In the Studio: Jennifer Gennari
In the six years since Jennifer Gennari finished her formal art education—she began with a degree in illustration from Ringling College of Art + Design and followed with three years at The Florence Academy of Art (FAA)—she has learned a lot about herself as a painter, teacher, and woman in the art world. With an early inclination toward imaginative art and ongoing interests ranging from Old Master portraiture to the digital innovations of PlayStation, Gennari has recently been bringing together all the pieces of her artistic identity into fuller expressions of her authentic self. Her new studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which she named Studio West, is where these personal discoveries continue to take place, and the space also doubles as an instructional studio for workshops with guest artists. I recently sat down for an interview with Gennari at Studio West and had the opportunity to learn about the thirty-four-year-old artist’s journey thus far, her approach to teaching, and what she envisions for the future.
AM: What is your earliest art memory as a child/when do you think the seed was planted for you to become an artist?
JG: I remember it clearly: I was about six years old watching TV and a commercial came on for the re-release of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I was so excited; I ran into the kitchen to ask my Mom if we could see it. My mother’s response was, “Yes, we can see it, but if you’re that excited about the characters why don’t you just draw them so you can see them right now?” So quite literally from that point on I was drawing. The entire bottom shelf of the wall unit in our living room was filled with my sketches from movie-concept books or art books, usually Disney. I would inadvertently treat them like Bargue drawings—I would copy every single page, trying to make them look exactly as I saw them. From that early influential experience, it became my dream to one day work for Disney as an illustrator or animator. I found out that Disney hired a lot of graduates from Ringling College of Art +Design, so that is the only college I applied to and where I ended up receiving my B.F.A. in 2005.
AM: After graduating from Ringling, your first job out of college was working for Hallmark as an illustrator. At what point did you begin gravitating toward fine art?
JG: At the time I was going to Ringling, the illustration department was beginning to incorporate computer animation. The ballroom scene in Beauty and Beast was the first Disney film where computer animation was used, and soon after that almost every movie had some element of computer animation. And then of course Pixar became huge. I had tried computer animation, but it was just too technical. It was a lot of coding and not a lot of creativity, so I stayed with illustration. I started to realize that the type of art involved with working for Disney wasn’t really my skill set. After college I worked for Hallmark for two years as an illustrator. It was definitely a dream job in a lot of respects, but that world too was becoming almost entirely digital. Most of the illustrators would do the entire process in the computer. I would sketch the idea first, scan it, and finish it in the computer. Then I would go home every night and lock myself in the apartment and paint. I was getting pretty frustrated because I wasn’t moving forward, and I knew I needed a more structured, skill-based education. A friend from Ringling told me to look at the work of an artist named Ramiro Sanchez from The Florence Academy of Art, and it blew my mind. So I applied to the FAA, and the next thing you know, I’m on a plane with my father and we’re moving me to Florence.
AM: What was the entire experience like for you in Italy, both as a young woman moving to a foreign country for the first time and the educational experience at the FAA?
JG: It was just like going to college again. Although I soon realized when I got there that I wasn’t nearly as prepared as some of the other students. So many of those artists from all over the world had been studying the Old Masters their whole lives and knew the history of the Florence Academy and Daniel Graves’ artistic background—I knew absolutely nothing. I just knew I wanted to be a better painter. I had never left the country prior to this and definitely didn’t know how to speak Italian, so this was an eye-opening experience in many ways. Although I felt a little lost in the beginning, the overall education at the FAA was fantastic. I remember those first few weeks and months copying the Bargue drawings, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. For me, it was the same feeling as copying all those books in my childhood: trying to be as accurate as possible and training my eye to interpret and recreate what I see. I always found that sort of thing relaxing and satisfying. And I loved the structured approach that the FAA provided. I finally felt like I was getting somewhere and improving as an artist.
AM: When you returned to New York after Florence, you taught at the National Academy Museum and School and now you teach privately out of your studio. Is the approach you teach now the same as what you learned in Florence?
JG: When I first started teaching students at the National Academy I began with the full-on Florence Academy method. I quickly learned this doesn’t necessarily work with students who haven’t voluntarily signed on for that kind of intense, structured approach. And, even if as a teacher you know it’s going to eventually benefit them, you can’t force it because they won’t stick with it. After listening to their feedback and frustration, I thought to myself: How can I teach them what I know in an expedited fashion? So now I teach the same technique as the Florence Academy, but instead of the sight-size method of measuring I use comparative measurement. Even though this is more difficult to teach, it allows people to feel more in control. When teaching painting and drawing, I still stick to the main concepts I learned at the FAA: Concentrating first on shapes; working dark to light; and compressing values. Although I’m obsessed with values, I’m always extremely strict with students’ shapes. Shapes are hard to see and hard to hold onto, but the minute you let that go your figure doesn’t look grounded or have believable bone structure. In my own work, I use both sight-size and comparative measurement. I’ll use sight-size when I’m really struggling or to block in one big shape in the beginning. For the most part, though, now it’s comparative measurement. Because I’ve exercised sight-size so much I can get a good gesture quickly with that method of measuring and then continue on from that point using comparative.
