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The Wonderment and Complexities of Nature: An Interview with Jenny Kendler

Jenny Kendler is extensively involved in the Chicago art scene, and also dedicated to environmental justice and activism.  In fact, her two passions are deeply intertwined. Through her work, she shares the wonder, beauty and complexity of nature and its relationship with human culture.  Jenny is a member of the BOLT Residency through the Chicago Artists Coalition, member of the feminist collective Henbane, and co-founder of OtherPeoplesPixels and the Endangered Species Print Project.  Recent show participations include “Black Arts” at Roxaboxen Exhibitions in Pilsen, and “Act of God,” a natural disasters-themed show curated by Jake Myers.  I sat down with Jenny at her home studio and talked with her about her passions, her life philosophies, and her thoughts on the Chicago art scene and environmentalism.


"Archipelago (Chanel Islands Fox)" 2011.

Lydia Shepard (LS): Please tell me a little about your work; it’s a fusion of art and environmental activism. 

Jenny Kendler (JK): My passion about the natural world has gone back at least as far as my passion for art.  They are intertwined for me.  The natural world is in a state of crisis that has been largely caused by the actions of human beings.  I think a lot of people don’t realize the magnitude of it, for example, the issue of the extinction crisis.  It is estimated that 1 in 4 mammals, 1 in 3 amphibians, and 1 in 10 birds are endangered.  We don’t always realize what’s happening in the place that we came from.  We ourselves are animals; we come from the natural world.  If we destroy nature, if we don’t check ourselves before its too late, then we are going to lose a really essential piece of what it is to be human.  This concept is something that really drives my work.  The Environmental Movement has tended to contextualize their activism as “nature for nature’s sake”, the same way that in art school we say “art for art’s sake”.  I wholeheartedly believe in that message; I think it is time for the message to also include human beings and how much we need and can benefit from a natural world that is treasured and cared for, especially the wonder and delight that we human beings can find in nature.  I guess that I would like to impart a little bit of the wonder that I feel when looking at the natural world.  A technique that I often use in my work is locating it on the human body, or locating it in interactions with the human body to address this very intimate, visceral relationship that I feel is possible with nature.  I’m not interested in talking about nature with a capital “N”, or this sealed, idealized environment. You’ll often see in my work nature growing out of or encrusting over the human body, or human being disappearing back into the natural world.  I like to complicate that relationship between nature and culture.


"Connection (A woman and a juvenile polar bear thinking a rainbow)" 2007.

LS:  It’s interesting that you talk about the wonderment of nature.  I see a lot of rainbows in your work, and I am always in awe whenever I see a rainbow. 

JK: That is another thing that is really interesting to me, looking at clichés that surround the natural world.  Rainbows are a great one.  People feel like rainbows are just tapped out.  They have become such a symbol that you almost feel like you couldn’t experience them in a real way anymore…Except every time you see a rainbow it’s totally amazing!  The fact that it is a cliché does nothing to interrupt the wonder of the actual experience.  If I could do anything with my work, I would like it to be a little bit like that experience; maybe you think that you know what nature is, but then actually having this really intimate experience with it that changes you in a way that you can’t expect.


LS: You mentioned that your passion for environmentalism goes as far back as your passion for art.  Did you make a conscious decision to focus on nature themes and environmentalism in your work, or did it just happen?

JK: I grew up my whole childhood playing in the woods and collecting berries to make paint out of and making crowns with feathers and leaves.  When I was a kid, I painted and drew all the time.  I always drew nature.  I would spend hours making these tiny little paintings of beetles.  Then I went to art school, and I sort of lost the thread for a while.  My work still had a lot of the same visual imagery, but I was interested more in the fantastical, and more in culture and less in nature.  Then, during graduate school, I had a little bit of this realization that I had always knownwhat I wanted to make work aboutand I had just forgotten for a little while.


"Whooping Cranes with Polluted Sky", 2010. Part of the Endangered Species Print Project

LS: Have you done any other environmental work?

