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ARTIST FEATURE: Giving of Oneself: An Interview with Gretchen E. Henderson



There are some people in this world who force you to ponder your existence. Their mere presence requires you to think about purpose and the intimate details of your life. I met one of those people during summer 2015, when I attended a Kenyon Review workshop in Gambier, Ohio. One of the co-instructors, Gretchen E. Henderson, lit up the room with her attentive heart, her vigorous spirit, and her compassion for the women artists in that particular “Art of Text” workshop. This had been her third co-instructed summer workshop with Ellen Sheffield. And what an inspiring summer it was with these two amazing instructors and a room full of Women Artisans!

I should begin with Gretchen’s occupational identity. Her words delighted me: “I am weary of classifications in general. I tend to call myself a writer who works in the medium of language.”  She is a writer, scholar, and artist who plays with the structure of language both on and off paper. She and Ellen encouraged me to rethink how stories are told, especially in the publishing world.

Dr. Gretchen Henderson tells her students to call her by her first name. She does not focus her energy on titles, but when you speak to her you know the genuine spirit from which she comes. What she calls “rambling babble,” I call “passionate brilliance.” In our conversation she described her “detouring path,” her early experience teaching high school, starting an interdisciplinary program, enacting experiential education, and then realizing the necessity to change. She took night classes in creative writing, then pursued graduate degrees, and now has been teaching at various universities for over a decade. I myself entered the graduate world for familial reasons steeped in a different sort of exploration that focused on worth, but Gretchen responded to a burning curiosity that explores a variety of intersecting disciplines – writing, history, art, music – to name a few.


This Northern Californian comes from a family who thinks practically. “Art seemed to be something you did on the side,” she said, explaining her upbringing. She trained seriously in music at a conservatory but thought she would go into human rights work or some kind of social work. But the artistry was always there – now unmistakable when you are in Gretchen’s presence. She exudes unconfined energy fluidly spreading across spectrums, genres, and disciplines. She makes you feel like art is central to life, because it seems to be a way of sensing and engaging the world. “Art challenges us to reconsider forms and encounter contents that may be unfamiliar, inviting or challenging us to question and even cross our own borders.”

She posed the question, “What knowledge is valued and not valued in this world?” Then she explained, “Societies often teach us to see things in a singular sort of way – as if certain things and ways are better than others. But when we live through adaptation, we start to understand that there are many ways of doing things, that we’ve inherited preferred knowledges, but that there are equally viable alternatives for living in the world. Exposures to these possibilities often prove more engaging and generous than our inherited versions. People live wholly different but equally valuable lives every day, and we live in a changing world. As we grow, we almost have to unlearn things to understand how we acquired much of the knowledge that we live by and practice.”

This, I believe is one of the reasons why storytelling and voice are so important to Gretchen. With her background as a musician, she explained that narrative and voice intertwine “like sound and silence, positive and negative space, where each comes into focus through relief and being present to each other.” She describes the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, for instance, a term indicating beauty but whose connotations span the withered, weathered, crooked, aged, and ephemeral – qualities that might be deemed ugly or unwanted. Gretchen spent the past few years writing a book on Ugliness, exploring cultural histories and values, where art and aesthetics entangle with social preferences and practices.


When I think of Gretchen I think of an endless amount of compassion. We talked about this characteristic, in relation to water and its elemental impact in our lives. Gretchen loves to swim. She learned to swim in childhood but really started swimming in earnest as an adult. Swimming catalyzes mobility, keeps everything fluid and in motion. “Water is a miracle place,” she said. “I feel like things that aren’t possible on land are possible in water. There’s a synergy between water and air,” she adds. “Both have resistance – you start to feel the air’s resistance through Tai Chi and related practices – but water magnifies that sense of dynamic engagement, more tangibly.” She explained that the resistance of water is a positive support that helps the body move past its limitations, get stronger, and engage with a larger environment. She called water a forgiving medium and repeated more profoundly, “Water is a forgiving place.”

