“You often find birds being thought of as a messenger, or that they are bringing truth and light. I like that thought, that maybe we are here to bring good messages to other people or spread goodness.” Jenna von Benedikt. From https://vimeo.com/129013446
On the far wall of the upstairs space at Meyer Gallery in Park City, there’s a thrilling – but silent – hum going on. Bird wings flutter. Bees swarm. A buffalo huffs in the bright air. These images shimmer with a luxuriant richness of color, susurrating with life and vigor. They draw in the viewer to experience a rich meditation and exploration of color, light, design, and deeper meaning unique to each observer. Even the texture of the paintings is compelling and unpredictable. Speedy imprints of a palette knife adds energy. Overlapping subtle colors in open space produce a peaceful foil to the friskiness of the wings of birds or bees. The flattened backgrounds breath like inviting ethereal veils. Welcome to the artwork of Jenna von Benedikt.
English born painter Jenna von Benedikt moved to Utah – and its new topography, color palette and culture – as a teenager in 2000 with her family and horse. There her interest in art grew and she earned a Studio BFA at Brigham Young University. As part of that degree, she also studied at the Santa Reparata International School of Art in Florence, Italy. Her paintings range from abstracts to landscapes to animal images heaving with breath and symbolism. Each is compositionally strong, visually layered and meditatively rich. As Ben Chowder says of her work on MormonArtists:
Her passion for art is inseparably connected to faith and family, and explores the physical, spiritual, and metaphorical landscapes we place ourselves in through the choices we make. She’s driven by a quest to enjoy the Creation as a whole, as well as mankind’s part in it.
In a 2015 interview with Garrick Infanger of TheKrakens.com, artist Jenna von Benedikt explains the presence of birds in so many of her paintings:
A long time ago I looked up the definition of “Jenna”. It means ‘little bird.’ Other meanings have referenced “heaven”. So I started drawing and painting birds as self-portraits, and as characters I read about in the Bible. My painting ‘The 11 tweeting the whereabouts of the 12th’ reflected the apostles and the betrayal of Judas and the things they must have ‘tweeted’ to each other when they found out. This series has definitely sparked an internal study of myself. I liked the idea that birds can go places most humans cannot, or at least look down on a place/situation with a different perspective–which I have to keep working on. It’s as if they bridge the gap between heaven and earth… scriptures often refer to them as messengers. Posing a personal question, what kind of message do I give to others? Two of my favorite scriptures (Matthew 6:26 and 3 Nephi 13:26) talk about birds in the sense that God knows them and always takes care of them. As His children, God does the same for us, we just have to trust Him.
The 11 tweeting the whereabouts of the 12th – Jenna von Benedikt
Segullah is thrilled to interview Jenna, asking questions about her art, life, and work.
Segullah: “When you were little – when you were a little “little bird” – what kind of visual arts projects or other creative ventures did you enjoy? How do those early explorations inform the work you do now?”
JennavB: I remember painting a picture of the Royal family on some poster paper when I was around six years old. My school class was performing an assembly on the Queen, and we each held up our posters and said our little spiel. My teacher, Miss Gullett, was extremely patriotic and she set up an art club and played old war tunes on her piano while we painted and did our work. It’s probably the first significant memory I have of learning to paint and using paintbrushes. We were allowed to be messy, and our images were never wrong. I’m still a shade messy at times, and I still paint subjects near and dear to my heart… and what I consider significant to my roots and family.
Segullah: Your work includes abstracts, landscapes and many paintings with birds and animals. How did your art evolve?
JennavB: My work was heavily abstract throughout my BFA education and for a couple of years after. I was interested in movement and process. After time, I developed a desire to challenge myself – to do more realistic (or as my family said more “relatable”) subjects. I did a few self-portrait drawings, and started developing landscapes. Around the same time I looked up the meaning of Jenna in a baby name book I had, and ONE of the meanings was ‘Little Bird.’ It was as if a light went on and I decided to draw/paint birds as a way of putting myself directly into the pieces, and to play around with spiritual concepts too. I liked the ideas of what birds could mean on an aesthetic as well as spiritual level. They are beautiful little bridges connecting earthly and heavenly realms. They see from a different perspective. They too are on a journey, finding themselves landed for a season and then off again on a new experience. Animals change the way we act and think, and I love to believe that even one little bird makes a great and wonderful contribution to life.
