GROUNDED BY ROOTLESSNESS

“And there is the literal darkness of
Maine—long winters, icy water, rock
faces and the black spruce against a
grey sky. Obviously, I find it beautiful.
But it does occasionally try to kill you.”
—KAREN JELENFY, artist

 
 

interview NANCY GORDON

Artist Karen Jelenfy.
Addiction, 2021
40 x 50 inches
Oil, oil stick, tape and house paint on plywood
Bursting Forth, 2021
40 x 40 inches
Oil over found painting
Drowning Not Waving, 2019
6 x 5 feet
Oil on 4-panel screen
Fake Spring, 2021
36 x 36 inches
Oil and oil stick on canvas
He Went to Auvers, 2020
30 x 40 inches
Oil on canvas
Liftoff, 2019
40 x 50 inches
Oil and wood on canvas
Untitled, 2020
50 x 40 inches
Oil on canvas

Where did you go to art school?

I did my foundation studies at Monterey Community College in California, where I lived at the time. MCC gave me a scholarship to get started in the undergrad program at the San Francisco Art Institute. We moved to Oakland, and after the first year I got into the grad program at San Francisco Art Institute, receiving my MFA in 1990. I was 37.

Did the “brutal and uncompromising” aspect of your art education affect you as an artist?

I met a lot of interesting people there, mostly students. Bill Berkson, poet and art critic, became an important mentor and friend. Otherwise, the biting critiques in the seminars and the largely hands-off teaching taught me to be an uncompromising viewer of art, to be outspoken in my views, and to NEVER, EVER teach that way.

When we talked, you mentioned feeling rootless—moving around a lot and not feeling at home anywhere—as an artist. What effect has this had on your art?

Over the years a consistent theme has appeared in my work: fragile, insufficient shelter, as well as a concept I call “Faith and Vertigo.” The vertigo is about my feelings of place and self in the world; faith is about my willingness to make stuff anyway.

Your work is also emotion-driven...

I still feel occasionally guilty about not doing “pretty” work—the kind that sells so well here—once I got to Maine. We always need the money. My work is what you might call “overwrought” most of the time and often angry and I try to let my color and marks show that. Occasionally, I do what I call “stories,” which are paintings or drawings with figures or figurative elements that refer to specific events in the world or my life. The story stuff rarely satisfies me but they sort of demand to be made.

As a former art critic for the Washington Review in DC, among others, how do you keep that analytical and critical side of your brain out of your own artwork. Or don’t you?

I don’t. It’s part of the process. The dance between the two sides of my brain.

How long have you lived in Maine?

Seventeen years this summer. Longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. Odd feeling.

You talked about “the darkness of Maine.” What does this mean to you and how do you use it?

Beauty is not enough! That’s a bumper sticker I should make. All the “life as it should be” slogans aside, there is a huge seam of poverty, alcoholism, addiction and ignorance that runs through Maine. The longer I live and teach here the more it becomes clear that the vast inequity between populations is really quite tragic. For example, while I was teaching at a wonderful public school in Belfast I had children in my program who didn’t have coats or appropriate shoes in the winter, who arrived hungry and went home to empty dark houses each evening. IN BELFAST. Not exactly what that town is known for these days.

And there is the literal darkness of Maine—long winters, icy water, rock faces and the black spruce against a grey sky. Obviously, I find it beautiful. But it does occasionally try to kill you.

“I am a barometer.” Please explain.

When you grow up in a big, unruly family with unpredictable, volatile parents you learn to constantly test the “weather.” To be hypervigilant. To try to anticipate or fix whatever’s coming at you. Then you carry that talent into adulthood, even into situations and relationships where it’s neither appropriate nor necessary. I put my responses to what I perceive to be the emotional and societal weather into my work now. I hope that people can find recognition and hopefully release when they see something of mine.

You also write poetry. Are words important in your paintings?

Words have been my lifeline all my life. I am an insatiable reader and I’ve been writing poetry and fiction since I was about 12. I always thought I would be a writer. I am a published poet and art critic.

I met some incredible poets at a residency I did at The Vermont Studio Center, people like Robert Creeley (whose work I’d always loved) and Daniel Tobin, a fellow resident. Words began to appear in my paintings at that point. The first painting I finished there was a gigantic thing that said “Abdicator”—referring to my father and my then-husband. I lent it to a friend a few years later and never saw it again. When I got back to Maryland, I did a large installation that incorporated poetry, painting and sculpture, which I showed at a terrific group exhibit in an old laundry building in DC.

Occasionally a word will still demand a place in the work but they appear more often in the titles.

I performed my poetry for several years in the DC area and continued that practice here in Maine for a while, reading at places like Second Read in Rockland, the old CMCA [Center for Maine Contemporary Art] in Rockport and Left Bank Books in Searsport. I read with some great people, like Camden poet Dave Morrison. A real privilege and a lot of fun. Stopped doing it after my own bookstore, WORKS, closed in 2015. Another story for another day.

How would you categorize the paintings that incorporate words?

I don’t. But I would love to see or curate a show of artists who place words in their paintings.

Personally, I love the screens that you’ve done. A different venue. … Why screens?

Sometimes my substrate is dictated by economics or chance. In this case, Annali Skaar at The Farnsworth—where I worked at the time—gave me two large screens that the museum was discarding. They got in the way in the studio for a while. I decided they would make good free-standing landscapes. I’d love to show them somewhere. … No one has ever seen them. This one is titled, Verso Drowning Not Waving.

Most of your paintings have been in the 5- x 6-foot range, your reach. How does an artist establish their reach?

You learn it through experience. My reach is about my size, 5 feet—but that’s changing now that I am older. I still paint large whenever possible. Feel hemmed in otherwise.

The scale of my two most recent paintings was dictated by the sizes of the scavenged plywood on which they’re painted. That happens sometimes, too.

If any of your pieces have stories, please choose one of your pieces and tell us its story.


Not Your World Anymore
, 2019
5 x 6 feet, oil on canvas

I have been—and hope to be again next summer—a guide at the Olson House in Cushing, Maine. In her own home, I talk about Christina Olson, the painting Christina’s World and Andrew Wyeth. Over the years, I began to feel that a kind of circus had grown up around that painting and its story that robbed Christina of something ineffable.

Better Not Better
70 x 60 inches, oil on unstretched canvas 

This one is very recent. The story: It describes my general health and the still-scary political situation in the U.S. It also alludes to the fact that I can’t make others better, something my therapist and I are working on.

You’re currently working for CMCA. How are they helping to create an arts community?

Our education program, led by Mia Bogyo, is fantastic. Our new director, Tim Peterson, has serious aspirations towards broadening our presence in the community. Hopeful.

What do you hope to give people with your art?

Recognition. Remembrance. A certain sensuality.

Almost forgot ... You bought a school bus! Travel plans?

We’ve had our “shortie” for three years. The first year we fixed her a little and took her down to Kingston, New York, where I was having a show at a place called Greenkill. We lived in Maggie for 12 days in a campground in Saugerties. An amazing thing to do. I want so badly to do it again but lack of money to spend on the bus keeps me from going. She is my insurance against ever being really homeless. I feel better just knowing she’s there.

karenjelenfy.com

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