Capturing the Unseen through Art: Interview with visual artist, Jennifer Cronin

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I’m excited to bring you the second in a series of interviews with creative artists of all stages and disciplines.  

Jennifer Cronin is a Chicago-based artist, born and raised in Oak Lawn, Illinois. She holds a dual BFA in painting and art education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, She also studied painting at Camberwell College of Art in London.  Jennifer has exhibited widely in the Chicago area, as well as nationally and internationally. She is represented by The Elephant Room Gallery. From mining inner psychology to highlighting income inequality, Jennifer’s work explores what it means to be human.

During your presentation at Vermont Studio Center, I was struck by the images of foreclosed and abandoned buildings in Chicago (What was Once a Home). You said this experience led to an interest in disappearing landscapes and places in transition. Can you talk more about the evolution of this interest and where it has taken you?

For years, I was a figurative artist interested in making work about imagination amidst a domestic backdrop.  My work began to change when I began a series called “Customer Service,” in which I painted portraits of my fellow customer service workers.  In this series, I began to realize how powerful it could be to use my work to document the world around me. 

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When I embarked on creating the series What was Once a Home, I was interested in telling the story of these buildings, in the same way a portrait tells us something about the sitter.  At the same time, I wanted to tell a larger story of the society that we live in and the harsh economic inequality that is at the heart of our capitalist system.  I think it was only in the act of creating this work that I felt the importance of documenting these spaces that were quickly being demolished. This interest carried over as I worked on my most recent series “Seen and Unseen,” which reflects upon the climate crisis and changing landscape in Newtok, Alaska.

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The theme of your current exhibit, “Seen and Unseen”,  resonates with me. In writing fiction, a writer’s task is uncover hidden truths, to explore what is below the surface.  Do you see such a connection in your art work?

Yes, I do.  I began exploring this concept in my early figurative work.  When I was in college, I enjoyed making work that was about psychology and what lies beneath the surface of everyday life.  This has carried through to my most recent series, which at first appears to depict a quiet landscape, but at its core is a sense of grief for the changing landscapes of our time. 

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To be truly seen by another human being is a profound experience yet also creates vulnerability.  What do you want your audience to see when they view your paintings of the eroding landscape of Newtok, Alaska?

When viewing Seen and Unseen, I want individuals to be pulled into a space that is beautiful and serene, remote and disconnected.  I want to create a calm and meditative space in which people can contemplate the quietly unfolding crisis taking place in Newtok.  Newtok is a remote Alaska Native village that is eroding dramatically due to the climate crisis.  A combination of thawing permafrost, low levels of sea ice, and strong storms are causing the footprint of Newtok to disappear at an alarming rate.  Some scientists have predicted that in just a few years, Newtok will be gone.  “Seen and Unseen” illustrates a landscape that is in flux, about to disappear as a result of climate change.  Through this work, I hope that viewers can connect with the story of climate change in Newtok on an emotional level. Ultimately, I hope that this can lead to conversations, action, and change. 

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You described the beauty of Lake Michigan as “meditative”.  I think many of us can relate to that feeling around a body of water. Tell us how this contemplative activity led to your Drifting series of paintings?

As a Chicago dweller, I find much peace in the beauty of Lake Michigan.  Prior to my trip to Alaska in June of 2016, I was tasked with creating two paintings for a group show in Italy curated by Sergio Gomez.  I was really excited about the project, but I felt lost about what to create.  All I could think about was my upcoming trip to Alaska, and I wanted to make something that felt connected to what I was about to do. 

I brought my camera to the lakefront, desperately looking for something to photograph.  After half giving up, I found myself sitting at the edge of the water, staring at it and becoming lost in it.  Once in a while, a floating piece of detritus would pass and remind me of where I was.  I thought about where I was and the trip that I was about to take.  I was scared, but the water soothed me.  After staring at the water for a while, I snapped some photos of the water’s surface, trying to capture what I was seeing and how it made me feel.  Those photos became my reference images for the Drifting series. 

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When did your artistic interest and talent emerge?  What were your early influences?

Like most kids, I really enjoyed art.  I was also very lucky to be surrounded by a team of some of the most creative people around:  my siblings.  Growing up, I was a part of a newspaper, an Olympic sports team, a radio station, an art showcase, a theater troupe, and numerous other ventures spearheaded by my siblings.  I was lucky to be a part of this creative media group, with a patient viewership of two.  I was also lucky to have a grandmother who was an art teacher and artist in her own right, who always placed art supplies in front of any child who would visit her, myself included.

Whether a song writer, novelist, or painter, seasoned artists often have mixed feeling about their early work. You are a young artist. How do you feel about your earlier work? 

