My awareness of cultural textiles, artists, and craft started in Uganda, where we lived for almost two years in the early 2000s. The unusual texture of the barkcloth and the unusual way in which it is harvested and produced intrigued me. Great was my surprise and delight then when a few years after we left the country, I stumbled across the work of Lesli Robertson, a textile artist and consultant from Texas – half a planet away from Uganda! I’ve been following Lesli’s work for a while, but we have never met or even spoken. Therefore, it is an absolute delight to have her as my very first guest on The Fabric Thread Podcast.
Lesli is an interdisciplinary textile consultant and project developer who partners with local and international organisations to develop impactful engagement through interactive programs. She has recently worked on projects supported by USAID, The Smithsonian Institute, and the Fulbright Specialist Program, taking her to countries as diverse as Kuwait, Armenia, Uganda, and Ghana. She launched Mekeka Designs in 2018, creating bespoke textile collections with artisans in Uganda. As a former faculty member at the University of North Texas, she spent more than a decade teaching textiles and visual art approaches while developing national and international community programs and opportunities.
Studiowork, teaching, research, and community outreach
Lesli shares how just working in her studio never seems to be enough to make her happy. “I always continued to think about reaching out, finding new ways to engage with textiles, finding new ways to engage with people around me.” She kept exploring new ways to use textiles and engage with them. For Lesli, engaging with textiles is a kind of triage or triangle – combining outreach and community-based work with research and studio work. “Being a practitioner is one part, always learning and researching is another, and then outreach – taking what I’m discovering in my studio and learning from others and research, taking that back out into the community in some way.”
Uganda & barkcloth
Lesli’s first visit to Uganda was in 2005 to support a nonprofit organisation that was teaching reading skills. It was during this visit that she was introduced to barkcloth. She has been going back to Uganda every year since. She tells us all about barkcloth from harvesting, to processing to the different ways it is being used in Buganda culture and, in recent years, by artists and designers.
Community programs and exhibitions
With her Ugandan friend and colleague, Fred Mutebi and many others, Lesli worked on community programs and exhibitions both in Uganda and in the USA. She shares the stories, struggles and triumphs with us.
On her trip to Uganda in 2007, Lesli had a commission from the Surface Design Journal to write an article about Mekeka, the Ugandan art of weaving mats from palm leaves. Even though the Mekeka mats are an everyday item in Uganda, there was very little to no documentation about the craft. Ever the researcher, Lesli saw the opportunity to learn, document, and ultimately try her hand at social entrepreneurship.
Her business Mekeka Designs now works directly with craftspeople to produce contemporary designs using plaited palm leaf, barkcloth and other woven natural fibres.
Lesli’s online course gives people an opportunity to experience barkcloth first hand. As part of the course, you will receive three pieces of barkcloth in the mail. Lesli will then guide you through two exercises. The first one will be a conceptual, thought-approach to materials while the second one will be a more practical how-to exercise with different approaches to stitching, painting and printing.
The course also includes a video interview with Fred Mutebi where he will share stories about his upbringing and experience with the barkcloth.
AS A SPECIAL GIFT TO OUR READERS AND LISTENERS USE THIS CODE TO RECEIVE A 25% DISCOUNT ON THE COURSE: