jennifer downey
Contra Costa Times
August 12th, 2007
Nature Echoes Through Artist's Work
August 12, 2007
by Jennifer Modenessi

They may have the same dark hair, interesting features and penetrating eyes, but Jennifer Downey doesn’t think her portraits of women necessarily look like her.

“They don’t really start off as self-portraits,” Downey says about her series “Feminine Nature,” currently on display at Oakland’s Craft & Cultural Arts Gallery as part of a two-person show.

“I’m a really cheap model and I work late hours without complaining,” she says with a laugh before finally relenting. “They resemble me, but I see them more as their own people—sort of variations on this greater feminine entity.”

That greater feminine entity has been a persistent muse for the artist and illustrator, whether Downey’s creating delicate nature-based installations or painting realistic figures that stand sentinel over earth, sea, forest and sky.

The natural world is another important source of inspiration. Ever since she was a child, Downey has been sketching outdoors, gathering ideas for her canvases.

But it was only recently that the emerging artist made the foray into the world of professional fine art. She was on her way to a sensible career in business when she realized that art was something she “couldn’t not do.”

Q: Were you always creating art while growing up?

A: Yes. I was a typical artist, always drawing. Then I went to UC Davis and majored in English and economics. I was going to be writing or doing business, but I was compelled—I couldn’t not do art work. I started doing illustrations in 2004, but illustration is very different—it’s a different mind-set than fine art. So I did an apprenticeship with local painter Benny Alba and really got into the day-to-day of having a fine-art career. At that point, I decided to go full force with the fine art.

Q: When did you begin painting the work that would become “Feminine Nature”?

A: I was an apprentice (with Benny Alba) and I had a studio there in her studio. I started this really in earnest, digging into the oil paintings. I’d always worked in a smaller scale on paper and I just started exploring bigger pieces. It’s really hard now to go small.

Q: When did the paintings start to evolve into a series?

A: I’ve always drawn women—I don’t know why. Artists have recurring themes in their wok. Georgia O’Keefe painted flowers; Deborah Butterfield, one of my favorite artists, does these beautiful horses … so I really started looking at why I’m always drawing women. I’ve come to realize that I think women and the feminine realm are really important to a healthy society and culture. So the works at this meditation on and honoring of the feminine realm and nature. The women in the works are variations on this. I’m trying to paint between the duality of subtlety and strength.

Q: There seems to be a physical resemblance between you and your subjects. What do you think?

A: I do use myself (as a model) … digital photos, sketches and drawings, mostly for anatomy and reference. I don’t know if artists can say that they’re not in their paintings!

Q: The landscapes in your paintings are really striking and seem as important as the figures. Are they imaginary landscapes?

A: A lot of them are someplace that I’ve been. I’ll be hiking or backpacking somewhere and there’s this sense of awe or sublime feeling of nature and that’s usually a jumping-off point. I’ll take photos or jot down a color or do some sketches and then come back to the studio. There was a painting from a hike in Point Reyes … a thick fog and silence and the presence of the forest and animals. There’s all sorts of things that strike me.

Q: You’re also creating three-dimensional installations, incorporating other natural elements into the galleries. Why?

A: I go hiking a lot—I can’t get enough of nature, the gorgeous shapes and designs. The forms of branches and twigs and cones are beautiful, especially eucalyptus. I wanted to take them out of the larger forest so you can really see them. Another idea is that as humans, we sort of walk around in this 6-foot span across the surface of the Earth—if we were fish or birds or really big mammals, our perspective would be different. So it’s also playing with perspective.

Q: Where do you see your art career heading?

A: (I’d like to be) an exhibiting artist and to go internationally, eventually. I just want to be painting and doing installation work.
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