I like my early work because it represents where I was at a unique moment in my past.  I enjoy thinking about the larger picture of my work and the thread that weaves everything together.  Even though my current work is much different than my early work, there are still similar undercurrents such as an interest in psychology, science, and the marks that humans are making on this world.

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 How much of visual art can be taught?  What would you recommend for adults who would like to develop skills in drawing or painting but feel they have no aptitude?

Honestly, I believe that visual art can be taught and learned.  Art can feel so personal, and I think that many students get turned off because they compare themselves with others and feel that they are not good enough.  Or perhaps they have a teacher who says something crushing and makes them feel that they are not good enough.  For some people, this sense of not being good enough can suck the joy from making art.  For those interested in dabbling or developing an artistic practice, I would recommend trying not to let those feelings take over, and instead, trying to pursue art as a means of feeling joy, exploration, self-fulfillment, or any of the other yummy feelings that come from producing art.    

How did you come to choose the mediums for your artwork?  Do you see this changing or expanding in the future?

Oil paint is my home base.  For years, my work felt most appropriate taking the form of large scale oil paintings.  I enjoyed painting the figure close to life size.  I didn’t think much about it for a long time until I started  What was Once a Home–the series of small drawings of foreclosed homes done in carbon pencil on toned paper.  I had never worked with this medium or paper, but I  wanted these pieces to be more intimate in scale with an ephemeral quality, while also capturing the vivid details of the scene.  After doing this, I became more comfortable with shifting my medium. While working on my latest series, I learned how to screen print and decided to incorporate that into the series. 

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Any tips for productivity?

Time management is really difficult as an artist, especially when having to juggle other unrelated jobs.  Waking up early and having positive morning habits in place really changed things for me, and I’m just now trying to pick those habits and routines back up again. 

One really helpful tool that I used as I prepared for a show earlier this year was a calendar that I had posted to my studio door.  Every day that I painted, I added a sticker to the calendar.  On days that I painted for a longer duration, I added a sticker with a greater degree of flair.  It sounds silly, but it made me feel good to see all of the stickers pile up. 

From where do you draw inspiration when the well is dry?

When I’m feeling uninspired, I always find that some time in nature really helps.  Being in Chicago, it can feel like nature doesn’t even exist, but a trip to the lakefront always changes that and gives me a sense of transcendence.  Lately, I haven’t been having problems with the well running dry.  I feel like I come upon ideas left and right, but sometimes it’s hard to know which idea to run with.  For my next project, I’m going to try to work on the idea that is giving me the most joy to think about.

My impression of our time together is that you are a person of warmth, openness, and contentment. Would you agree? Where do you see yourself on the spectrum of “artistic temperament”?  How does your temperament affect your work and creativity?

Spending the past 14 years working in customer service has definitely taught me the importance of having a kind demeanor and allowing those around me to feel heard.  Additionally, I think all of those years in customer service have given me a sense of patience and humility that I’ve carried with me.  Similar to working in customer service, I think that the work of being an artist is uniquely challenging. 

The act of making artwork is incredibly vulnerable.  You put the deepest parts of yourself out there, and it may be met with distaste or total indifference.  And once you’ve finished, you have to do it again, over and over, which requires a lot of patience and grit.  It’s a long way of saying that I don’t know about a spectrum of artistic temperament, but to me it seems that patience and the ability to withstand discomfort are key personality requirements as an artist.

I’ve found the people in Chicago to be incredibly friendly. What is your experience of the Chicago art scene?

I find the Chicago art scene to be warm and welcoming.  The community that I’m a part of is one that believes a rising tide will lift all ships.  I am always blown away by the kindness and generosity that I see demonstrated among fellow artists.  At the same time, I think that there are different bubbles of art communities in Chicago that don’t often intersect. 

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Which art museums/galleries—perhaps lesser known– do you recommend?

Well, it may be self-indulgent to talk about the gallery that I work with, but I’m going for it.  About nine years ago, I started showing art at Elephant Room Gallery in Chicago.  It is a small storefront gallery in the South Loop owned by Kimberly and James Atwood.  Kimberly is the curator and she shows work by local emerging artists who often go on to gain great notoriety.  I have found a beautiful community in the artists and patrons that the gallery attracts, and I think the warmth, kindness, and generosity of Kim and James shines through every show that they put on.

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How can we become more creative in our everyday lives, whether or not we see ourselves as artistic?

I believe that every human is creative in one’s own way, no matter the career or life path.  Creativity has nothing to do with how well one can draw or play an instrument.  I believe that creativity and play are two sides of the same coin, and if we want to be more creative, we have to allow ourselves to have more fun. 

I’m all for having more play in our lives. Thank you, Jennifer for sharing your artwork and creative process. 

You can see more of Jennifer Cronin’s paintings on her website. 

Artist portrait photographed by Kimberly Leja Atwood