AM: Six years seems like a lot, but in artist years that is relatively nothing. What was the initial transition like from student to independent artist when you returned to New York six years ago, and what has been the progression since?
JG: It was definitely rocky. I went through the normal depression people go through after they leave art school. One of the most shocking aspects of reacclimating was realizing that not everybody thinks the way you do about art. Also, it’s literally taken about six years to figure out what I’m doing. I’m starting to finally feel like I’m in a groove. I started painting really traditional when I first got back, and a lot of portraits. Then about two years ago the pendulum began to swing toward surreal narrative work [such as Succession and Wish.] This was fully feeding that whole narrative side of me. I like some of those narrative paintings I did, but I’m still not totally thrilled with the execution. My goal has always been to somehow bring these two sides of myself together and do work that is in the middle of the illustrative/imaginative world and the classical/traditional world.
AM: Is the series of large self-portraits in progress here in your studio closer to this middle ground?
JG: Yes. They are definitely done in a traditional style—which allowed me to exercise technique and deal with texture and general paint application—but they were simultaneously feeding something more conceptual. I’m trying to find a subtler and more realistic way of conveying narrative, as a departure from the narrative works from a few years ago that were surreal. The first self-portrait, where I’m holding a bowl, is really straightforward. This led to the other two, which are more about exploring specific ideas. For instance, in the second one I wanted to explore and paint the texture of the dress. And then it became this journey of thinking about who would wear such a dress and what the occasion or story would be. I don’t have a lot to say about this yet because I’m still working on them. But because I have been on more of a mental exploration with these works, they are leading me into what I’m doing next. I have an idea for a mini-series combining real and surreal narrative elements. It will explore the concept of woman as a shell or a superficial object. It plays on the idea of someone who is empty inside, feeling like “a shell of a person.” It also deals with misconceptions. For instance, thinking someone is shallow based on outward appearance or a certain quick experience with him or her when actually the person is quite deep. I already bought traditional white Geisha makeup for this. It turns the face into a sculpture and sort of a vacant barrier between the external and internal worlds, which is symbolic. The paintings will likely just focus on the face, and I’d like to work with only white, black, and red for this series, while also perhaps incorporating lace or other white material.
AM: Where did the idea for this series come from, was it inspired by your own personal experience?
JG: A few different experiences and observations came together to form the idea. It could also be memories from past experiences. Perhaps you have an experience with someone, you start judging them, then you meet them and realize you were wrong. Or you have a conversation with someone and start really getting to know them and realize they are different than you thought. And it works the other way: hearing or knowing that people have certain judgments about you or view you in a way that is not at all the person you really are. It can also be about judgments you make on yourself. Say you’re speaking to other artists about ideas or plans they have for their work, while you’re in place where you can’t figure out what you want to paint. You start thinking to yourself, Well, maybe I’m just not as deep. Maybe I don’t have good ideas. In that sense you’re judging yourself. So all these experiences together formed the idea.
AM: What allows you the freedom and time to work on these personal series and ideas? Are you doing commissions?
JG: Yes, I do animal portrait commissions. About a year and a half ago, after I parted ways with a gallerist due to differences in opinion about the way I was working, I didn’t want to paint people for a while. I ended up inadvertently befriending a girl on Instagram who took beautiful photographs of her cats. I decided one day to paint several paintings of these cats, and I really enjoyed it. Hairless cats are amazing to paint—it’s like solid form but instead of having white skin or black skin there are all these other colors: blues and pinks and purples. I felt really refreshed working on these and learned a lot about paint application and color. I told the girl that I painted her cats and asked her if it was okay to share the images, and she was fine with it. So from there, it started to take off with people contacting me and asking me to paint their cats or dogs. These commissions come entirely through social media: for every one I post, another two or three requests come back in. It’s been a great way to have a little side business that allows me to continue working on my personal work, without having to change myself or my style to match certain expectations.
AM: What is your response to those who have strong opinions about the use of photography in realist artists’ work? With certain portrait commissions, especially ones of this nature, is it unrealistic to always work from life?
