Jenny Day: on Disaster, Resilience, and Honoring the Image
I first met Jenny Day in Downeast Maine in 2001. We were both living there for the summer and learning how to make stone mosaics from Kehben Grier at the Beehive Collective. We crashed in sleeping bags on the floor of the Machias Grange Hall and picked up random jobs - me working for a chicken farmer, and Jenny apprenticing with a ceramicist, and both of us harvesting garlic and strawberries for Joe Parisi, the Sicilian meat slinger / wine maker. We were both new to life... Someone named Crow shaved a spiral into my chelsea haircut, and Jenny was a vegan that ate some yogurt and ice cream. I wore Tevas and she wore Chacos, and we were covered in dirt and stone dust.
In our reminiscing she recounts fondly, “Everything we ate there seemed to consist of mashed up lentils and onions... There was no fridge, and there was a dark bin that stunk like onions that we put our food in and it often rotted… My favorite shirt was a little boys shirt with bikes on it and the neck was shredded at an angle... And the smells of Maine... The sharp spruce smell, moss, and ocean combined with living in the old grange.” I remember her quiet confidence and how thoughtful she sounded when she talked. After our summer there, Jenny was heading out on a cross-country bike trip with a friend. Almost two decades later, we reconnected for this interview.
Where are you living these days?
I live in Santa Fe now. I just moved here 2 months ago. I was in Tucson off and on for about 6 years, and before that I was in Alaska for about 6 years.
Is there a big art scene in Tucson and Santa Fe? Do you go to shows a lot?
I just moved to Santa Fe, there is a big art scene here, we have almost 300 galleries, but not all of them are my style. We do have an area of town called the Railyard that has more contemporary art, and there’s some good shows that come through.There’s an interactive space called Meow Wolf that’s amazing. In Tucson, we have the Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Tucson Museum of Art, and some galleries that have some good art. I go every couple months, but mostly I just hole up in my studio. And when I travel I go to whatever museum I can see.
When I first met you, you were about to embark on a cross-country bike trip with your friend. Your work now is so full of landscapes. How do you think those early adventures have influenced your life or your art?
I haven’t thought about it much, but probably being at the Beehive and meeting Kehben and being in that world was kind of what I was looking for. I made stuff for years after that. I wove baskets, made knives, and kind of explored everything. And maybe that lifestyle, being transient and kind of anarchist. I think some of that has transferred into my work, in terms of who I am, and those collective experiences.
I’ve moved and traveled across the country a lot. Before that summer in Maine I don’t think I’d been east of Colorado. I feel like living in a working town, working for that garlic farmer, being around all these artists, and then going from city to city on my bike, I think it kind of helped propel me into something that has continued for the past ten years - searching for a place, and searching for a landscape. The ideas at the Beehive were something I was always interested in - exposing different lies, and ways that we are in the world, through art. That was one of the first times I understood that people could do that. And it was pretty direct. I haven’t really been conscious and aware of it, but it was an experience that had to happen and definitely shaped me.
Talking about exposing lies… I’m curious about your new painting with the american flag paraphernalia all over it. What’s that all about??
I have a bunch of new work for a solo show coming up in a few weeks, called “Lone Star, True But Whatever”. I traveled to New Orleans and Texas for some shows I was in, and on the way back I went through Port Aransas, where Hurricane Harvey hit last year. When we got there it was still really devastated. There was debris all over, and roofs that were still missing. There were a few businesses that were functioning - they displayed photographs of what had happened to them during the hurricane and the heroic effort it took to get them up and running.
I took a bunch of photos there. I’d go to the beach, and it was all vacant hotels that were boarded up with no sign of anything happening. So you’re in this beautiful, warm water and fish jumping, and then you’re looking out at these oil rigs and pollution, and behind you it’s really messed up buildings. There were iconic sea life displays that had been on buildings and had fallen off and gotten damaged.
So this body of work is coming from all the photographs of that place. The one with the flag in it has all these dolphins around the wreckage in these buildings. I’m obviously not super pro America, but I ended up incorporating the American flag, which felt really uncomfortable at first. There’s this resilience in that town that I found very inspiring. And I felt like I wanted to start connecting some of the environmental damage with personal damage, memory, historical damage and where we’re at with politics right now. We have these horrific things that are happening and at the same time there’s really absurd, stupid things happening. I’m trying to talk about that through painting. I’ve never made them political before, it’s always been strictly environmental.
Your paintings and collages are pretty apocalyptic in their rejection of functionality and linear perspective. Where does your interest in disaster and chaos come from?
I like how you worded that. I haven’t really thought about my paintings as apocalyptic. I think it partly comes from experiences I have had: a forest fire that made us evacuate our house in Alaska, a hurricane in Florida that we evacuated from, fears when I was little about tidal waves, tree sitting in California and seeing clear cut forests in Oregon, researching climate change. I am entranced by natural chaos and how insignificant we are in the face of it.
What are your rituals? When do you make time to make art?
Usually I’m painting every day. If I’m working toward a deadline, all my personal time goes out the window, but when things are going good and I’m not working for a deadline, it’s usually an 8 hour day, and then I run, or I go to yoga, or I ride on the trails around here with my mountain bike. That’s pretty much it, haha. I’m pretty focused.
