Jennifer McChristian


The Arts: Artistic {Re}treats

Flowering of Artistic Perseverance

Entrance to studio space. Photo by Slow + Sustain.

Jennifer emerges from quarantine with renewed vigor for plein air painting. She returns to her favorite haunts to create new work and takes a moment to tell us about her extensive painting career; how she acheived success, in spite of the odds, as a female traditional impressionist.

Your art has had an active following and customer base for years. As a well-established artist in your community, can you share a little about your journey to attaining this level of success and what (if anything) about being female helped or hindered you on your way there?

Jennifer: It was a challenging but fulfilling journey to achieve this level of recognition within the traditional impressionist painting community and beyond. In the beginning, I worked in animation and it was daunting to leave the safety of a steady employ to focus full time on painting. My painting skills lay fallow during the animation industry years, and it was almost heartbreaking to see some of the first plein air paintings I created. My husband Ben was very supportive and would accompany me on those first excursions in and around LA. We lived right next to Griffith Park, so we’d get our gear and trudge up the hiking paths to find an out-of-the-way spot to paint undisturbed. It was around this time we began the uninstructed figure drawing sessions out of my art studio in Los Feliz, which we’ve consistently hosted 3 times a week for the past 20 years. Drawing models from life has been a huge boon to my career and artistic abilities, as well as being extremely meditative and helpful with the daily stress of life. The added benefits of building an art community and helping other artists hone their skills has been extremely gratifying and rewarding.

The First Workshops

My first art opening was an amazing event with friends and family at a small café in Glendale. After I start organizing small groups of friends to paint with, one of them asked me to teach. I was hesitant at first because I’m quite shy and suffer from stage fright, but she convinced me to think of it as just “talking to friends”. So then, Ben and I went to New Mexico and I taught a small group of students in Grants and it turned out wonderfully. I’ve been teaching plein air painting workshops ever since.

Jennifer, masked, in conversation with a visitor at the studio she and her husband, Ben (seated), share. Photo by Slow + Sustain.

I’ve been doing an annual workshop locally in Ojai in the spring and 1 or 2 international workshops in the summer or fall. For several years I was also teaching up in Big Sur at the prestigious Esalen Institute – as renowned for its celebrity clientele as it is for its natural hot springs baths on the cliffside overlooking the Pacific Ocean. During the early years I also attended several of the annual plein air paint outs and group painting events. It was a wonderful experience and I met so many wonderful artists and like-minded souls that still positively impact my life to this day. My list of accomplishments since then can be gleaned readily enough by a perusal of the biography on my website. I’ve been in numerous galleries, received multitudes of awards, and shown regularly at group exhibitions nationally and internationally. But it was the early years that were the most memorable, and as each new obstacle tumbled away before me, I steadily progressed upward along my path.

Jennifer’s exercise equipment in the corner of her studio. Photo by Slow + Sustain.

Gender vs. Tradition

As far as how being a woman has helped or hindered me, how it has helped advance my career I am not certain; beyond the wonderful emotional support of my husband I can say that no particular examples spring to mind. Whether it has slowed or impeded the trajectory of my career success is a different matter. There is a definite unspoken sexism in the traditional painting community, and I feel it’s more so here than it is in the contemporary or modern art community. The very nature of tradition is a call back to earlier days of pronounced gender inequality, while modern thought is by nature iconoclastic and breaking of old patterns of thought and gender definitions. But I love traditional painting, so therein lies the rub.

There’s the repeated assumption when my work is first viewed at the studio by guests coming to our figure drawing workshop that it was painted by my husband, and he’s continually redirected them my way. Sometimes their enthusiasm for my work visibly passes from their faces at the realization that a woman has created these works, as if undermining their faith in the naturally hierarchical order of the universe, a shock to their paradigm. This phenomenon is not exclusive to life at the studio though, and on more than one occasion others who have come across my work without seeing my signature have at first thought that a man had painted it. There even exists a derogatory reference to women painters in the traditionalist plein air painting community as “floppy hat painters” who are to be considered hobbyists and noncommittal or somehow inferior in their skills than the men. Then there are the publicity jaunts that some male plein air painting artists put together to reinforce the reigning mythology. There has been a few memorable trips where all the yearning-to-be-machismo guys get together and take their painting gear on horseback into the mountains to reenact the old west, though they somehow manage to document it all with their iPhones. Regardless, no women are included on these expeditions. It’s a “guy thing,” they say.

Many of my peers seem to perceive me as some kind of tomboy due to my career choices and adventures in painting but I consider myself a girly girl who keeps up with fashion and excels at housekeeping and interior decorating.

These are the few examples that come to mind, and there may countless other instances behind closed doors which I am not aware of, and countless other instances behind closed minds that the critics themselves are unaware of. That being said, the only solution I have found to this eternal problem is a continual perseverance and focus on the artwork itself, for it will speak to my truth for a long time after my eventual departure from this earthly plane.

Workshops and the zine are organized by Slow + Sustain through the volunteer efforts of our contributors. Funding comes from both the contributors and the public.

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