Working in a variety of mediums, Minneapolis-based artist Jennifer Davis creates dreamland scenes awash in gauzy pastels and muffin-pan grays. Though at first glance her palette may suggest childlike whimsy à la “My Favorite Things,” Davis’s paintings are anything but naïve. Anthropomorphic creatures abound, as do horses and dogs and two-headed ladies. At once playful and menacing, and wedding the endearing with the grotesque, Davis’s paintings are new mythologies, a ghostly candyland gone wonderfully strange. Dazzling, enchanting, and exquisitely haunting, these are fairy tales for adults.
Paper Darts: Tell us about yourself: age, where you live, educational background.
Jennifer Davis:I’m thirty-five-years-old and live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (painting and drawing) in 1998. I am a born and raised Minnesotan with a thick midwestern accent.
PD: When did you begin making art?
JD: I always liked to draw and color as a kid, but I really discovered art after taking a drawing class at college around 1996.
PD: Is an art education important to becoming an artist?
JD: In college I was rejected for the BFA program the first time I applied. I waited until the next round and reapplied. I felt like I just had to have that degree. I had a lot of fun in college and learning about art, but I don’t think it’s necessary to be an artist. I guess it depends on what kind of artist you want to be. I think it helps for getting grants and whatnot. I do believe that you can learn to make art and express yourself through art, and that it’s not an inborn thing. There are lots of ways to learn to make art other than through a formal education.
PD: Do you have a day job?
JD: No. I was laid off from my job in 2003 and have been making art ever since.
PD: What do you like most about living in Minneapolis? Has living in Minneapolis benefited your art career?
JD: Minneapolis is a great place to be an artist because it’s so supportive of the arts. It’s a small, tightly knit creative community, but at the same time, very friendly and welcoming. I feel lucky to live here and support myself doing what I love. Also, I love living by a lake and walking around and around and around it.
PD: Describe your process of creating a new piece. How do you approach a blank surface?
JD: I start by throwing down some color. I’m usually inspired by a found image or certain colors I’ve noticed. I just start drawing and wait for some sort of narrative to develop. Once that happens, then it’s a process of storytelling, where I am fleshing out the narrative as I go along.
PD: What medium(s) do you usually work in?
JD: I paint with acrylics and draw with a very fine mechanical pencil. Typically I’ve worked on panels, but have been playing around with working on paper. Somehow, working on paper feels very different than on panels; it feels like new territory for me.
PD: How would you describe your style? How would you classify your work?
JD: I’m not sure. The way I work is spontaneous, intuitive, and automatic. I’d rather keep moving than settle too far into a particular style.
PD: When are you most productive? Do you prefer to work during the day or at night?
JD: I can work anytime. I’m a busybody, so I’m always working on something. I usually paint during the afternoon when the sun is blasting into my studio. It’s hard to stay inside and work in the summertime, but the sunshine helps.
PD: Your recent opening at First Amendment Arts featured The Book of Right On, a Minneapolis-based band who also played at your opening at First Amendment in 2009. Artistically, do you feel an affinity with their music? How does music influence your work?
JD: Well, I LOVE their music, though I rarely listen to music while I am painting. I know it’s odd, but I find it too distracting. With that said, I am inspired by music and lyrics in general.
PD: Early on in your career you worked in collage. What attracted you to the form, and what made you switch to your current style?
JD: In college a friend asked me to make three collages so she could analyze them for her psychology class. I enjoyed it, so I made a bazillion more. Collage gradually disappeared from my work until it got to the point where I was just gluing one tiny little spec onto my paintings. I started getting more comfortable with drawing things myself. I still look to the found images I have collected over the years for inspiration while I am working, so in a way collage is still present in what I’m doing.
PD: I’m interested in your use of color, particularly in your use of pastels. How does color function in your work? Why are you interested in pastels, and how do they affect your work?
JD: I’m not sure why I choose those colors—I just like them. I enjoy playing around with color. I experiment with other colors, but usually I just go with what feels right. I have tried to exclude pink as a challenge to myself, but it’s a losing battle. As a result, people often call my work girly, cute, etc., but I think that oversimplifies it. I like the balance between the light/bright colors and the darker themes.
PD: In addition to album covers, your artwork has also been featured on book covers, including Éireanne Lorsung’s Music for Landing Planes By and Mary Miller’s Less Shiny, among others. How did you come to work with each press? How does literature influence your work? What was the last book you loved?
JD: Someone first approached me from Milkweed Editions, which is housed in the same building (Open Book) as the Rosalux gallery, where I was having a show. I was then contacted by another small press, and so on. I’m an insomniac, and love to read in the middle of the night. I think books, as well as films and music, heavily influence me. Last book I loved? Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. It creeps me out in the best way possible.
PD: I find there’s a fairy tale quality to your paintings, in that your work is youthful and imaginative, but at the same time dark and sometimes nightmarish. How does the subconscious inform your work? What role does narrative play in your work?
JD: I’m never really sure of what I’m going to paint or draw. I just sort of go along with whatever bubbles up and then examine the subject matter and develop it as I go along. A therapist would probably have a field day picking apart my pictures.
I think every one of my pictures tells some sort of story but not always something specific that I could relay with words. People often tell me their own stories of what they think is going on in my paintings. I love to hear about that. Sometimes they are wildly different than my own ideas.
PD: Have you ever considered illustrating a children’s book, or a collection of fables or fairy tales?
JD: I’m not very good at illustrating other people’s ideas, and I have a healthy fear of writing. Since I work so intuitively, I have a hard time doing what I’m told. Illustration is more difficult for me, but I like to dabble.
PD: You seem attracted to hybridity, in that many of your paintings feature anthropomorphic creatures. What about the anthropomorphic fascinates you, and how do these characters function in your work?
JD: Well, I’m an animal lover and enjoy drawing them. I don’t really know how to explain it, but I often use animals as symbols for people. For example, I’ll use a dog as a symbol for loyalty and friendship that will just be intuitively recognizable. Other times I’m just playing around and making up my own animal symbols and associations.
PD: I’m interested in your use of symbolism, particularly in those images that recur frequently in your work, such as birds, horses, dogs, and cats, among others. Why are you drawn to these particular images? What do they mean to you?
JD: As symbols they have developed over many years of drawing the things that inspire me. There is nothing too deep going on. Some of the symbols are obvious, while others are just part of the language I’ve created to entertain myself.
PD: It seems your work is becoming darker, while at the same time remaining ethereal and humorous. How do you reconcile the melancholic with the comic in your paintings?
JD: The more I think about that, and the more it becomes apparent in my work, the more I realize that is the point of my work right now. Painting is my main vehicle for examining and processing daily life: balancing the weird, scary, and difficult parts with lightness and fun. I’m an immature, silly person, and I keep myself laughing even while I’m painting. A good friend once told me that I am "cynical and nasty in a good way."
PD: What are you currently working on?
JD: I’m doing another print with Burlesque of North America for the CSA: Community Support Arts program, which starts in June. My next big show is with Erica Olson, Terrence Payne, and Joe Siness at the MAEP Gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in October. I also have a couple of other shows out of state this spring and summer.
This interview was conducted by Paper Darts staff member, Stephen Pemberton.
All Rights reserved to Jennifer Davis and Stephen Pemberton.