Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Dancing From Canvas to Canvas: An Interview with Jen Noren

Jen Noren can paint a picture of a lonely street and make you want to live there.  She paints a blue guitar with a red background and you think, "there's my guitar", even though you never owned one.  Her love of life is writ large across every canvas.  You want to see what she sees; the world in technicolor.

Let's chat.
Paper Route

Q1.  What is your first memory of art?

A1.  I have a lot of early memories of art, because a lot of people in my family painted for fun.  But I think my earliest memory of art was when my big sister got in trouble for painting her baby cradle with my Mom’s red oil paint.  It’s a pretty vivid memory of being up in the attic in our house in Ashland, [Ohio], the house I was born in.  I was probably around a year old, I bet.  [Interviewer's note:  My first conscious memory is from age 13.  Some of us are late bloomers.]  I remember my Mom yelling at my sister Wendy, and seeing the wooden baby cradle smeared with red oil paint. Red is still my big sister’s favorite color.  I think, to Wendy, the cradle must have looked beautifully transformed!

I remember thinking it smelled really bad, like a skunk.  [Interviewer's note:  Hahahahahaha] I also remember seeing the oil painting that my Mom was working on.  It was a snowy, old fashioned horse-and-buggy church scene, with a big red church that had a tall steeple.  This painting hung above our fireplace mantle in my childhood.  I don’t know where it is now.

Wendy still paints furniture, lol! After writing this, I think I should gift her with a red cradle. Mom yelled at her then, but it's been a family joke about Wendy's artistic expression ever since.

Rt. 55

Q2.  What is the first work of art you created?

A2.  It is tough to say what my first work of art was.  I am the third daughter of four kids; I have a younger brother.  We always had art supplies when we were little.  We had a big, antique heavy square table that was our “art table” (my parents refurbished and sold antiques as a hobby, they loved Flea Marketing).  This table was good for everything, and the top was covered in crayon and marker scribbles, dried glue, you name it [Interviewer's note:  Personally, I choose not to dwell on the nature of dried substances and children]. My two older sisters and I were competitive artists.  We had challenges drawing popular cartoons, like Peanuts, Shel Silverstein drawings, Smurfs, or Garfield and Odie.

I suppose I had an advantage being the youngest artist; I could build on what everyone else was doing. (My little brother, Nathaniel, seemed to have been passed over for the art gift! We all felt bad about that until he picked up Blues guitar at the age of 15, and then it all made sense, thankfully!)

Blue Guitar
But I would say that my defining moment, my first “real” work of art was a pencil portrait of my Grandpa Noren. My Grandpa Noren was an extremely gifted, self-taught artist.  As far as I know, he never sold any work professionally, but he painted wildlife and portrait reproductions in oils like a master.  My Grandparents came to visit when I was around 5 or 6 years old. My Grandpa drew my portrait in pencil.  I remember what I was wearing that day!  He then handed the pad of paper and pencil to me, and asked me to draw his portrait.  I obliged, and I worked very hard at my drawing.  I wanted to impress him, I knew he was the best.  I remember toiling over capturing every wrinkle in his face, hahaha! (Oh, how he must have loved that!)

When I was done, I handed the drawing to him and he was astonished.  He started yelling for the whole family, saying, “Jennifer is an artist, she’s an artist, look at this”!  And so, that was my defining moment.  He pronounced me to be an artist, and I was one.  I took it very seriously and truthfully.  From that moment on, I was an artist, and I worked at it like it was my job.  I have always felt very fortunate about this, especially when I was in high school, and heard my friends struggling over choosing a college major, and wondering “what they will be when they grow up”, you know?  It was never a question for me.  I guess I never really worried about it.  My job has always been superfluous (is that the right word?). [Interviewer's note: That's one of them.  Several others come to mind but you never know who will be reading]  I mean, I love my job, but it doesn’t DEFINE me.  I am, and always have been, An Artist.
Grandma's Utensils
Q3.  Are there specific triggers that cause you to race to a blank canvas or do you impose a certain discipline on yourself?

A3.  When I was in school (ages 6-18), I would race to my notebook paper to draw frequently.  And I would race home from school to draw, sometimes 16-hour straight marathons of drawing or painting, to complete my masterpieces.  During school hours, I would draw caricatures or parodies, or political cartoons for the school paper or to be passed in notes to my friends, instead of doing school work in subjects I struggled in (Math).

Now that I am an adult, a working mother of two, I have to plan my race to the canvas.  When inspiration strikes, it is usually while I’m driving to and from work.  It's about a 45 minute drive, and, I don’t know what the word is right now, but it’s kind of a dreamy, twilight time for me that is productive for inspiration.  So I’m inspired, but I’m on my way to work, or I’m on my way home to pick up my kids.  If I have a particular inspiration that nags at me, then I plan it all out ahead of time, I work out the layers and the composition and colors in my mind, like a back burner simmering as I go about my day doing everything I have to do.

