Kaleidoscopic Cave

a Profile of Jen Shepard, By Kelly McCafferty

Mention Jen Shepard’s name to a group of Brooklyn artists and they will undoubtedly shower her with praises. Seriously, try it.  “Jen is so authentic,” “She is the hardest working artist I know,” “Jen is totally real,” “Her laugh is infectious,” “Jen is so cool.”

Jen actually IS totally cool and authentic.  Her East Texas attitude is totally tell-it-like-it-is.  I mean, she has a three-legged cat, how can you be more badass?  This girl has grit.  AND she works full-time as a graphic designer, but still manages to work harder at her art career than ½ the artists I know (sorry, guys!)  She makes the rounds to go to people’s openings and is completely invested in Bushwick as a culture, a scene and as a community.  I would even go so far to say that she and her work totally embody the spirit of Bushwick—hardworking industrialism meets a fun colorful sense of play. 

I met Jen when we were both in a group show at (the now shuttered) Loft 594 in Bushwick—I think it was the fall of 2013.  Our paths crossed again at a mutual friend’s party earlier this year and I couldn’t pass up the chance to ask to see her studio and write about her work.  I intuitively knew that we would have a very real and dynamic conversation.

I visited Jen Shepard’s Bushwick studio at the end of April 2015.  Over the course of our conversation, Jen and I bonded over our mutual past-lives working for Whole Foods Market, love of tarot cards and bright colors. 

Before Jen and I met up, I emailed her to see if she had any suggestions of articles, files, books, etc for me to check out so that I could get into her head before our studio visit.  Jen sent one of the coolest lists ever!  Not only was it massive but it was also seriously amazing.  Some of Jen’s fascinations include: other dimensions, black holes, synchronicity, the I Ching, Tarot Cards, Meditation, Spiritualism and Automatism.   

Usually when I enter a studio for the first time, I have myself a look around and I take everything in.  I look at what is organized, what is messy and where the work is in relation to the materials.  I like to imagine that artist in there working alone and begin to understand how they inhabit and own that space. 

Entering Jen’s space was overwhelming, and I mean that in the best way possible.  To say Jen owns her space is an understatement—she dominates it.  Her studio is a small but lovely space—with an exposed brick wall and two windows letting in natural light.  The space is long and thin. And she has divided it into a work area, a display area and a storage area---but the divisions aren’t necessarily concrete.  There is a lot of work in here and the work has found it’s own place wherever it sees fit. 

You know when you see someone who is hitting her stride?  That is how I am feeling about Jen.  In the past she was working mainly on canvas and paper, but recently she transitioned into making sculptural forms.  Her newer sculptures take up the majority of the space in the studio, and perhaps her mental focus as well.  Made from gypsum, plaster and wood they become multi-dimensional surfaces for her fast and sometimes drippy acrylic, spray paint and graphite marks.  The studio as a kaleidoscopic cave metaphor is coming on strong here, as stalactites of work are clinging to the walls and stalagmites are nestled together on the floor.

The work is both wacky and serious.  It has a strong presence and the forms are often clunky, sharp, scratchy and aggressive. The colors balance out the work, bringing out levels of sophistication and playfulness. I think after getting a glimpse of Jen’s brain through the list she sent me and now getting a glimpse of her studio, I can safely say that she likes to physically and mentally be stimulated by a variety of sources. 

After taking in the sights, I find a seat and I’m ready to begin.  I start by asking Jen about the history of her studio in New York.  Jen tells me that she has been in the space for eight months--she moved in September to this building.  Before that she had been in the 1717 Troutman Building for a year and a half.  I ask her what work she had in the show we were in together in 2013.  The show was called Spin! Art? and it was curated by Will Hutnick.  I remember that it was definitely 2D work—on paper?  And she says, yes that it was a collage with white house paint and graphite.  She says that it seems like a different person made that work, and laughs.  Since she has had her own studio, she has made a “shit ton” of work.  I laugh.  I know all about that.

