BY SAM DESTEFANO
Jen Starling’s body of work combines classical and contemporary aesthetics that have an overall haunting appeal. She will be the first to admit that much of her work is in response to America’s current social, political and environmental crisis. In particular the subjugation of women and children. We have always been drawn to her work and were lucky to have the opportunity to learn more about her practice.
You’ve dedicated so much to your pursuit of ballet and modern dance, including your BA in Performance Art from the University of MD. Are you still involved in these performing arts and at what point did you shift your focus to the visual arts?
I am no longer involved in the performing arts. It’s somewhat unfortunate, as I miss dancing and the communal nature of rehearsing and performing. In fact, I have lots of dreams that I’m dancing, however I’m grateful that I chose my creative outlets in the order I did, and got to experience physical expression at my physical peak (I’m 46 now). Before shifting to visual art, I transitioned from dance to rock climbing for about 15 years. That was a rewarding time in my life, but I was neglecting my creative nature. I dabbled in visual art throughout my life, and always had lots of artist friends, but I started painting in 2015 via an online art class, and was instantly hooked. My tendency has always been to dive into things full force.
How did your studies help to influence, shape and inform your artwork?
Great question! I think primarily I understand the importance of technique, interesting content, and a disciplined practice due to my dance background. For example, I am not convinced by a contemporary dance performance if the dancers do not have a foundational practice in the principles of ballet, as I am not attracted to visual art that does not exemplify technical skills. Furthermore, I believe at their highest level both dance and visual art need to express interesting content that is provocative and engaging. Finally, I learned how to work hard at a very young age due to hours spent in the dance studio. I loved the intense focus, and the reward of progress. The same is true for painting.
I didn’t question working hard. I just worked hard and the same is true with time spent painting.
I travel to lots of festivals around the country. It is a crazy lifestyle! There are definitely positives and negatives involved. Hitting the road on a beautiful sunny day listening to my favorite music or podcasts can feel like freedom. The endless to-do list no longer matters, and adventure lays ahead. However, when I’m driving home through a torrential downpour after a crappy show, my check engine light comes on, I’ve barely slept, and I get pulled over by a TX cop for a cracked windshield with my underwear drying on the dash from a hotel sink washing (true story), I question if I should get a “real” job. But once I arrive home in one piece, get some sleep, and follow-up sales come through, it seems to make sense again. It is a life of extremes; High ups, low downs, and a lot of unknowns, but so far it seems to be working out. It also helps that I have some great traveling artist friends who do a lot of the same shows. We can commiserate and celebrate together.
Your pieces walk a fine line between realism and surrealism. Do you find yourself leaning towards one side or the other? How do you manage this delicate aesthetic that seems to be at the heart of your work?
I’m always searching for the perfect balance between the two. I love to create otherworldly people who read as believable. I’m not interested in fantasy as a genre, but I want to riff on the unique, bizarre, and beautiful variations of humanity that exist in order to bring attention to the fantastic that is reality. I’ve spent the last year and a half focusing more on realism. Since I did not go to art school, I’ve have had to practice a lot of basic skills. Fortunately, the surrealism in my work comes out naturally, and keeps the work lighter than it would be otherwise. I want to make people feel and think, as well as smile. I love mixing old and new, whimsical and haunting, dark and light. It’s like a joke that makes you laugh while kicking you in the gut at the same time.
I mentioned above that I didn’t go to art school. I think the beauty of this (there are certainly draw backs as well) is that when I started painting my work came from a very subconscious unedited place. I would literally take paint to canvas and let the marks guide each consecutive mark. The subject matter that I ended up with was women, children, and sometimes animals. I used to doodle a ton, and had sketch books in high school, and I always drew faces. In terms of emotional content, it isn’t something that I think about while I’m painting, and I’m often surprised at what is revealed. But I do recognize when something is working or not, and acknowledge that the emotion in my portraits is a primary component of my work.
How would you say a lot of your recent work is responding to the crisis in America’s current social, political and environmental issues?
We live in a dark time. The state of government and the environment is something I never thought I’d witness. This reality is in the air. There is no denying it. We all have power to affect the situation. My power is that of an artist. I think that after experiencing my work, viewers will feel an emotional impact. I believe they will feel a mixture of sadness, and hope, that makes those who have been oppressed feel seen and heard, and inspires viewers to reflect on their personal experiences in order to understand the experiences of those who are different from themselves. But most importantly, I want viewers to be moved toward action. Action expressed as internal growth, political activism, creativity, increased awareness, etc. Any ripple created by my work that promotes positivity in a desperate time is seen as success.
When you look through your work chronologically it’s clear that your styles is an evolution in progress. How would you describe the evolution of your style? Where are you headed with it and what can we expect to see in the future?
I’ve definitely shifted more towards realism. Much of my work has become darker and more serious, which is a reflection of the times. I’ve become more intentional in my work, and I create more cohesive series than I used to. I will continue to make more deliberate decisions and focused work while remaining open to the magic of creating.
Jen, we are grateful to you for sharing your inspiring and immensely talented art and voice with our readers. We can’t wait to see more from you in the future.