Umbrella Tables
 I work on paintings in stages as I have time.  An hour here, an hour there, and then more time when my boys go to their Dad’s house.  So, I do all the baby steps in the short segments of time.  I stretch the canvas.  I do a layer of gesso.  The next day, I do another layer of gesso.  A week later, I add a layer of color (I hate a white canvas, I always do underpaintings first).  Then, when I get my errands done or whatever it is, I put in the long hours on the painting on Fridays and Saturdays.

A lot of times, I will have several paintings beginning at once, maybe in different stages, and this is how I get a lot of painting done with little time. Friends are always asking me how I have so much time to get so many paintings done. That’s the thing,  I don’t have a lot of time!  Somehow, I make it look like I do!

Q4.  Can you tell us about your adventures creating art in public? What do you feel are the biggest differences about the produced in a public setting as opposed to art you create alone?

Q4.  When I paint alone, I am extremely focused, almost like I’m dreaming or meditating.  I barely notice myself breathing.  When I create art in public, I feel a lot more like an Action Painter, like Jackson Pollock, or like a performance artist.  My art takes on a lot of the energy of the music and people around me. I splash the paint, I let the mineral spirits run.  I pick up the canvas and turn it this way, and that.  Usually, I am talking over my shoulder to people.  After a while, I have to shut people out in order to get the painting done on time.  But it’s really fun to talk to people while I paint.  I love to educate them about it, and I love how magical it is for them.  People always say, “Wow!  I’ve never watched anyone paint before”!  Painting is usually a solitary kind of thing.

Abstract, painted to music
But, I’m a wannabe rock star at heart, this is no secret!  Hahaha!  I have always been inspired by music.  I want to be close to it.  I like to set up my easel stage-side of my friends that are performing in bands.  It’s as close as I can be to center stage, singing on the mic.  It’s funny.  I have tried my hand at singing.  I have even recorded (a friend recorded some songs with me as a gift), and it’s awesome.  But singing and playing guitar is very, very hard work for me.  If I wasn’t a visual artist, I would be a performing artist, for sure.  I have also had a guitar since I was 6 years old, but my brother got that gift!

My Dad gave his guitar to me when my brother was still in diapers.  Obviously, he didn’t know it belonged to my brother, (he was close)!  There is definitely a difference between my public art and my studio art.  My studio art is a lot more peaceful and controlled.  My public art is usually wild and chaotic.  I’ve had people say that my public art can make them feel motion sickness, there’s so much going on.  Can you believe that?!  I don’t have a problem with it.  I live in the heart of all that.

Red Guitar Still Life
Q5.  When you are working on a piece, is there a point at which you realize you have a masterpiece taking shape on the canvas?

A5.  That is an interesting question, because I was happy to give up on the idea of painting a “masterpiece” a long time ago.  I don’t remember when, maybe in high school, I read something from an artist that stated something like, “If you have created a “Masterpiece”, then you are done creating.  The term, “Master” piece connotes that you can do no better, this is the pinnacle.  So, if you have created a true Masterpiece, then why would you continue?  This was a great realization for me, the pressure was off.  I didn’t have that anxiety facing a blank canvas anymore. I wasn’t there to create a masterpiece.  I was there to learn, to paint, to create, to have fun!

Now, on the flip side, (I love duality!) I still have a painting once in a while that I feel is a Masterpiece, hahaha! (I have one on my mantle right now, it surprised me when I painted it in the last month or two).

Jen's Latest "Master" piece
Something magical happens, usually, like a happy little accident.  Some way that a brush stroke reveals a texture, or the light is captured so perfectly that it looks alive.  Something I didn’t plan.  And I’m painting it, thinking, Oh my God, this is amazing, I’ve never painted anything better, and I don’t know if I can ever top this.  But, believing what I believe (the previous paragraph), I have to give that feeling time to wear off.  And, I have to let go of all that, and know that I’m not done yet, I’m not dead yet. (Like Monty Python, can you hear it? “I’m not dead yet!  I think I might go out for a walk”!)  I’m only forty years old, I have many, many, many more years to paint.  I will live to be over a hundred years old, I believe, so I have to get over this, and know that I will do more “Master” pieces.  What do you think of that? [Interviewer's note:  I am exhausted thinking of that.]

Q6.  Are there any artists you find particularly inspiring?

