Painter Jennifer Kapnek is known for her trees. Some standing straight, some leaning, each with great attention to the structure and movement of its branches. Trees materialized in her work when she studied metalsmithing in college, appeared in public sculptures she made in New York, and star on the 3-D paintings on wood that grace the homes of many Portlanders. A rotating cast of other elements often accompany the tree: the moon, mountains, birds, and an occasional fig or acorn.
“I like simplicity,” said Jennifer. “I look at paintings with complexity, admire them, am inspired, but it’s not what I’m moved to paint.” Most of her paintings feature a single sparse tree, which provokes a variety of feelings in viewers. “Sometimes people look at my work and they say, ‘Oh, it looks so lonely.’ And I say, ‘It’s not lonely. It’s just independent.’”
Jennifer grew up in New York City. In her schooling, she preferred the artistic to the academic. After high school, Jennifer pursued her BFA in metalsmithing at Philadelphia College of Art and Design (now the University of the Arts). She also earned certification in art therapy. “After college, I felt like I’d spent four years with my head down really low working at my bench,” she said. “I picked my head up and thought I wanted to be involved with more.” She also needed time to heal from art school, which focused on criticism more than encouragement.
Jennifer was hired as an art therapist working with teenage boys in a juvenile detention center. After three years, Jennifer made an important decision. “I thought okay, I’m definitely an artist,” she said. “I’m going to pursue it, and I’m never going to give it up.”
Jennifer worked for jewelers in the Diamond District and SOHO, displayed in galleries in the city, and participated in several public art projects. At home, she began a series of sculptures based on psychologist Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. “I was working with the idea that our emotional language is limited,” she said. “That our spoken language is tiny to express our emotions. I felt this huge, deep emotional life, and I had no words to say the things I felt.”
Jennifer yearned to work with color. She began a small business called Stillights, painting paper lamp shades with concentrated watercolors. As a struggling artist in New York, Jennifer always had jobs in addition to art. The opportunity to participate in the Cow Parade changed her life. New York was one of the cities around the US that paid artists to decorate life-size white cows. Jennifer was selected to paint two cows, making enough money to realize her dream of leaving New York. She bought a van and drove across the country.
Jennifer was involved in artists’ organizations in New York, and continued this when arriving in Portland. “It’s really important for me to have relationships and interactions with people in a positive way,” she said. “When I’m painting I feel like I can get lost for days on end, and I’m glad to have commitments that get me out of that space.”
Initially, Jennifer worked with a group called the Artistry Collective. When it disbanded, she started working with the Urban Art Network. Founded by artists Peyto Yellin and Dan Cohen, the UAN came about in response to the Pearl District’s lack of inclusion of street artists. They developed the idea for a street gallery.
Jennifer loves the mission of UAN, the idea that artists can self represent and emerge. “In our society, which basically undervalues art in every way, it is magic to see the people come to look at the art,” she said. “And it’s really good for artists to meet the audience. If you’re going to try to educate yourself about your audience, it’s a lot easier to do it in public than it is in art school.”
In Portland, Jennifer’s iconic tree continues to develop. “When I started, I made myself a promise that I would paint the trees until I got bored of painting them,” she said. “I have never really got bored of trees themselves. I got bored of the format of painting trees on flat wood.” One day, when her tree felt too cramped, she attached another piece of wood. This opened up a whole new 3-D world which she has been exploring since. Recently she has added branches as additional sculptural elements.
Jennifer’s use of recycled wood is important to her. “Part of it is because it’s important to the planet. But I also just like stuff with history.” She knows the history of many of the pieces of wood she paints on. They might have been part of a deck, or a neighbor’s fence, or they may remind her of someone who gave her that piece of wood.
Jennifer’s relationships are a big part of her life. She comes from a family with many artists, and surrounds herself with artist friends. She also has a deep love of animals, and resides with several rescued pets. “I have a strong feeling of responsibility and I always have,” she said. “If I see a need, I try to fill it. And if I see a creature in need, it’s hard to not want to take care of it.”
Jennifer’s continuing work with children also influences her. For the past eight years, Jennifer has worked closely with someone who has, among his many attributes, autism. “He teaches me all the time about the value of being happy and adding less language to situations,” she said. Jennifer feels lucky for this, and lucky to paint. “Very few people on this planet get to do what they love,” she said. “It just isn’t the stuff that lives are made of. And my life is. That means a lot to me.”
—by Teresa Bergen
Visit Jennifer's web site at: www.jenniferkapnek.com
Visit Jennifer’s Profile Page where you can view more images of her work and read her Artist's Statement.