When Jenie Gao first enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, she planned to become an engineer.
"I think some part of me always knew that wasn’t right for me," she said. "I had been an artist ever since I was a kid. It was my childhood dream to be in the arts."
So by the time she was a sophomore, she was taking art classes. She went to work for a commercial printer in Milwaukee before making her way to the Madison area and becoming a full-time artist. She is currently the artist in residence at the Madison Central Library's Bubbler through February, where she is teaching printmaking workshops.
She is also enlisting the community's help in her project, "In Unison," that will take over the ceiling of the children's library.
Gao brought one of her woodblocks to the Cap Times office last week and discussed her project, how printmaking was the first social media and the importance of focus in today's climate of activism.
What does an artist in residence do?
That’s kind of up to me. I looked at my schedule for 2017, my other contracts and projects going on, and what amount of time I could spend on site, specifically during hours when the public could come in and see what I was up to. The Bubbler offers workshops and programming that are free to the community and the artists they have in the space are of the mindset that they care about creative education. That’s a lot of my background; I care deeply about creative education. From there, structuring my residency so that I can offer workshops to the public in printmaking and also give them some insight into the process I’m using on the project. The proposal itself for that project is mine.
What drew you to printmaking as an artistic medium?
I fell in love with the history of it. I fell in love with how printmaking is both an art form and a technology, as all art forms are, but without printing, we would not have literacy and education as we know it today. It’s the social media that predates electricity. It’s this idea of broadcasting the message to the masses. And it’s a democratic art form, it’s taking fine art off of its pedestal and making it shareable and in that way elevating that bar for everyone, elevating everyone and what they’re able to understand and question and shape of the world around them. The history and techniques, all of it, I fell in love with it.
With printmaking, the tools are not like paintbrushes. You’re really digging it out and using negative space, not drawing but chipping away to reveal the image.
At the beginning, it’s counterintuitive and I would say that what maybe scares people the most from even getting into the medium is the fact that you’re working in reverse and once you cut it out, you can’t put it back. But I think those are some of the best things about this medium. In any art form like painting, for instance, you’re usually adding layers to create something new. And I think there’s something really profound from taking pieces away to create something new and to be able to look at things in the reverse. And what you’re making, the wood block, is the tool, it’s not even the final piece. This is what makes it shareable. So I made the social media reference, but the maybe funny difference between wood cut and today’s social media is that printmaking is all about delayed gratification. The thing you’re actually working on is not actually the thing the public is going to see.
You're asking for the public's help with your project at the library. How does that work?
I’m asking people to donate used clothing, left over fabric, and I’m going to be creating a flock of larger than life birds to be flying across the ceiling of the children’s library. All of the birds I’ll be making are native to Wisconsin and also happen to migrate thousands of miles each year between here and Mexico. A lot of what I’m talking about with this piece is the role of migration and our ecosystems. In a healthy ecosystem, migration is something we need to renew resources. In an unhealthy ecosystem, that’s where you run into problems, that’s where when the cycle is broken, you end up instead in a new cycle of violence and abuse and a depletion of resources and that’s essentially what we see happening in our society as well. A lot of what I talk about in my work is paralleling what’s happening in our human-made world with the natural world.
Going back to the birds, I’ve been studying how these different birds migrate, how they navigate and how they fly together in flocks, because that’s something scientists still don’t completely understand. What is it that makes them fly in unison and what are the benefits of it? You’ve got birds like geese that fly in V formation where there’s always a leader in the flock, but the role of the leader is to make it easier for everyone who’s following to fly. All the birds in that V formation are riding on an air current, except that one who is doing all the work. And when that one gets tired, he or she signals to the other birds that it’s time to switch and they rotate to the back of the flock and somebody else takes the lead and that hardest role. You have other species of birds that fly in flocks of the thousands. And what’s the function of that? There is no leader; these are pure democracies. You have small songbirds who, by themselves, would be weak and vulnerable to a predator, who fly in mass for the protection of the individual.