A6.  The artists that I find inspiring are the most hard-working and prolific artists.  I am really inspired by artists with a strong work ethic, like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jackson Pollock.  I love how Basquiat worked on three easels at once.  I only have two easels now, but I want another one.  I want to work like him, on three easels, dancing from canvas to canvas with some lively music playing.  Have you seen the movie, “Basquiat: The Radiant Child”?  He was so beautiful.  He had these deep, dreamy eyes, like an angel.  He looked as if his soul resided in heaven.   A lot of times, I’ll have a painting on each easel, and others in beginning stages on the table, or propped up at the bottom of the easel.  And I do, of course, love strong woman artists, like Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Mary Cassat.

Though I love bold, vibrant art that looks more ethnic, Caribbean or Native American than European, I am sometimes envious of soft, subtle works of art.  I have tried to do subtle, and I just haven’t mastered that.  I kinda have to say, I hate pastels.  Just sometimes, I wish I could do it.  I wish I didn’t have to outline things, or have my color be so saturated.  It just doesn’t look right or feel right to me if I don’t do it my way.  But I would love to be able to paint something restful or peaceful.  The closest I can get to peaceful is with my abstracts.  Now, you’ll have to look at them, and tell me if you agree.  I love the people that agree with me on this!  Not everyone does.  Like I said, some people actually feel sick when they look at all that movement.  But for me, I think I can find peace in the midst of it all.  The abstracts can be more peaceful to me, because I don’t get stuck re-thinking a line, or re-painting it in my mind, Second guessing what I wish I would have done.  The abstracts set me free from all that worry.

Amy's Painting
Q7.  Are there any non-artists you find particularly inspiring?

A7.  What first comes to mind if I try to think of a non-artist that I find inspiring, are people that I’ve read about that have overcome adversity, like Harriet Tubman.  I love reading biographies.  The first real book I ever read was Freedom Train, The Story of Harriet Tubman.  I was an early reader.  My Mom says I was a spontaneous reader as a toddler, I don’t know.  So, my big sister let me read Freedom Train when she was done with it.  She was in 6th grade, and I was in 1st grade.  That really affected me.  I still draw analogies to it in my life.  I still feel like her sometimes, like I have to buy my freedom.

I relate to her, in that she was a hard-worker, but also a daydreamer.  In the book, it said that she had “spells” after being hit in the head, and that maybe sometimes she feigned spells so that she could rest.  Well, I’m not sure if I should admit this here, but I’m going to:  sometimes I take a paid day off work in order to paint, like you said, if I need to race to the canvas to paint something.  Usually, I am very disciplined, and I work very hard at my day-to-day things.  But sometimes, it is just too much, and I need to stay in my pj’s and paint for a day.
Historic Gas Station, Troy, Ohio
Q8.  Where can we see (and purchase) your work?

A8.  You can see my work online at:  www.JenniferNoren.com.  There are photos of my work on my Web site, and a link to my Etsy shop, FineArtbyJenoren.  For my local work, I try to post pics to my Facebook page, Jennifer Noren, Painter.  And you can see my work locally right now in Troy, Ohio, whether it is murals or window paintings in local businesses, or pieces for sale at David Fair on the Square (interior design and consignment) or at the Mayflower Arts Center.

Thanks so much, Carolyn!  I hope to sit with you and that sweet beagle for a cup of tea in the near future! 

That's funny - I was just going to say: Thanks for stopping by, Jen.  There’s always a beagle to pet and a cup of hot tea at the ready in Lakewood.  Don’t be a stranger.


  1. Carolyn, I love this! I love that you actually linked my Monty Python quote right to the script in Wikipedia, hahaha! I love the photos that you chose, and your Editor's notes, the interview reads like a conversation. That is special. This is very nice, thank you so much for this opportunity. Looking forward to reading your next interviews.

    1. Thanks, Jen. I had a great time putting it together. In fact, your stories are so funny and charming, I hesitated to put in any editor's notes at all! Now I'm imagining a children's book - The Cradle that Smelled Like a Skunk.

  2. Very insightful article, Carolyn. It was fun to learn more about a local Troy artist. I belong to Art Challenge Gallery and have admired Jennifer's incredible talent. Thanks for sharing.
    (Side note: Maybe I will see you at Mally's some day ;). We have family in Lakewood.)

    1. Thanks, Gina. So glad you enjoyed the article. Jen not only has incredible talent, she has an incredible personality! Does Art Challenge Gallery have a Web site? Might make for another interesting Troy article. :)

      And I will meet you at Mally's any time. Bring the fam!

  3. Oh, that is really neat, Gina! Such a small world, funny how we are all connected. Thanks for posting the sweet comment. And Carolyn, you can check it out at: www.artchallengegallery.com. There are open and closed facebook pages as well, it's a fun group. I will add you. :-)

  4. Wonderful interview Carolyn. Jen's and amazing artist...love her work. I enjoy that her interviews are sprinkled with family stories and a splash of humor on the side. Always makes me smile! :-)