This transitioned into the idea of what it means to forgive. “Over time, our bodies accumulate lived experiences: injury, aging, everything that we do. Our bodies can become static, but water and breathing keep things lubricated and moving. The same might be said of our ecosystems. Our bodies are heavily composed of water – after all, we evolved from fish – and much of the planet is water. Water embodies a kind of interdependence.” She explained that the two words “For + Giving” speak to a gift economy. The notion that water is a gift and gives us life speaks to our internal and external development. Wherever Gretchen has lived, she takes regular walks to be near water – whether a river, a creek, a bay, an ocean. She said, “There are all of these incredible qualities that water takes on, absorbing and reflecting light, shifting colors and movements, sometimes calm or windswept. There’s this fundamental property of motion. Water is so much bigger than we are, so at times it can be healing but other times volatile, for instance in storms or tides.” Water reminds her that humans are a small and humble part of this planet. So when looking at the word “forgiving” – or, as she pointed out, the two words “For Giving” – water speaks of being flexible and compassionate, aware of and present to the world that we collectively inhabit.

My own bodily experiences helped me relate to her final comments – an “out of box” philosophy and approach to teaching that allows people to move past their personal limitations – whatever those limitations may be. She connected this to the nature of “productive failure.” We can all agree that failure happens, right? But failure does not have to be terrible. I have learned that the greatest successes sometimes come from catastrophic failures. Gretchen thoughtfully shared, “I think people learn most from their failures. There’s something about learning these limits – how to be flexible around circumstances. When we fail, or when our institutions or our bodies or something else seems to fail us, we learn that we are capable of a lot more than we think we are.” We learn standards to understand how and why they came to be, but when they don’t work, we can learn how to re-imagine our limits or even how to effectively break the rules. This process of engagement produces, what she calls, critical makers. This critical making can extend to anything that we do.

I believe that is the phase I am walking in – to embrace productive failure so I can wake into a new possibility for myself as a person and artist. Gretchen shared that one of her favorite expressions in Spanish is ¿Cómo amaneciste?, which essentially means, “How did you dawn?” This focus on wakefulness turns upside down the English expression, “How did you sleep?” How can I wake to be the artist and person I am called to be? To be fluid as water? To stretch my limitations and learn what it truly means to give as an artist? To give of oneself for giving’s sake? To Gretchen E. Henderson, I am grateful for her giving heart.


Inspired by Gretchen’s story? In what area of your life do you need to surrender? Embrace and accept productive failure? Become a critical maker? Forgive? Share in the comments.


About the Contributor

traci_currie[contributor]the phoenix rising collectiveTraci Currie is a Communication and Visual Arts lecturer at University of Michigan-Flint, as well as a knit-crochet artist, writer, and spoken word performer. She has been a part of the art world for over 15 years as an art gallery board member; spoken word series organizer; performer, nationally and internationally; and published poet. She believes The PRC will help women reach their highest potential.  “The Phoenix Rising Collective is about empowering women to take ownership of their lives, claim their identities and be the positive change they wish to see in the world they live.” Read more Artists Features.

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She Makes It Beautiful – An Interview with Ayanna Listenbee, Luxury Handbag Designer + Artist


She Makes It Beautiful (SMIB) encourages and inspires women to follow their entrepreneurial dreams by interviewing and sharing the phenomenal stories of women who’ve already taken that courageous leap and are successfully soaring.

Don’t forget! Download your free SMIB Bonus Worksheet below. Use them as your personal toolkit to help get that dream off the ground. All bonus materials complement the advice and tips given by each of the entrepreneurs.


“When I’m creating I think I’m in my best place.”

This SMIB interview is with luxury handbag designer and artist, Ayanna Listenbee, owner of Ayanna Listenbee Collection and creator of The Lookbook Philosophy.

Ayanna is definitely a creative force to be reckoned with – a determined business woman with impeccable style and a strong will to fulfill her God-given purpose; it’s awe-inspiring. I hadn’t met her before this interview, but social media can most certainly be a positive space for connecting with like-minded women on a mission to do great things in the world through passion-filled work. This is most certainly the case with Ayanna, so by the time we finished the interview (which felt more like two friends catching up after a long hiatus) we both agreed that we should have been having our conversation over coffee…even though we live miles apart!

She most certainly embodies the meaning of her name, Beautiful Flower, and as you can see from her handbags, she’s an entrepreneur that creates from a soulful place that is in full bloom.

What sparked your interest to become a designer? How did you know this was the avenue you wanted to take?

