On behalf of beautiful.bizarre, I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Jennybird Alcantara and talk about everything from the best advice she was given in college, to naked women with cupcakes for heads. Jennybird is one of the biggest names in the pop surreal art world, frequently featured in the most popular magazines and blogs, and one of the most commonly named influences by other artists. Her work is noted for its ability to capture the subconscious as well as the semi-conscious state of being using highly detailed imagery.
Her work is part of ‘Pandora’s Box’ group exhibition, on view until January 31, 2016 at the AFA Gallery in New York. For information on available artworks, please contact the gallery directly.
54 Greene Street | New York, NY 10013
BB: As we kick off 2016, I want to know… how are things with Jennybird?
JA: Things are good for me, I’m just getting underway on a new body of work so my studio is abuzz with ideas. I like to work in series and typically work a year to a year and a half on each body of work and I’m at the beginning of that cycle as we speak.
BB: I have never met another person named Jennybird, is it a family name? Did you choose that name?
JA: Jennybird is a nickname that became the name I’m mostly known by in the art world. My then boyfriend, now husband, gave it to me. When we met I told him I was an artist and for some reason he was surprised and impressed the first time he came to my home and found I actually was one. My paintings at the time were populated with ravens and crows and rabbits galore. He identified strongly with the rabbit and that had been a sort of nickname he had before we met, so I became the birds in the paintings to him. I don’t remember exactly when he first called me Jennybird but it was early on in our relationship. Then other people heard him use that name and started referring to me as Jennybird as well, so the name just sort of found me and stuck. John and I have been together for 16 years now and he’s my biggest supporter and fan.
BB: Were you raised with a love of art?
JA: I don’t recall visiting galleries or museums when I was young but my mom was a creative type though she was more of a crafter then a fine artist. She taught me to sew and I helped with a little cottage craft industry she had. The first real artist I remember meeting when I was little was a family friend who was a painter, I can’t really remember now what his painting looked like specifically but I remember them being wild and expressive. He also made a gift for our family of a mixed media painting that hung in my parents bathroom it was all these strange painted bodies with photos of each of my family members heads glued to the top of each body. I remember being quite disturbed by it but also super intrigued, it was definitely surrealist in nature and probably the first image of that sort I’d ever seen.
BB: You have a very distinct and recognizable style, was it already dialed in when you started at The San Francisco Art Institute? How did your work change as a result of your education ?
JA: No, my style was definitely not dialed in when I started art school. I think the point of school is to be in an environment of learning, exploration and growth. The work that I was doing in school was very loose and expressive, it was still anthropomorphic in nature but painted large and loose, I don’t think anyone would recognize it as my work now. I feel one of the most valuable things I learned in art school was how to really express myself. I really felt empowered that I could put my emotions onto the panel, that art wasn’t just an image reproduced for likeness and technique but that it could contain something deeper than that, and I felt I was given permission to do this without fear. I had a great instructor, Franklin Williams, who I really looked up to and was inspired by. I remember in one of the first classes I had with him when he was telling us his story, he talked about the close bond he had with his mother and that, when she died he carefully and painstakingly removed the threads from her garments to use in his own artwork. That gave me chills and I was so inspired by this story. I also remember early on I was working a painting and it was just painfully forced and Franklin told me “You don’t fit in this space you need to work larger” and it was a real breakthrough moment for me, I started building 4’x6’ and 6’x6’ panels and just going to town, using a lot of physicality in my painting at the time, which I think I needed to do to really break myself free of overthinking and second guessing myself.
But Art School was just the real beginning of the journey. Once I was out of school, my work kept evolving and getting more and more refined. The looseness gave way to critical thinking about what I was trying to say and more symbolism began to grow in the work. I see my work on a continuum and its slow evolution is something I see for my whole life, I definitely have recurring characters and symbolism I’ve created, but they are all on a journey with me and I’m excited to see where we’ll all go.
BB: Can you give me the story of the first piece of art you remember selling?
JA: I sold some work to individuals before I did any gallery shows but I think my first sales in a gallery were in a postcard show I did. Basically each artist had to work the size of a postcard. You could do as many pieces as you wanted and they were all filed in dozens of boxes on tables throughout the gallery. People could flip through and pull out the ones they wanted to purchase. I was sooo nervous, lol, I remember watching people, from a distance, looking through my box and pulling out my mini paintings examining them, discussing with their friend and feeling so thrilled that people that didn’t know me were actually interested and buying work I had created. All these pieces were postcards I had painted over with opaque house paint and then drew or painted illustrations on them. I distinctly remember naked girls with cupcakes for heads as some of the work I created for that show.
BB: Now, I would love to jump into your work and talk a little about the art itself. Is there an underlying story running through your work? Do your creatures talk to you or each other? Do they have names and personalities?
JA: There are underlying themes that run throughout my work. I’m interested in exploring the subconscious and dreamlike states of being, life and the possibilities of what is beyond what our eyes can see. One of my most recurring themes have to do with the heart. I feel that all of my work grows out of this place and I often paint that literally. I like to create a sort of dream world where my characters are on a journey, they’ve either just arrived at the landscape they are inhabiting or are passing through it on their way to the next stop along the way. They don’t have names per se’, but there is definitely a dialog going on between characters in my work, but I like to keep that open to interpretation and not put a finite explanation on the work. Everyone comes to artwork from their own life experience, and what speaks to each person can be completely different and completely true for each simultaneously, if the art is doing its job.
BB: Do you find critique helpful, and are there any other artists you trust and take feedback from?
JA: The best critics I have are perched, one on each shoulder, the one on the right glows from a light found within, she is a hybrid or sorts, fairylike, part bird with insect wings and a sweet countenance on her human face. The Critic on the other shoulder is mercurial in color and shape at times red and serpentine with a wicked grin and other times black multi legged almost octopus like, often hairy, with one staring eye. Both of them are helpful at times, one keeps me true to myself and the other keeps me motivated.
BB: Can you give me a typical day for Jennybird?
JA: Up in the morning at a reasonable time, depending how late I’ve worked… coffee, then take our dogs Sailor and Vegas to the park for play time. Back to the studio by 12 or 1, handle any business stuff emails etc. that I need to attend to and then get going. I work till really late into the night. I like the quiet and stillness the night brings. It seems the perfect time when dipping into the deep magic pool of the subconscious to bring up treasures to examine and bring to life. Though I have a rule that I have to be in bed before the sun rises, I hate going to bed when its light, it’s such an uneasy feeling for some reason, so when I’m in super crazy crunch mode I’ll work till 5 in the morning but then rush to bed before there is a crack of light.
BB: Can you tell me about your studio?
JA: We live in a Victorian house built in 1897. My studio is in the basement level of our home, but I have windows and can see outside into the garden. It’s usually in a state of semi-disarray to full on disaster area. I like to have a lot of visual information surrounding me, I like the walls populated with sketches, images of paintings from the past, reference materials and inspirations etc. I often have many pieces going on at once so it gets a little crazy in here. When I’m in the idea forming stage of work, I have to have pure silence or only classical music. Once I know where I’m going I can incorporate other musical genres into the rotation and lyrics won’t distract me like they can when I’m in the early stages of a piece. I’ll also listen to podcasts and stream movies as long as they aren’t too visually driven and don’t require too much looking up. I spend A LOT of time alone in my studio so I gotta mix it up.