Pillow Talk

Charlotte’s colorful artist Jill Seale may be hitting the high point of her career.

Krispy Kreme is probably not the first place you’d think to meet an artist to discuss her luxury line of marbled textiles. But that’s where Charlotte resident Jill Seale and I found ourselves discussing her successful debut at the High Point Market this spring.

“This is a tri-napkin situation,” Seale says as she notices my note-taking being hindered by sticky fingers and failed attempts to keep eating my doughnut.

Besides being an artist, Seale is a humorist. Mom to Madison, 21, Seale wrote the book “Stark Raving Motherhood” about “stealing your kids’ Halloween candy, failing at third-grade math, looking like hell in school drop-off line.” Her comedic timing is impeccable.

So is her taste.

Her latest obsession—past obsessions have included conquering stand-up comedy and running marathons—started with her mom’s 1950s Sascha Brastoff china, which she describes as “a creamy turquoise with silver marbled through it.” When Seale sensed her mom was through with large-scale entertaining, she swiped her china. Now that Seale is having success with a line inspired by the china she pilfered, her mom jokes she wants a cut of the profits.

For decades, Seale has collected large sheets of marbled paper for, as she says, “no good reason.”

Now, the reason is clear: It’s all been inspiration for her newest venture. She’s also sought inspiration in Florence, Italy, where she studied the ancient art of making marbled papers. Her husband, Bryan, saw her interest and gave her the trip as a gift.

Everything is fodder for Seale’s art. She sees beauty in an old manhole cover and even in a family of pigeons nesting outside her pied- à-terre in Florence. She takes photos compulsively—there are more than 9,000 on her phone.

Seale began the painstaking process of marbling paper in her home studio, where her supplies share space with snapshots of the artist with celebrities such as Paul McCartney and Placido Domingo.

How did a gal from Parkersburg, West Virginia wind up mixing with A-listers? She had a graphic design studio in the tiny Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. with clients that included the White House, The Kennedy Center, Arianna Huffington, and National Geographic. 

During her Washington days, Friends of the Earth commissioned Seale to do calligraphy for the manuscript award presented to McCartney. Seale is confident (and funny) enough to have written into her contract, “I party with Paul.”

Seale has also licensed her art; she’s the brains behind the “Nun for the Road” series of cocktail napkins, barware, and more featuring the likes of Sister Mary Margarita, Sister Mary Menopause, and Sister Mary Merlot. Her industry experience has proved helpful in launching the marbled textiles.

The nuns were whimsical. Seale’s new line of marbled pillows, wall coverings, and cleverly named “ottominis” is glamorous. But the line, like the artist who created it, doesn’t take itself too seriously. The swirls—sometimes vibrant and sometimes subdued—are feather-like forms and circles that manage to be both playful and sophisticated.

Once Seale realized these pillows, a union of linen and cotton that feels high-end, might have consumer appeal, she became singularly focused on getting her goods to market. Her artistic practice, however, is more about seeing what happens. She describes the process as “hypnotic” and the result as “mysterious.” You never know what you’re going to get when you lower the paper into the bath.

Marbling isn’t for the impatient. It takes time to set up the materials, including the bath—a thickened, water-based solution—into which the paper will be placed. And it’s a one-shot deal. The artist carefully puts the paper in the paint bath using a variety of specialized tools to create patterns before gingerly lifting it out of the liquid—and then holding her breath. One air bubble can ruin it. “I try not to be too specific about what I want to happen,” she says of the process.

Seale is obsessive about quality control—not only of her marbled designs, but about the craftsmanship involved in creating pieces for her home collection. “Everything is made in North Carolina,” she says. “It’s world-inspired, but U.S.-made. It’s meaningful to me to be able to provide work for people here. I shook the hand that made each ‘ottomini.’”

She needed to trust her makers—this was a big undertaking. On taking a risk like this, Seale says, “I like taking big swings. I don’t want to have any regrets about what I didn’t do.”

But there’s more to it than that. Seale wants to introduce joy into people’s lives and homes. “Everything I do is to uplift,” she says, turning serious for a few seconds. “I just want people to enjoy the ride.

“I mean, it’s not like I’m saving lives,” the artist says with a laugh before saying in a mock high-brow tone, “but I am making them worth living.”

Jill Seale’s marbled home décor is available at www.jillseale.com and B.D. Jeffries. Pillows start at $250. “Ottominis” (20” cubes) start at $450. She does take commissions for bespoke work, such as lampshades, shower curtains, and anything else a client dreams up.

Photos by Justin Driscoll