The flocks are essentially very democratic. Even if they are hierarchical, they’re not strictly hierarchical and the benefit is that they protect the individual. You can also hurt the individual in this way. Flying in formation makes it very easy for the birds to be seen, and the same things that have made these birds safe from predators, also makes them easy targets for guns. That’s something to think about in the ways that we as people rally together. Do we rally together for good? And can these things be used against us?
The fabric in this project ... (will be) old clothes and old fabric, because this is one of the biggest things we produce — really overproduce — and it’s one of our biggest pollution problems. We’ve all seen the masses of clothing that get donated to Goodwill and it can’t be resold and it ends up in big bales to be shipped elsewhere. In a way, asking for these clothes for this project is to reclaim them for some purpose that doesn’t vilify them, because these clothes can’t be recycled or broken down because of the way they're manufactured. It’s easy a lot of times to get discouraged by the wrongs we’ve done as human beings, about the past, but we’re not going to move forward if we continue to scrutinize and vilify where we’ve come from, so these birds are going to be made from fabrics that are flawed and that are manufactured and poorly made, but they’re going to come together in unison into something that makes people look up at the ceiling in awe and wonder.
Have you ever led a community art project of this scope?
I had a mural project in Milwaukee and it was a little different there because I was working with a school and they were the main ones painting the mural. They did have a community painting day and invited people to come and work on the mural with us. That was my first one. I’m a muralist now and I’m starting my next project in Milwaukee next month and I’ve got a few others lined up as well.
Madison seems to be embracing murals lately. Are you seeing a movement toward them?
I’m seeing more people taking an interest in it. Part of it is that murals in other cities have shown to be a really great way to organize the community around a shared cause and the arts also have been shown to be a big economic boost. And the third thing I would say is especially in any area that isn’t well used or even neglected, public art can be a way to deter tagging of buildings, there is respect for that piece and it becomes a way to get people to slow down in intersections. It changes the way people move through a space. All of that adds up to an understanding of how art affects our spaces and especially if you’re thinking of our shared spaces, there’s always talk of how the designs of our cities affect who we are.
There's been some discussion about how artists might respond to recent political events, but that seems very immediate. Do you address current politics or events with your work?
When I talk about migration and ecosystems, it doesn’t matter what year it is or if an election has happened, this is how each of us has played a role and affected another. In terms of cycles of power, that’s something we should always understand, in times of peace or war, and really it comes down to understanding who we are and how we relate to other people. That sounds simplistic, but that’s a lot of what my work is. I think what it is that I’m trying to affect isn’t so much a call to action right in this moment, but a daily call to examine our habits and influences because it’s in the day-to-day that we make the year-to-year. It’s in what we do locally that we affect what happens globally. We can’t separate these things.
I also hope that by teaching us to focus, the arts can help us take daily actions that affect our long-term well-being. Politics isn't a one-day event, just like no diet can be effective without a long-term change in lifestyle. So we need to pay attention to what's happening right now, with an understanding that what we act upon is a part of the long-term game. And so I create my work — and the habits and teachings around it — with a vision for how it can help us in the long term.
I just want people to look at things more closely. To look inwardly in a different way and outwardly in a different way.
Barack Obama was just talking about the need to be quiet for a while after he leaves office, to see things differently when there's no need to comment on them all the time.
It’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about, especially since my work does align very easily with what’s happening in the community, what’s happening in activism. I’m usually quiet and observing at the beginning before I respond and every once in a while I think maybe I’m not quick enough, reactive enough in getting a message out there. But I also want to know that once I put something out there it’s something I can stand behind. This message with the "In Unison" project — the ways in which we organize can be used to our benefit or they can be used against us — if you’re outraged about what’s going on, good. But is it possible that someone else can use your outrage? Just being mad isn’t enough. You have to be the one who’s in control and can channel it.