I’m trying to piece together Jen’s history and so I ask her the inevitable two artists hanging out for the first time question, “Where did you go to school?”  And she tells me that she got her MFA from UT Tyler in Texas a while ago and also got an MS in Communications Design from Pratt in 2012. 

She moved from Texas to NYC in 2009, and straight into a bad economy.  She began temping for $12/hour and was working two jobs.  Previously in Texas, she had worked for Whole Foods Market and moved to Dallas as a cashier for the company.  She then landed the ultimate most-coveted WFM position of chalkboard artist and she loved it and it was fun for her.  She taught herself design and illustrator.  So, fast forward to 2009, she had just started living in NYC and she was walking around Clinton Hill trying to find Apple Art Supplies.  And she finds this weird little card table in the trash near Pratt.  She suddenly gets this “wild haired idea” that she wants to go to Pratt, so she applies and gets in.

After she graduated Pratt, she was teaching design at Pratt and BMCC, and making and showing her own artwork.  She realized that teaching was not sustainable for her and that she couldn’t live in NYC teaching design.  So she began to work for Saatchi & Saatchi NY, which is an ad agency in Manhattan.  She tells me that she currently works there full-time as a designer.  She works on banners and websites and it is a creative and fun environment of like-minded artists.

I ask her about Texas and she tells me she grew up in East Texas within the Bible belt, a small town of 70,000 people called Longview.  Longview, Texas is two hours from Dallas and she would visit Dallas to go to the city.  She describes Longview as a small working class town, kind of suburban, kind of country.  As a kid they nicknamed it Wrongview and Lameview and there was a local band that went by the name of Mala Vista, which means Badview in Spanish.  She tells me that she visits around once a year and some of her best friends still live there.

I ask her about her personal history with art and she says that she always, always made art.  That it made her special as a kid and her mom supported it.  In middle school she was into drama and acting.  She was a serious child and had career aspirations.  But she also wanted to fit in, so at some point in middle school she renounced art because an anonymous adult said, “artists don’t make any money.”

In high school she became awakened by the music of Nirvana and it was through listening and observing Kurt Cobain that she began to revisit art.  She tells me that Kurt Cobain was a Renaissance man, an artist, and he taught her that it was OK to be an artist and that you could be more than one thing at once.  When she was a senior in high school, Jen had a three-hour period devoted to art and she flourished.

But it was in her 20s that she began to get confused.  She started college at the University of North Texas, in Denton.  The program and the school itself were massive.  There were 1800 students in Painting and Drawing.  She felt like a number.  But she did get a strong background in basic drawing skills.  She learned so many habits at UNT that she still hangs on to—like for example she always stands when she paints or draws.

So after a little while at UNT, she decided she wanted to transfer.  Her boyfriend at the time wanted to move and she was used to a small high school and wanted to return to that kind of environment.  So she transferred to St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and finished her Bachelor’s degree there.

From there, Jen and I begin to talk about her relationship with New York City, which is a topic that I never tire of asking people about.  Jen begins to open up to me about Bushwick.  She tells me living in Bushwick is like her MFA version 2.0—in terms of having a broad community and a lot of dialogue with different artists.  She says that her work has changed a lot since she moved to NYC in 2009.  She has let herself free up and given herself more license and a lot of that she credits to Bushwick and the experimental community there.  She says that she actually never wanted to live in NYC.  And I laugh.  When she was younger, strangers would tell her that she had to go to New York and she would respond, “No, I don’t.”  I laugh at this—for multiple reasons, but mostly because Jen is just plain sassy.

Her art class visited NYC when she was 18 and she thought it was crowded, ugly, gross and all the people were stupid and pretentious.  She was like, “No.”  One of her college professors told her, “You gotta go to New York.”  Jen tells me, “New York scared the shit outta me.”