I’ve always drawn. I’ve always made things and was creative as child. It was encouraged a lot by my father who painted sometimes in his spare time. He eventually became an art dealer. I never thought about pursuing it as a career. I never took it seriously as an option because I didn’t think it was something that could sustain me financially. You know, the funny thing is when I look back I never heard that from my parents; it was just something that I picked up along the way that if you’re in the arts you’re not going to make money. You’re going to be struggling. I can’t say that it’s been dollars falling from the sky since I started, but I went away to school and had many majors. I was a ballet major at one point – which didn’t last very long. I was also a graphic design major, communications, and then long story short, I ended up as an English major. I was about to graduate with a semester left and I thought, “This is not what I want to do. I’m not happy.”

I was in Atlanta at Clark-Atlanta University. They had a small fashion program, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. The program was in the basement. I transferred to that program and it just took off from there. I finished out the semester, came home and went to school specifically for design, and that’s how it started.

Tell me about your handbags? What was the inspiration for designing handbags?

I started out in clothing, and I loved doing clothing, but it became very expensive for me because with clothing you have to have a size range and that means each pattern has to be graded for that size, and all of that costs money. I’d gotten laid off my job, and I knew this was what I wanted to do, but it was costing too much money.

I’ve always loved handbags since I was a little girl; I used to play with my mom’s bags and my aunts’ bags.

When I became pregnant with my first child, I thought, “I want to have a really cool diaper bag. I don’t want to carry a “mommy looking” diaper bag.” So, I designed this bag out of leather and had it made. I sourced all the materials; once I’d done that it just totally sparked, “This is it! This is what I want to do.” I’d made smaller clutch bags; they were fabric bags prior to this, so I was already on track, but once I got my hands on the leather, it was over!

EROS Day Bag, Ayanna Listenbee Collection

What was your process like getting started with your business?

The process was not necessarily a straight, clear path. I’m an introvert. I’m a true behind-the-scenes kind of person, so it’s been such an incredible journey for me – getting to know my strengths and weaknesses and who I am.

I was doing the handbags, and I’d met a woman who was in sales. We started talking and had some things in common, so I thought, “Oh my God, this is the answer to a prayer, because I don’t want to go knock on doors or go to stores to try to sell these bags on my own. I just want to make bags. It seemed great.

I didn’t follow my normal process of taking it to God first and praying about it. I just thought, “This feels good. She’s great. We both have kids, all these wonderful things in common.” She talked a good game! She ended up being not necessarily what she said she was; the partnership fell apart and she ended up trying to take the whole business from me.

I was young. I was naïve, and I just said, “I really don’t care about being in front of an audience, if you want to be the face of the line that’s fine. I just want to design. That’s all I want to do.” She was cool with that. So, I basically gave her half of my business. When I look back on that I know that it was out of fear. I didn’t think that I could get sales and do those things that were uncomfortable for me, so I learned a lot. Luckily, I was able to retain my business.


I asked Ayanna about navigating business in a society that often times only supports and empowers extroverts. There’s a great quote from her that definitely describes her attitude and perspective about this topic:

“I’m a happy introvert growing a business in an extroverted world of fashion.”

What would you say to others who are introverted? What are some tips for “getting yourself out there?”

It’s something that I have to push through every day. I do a lot of reading and researching, and everything says that you have to keep putting yourself out there. That is extremely tiring for me. For a period of time I’d made it a point to attend lots of events and meet people. I wanted to connect and be a part of the industry, and I needed to do that just for myself, but then I realized, “OK, I’m doing it, and it’s taking a lot of my energy, but I don’t know if this is really what I NEED to be doing.”

Everyone doesn’t have the same path. There is such a thing as a quiet leader. I don’t think that you have to be on stage with a megaphone shouting, “Everybody follow me, look at me.” I don’t think you have to do it that way, but I do see a lot of instruction on being heard and being seen. Yes, people do need to know you exist because if they don’t know you exist they can’t buy your product or service. I try to carve out a place for myself and my company that’s comfortable. I know that I can handle certain things now, and what I have to do, I do. However, I don’t live my life believing, “I gotta do it this way because that’s the way “this girl over here” is doing it.” It’s about finding what’s comfortable for you but not so comfortable that you never step out of your comfort zone.