Does it change your process with your work when suddenly you’re working to show pieces to a very real audience?
I think I’ve been working like that since I finished grad school. I haven’t always had shows lined up, but I’ve always been working every day. I just started working with Jonathan Ferrara Gallery and Davis Dominguez Gallery and there is something about having some pressure, but I think the pressure I put on myself is so much greater than what anyone else expects of me. I mostly see it as really nice to have support.
Can you describe your painting process? Are they planned out ahead of time or are they improvised?
It’s changed over time. From 2005 to about 2010, there was no process whatsoever. I made mostly narratives of people interacting, and a lot of that was from dreams. It was pretty intuitive. I didn’t do sketches at all. But now I make collages from photographs I’ve taken, or things from social media, or other art I like, and I use the collage as a reference and make a painting from that. So they’re pretty planned out, and at a certain point I take the collage away and I just work on the painting. I’ve never shown my collages before, but I’m starting to show them recently. I mostly use paint in my work, but I’ve also added tape, paper, fabric, and I’ve painted with a bunch of different materials like glitter, metallic paints, pens and highlighters and stuff.
You're now moving to a much larger scale. Does that change your process and your relationship with the piece a lot?
I’ve always wanted to make really big paintings, but I never had a big enough studio. I make small stuff too. And smaller ones are just as hard as big ones, if not more. The really big ones I’ve started making, like the flag one, is 15 feet long. I’ve never made anything that big, and I was really worried, like oh no, I’m gonna feel overwhelmed by this, or oh this is a really expensive stretcher bar… But actually it didn’t feel that way once I started doing it. It felt just like another painting. It just takes a lot longer.
I started making bigger paintings partially because some of the spaces I’m showing in are fairly large, and so I have the space to actually do it. Also, I took a trip to Marfa, and seeing the scale of Dan Flavin’s work with the neon installations, the massive buildings with work specifically built for the space, and thinking about those experiences. Getting to walk into an installation and an object at the same time, and just seeing some of that work and thinking... well why am I not making big work? I can try…
There’s something inspiring about when people just completely go for it. They’re making the work, and they don’t care where it’s gonna go. They just do it anyway. It might take years, and it might not have a home yet, but honoring the image anyway. And so I decided, if I have the space, I might as well try. I don’t know where they’ll end up or where I’ll store them, but I don’t need to worry about it. I just need to honor the image.
I know you have done some work on your houses and even built some houses from scratch. Do you find similarities between the physicality of large scale, three dimensional construction and design of living space and your relationship with constructing a painting?
For sure. I just started painting other objects, but for years I painted houses and buildings and various states of decomposition or construction. I’ve taken lots of photos of debris and trash piles that we’ve made. We’ll have these big piles in our yard, that are as tall as me, with all the stuff we’ve ripped out of the house.
I’ve also looked at a lot of architecture design books, like Kundig, Tado Ando, and really modernist work. The houses we design and build are pretty minimal. They kind of become like gallery spaces, with not very much color. Super minimal. The spaces I want to live in are incredibly clean and neutral, but then my working space is pretty chaotic, and the paintings I make are really colorful. I think once we stopped building cabins and started building these modern, minimalist houses, my paintings started having a lot of lines and architectural references. I definitely think the spaces inform the work. Sometimes I live in really clean spaces, and sometimes its complete chaos, like having to crawl through a window to use the bathroom, or not having a kitchen. Right now my house is filled with boxes and boxes of flooring and marble and doors and bathtubs, and the only non-chaotic space is my studio.
Do you consider your houses part of your art? Do you think you’ll ever move toward sculpture, or do you think you’ll always stick with 2 dimensional art?
I’m starting to really want to supplement my painting practice with 3-dimensional stuff. I have all these secret little side projects. I made these weird fabric sewn objects that I’ve never shown. I was in Nebraska at a residency and I would go to the thrift store and I just got obsessed with sewing these layers of fabrics over and over on top of each other. I feel like there’s this 3-dimensional aspect that’s trying to come out. I’ve been getting interested in ceramics, and trying to make objects that would be the remnants of a painting that would look kind of like trash and also architecture at the same time. I tried to make 3-dimensional paintings, but they failed. The edges are rough and they have paint on them, but they’re also sculpture. I’ve also looked into trying to make doll house parts that would be like the buildings we’ve made, but burnt and decomposing. So far I haven’t found the materials or the skill set. I know how to make stuff in real life, but I don’t know how to make miniatures. I would never quit painting, but I think that some other sculptural objects will end up happening, whether they’ll be wood or ceramic or some kind of sewn element, I have no idea.
I’m sure I’m idealizing it, but it seems very fun and freeing, kind of like getting paid to be a big kid exploring the world and materials.
It is like that. It’s stressful because you don’t make very much money, but I feel like I just want to do it so much that it’s worth whatever the sacrifice is.
Has your desire to make things waxed and waned?
So far it hasn’t. I don’t know why not. Things go well, but most of the time they don’t. I would say it’s 80-90% rejection. But there’s some kind of drive. I’ve had a million other jobs and tried a lot of things, but once I realized I really did want to do this, I was like well, why not?
