Meet the Artist: Jen Whitten
Tell us about yourself and your work.
I was born in New York in 1984 and shortly after completing my BFA at Washington University in St. Louis in 2008, I met my future (Aussie) husband at Disney World. Yup, Disney World. I was feeling restless and gutsy, especially in the face of graduating with a Fine Art Degree at the onset of the GFC, so I took a deep breath and moved to Australia. Which, as it turns out, was an awesome decision. After painting in isolation in a garden shed for a year or two, I decided to go back to school to get my Masters degree from the Victorian College of the Arts. The first year was really rough and I decided to take a year off to collect my thoughts so I could hit the ground running the following year. In the interim, I travelled to Italy and came across a collection of reverse-glass paintings at the Villa Balbianello; I fell in love with them and this was the start of my current practice. My painting became more sculptural, more ambitious—incorporating everything from steel, to video, to live music, my goal was to free my painting from its 2D confines, but still preserve its seduction and sincerity. My personal breakthrough was rewarded—I was the recipient of the Athenaeum Club Visual Arts Research Award (VCA’s most prestigious honour, worth $15,000). Since graduating, my work has been exhibited at a number of galleries and ARIs and I did my first radio interview (Triple R). I also moved into the Abbotsford Convent as a permanent tenant, where I conduct my practice and teach painting and drawing. It’s been a hell of a ride so far!
Where is your favourite place to live/work/be?
The Abbotsford Convent (my studio).
What were some of the most difficult things about breaking into the creative industry as an artist? What is something you know now that you wish you knew in the beginning of your career?
I think the most difficult thing about signing up for a life in the creative industry is the crippling self-doubt. It’s endemic. I’ve found the best way to tackle it is to get involved—meet other artists, go to exhibitions, travel to absorb as much art as you can, say yes when asked to participate. You never know who you might meet, or what conversation you might have that could spawn an entirely new body of work. This process takes you out of your own head.
I was so absorbed in my work at the beginning of my career—and so serious! While it’s great to be disciplined and focused, I wish I had known then that the aforementioned activities are as much a part of a healthy practice as the hard work. I wish I had given myself permission then, but I’m making up for it now.
When you start a project, what MUST you have in order to begin?
Tunes. Dog (Vixen). Discipline.
What’s the worst advice you’ve ever received?
A professor in undergrad told me that I should give up painting and pursue acting, that I didn’t have “it” in painting…I’d like to thank him publicly for pissing me off; wish he could see me now!
If you weren’t an artist, what would you want to be?
Early on, I did have the opportunity to consider this question, when I thought it would be a good idea to study medicine. After a miserable year in premed, I stopped denying and admitted to myself that I was made to do art. Based on empirical evidence, there is just nothing else I want to be!
What’s one thing you would change about the world?
Dogs would be allowed everywhere their humans are.
What was the most meaningful piece of work that you’ve done?
Funnily enough, the most meaningful work I’ve produced was not a painting, but a music score I composed for cello…For the majority of my practice, I’ve investigated the notions of absence and loss, and more recently time (chronophobia, the 4th dimension, etc.). The catalyst for this interest was my father’s suicide when I was 18. After my rough start at the VCA, I thought a lot about why there was a disconnect between my audience and the work and realised that the paintings I was making were too cryptic. They danced around the subject but never really tackled it head-on. So I decided to make a work specifically about the trauma. I contacted the police department that was involved with the scene and was able to access the four police reports written by the officers who witnessed my father’s death. I found a computer program that translates text into music by means of a John Cage algorithm and input the reports into that program. The result was a suite for cello in four movements that I’ve had performed live on a few occasions. I called it “Fermata”. This work was important to me on many levels, but creatively, it freed me from a subject that I have been bound to for years. I feel like I’ve gotten to the stage where I can move on from that specific experience and explore other ideas and iterations of these concepts I’m interested in.
What projects are in the works for 2017?
2017 is an extremely busy year for me! Aside from two solo shows and The Other Art Fair, I’m heading to the States for a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. Last November, I was a featured artist in the Open Spaces Art Trail at the Abbotsford Convent and produced a series of glass paintings with hand-etched surfaces. I’d like to explore the etching further, as well as the use of coloured glass and more complicated combinations of glass and steel.
The Other Art Fair opens this weekend, 4 - 7 May at The Facility in Kensington. Get more info here.
--- Words: Julia HowlandImages: Courtesy of the gallery/artist.