Segullah: When you create your abstracts, what problems are you trying to solve or questions are you asking? Are they about the process of how your media will blend, contrast to other colors, create texture? Are they less process oriented and more instinctual or evocative? Has your approach changed over time?
JennavB: Ultimately, I ask myself, is this final image harmonious? Over the years my abstracts have changed from extremely bold and bright to being much softer, more harmonious with nature – attempting to develop a sense of quiet or peace. As I begin a piece I try to place some kind of linear design, sometimes to be included in the final work, other times to be painted over.
The nice part about abstracts is they allow me to concentrate on paint application—to play around with tools, mix colors, discover lines and repeat in layers of paint, singling out areas I find interesting, covering up parts I no longer want to keep. It’s a lot like people. We often just show our best or most interesting parts and hide away the rest, even though they are an integral part of the big picture.
Segullah: How do you know when a piece is complete?
For the most part, I spend the time I want on a piece until I feel it has good balance, is interesting and connects to its title or the story behind why I painted it, then move on to another. Sometimes, though, I’m just unsatisfied. I feel a painting needs more polishing or the coloring is off and needs to be reworked. I have benefited from learning to make fresh images on a consistent basis.
Segullah: What is the range of size of your artwork? What determines how large or small you will work?
My pieces range from eight inches to several feet. Smaller pieces are definitely more convenient to work on in my (kitchen) area, but larger pieces are exciting. Anything bigger than four feet forces me to shift the furniture around in my dining room, and for the next week we eat picnic style on the living room floor. Thankfully, my children love it, and my husband is patient with me. I used to keep painting sizes quite uniform, but the last couple of years I’ve enjoyed switching between smaller and larger pieces. They force me to use space differently and challenge design concepts.
Segullah: While you’re creating art, how do the practical matters of “will this sell?” effect your work? How much of your art is created because you just have to make it or your head and heart will burst?
JennavB: I paint the things I’m inspired to, and hope they will be well received! I worry less about “will it sell” than “is it original in concept and well crafted?” I was once taught, if your work is high quality and interesting, it will always be valued. All kinds of subjects sell, but are they quality pieces I’d want hanging in my home, or would feel comfortable with someone spending their hard-earned money on? Art is a very personal vocation. It’s as if you are selling yourself, not just an image. Right now my goal is to make the most interesting, highest-quality pieces I can.
Segullah: With your art education at BYU and at its Italian semester abroad, how – if at all – were the concepts of spirituality and artistic expression interwoven in the teaching? How has that instruction informed how you approach your own artistic process?
JennavB: There were two very different camps teaching in the Studio program when I was at BYU. One was pushing conceptual art, progressive in execution and design. The digital scene was starting to grow and there was definitely a push to leave traditional painting for other mediums including developing installations. The other, was “know the basics first”. As Hagen Haltern told me, “If you want to know how to paint, you have to be able to draw properly first and know that skill. Then you can move in the direction you want.” Wayne Kimball is a brilliant example of being original and excellent with his craft. I think it’s good to remember one or two semesters in an entry level class doesn’t automatically make you a great artist, it’s something that has to be developed over time, but it’s a great place to start. I’ve only appreciated that since I’ve desired to be a more serious artist and seeing what skills I need to work on. Now I see the value of taking workshops if you can or mentoring with those you most admire.
My first two years there I rarely heard instructors incorporate spiritual ideas. I was interested in processes and creating very abstract pieces, always trying to think outside of the box. My studies in Italy triggered a lot of questions on the influence of beautiful art, architecture, even food. Geographically it was a gorgeous place; the whole experience was life changing. Beauty was regularly enjoyed as part of the culture.
