marshall High Studios on the French Broad River.

Not content to rest on her laurels, the fiber artist began adding rugs and embroidered coats to her repertoire. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

Her location isn’t all that’s changed. She’s retired Sketchbook in favor of her new eponymous brand. “Leaving Sketchbook behind opens new possibilities for my art,” she says. “I’m able to share and show the breadth of what I’m able to create. I’m not just limited to being a backpack maker.”

Jensen is concentrating her efforts on different bodies of work that are connected in their functionality. Her new Amber M. Jensen line includes woven rugs, heavily embroidered coats, and again, backpacks and satchels — though this time with an updated aesthetic. “It’s interesting because now that I’m easing back into making bags, the weaving and different elements I’ve explored are making their way back into the product. The dyed yarn and merino wool felt are giving the bags an abstract folky feel. It’s telling a different story, and that’s really exciting to me.”

But it’s what comes after the creation that really interests Jensen. “I make functional pieces because I think it’s inspiring to think about what comes next — the story that develops once the piece becomes a part of a person’s home or life.”

She had a customer who bought a waxed canvas backpack for a trip to India, and later e-mailed Jensen to tell her how much she liked the bag’s lived-in, rugged look.  “She said each mark on the bag reminds her of where she was and how she felt. She spoke about the bag like it was a friend who was on the journey with her, and said they were inseparable.”

Amber M. Jensen, Marshall. For more information, see ambermjensen.com or e-mail info@ambermjensen.com.

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