Spotlight: Jill Jensen, Fiber and Mixed Media Artist
From engineer to artist, Jill Jensen’s work has evolved to adapt to lifestyle changes as well as to satisfy her natural curiosity. She combines the strong graphic quality of printmaking with the intuitive flow of hand-painted fabric to create a body of work that captures the imagination.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I have loved art ever since I was a small child. I did not major in art because I am a very practical person and art did not seem like a sensible choice. Instead my undergraduate degree is in chemistry and my masters degree is in engineering.
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I was an engineer for 3 years and very happily gave it up to start my art career when my husband and I started our family. This was the path that I had always dreamed of.
How does your environment influence your creativity?
I find that geography does effect my work. When we lived outside of Pittsburgh, I was known as a still life artist working mainly in color pencils and pastels.
When we moved to Virginia, my subject matter and media changed. My paintings and drawings became landscape oriented, and I pursued making 3-dimensional hand made paper. It was after moving to Virginia that I took a workshop and discovered the world of surface design and fiber art.
Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
I do have several recurring themes in my work. The natural world is the focus of much of my work. This takes the form of landscapes and images of flora and fauna.
The other source of inspiration is literature and prayers. In particular the “Canticle of Creation” by St. Francis of Assisi has inspired multiple series of work. I have created images in cast paper as well as woodcuts on paper and two series in fiber.
Is there an element of your art you enjoy working with most? Why?
I enjoy combining the bold imagery you get from relief prints with brilliant color from paint. The combination of color with graphic lines really sings to me.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I would say that I am both a planner and an improviser. When designing a printing plate, I only do an outline image. All of the detail is provided when I take the gouge to the plate.
I don’t want to preplan all of the image because the fun part is seeing how the image evolves. With painting I also just do a minimal sketch and then forge ahead with applying color as I become immersed in the image.
How do you stay organized when working with multiple design ideas and processes?
I usually work on one image or piece at a time. When I do work on multiple design ideas, I get the basic concept worked out and then move on to the next one. Once the entire series of ideas is worked out then I go back and work on one idea at a time.
You use a variety of techniques and media to create your work. What drives your decision to use a particular medium to convey your message for a piece?
That is fairly easy for me. I tend to use relief printing (linocuts and woodcuts) to create the image. Once the plate has been carved and printed, I move on to the addition of color and if it is on fabric, I then stitch to add texture.
How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?
In between projects I try to get everything back into its proper place because while I am heavily involved in the process, it can look like a bomb has gone off. I paint my fabrics and keep them sorted in clear boxes sorted by color and I have my threads sorted by color as well.
One part of my studio is devoted to design and sewing. The other part is where I do all of my fabric painting and carving and printing linocuts and woodcuts. I try to maintain some semblance of order with the supplies and tools for each of the types of work I do. Chaos reigns for a while and then I try to restore order before starting the next phase of work.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
In the sewing area, it would be my sewing machine and design wall. I have covered rigid insulation with fabric so that I can pin up fabrics to try out various design compositions. In my painting studio, it would be the three movable tables that I can use separately or put together to make a 4 foot by 8 foot work surface.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I try to maintain a daily drawing habit. I don’t necessarily use these images as starting points for my work. It is a way to keep my eye and hand skills.
I have been making small weekly quilts for 20 years. This is a form of journaling for me. The imagery might be related to something that happened during the course of the week or it could be an experiment in color combinations or new techniques.
I do journal on the back side of the work about what has happened in my life that week. Each quilt is numbered and dated. I exhibit these pieces but they are not for sale and they are not assembled into large works. Beginning in 2017, I changed the format for my weekly work. Now it is a long time line. The finished year ends up being about 9 inches wide by 25 feet long. The journaling, numbering and dating of each week’s effort continues.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I usually listen to classical or new age music (no words) when I am painting or working on making a new printing plate design. When I am carving a plate, I frequently have the TV on for distraction. When sewing it can be anything (music, TV or silence).
Which artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?
I don’t have any particular favorite artists. I love looking at what printmakers are doing, so I follow some on Instagram. When I go to museums, I tend to head to the African, Asian and Oceanic art departments. I think the way that some of these cultures stylize their work and emphasize a bold graphic look is what appeals to me.
Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and how did you get past them?
One challenging piece for me was a commission for the chapel at the University of Lynchburg. It was very different to present ideas to a committee and get them approved instead of strictly working alone.
The other challenge was scale. The piece is 14 feet tall and 7 feet wide. I had never made anything that large before or since. Fully committing myself to the concept and focusing on one step at a time helped – how do I paint and print enough fabric, how will I view the piece as I design and stitch together the fabric to make the overall design, how will I lay out the three layers to make the quilt, how will I stitch together the layers to form the final piece?
I tried to think about one step at a time. In order to view the work in progress, I attached it to a wall in my studio (only 8 feet tall) and let in go onto the floor. I would stand on a ladder to try and get a feel for what the piece looked like. As each step was finished I brainstormed how to complete the next step.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website is www.jilljensenart.com. I would like people to see the types of work that I do. I have the images divided by subject matter which relates to my sources of inspiration.
How has your creativity evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new media/kinds of work/ways of working?
I started as a painter and I have explored many media over the years. Sometimes the evolution has been triggered by curiosity and other times it involves lifestyle changes.
For example, I realized that when you have a baby, you need to be able to stop working quickly to tend to their needs. If you are painting that means you should clean your brushes so they don’t get ruined. So I switched to pastels, because you could just put the pastel down and quickly leave your work area. Pastels create dust, which can be toxic. I didn’t want to breathe pastel dust while I was pregnant with my second child, so I switched to color pencils.
Papermaking came into play when I saw an exhibit in the Toronto Science Museum about how to make paper. Next up was printmaking. I like the bold imagery of relief printing and the fact that you can make multiples.
The final step was seeing a surface design class at Arrowmont School for Arts and Crafts. I decided that I would take that workshop if the instructor, Elizabeth Busch, taught it again. She did, and that started me on the path of fiber art. I now combine my drawing, printmaking and painting into my artwork. It is a wonderful way to combine so many of my interests into one piece of work.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think it is a combination of both. It also depends on how you define creativity. Some people are incredibly creative in cooking or gardening and don’t have any skill or desire to pursue the arts.
Another area of creativity is engineering and the sciences. I think that if you have an area where you want to express your creativity, you work at it and your skills improve. The more you flex those skills it feeds into your work and you see even more possibilities.
How can people overcome the challenges they feel to their creative ability?
One of the main things I tell my students is that you must give yourself the freedom to fail so that you will eventually succeed. If you think you need to create something wonderful the first time then you are probably doomed.
I ask people if they could read a book the first time they saw one or did they start with picture books, then simple stories before arriving at chapter books. Or riding a bike or skateboard. I remind them that it took time and practice to develop those skills and that is the same thing with cultivating creativity and making art.
Interview with Jill Jensen posted August 2020
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