JG: I have strong opinions about working from life myself. When my students ask me, I always say you have to first work from life, build that foundation and understanding before you even consider working from photos. Painting from life helps you see color and allows you to create some kind of three-dimensional atmosphere in the work. If you’re only working from photos, that’s when everything falls flat. You don’t understand how the camera is distorting things or burning out areas. You lose a lot of information, and without an eye trained from working from life you won’t know what information is missing.
I worked from life for more than eight years before I started using photographs, and I use them selectively. And for me, using photographs was a business decision. For animal or children’s portraits, it’s nearly impossible to have them sit still long enough for you to paint them. Also, unless you are a big-name portrait artist, it’s not likely that someone is going to travel to your studio and sit for you for a week straight. Hiring models, especially in New York, can get pretty expensive, so it’s simply not financially feasible to always work from life. In an ideal world, sure, I would be working from life one hundred percent of the time. But that’s just not reality. And it would be a poor business decision, in my opinion, to pass up opportunities just because you refuse to work from photographs. In the world of commissions, you have to be flexible.
AM: What are some of the lessons you are still learning and working on as an artist?
JG: I still take classes and go to drawing sessions, especially for areas where I feel I want to stay strong. Right after graduating from Ringling, I used to easily be able to draw ideas straight out of my head without having something in front of me or measuring. I want to keep that ability alive, so I often go to gesture-drawing classes. I love these sessions—it’s very freeing and all about big movements. Plus, it really exercises your mind. I always carry a sketchbook around, and I will often do blind-contour drawings as well. They’re wonderful for your eye. It’s just fun and experimental. Also, when I was right out of school at the FAA, I used to be able to draw the figure very well. Because I’ve been doing more painting in recent years, I’ve noticed I’m not as strong as I used to be, so I go to open figure sessions now to keep my drawing skills sharp.
AM: I understand you love video games, which makes sense considering your early interest in animation. What is it about them that you find interesting or enjoyable?
JG: I find them inspiring and extremely artistic. I’m playing Play Station 4 right now, and I’m obsessed with it. The way these games are being created is like film. They have amazing storylines, and actual actors often play the parts of the characters. Because these games are now interactive, and the player can influence some of the outcome, you get emotionally attached to these characters. The story plays out the way it would regardless, but you can shape the personality of the characters and consequently change how they experience the story. The company Monolith Productions invented a revolutionary system called the Nemesis, and it fuels the game I’m playing now called Shadow of Mordor. It’s intuitive, so the decisions you make affect your characters’ and other characters’ actions in the game, as well as the environments. It’s entirely realistic—every single action I make affects something in the game—and no two players have the exact same experience. I think that’s amazing. It’s incredible for me to experience these types of art forms people create. Their imaginations are so off the charts that it’s almost impossible for a painter like me, who is always looking for a narrative or an interesting character to paint, to not be inspired. These game creators are artists, and this is how they express themselves. It’s a shame to me that people knock or discount the brilliance of these people just because the genre has the word “game” in it.
AM: In the years that you’ve been teaching, have you seen a growing interest and demand for classical training?
JG: I think it’s always been there, but there was nowhere for young artists to go. Now all of these schools have given people with that natural talent and desire someplace where they can belong. Also, so much of it is being taken more seriously. Now that the FAA has become accredited, for instance, it’s helping artists convince their parents to attend and parents feel more at ease. I think a lot of people have been held back because of this previously. These schools are legitimizing what people want to do with their lives. It’s giving artists the green light, but it will still ultimately be up to them to make it work.
AM: Do you think it’s difficult to “make it work?” What is your definition of artistic success?
JG: I definitely think it’s difficult to make it work. It takes a lot of effort and stamina, not only the actual hours spent creating the work but also the emotional roller coaster that goes along with it: Constantly questing everything you’re doing, figuring out what you’re going to paint, fielding other people’s opinions and expectations of what you should and shouldn’t be doing. Every aspect is difficult. You have to be prepared for the rough road ahead. But you do it because at the end of the day, as difficult as it might be, there’s a compulsion that keeps you going.
I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to why one should or shouldn’t be doing art. I don’t believe in sacrificing who you are or who you are as an artist to make it work for someone else or for a superficial end. Because before you know you’re sacrificing everything you are for money. My definition of artistic success is to be the best painter I can be and paint the things I really want to paint. I want to push myself and challenge myself and not get stuck in situations that compromise my artistic identity. I want to be doing real, genuine work even if I’m barely getting by. I would love if at the end of my life I’ve created paintings that other artists respect and younger artists can perhaps look up to. That to me is what art is: a conversation. Sitting with your peers and admiring and critiquing one another’s works—and each person doing his or her part to contribute an individual vision to the whole.
All photography this article Allison Malafronte unless otherwise indicated.