When she was in her MFA at Tyler, she took a personal research trip visit to NYC.  She visited the galleries in Chelsea and attended MoMA Ps1’s Warm Up.  Her best friend was living in Prospect Heights Brooklyn and had a Halloween party where she met some students from SVA who then took her to an open studio party at 5 Points.  There was so much energy in the city and she began at that point to want to be here.  She was meeting artists and realized they weren’t pretentious like she thought they would be and also realized that there was a lot more to the city than she previously thought.

I have to say Jen’s forthright way of telling me her personal history is honest and hilarious and I am enjoying hearing about her harrowed relationship with NYC.  Everyone has their NYC story and they are always damn good.

At this point, we begin to start talking about the work and I ask how she came to the newer sculptural forms.  She tells me the first one was made when she was working in her Troutman studio and it was made of paper.  It began with the obsession of making a kite.  The sculptures are a piecing together for her, and her decision making process comes from necessity.  She doesn’t always have the appropriate tools.  She uses a jigsaw to cut out the wood pieces. 

The shapes themselves are stream-of-consciousness, she tells me.  They are mountain structures, but they are non-specific.  All of her new work is hugging painting/sculpture.  She tells me that there are a lot of happy accidents and that her material explorations don’t always work.  Some are gypsum, some are wood, but they are all experimental and sometimes they fail.  These shapes are puzzle pieces, shark teeth, icing, a dinosaur’s spine.  They are true vignettes—there is a different drawing/mark-making on every shape.  They are separate but inter-related worlds.

It is here that Jen begins to talk about the mysteries of the universe and her relationship with them.  She tells me about matter, dark matter and anti-matter and describes the space in between as God.  Science and religion aren’t mutually exclusive for her; there is not a set dogma of what she believes.  She is attracted to the relationship between psychology and spiritualism.  She loves automatic writing and drawing and describes it as “spirits coming through scribbling.”  Scribbling has been consistent for years and years throughout her practice.  She used to make long scrolls with lines of scribble.  She is fixated on the relationship between automatism and psychic energy and has thought about it a lot in relation to her work.

Jen sees mark-making as energy--art as energy.  And I am as well.   This is hooking me in.  She tells me she is always searching for something through her work--she is searching for high energy. 

She tells me that she loves horror films.  And also that she is influenced by what she sees, whether it is in a film, or her surroundings.  She loves the urban environment of Bushwick.  She describes walking around Brooklyn and forgetting it is an island and then suddenly feeling the ocean breeze.  She is constantly looking—at sunsets, at space, at the chaos of the city.  The collective unconscious comes up for her a lot as well as Jung’s ideas of synchronicity.  She feels like synchronicity is happening in her world, in her work.

We both love reading the Tarot, so we talk about that for a while and the synchronicity that happens when you continually pull the same cards.  All of these things—the tarot, synchronicity, psychology, spiritualism, automatism—they come into the work as an embracing of “accidents.”  Everything is in its place, as it should be.  Through intuition and making, the work happens.  She doesn’t deny her education, of course, there is color theory in the work, she tells me, along with the collection of all she knows.  She lets intuition influence her color and material choices.  She grabs whatever color is speaking to her and mixes the colors until something is speaking to her.  Then she laughs and tells me, she will look on Instagram at a picture she took of a graffiti wall, or a great view of the sunset in Bushwick and realize the colors are almost the same as the ones she has been mixing.

We end our conversation by bringing it all back to Bushwick.  Jen tells me that she knows it is a little bit insular—she knows everyone is looking at the same people.  Artists influence artists.  We see each other’s work at shows, in the studio and on Instagram.  It is unavoidable.  Jen is excited that colorful abstraction is popular right now, and that there is a home for it in Bushwick.  She has committed herself to New York City, and specifically to Bushwick.  She told me she could be married with kids in Texas right now, but she is not.  She wonders if this lifestyle is sustainable for the long term as rents increase and artists get displaced, but as of now, she is present and happy to be here.

Jen Shepard’s work is currently on view at:
The Pratt Alumni Exhibition
Steuben Gallery
Pratt Brooklyn Campus
September 19th  through October 19th, 2015


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