Our art editor, Cynthia Close, recently had this exchange with Jenn Warpole, Issue #11’s featured artist. Here’s what she had to say about what art school did for her, her interest in the human figure, and the ebb and flow of the creative life.
You attended The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, one of the most respected traditionally conservative art schools in the country. What motivated you to study art? Did your family support that decision?
I was always drawing growing up, and it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t be an artist, so I never developed a plan B. I like to tell people that I learned to draw from Archie Comics, as they were my first references. Later on I would copy portraits of Christian Slater and River Phoenix from teen magazines. I wasn’t interested in fine art until later in high school when I found a book of paintings by Giacometti, who changed my trajectory completely. I wasn’t very savvy about art schools but my high school boyfriend had just completed his studies at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and his growth in such a short time was extraordinary and inspired some jealously that turned out to be quite useful. I knew that I needed to obtain a certain level of technical skill in order to make the paintings that I was interested in making, so I followed him to the Academy. My family has been very supportive, although I know they worry occasionally. My mother has suggested at times over the years that I develop some other skills such as welding or plumbing to help round things out.
What advice do you have for students who want to go to college to study art?
That is a complicated subject for me currently. On the one hand, attending the Academy has been one of the best decisions I have ever made and I am grateful to the school and the faculty I studied with. I think that artists can grow and gain skills at a much faster rate with good training and by being in an environment with other talented and motivated artists. I credit a lot of my growth to my fellow students. On the other hand, I am concerned with the tuition rates of art schools now, so leaving school with large amounts of debt is not something that I would suggest lightly to anyone. If school is financially possible, I’d say it’s worth it. If it’s not there are many smaller schools and art centers taught by teachers who have attended the big art schools and can pass on that training. I also feel it’s important to be a part of a community of artists. In my experience people don’t flourish in a vacuum. It may be the best thing I received from my time at the Academy.
It is often difficult for young artists to continue making serious work after graduating from the rarified world of art school. How did you handle that transition?
I remember someone telling me that if one continues to make art 5 years after graduation then they’ll most likely be able to continue on. I’m not sure if that’s useful or even true but it struck me as a manageable goal to shoot for at the time. In my own experience, I’ve had many periods in which I’ve made nothing for months. The year following graduation I stopped painting but was able to keep drawing once a week at a public drawing group. Over the years I’ve learned the things that I need to do to keep painting in my life, but there have always been ebbs and flows to it. I think that’s ok. Even if I am not physically painting, I am still seeing and changing. Usually when I come back to working after a period away, my work has changed for the better. That I cannot envision myself doing anything else and being satisfied is helpful for motivation, and seeing my peers make beautiful things and carry on has been necessary. I have a number of friends who are very successful and I think that’s important, to know that it’s possible. Other than that I just try to trust that there is a good reason that I have a desire to paint.
It is clear that the human figure is central to your work. More recently the figure seems to be dissolved in abstraction. Can you talk about this evolution?
I see the clarity vs. dissolution of my figures as more of a back and forth rather than an evolution. My most recent work, which isn’t on my website yet, has been clearer than previously. I’m not sure what this means but I don’t think it’s very important to know. Perhaps it’s about where I’m at in my life or perhaps it’s about what I’m trying to convey or value at the time. Figures dissolving into space have always struck me as very accurate so I expect it will always be in my work to some degree.
What artists have impacted/influenced your work?
I identify generally with artists from the 19th century through the mid-20th. Specifically I’ve looked at Degas, Vuillard, Lautrec, Redon, Giacometti, Bacon and Picasso.
What has been your greatest success story to date?
I just completed my first residency at The Vermont Studio Center and that was always a dream of mine. Being in an environment with other artists and away from any sort of schedule for a month was a wonderful thing. It gave me a lot of ideas and taught me a lot about my process. This year I’m starting a project to work with some dancers here in Philadelphia. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and I’m thrilled that it’s coming together.
Most of the public exhibition of your work has been in Philadelphia. This seems to indicate you have chosen to stay close to home. Are you interested in cultivating a wider audience?
Yes! I think the location of my exhibitions speak more to my having attended school and lived in Philadelphia for over ten years. I would love to extend my audience and to have roots and relationships in other areas.
Is public feedback from the exhibition of your work important to you?
Absolutely, I love hearing what people see and how it affects them. Sometimes they see and put words to experiences that I was having at the time I created the painting. I never intend to put specific things in the paintings so hearing what comes through is always a little miracle.