Interview with Leslie Mehren

DigiLetter: What inspired you to pursue writing about traditional crafts?

Leslie Mehren: I’ve been writing about art throughout my career, whether for auction houses and museums or for publications. I love finding the right words to describe the sensations that art gives you. Maybe I’m a frustrated anthropologist, or read too many National Geographics growing up, but I look to visual art as a way to learn about the world’s cultures and traditions. Ikat is a perfect example of a traditional textile weaving method that has been adapted and shared by cultures around the world. I love ikat for its visual impact, but also for the story it tells of how cultures express themselves through their textile innovations.

DL: What qualifies a craft technique as “traditional”?

LM: Traditional to me means following the time-honored techniques, tools and materials. It means knowing the reasons why something is made the way it is, then perhaps finding new variations on themes, instilling the process with some good creativity. Not short-cutting, but advancing the design direction. That’s what I look for.

DL: Are there any particular crafts that are disappearing that you would like to preserve?

LM: Like languages, it seems craft traditions are in a constant state of flux and often are endangered from lack of practice. They depend on people for their continuation and if those people are subject to war, genocide, or displacement, then their traditions can be lost. I’m very interested in seeing the use of natural dyes over synthetics in textiles. Too many cultures have been cut off from the natural dye materials that were once available to them in their own environments, and they need to be re-taught the methods of working with them to preserve the tradition. That can require environmental education, teaching plant cultivation, and reconnecting to the natural world. It takes a village of knowledge to restore a village’s craft traditions once they are lost or damaged.

DL: How do you determine the authenticity of some of the goods you get a hold of?

LM: Whenever possible I work directly with the artists themselves, so I know exactly where something came from and who made it. I take the time to get to know the people behind the products. That’s the real joy for me. When that isn’t possible, or in the case of unusual vintage items, then I do my research. I learned so much working with experts in auction houses about how to authenticate items, from furniture to paintings. Mostly what I learned is to trust your eye and your instincts. If something doesn’t look quite right, investigate that, because more often than not it isn’t.

DL: Do you ever hide the origins of some of your goods to prevent certain peoples from being exploited?

LM: No, I’ve never had that inclination, because telling the story behind what I sell is an important part of my process. If a maker wanted to remain a mystery, or totally anonymous, like Banksy, I’d have to think long and hard about whether or not I could adequately represent them. I think being as transparent as possible when I represent something is part of my obligation as a responsible retailer. Whether that is the place of origin, the people who created it, or the materials, I want to tell the whole story in the best way possible.

DL: How did you settle on Anima Mundi as the name of your shop?

LM: I was sitting in a philosophy class in college, no doubt losing my focus on what the topic was, when Plato’s explanation of Anima Mundi came up for discussion. It instantly had my attention and in that moment I thought, “I will have a store called Anima Mundi one day.” That was not what my teacher intended, I know, but it inspired a very long gestation on the idea of how authentically crafted design can enhance a home, no matter where it comes from. It’s that interconnectedness of handmade goods, the actual spirit within them, that illuminates a home and gives it a unique character.

DL: What are you like outside of work?

LM: Outside of work I’m a lot of things: a mom to a very active teenage girl, a wife to a wonderful man, and a creative person who needs plenty of free time for exploring and creating. If you follow western astrology, you would recognize me as the consummate Aquarian: a free spirit, open, creative, and strong-willed. In the Asian astrological calendar I am that feared and often misunderstood female Fire Horse. Women born under my sign in Japan and China were often not allowed to marry, or were cast out of their homes because they were seen as too independent!

DL: Do you have a motto?

LM: The abiding motto that I try to live by is from Flaubert, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” That sums up my approach to finding a balance, getting the real work done, and sticking with it for when those moments of inspiration hit and take you for a ride.

DL: What are your strong points and how do they play into both your personality and your career?

I’ve always felt like my career is one big circle, with a connection to art and the people who make it all the way through. You have to genuinely like people to do what I do, and I think that is what makes the biggest difference in my life. I really like meeting people, hearing their stories, finding shared points of connection, and making each other laugh.

If I have a certain strength, I think it is having a good memory for people and events in their lives. It’s like I have a People Magazine editor in my brain, and I can recall details or old stories very clearly. One of my teachers referred to that skill as relational memory, and that’s what I rely on.

DL: Any weak points?

LM: The list of what I wish I could fix about myself just gets longer over time!

DL: How do your public and private lives differ?

LM: I’m an open book! My life doesn’t have those typical boundaries, so I am afraid I don’t have any hidden parts of my life that don’t relate to the whole of it. My interests feed my work, my work is all about relating to people and telling stories, and every new thing I learn through that furthers what I love doing. I’m following my bliss, in Joseph Campbell terms. If you visit me in my store, I’m going to talk with you just as if you were in my home. Hopefully I’ll be dressed a little better, but that’s the only difference!

DL: How do you envision the readers you expect to follow your DigiLetter, and what will inspire them to subscribe?

LM: I’m giving this question a lot of thought. There is a global audience interested in authentic cultural design, handmade crafts and traditionally made goods. Those people also travel and maintain an interest in new places. I think people interested in visiting Seattle would like the perspective I bring to our city, focusing on people who make amazing art right here. I see my readers as being great travelers, aesthetically inclined, people who visit museums and art galleries and love original design.

DL: Where can your readers follow you?

LM: I’m pretty active on Instagram at animamundista. That’s my world in pictures. On Facebook, it’s www.facebook.com/ShopAnimaMundi. As many times as I’ve tried Twitter, that’s a medium I don’t enjoy as much. Anyway, it’s great to hear from people, so don’t hesitate to get in touch!