Jenn Smith is an artist who lives and works in Chicago. She recently received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do. I’ve lived in Chicago for several years, but I’m originally from a small town in central Illinois. I was raised evangelical Christian, and we believed in the rapture, speaking in tongues, and having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I am no longer a believer, but many of the ideas and images from my childhood, divorced from their original function in my life, continue to fascinate me. As an artist, my work is heavily influenced by these ideas. I make paintings, drawings, and ceramics, and I also have an obsessive image collection/research practice, gathering images from Christian books, websites, and educational materials.
What artists are you interested in right now? I’ve been looking at Sienese paintings lately, specifically a series of five small panels at the Art Institute of Chicago by Giovanni di Paolo that tell the story of John the Baptist. There is this flat, warped sense of space, architecture with impossible angles, and small random details like a leopard chained to a building for no reason. It’s like looking at a picture book from another planet. I am always interested in outsider art, especially Joseph Yoakum, William Hawkins, and Forrest Bess. The Joseph Yoakum room at the Roger Brown study collection is an incredible hidden gem. As far as current artists go, Alex Bradley Cohen, Shara Hughes, and Keltie Ferris are a few who are always on my radar. It’s exciting to watch their work develop. There are many, many more, but that’s a start.
What are some recent, upcoming or current projects you are working on? I’ve been preparing for a two person show with Bailey Sciezka at Cornerstore in Chicago. It opens August 13. And I just put together a show called 51 Books About Christian Puppetry at the Flaxman Library, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The show is literally 51 books about Christian puppetry, which is every book I was able to find on the subject and request through interlibrary loan. I was on a Christian puppet ministry team when I was a kid, and I often find myself compelled to do “research” on things I remember from my past. I was surprised there were so many books on the subject, and I thought it would be interesting to put them all together for people to see. It will be on view through July 29.
What is your snack/beverage of choice when working in your studio? It gets hot in my studio during the summer, so I’ve been drinking a lot of cold water and iced coffee. When people come to visit, I try to have beer and some kind of delicious cookies or snacks to share with them.
What materials do you use in your work and what is your process like? I’m working primarily with oil paint right now, on canvas that I gesso and sand until it is smooth, almost like white leather. This takes a lot of time, but it is nice to have a mindless, repetitive task in the studio if I need to space out for a while. I do a lot of iPad drawings, sometimes as studies for paintings but also just for their own sake. I experimented with ceramics in grad school, and I’d like to get back to it eventually. But yeah most of my energy goes to painting, which is my first love, and it is a constant source of excitement and struggle and discovery for me.
How did your interest in art begin? My mom likes to paint and make things, so I think maybe it started with her. She was really happy when I learned to knit. She knits dishcloths with cotton yarn that are beautiful and utilitarian and perfectly square. Mine were always diamond shaped and I could never figure out why. I still have some of mine and some of hers, but I don’t knit anymore.
How has Instagram influenced your practice? I have discovered many artists via Instagram. I love being able to comment on a post of an artist I admire and have them actually respond. I do a lot of iPad drawings and I have been trying to figure out if I want to print them on paper, or fabric, or what. So for now I just post them on Instagram and actually I think that’s a pretty good place for them to live.
What’s your favorite thing about your city? 12th street beach in the summer, and Garfield Park Conservatory in the winter.
What do you do when you’re not working on art? I like going to museums and galleries, and visiting people’s studios. I read books, and watch a lot of movies, especially documentaries. And since I just finished grad school and don’t have a job yet, I’m spending a lot of time trying to find one.
Can you share one of the best or worst reactions you have gotten as a result of your work? For me, the best was Gaylen Gerber (whom I deeply admire) saying my paintings were “philosophy in cartoon pants”. I was like ooh let me write that down!