Was there a pivotal moment when you recognized what you were doing would be successful?

I don’t know if I have an answer to that only because there’s always a point that I’m striving for and I don’t know if you ever reach that (or at least I haven’t yet reached a point that’s foremost in my mind). I don’t have a specific moment. However, the smaller moments are when someone purchases and they tell me they love their bag or love the quality. Any feedback I can get that’s positive from clients let’s me know, “Keep doing what you’re doing; you’re on the right path. You’re doing your thing!”

What do you love most about what you’re doing?

I love creating. I love coming up with new designs, sketching, and taking inspiration from daily life whether it be from nature or what I’m doing in my own life. When I’m creating I think I’m in my best place. It’s also the fact that I’m able to have my own business and my children are able to see that you can create the life you want to live. If it’s not out there you can make it. You can decide and picture the life that you want and create it. You really can. You just have to be diligent.

How do you maintain a healthy balance in your personal and professional life?

 [Laughs] You might ask my husband that! Part of the thing about loving what you do, you can just do it all night long; if I’m at my desk and have my coffee and laptop, I can sit there for hours on end doing what I have to do. So, I find it hard to strike a balance. It comes out of necessity because once it’s time to go pick up the kids, I have to pick them up, but while I’m waiting for them in line, I’m usually on my phone or iPad. It just doesn’t stop because of the way technology is today. It’s hard for me. However, what I usually use as a measuring stick is my family. For example, if they come to me and ask a question I really try to put my phone down or stop what I’m doing completely and give them the full attention they need. In the past I would answer questions while looking at my screen, and it’s not fair, so when it comes to balance I just try to be better each day.

What do you do in those moments when you get frustrated with the process of entrepreneurship?

I have definitely come across periods when I’ve thought “I can’t do this anymore.” However, what stops me is not being afraid to step away for a minute and have quiet time. If there’s nothing pressing going on, for example, orders that need to go out, and things are not flowing at the moment, I use that time to connect even deeper with God. I go to Him and ask, “What do you want me to do?” I don’t want to fight an uphill battle unnecessarily.

I think women (or people in general) sometimes have a tendency to focus on what is not going right or what they’re not doing and overlook the milestones they have accomplished. Maybe they are small, but to whom? They’re still accomplishments; they’ve gotten you to where you are today. So, recognizing how far you’ve come, taking quiet moments, and being able to walk away for a moment to pray or listen to positive messages, that’s what has helped me to continue on the path.

What advice can you give to women seeking to fulfill their entrepreneurial dreams?

Decide and be clear about what it is you want to do. Once you know what you want to do then it’s easier to figure out what steps you need to take to get to that point.

Set up a support system. Family is good at first, but I think it’s so important to have other people who are entrepreneurs or who have started their own “something.” They are people you can talk to who know the journey of an entrepreneur and how it is. It can be very isolating, so you need to have people you can talk to about the day-to-day stuff. I didn’t necessarily have that and it was very isolating, so it’s very important.

Now, take a look at the free SMIB Bonus Worksheet that complements Ayanna’s interview.

SMIB Banner[Listenbee Interview]

Remember, you’re building your SMIB Entrepreneurial Toolkit! Didn’t get your bonus worksheets from the last few interviews? Well, go back, recap, and download it HERE.

Tell us what you think, Phoenix!

We want to hear about how you are inspired by Ayanna Listenbee, as well as your progress building your toolkit, so tell us in the comments below. You can also share a snapshot of how you used the SMIB bonus worksheets on Facebook and Instagram with the hashtag: #SMIB #thephoenixrisingcollective Tag: @thephoenixrisingcollective

Ayanna_Jordan[The Phoenix Rising Collective]1Ayanna Jordan is founder and exective director of The Phoenix Rising Collective. She develops and facilitates women-centered workshops on how putting self-love into action can transform your life. Ayanna also creates coaching and training that supports women’s professional growth in leadership, entrepreneurship, and passion-filled work. As editor-in-chief of Phoenix Shine, she is happy to be working with contributing writers to provide resources and awareness on topics that cultivate self-love and acceptance. Right now, she is most inspired by the LYFF series and She Makes It Beautiful. You can learn more about Ayanna HERE.