JK: Yes, I often think that if I hadn’t been so compelled to go into art that I would have been a conservation biologist.  I have always felt this longing to be doing more direct conservation work.  I see myself, in tandem with my art practice, as an environmental activist working in a different method.  I run a project with my co-founder Molly Schafer called the Endangered Species Print Project.  It was a direct reaction to this question of “what can you do as an artist to be more like an environmental activist?”  We started this project of limited-edition prints that are limited by the number of plants or animals that are remaining in the wild, the Amur Leopard, for example.  There are only 45 of them remaining in the wild, so we created a print of it that has 45 prints in the edition.  We sell the prints, and then 100% of the profits go towards a conservation organization that is working on that particular species.  Nothing is really separated in my life between my art practice and the way that my husband and I choose to live.  We’ve chosen to live without a car, and if we have to fly we offset our flights.  We try to eat all organic, and we have two vegetable gardens.  I am a recycling nerd.  Everything that I am wearing right now is either secondhand or handmade.  We made a commitment that we would not buy anything that wasn’t secondhand, made out of recycled materials, or handmade, if at all possible.


LS: You seem very active in the Chicago Art Scene.  You also co-founded OtherPeoplesPixels. 

JK: OtherPeoplesPixels is a company that makes websites for artists.  My husband is a computer programmer, and, while I was in grad school, we had a lot of friends coming up and asking us if we could help them design their website.  We realized that there were not really any good, affordable solutions for artists who wanted to have a website and be able to update it.  Instead of us making the websites, we made software that made websites!  That way, we were able to make it very affordable.  The idea really took off.  We have decided to run the company very much in line with our ethical system, so we run it as a triple bottom-line company, which means “people, planet, and profit,” as opposed to normal companies have a single bottom-line, which is the profit.  The idea is that you have to serve all three of those goals; you can’t do anything to make a profit that compromises the way that you treat your employees or the planet.  Though our company we run a fund called the OtherPeoplesPixels Fund through which we give away a big chunk of our profits to environmental, social justice and arts organizations.


Relic from Wunderkammer, 2007

LS: Do you have any thoughts or opinions on the Art Scene?

JK: We should really stop talking about ourselves as a “Second City.”  I’ve noticed that every time anyone asks this question in a public setting, everyone talks about how we don’t have as many institutions, as much funding, or as many collectors as New York or LA, which I think is a useless discussion.  Also, it’s not necessarily valid in terms of evaluating the quality of the art scene.  I think that we may have a really amazing art scene because of those things, since people have had to find their own way.  Who better to create the art scene than artists?  I don’t want collectors creating our art scene, though they’re welcome to participate.  I think that we have a greater wealth of amazing apartment gallery spaces, artist-run spaces, and unconventional spaces than anywhere else that I know of.  I’m also just not that interested in the comparisons game.  New York and LA are both great cities, I just don’t feel that Chicago needs to be comparing itself to them all the time.


LS: You are a resident at the BOLT Residency at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. How has your experience with the BOLT Residency been?

JK: My residency period is from June 2011 to June 2012, so it’s about to come to a close.  There are 11 artists in the program, two of which are also part of my feminist art collective called Henbane. (Henbane is a psychotropic herb that witches used to use, that is hallucinogenic in small quantities, and deadly in large.)  The CAC has been amazing; they’ve done things like organizing studio visits for us, and bringing in curators and gallerists to talk to us about our work.  We’re also doing an exchange with Detroit artists where we are going to curate a group of Detroit-based artists into our space and they are going to curate us into their spaces.  So, in February I will be in a show in Detroit, and the Detroit artists are going to be coming here for a tour of Chicago art spaces on May 17th.


LS: Anything else coming up in the future?

JK: I have a solo show coming up at the BOLT studio residency on October 12th.  I’m getting ready to leave for a 3 week trip to far northern Norway and Svalbard, and arctic archipelago, where I’ll be making some of the work for that upcoming show.  On the further horizon, I am going to be showing work with Johalla Projects at the Damen Blue Line station.  I don’t have the date for that yet, but it’s going to be super cool.


All images in this interview curtesy of Jenny Kendler.  To see more of Jenny Kendler’s artwork, visit her website here.  To learn more about the Endangered Species Print Project, click here.  To learn more about OtherPeoplesPixels, visit the site here

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