Jenny Day, the Relation and Exploitation of the Natural Environment: Exploring the External and Internal Worlds through Paintings and Sculptures

words: Costina Mocanu

photos: courtesy of the artist Jenny Day

Jenny Day (b.1981) is a painter and ceramic sculptor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She earned an MFA from the University of Arizona, a BFA in Painting from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a BA in Environmental Studies from the University of California Santa Cruz, while working as a full-time as a horticulturist. Rooted in concern of environmental and personal disaster, artmaking became a creative tool for protest and resilience in the face of change or disaster. The natural environment represented by Jenny goes beyond the mesmerizing ecology – it infuses canvas and sculptures with a strong narrative that allows the viewer to apprehend the intertwined relation between human beings and nature, in a world constantly evolving. 

Although the journey to become an artist has been not linear and meant also moving and living in small cabins or out of her brown 1987 Toyota truck, Jenny appreciates the network of art lovers and familiar faces who constantly supported her: painting and ceramic mentors, family, friends, collectors, gallerists, curators, and my husband. In her words “It reminds me that my vision of the world is worth seeking and helps me to find the resources to continue making art year after year.”


Jenny, nice to meet you. Thank you for taking your time to talk with us.


LIFE & WORKS

In your artistic practice, you approach art as a tool for knowledge, through the reflections that the works can activate or elicit in the viewer. What is behind your art? How do you think the natural environment influences your art?

The natural environment is a constant in my art. I run the trails in the mountains and washes near my home, and the change in seasons, the colours and landscape, permeate the work. I have a background in Environmental Science, and my concern for the environment is highlighted in bodies of work that focus on climate change, superfund sites, and resource extraction. Over time the translation of my ideology in the work has become less present, and I now focus on how we adapt and become resilient in the face of disaster, change and impermanence. My paintings and sculptures are based on a longing for place and a connection to others. Rooted in concern of environmental and personal disaster, my work aims to dispel worry and grief with fancy and satire. I have created a new landscape populated by affable creatures in an attempt to remove some of the burdens of daily life.

Jenny Day in her studio. Photograph: courtesy of the artist.

What is your creative process and where do you draw inspiration from? 

In my work I feel like I am an explorer in a new world, another realm, more surreal and complex the deeper I step into it. The landscape dreamlike, creatures muted and adaptive, a place governed by shared intuition. Inspiration varies: I seek out images from books, my own photographs, and social media. I go down rabbit holes, listen to fiction, podcasts, NPR, read about toxic algae blooms, photo-receptors in alligator eyes, watch videos of explosions, wildfires, and floods. I also recall images from my childhood, the pattern in lace doilies from my grandmother’s house, cartoons I watched in the 80’s. My Little Pony, for example. I am always surprised what resurfaces in my work.

What do you wish that the audiences take away from your art? 

Ideally the work provokes feeling and memory, is in some way transformative and asks the viewer to question the real versus the imagined. 

What mediums and tools do you work with? 

My paintings are acrylic and mixed media on canvas. I use glitter, coloured pencil, paint pen, enamel, spray paint, highlighter, and collage. Anything that translates a mark. My sculptures are stoneware, fired from Cone 6 to Cone 20, with additions of paint, metal, rhinestones, and found objects. I primarily use hand-building techniques, coils, slabs, pinch pots, and moulds. 

How you define yourself as an artist? Also, how would you describe your artworks in three words?

I see myself as an image and object maker, a producer. I am flooded with ideas, usually overwhelmed. I make notes and thumbnail sketches to keep track of it all. I am not always sure where the work is going to go but feel a need to honour the images I envision. My work is whimsical, humorous, and cautionary. 

Please tell us about your future projects and beyond. Do you have a narrative or common theme in the solo exhibition at Karlsruhe Art Fair (2022)? 

My paintings and sculptures will be shown at the Cologne Art Fair in April 2022 with Galerie Bengelstrater as well as in upcoming solo shows in July at their gallery in Düsseldorf and at Karlsruhe Art Fair 2022. This new work delves into an impermanent dreamscape, an imagined scenography shaped by child-like illusion. My past work pursued a sense of place infused with environmentalism. Now the paintings and sculptures connect with our need for myth and magic while incapsulating our relationship to land and the exploitation of the environment. The work is not just coping with the world but refashioning it. In this parallel universe, a pearlescent unicorn emerges from a butterfly laden backpack, a gold keyed typewriter is a resting place for a multi-coloured Gila monster, and a wild cat lovingly paws a pink sky obliterated with billboards.