I get tired and my hands will hurt. Every night I’m tired. And there’s times when I need to take a break. I had a year when I painted over everything with white cause I’d make something and hate it and paint over it. I don’t really do that anymore. I think before I was too insecure to realize that I didn’t have to annihilate it. It’s taken some years to not kill them all.
I’m mostly just overwhelmed with ideas. Really I have too many ideas all the time, and I get overwhelmed with, oh my god, will I be able to get this all out in my life?
Do you ever think about those annihilated paintings anymore?
No, not really. In that period of time, I also threw a lot away. Now I just don’t feel like I need to as much. And now there’s enough support from other people. Some collectors are even interested in the trash. Out of respect for some people in my life I promised not to throw anything out. And there’s one friend that will let me store stuff in his space. He has a big warehouse, and I have a room in that warehouse that I can fill, so I don’t have to worry about storage. I used to have to constantly worry about storage. I still often am very unsatisfied with my work but I don’t have as much hatred. I think that’s because of the support of people and experiences.
How and when did you find your gallery? How has that relationship developed and how has it pushed your art making practice?
In 2016 I applied to an international open call for a group show at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery. I was in the show, and then I applied again the 2nd year and I got in again, and then I won, and the prize was that you could have a solo show with them. So I began working with them minimally for two years. They showed some of my work on consignment, and then eventually I had a solo show with them. But it started with that open call.
I think it’s pushed my art by having someone push me and support me, and really want to take me to that that next level. Now I need to work really hard to keep up with all the other artists I’m showing with.
Your work seems to be getting less formal over the years, and more playful. Are there some major transformations your work has gone through?
I think that might just be me deciding I can make whatever I want to make and letting all the versions of myself come out. There was a phase where my work was super personal. And then in grad school I mostly just hated that personal work and was really embarrassed by it. In grad school the work was kind of formal and serious and stifled. You’re reading all this art history, trying to put yourself in context, and I think what I made was important to get where I am now, but I wasn’t very free. And now I feel like I can make whatever I want to make. I just try to be comfortable with anything that comes up for me, and a lot of it is becoming playful and absurd in conjunction with a seriousness.
What are the stories you are telling through your work? Do you think it’s possible to tell a story from someone else’s perspective? How can art in general and painting in particular be used politically to tell stories, or to disrupt white, mainstream media’s representations of history?
I don’t think my work is very documentary. It’s more like trying to portray a feeling of a time period. The images might start out as a photograph of a specific place, but they get woven in with text and installations of art that I like or hate. There’ll be jumbled up pieces of all these experiences, and in the end I’m really creating a narrative, or a memory or collection of a time period in history.
There’s an artist that I look at all the time that paints realistic glaciers, and she flies all over the world and documents climate change happening to these glaciers, and in a way I really admire that, but my actual art is so far from that. You would never know unless I told you that story about those dolphins in Port Aransas. My work can’t make specific change in any way to a specific place or people, but maybe it can talk about how we feel about something in more of a deep and general way, and maybe you can’t pinpoint it, but maybe it’ll help you reflect on some kind of memory or issue. I don’t expect my paintings themselves to document anything specific, except for a feeling.
I have started to add objects to my work, most of them personal. Sometimes a memory of wallpaper from my childhood bedroom, or an inherited family figurine, and most recently vases. I was not sure what the image of the vase was coming from. I had a twin sister that died, and I called my mom and asked about her urn. She sent me a photo of an urn covered in peacocks. I had no idea. I had been painting vases covered in peacocks and birds with no clue that they were referencing such a tragic time in our families lives. I realized then that the work is not only about environmental disaster but the merging of many disasters, both in the world and personally.
What are some moments in your life when you feel like you are living your life to its fullest, or you're just where you're supposed to be?
When I’m in the studio, I think that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel anxious if I’m not working. Often if I’m running, I’ll have moments of that. If I’m outside and running, focusing on the farthest vantage point I can see and kind of running toward that, I’ll get that overwhelming feeling that this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.
Are there things you haven’t yet had the courage to do in your life or in your art?
I think with art, it’s the 3-dimensional work. And I think personally, there’s some huge gaping holes I need to work on, like things in my family... learning how to communicate better… I’m just now learning how to manage money. There’s these ways of growing up that are happening. I feel like I’m starting to face them, but there’s a lot to do.
I often overthink interactions. So one of the biggest things is learning how to forgive myself for not being good at things, or not interacting right, or not saying the right thing. Self care, and finding the courage to care about myself enough to forgive myself.
If you could own some masterpiece, which would it be?
A masterpiece by a mentor. I own a painting by my past graduate school painting teacher, Dimitri. I’ve gotten to live with the painting for a few years now, and that was one of the best gifts he could ever give me. I’ve spent so much time with it, that I feel like I’ve learned so much about painting just looking at it. Being able to spend time breaking down how he made a painting.
I would love to own a painting by Annie Lapin or Rachel Rosin. I’d love to spend a lot of time with one of their paintings. It takes time. Getting to spend time with an object when you’re eating breakfast. There’s some kind of unconscious learning that happens when it sits with you.