Shortly after, I also spent several days in New York studying art, and was amazed at the demand for (and monetary value of) high-quality art, as well as the stark, shocking, and sometimes pornographic nature of a lot of the pieces. When I returned to BYU I took classes from professors I felt were more traditional and who emphasized creating beauty; teachers who weren’t afraid to connect spiritual or LDS teachings—as our 13th Article of Faith suggests: “If there is anything virtuous, lovely or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” Or, as the temple reveals, “Glorious and Beautiful.” None of these professors, Wulf Barsch, Robert Marshall, Hagen Haltern, Bruce Smith created typical religious art, but what they did was inspiring in the local, LDS and international art communities and incorporated traditional craft and skill.
Now, a decade after graduating, I choose to paint subjects that connect me to my family – my #saintedbirds and #saintedbeasts are very much about my husband and me – my history, subjects that allow me to develop creatively and help remind me of who I am—and who gave me the time and talents to create. My titles are helpful for conveying specific thoughts or feelings.
I hope viewers feel inspired and enjoy my efforts, but ultimately once it’s done and out there, that’s out of my control.
Segullah: Is there a medium you haven’t tried but would like to? Or one that you’d like to get back and explore if you had more time, money, space, equipment?
JennavB: I would like to try stained glass work at some point – perhaps some bronze sculptures. I only got a taste at BYU. For now, I love working with oils and feel I still have a lot to explore with them.
Segullah: What feeds your artistic soul? Like other creative pursuits, the visual arts can be a pretty solitary process. What do you do to replenish your enthusiasm?
JennavB: I enjoy being in the mountains. I love singing – I took classical singing when I lived in Illinois, and it was both challenging and rejuvenating. I’d still like to continue taking lessons at some point. My husband and I were ballroom dance partners in college. Dancing and music are important to both of us. There’s something about them that visual art can’t express, but the combination of all three is what feeds me.
Segullah: I read that you used to set aside one hour for your artwork every day. What was that process like? Was it satisfying or frustrating or a combination of both?
JennavB: I once heard Jeff Pugh—an artist I admire—say that if you’re serious about selling art, you have to make a lot of art. He has about three paintings on the go every week. The bells in my head went off, and I was inspired to get organized and start producing: If I was serious about making this more than a hobby, I had to set aside a certain amount of time every day. With four (young) children time can be tight, but I created a routine and faithfully stuck with it. I have to set realistic goals, mind you, and family needs come first. During the school year, I teach my preschooler in the mornings, and then paint in the afternoon before the older ones come home from school. I’ve learned to work with the time I have and try and be as efficient (and flexible) as possible. I may not keep three paintings going a week, but I get a solid amount of work completed.
Segullah: What forums are there for other artists (LDS or not) to see each other’s work and share ideas?
In Utah there is Creative Collaborative: a monthly setting where a guest artist speaks on how they made it, offers tips and advice for a successful business, and suggests not giving up 🙂
Networking on social media—Instagram in particular—is huge.
Vision of the Arts is a scholarship intended help LDS (mothers) develop talents, and often contributes to fundraisers.
Facebook had several LDS art groups and there are art groups associated with most major towns. Reach out and ask questions. I wish I had been more proactive and brave enough earlier on to ask successful, full-time artists questions.
Segullah: Are there art communities you recommend?
I started by joining an art guild in Peoria, Illinois. That gave me an opportunity to be part of a show and meet new people. Participating in local guilds and markets or shows is a great way to gain support from the people around you, and may help you springboard elsewhere.
Segullah: How old are your children now? I’m so impressed that you’ve been creatively productive with your little ones around!
JennavB: Thanks! My children are from the ages 9-2 years old. It makes for a fun and busy household.
For more information on Jenna von Benedikt, check out these resources:
Jenna Means ‘Little Bird’-https://vimeo.com/129013446