I am scheduled to showcase my work with William Havu Gallery in Denver, Colorado in January 2023, install a large exhibition of new ceramics and paintings at Alabama Contemporary in Mobile, Alabama in December 2023 and exhibit with Jonathan Ferrara Gallery in New Orleans, Louisiana in April 2024. We will see what happens beyond that, I have many applications out for group exhibitions, artist residencies, and grants.

STUDIO

How does your studio and creative process look like? 

My studio occupies a wing of my house, painting upstairs and ceramics below, a kitchen in between. This is my first studio with large windows and a view. The places I work in unintentionally inform my paintings. When I lived in South Florida and ran the trails in the swamps, my paintings were dominated by green and pink. In Alaska, living in a small cabin, the work was narrative, internal, the landscape covered in snow. In Santa Fe my studio has an expansive view, all clouds, sky, and far off mountains. Since moving to New Mexico my work flirts with the horizon line, the perspective off-level, distant objects skewed. 

I begin with a collage that I manipulate to use as a reference for a painting. Eventually I abandon the collage and work on the painting as its own object, shaped by composition and form, colour and narrative. With my ceramics, I create a series of rough sketches, then begin to build the work. I photograph the sculptures, and paint over the images, testing out ideas for glazes. Approaching ceramics with a painting background, surface is as important as the form itself.

CLOSE-UP: ‘Not Mirrors, Portals’ (2021)

What is the narrative of ‘Not Mirrors, Portals’ and why this title? Read the artist’s statement.

I realized I did not just want to create a reflection of the world, but an entrance, a portal into a new landscape; expansive, adaptive, and resilient. In past work I recreated place and infused it with memory; a snowy forest or vast horizon line overshadowed by environmental damage and marked by abstraction.

Burden, 2021, collection: Not Mirrors, Portals

After a tumultuous year, I find myself dreaming of the apocalyptic, four horsemen, frogs falling from the sky, the sea parting in triumphant arcs. In this work memory is permeated with nostalgia to the point of corruption. A landscape singed and burning, animals fleeing, soaring and independent, their entities barely tethered to the underlying structures. A rabbit crushes blistered tulips and flamingos erupt into rainbow-drenched lily pads. The sentiment overripe and romanticized, useless. Flowers grow into fur, fires emerge in snow, a grotesque glimpse into a world gone wrong grows into a leaping, looming celebration. In this place, a longing for before still exists, addictive and powerful. Time slows to a halt. The moment before a house explodes frozen as a coyote bound over a mirage, squirrels fall through the sky and ships collide, pandas forage for food in a landscape as red as a new planet, a herculean effort to survive no matter what it takes. Movement begins in and transcends the current chaos and devolution.  

This other world ‘Not a Mirror but a Portal’. Resilience evolved, mutated. Here, in this made-up place, the most horrendous things are overcome. Grief is met with bejewelled stallions, beat up trucks tear through the sky into far off sunsets, and rams pound information back together, bit by bit, new, ancient, heroic. The unfathomable transforms into something reborn, something hopeful. 

Almost all your artworks seem to be touched by a critical perspective of memory and the power of the Anthropocene over the environment. What kind of memory does your work speak of? It is more linked to an external or inner world? How do you relate this to our present?  

There are specific memories I draw from to create my work, tree-sitting, road trips across the United States and Canada, watching the Aurora Borealis in our driveway in Alaska, but also a connection I have always felt to nature. A reverence for ecological systems and something greater than ourselves. The artwork walks the line between the external and internal worlds, reflections not only distorted but a completely different place. Animal’s leap and loom in toxic combinations of fur and feathers. The work questions a damaged landscape, pulled apart, puzzled over, persevering with a litany of scars. 

QUICK & FUN

What smell reminds you of your childhood? 

There are several different smells that I think of. Old wood and the ocean. We had a wooden sailboat growing up in Santa Barbara, California that I would help work on. Dried grass. When I was in high school, we moved to the foothills of the Sierras and the grass would turn brown and sweet smelling in the summer. One of my favourite places to go when I was little was bookstores, and the smell of books and paper always feel inviting.

What is most exciting in contemporary art?

Right now, I am inspired by the large ceramic installations by Francesca Dimattio and Linda Sormin, the build-up of texture and surface in the sculptures of Anthony Sonnenberg and Sharif Farrag, I love the myths and stories in the paintings by Annie Lapin, Emma Webstah, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Robin Frances Williams, and Matt Hansel. It feels like we are in a time when all options are available to artists, moving across disciplines, merging installation, performance, video, and historical techniques in painting and traditional craft. It is an exciting time to be an artist.

What is the title of the book on your bedside table?

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn, and A Promised Land by Barack Obama.

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