Jenny Nelson’s art derives less from inspiration and more from showing up, dedicated work and surrendering to the process.
I always knew I wanted to create something. I declared in second grade that I would go to art school and become an artist. At that age, my mother says, I communicated best by drawing. Ask me a question and I would answer in shapes and lines.
What I didn’t know, of course, was how long and winding the path would be to my current home studio.
After graduating college, a little late, the challenge was how to show up and do the work on my own time. I didn’t have a permanent studio, so there were a lot of make shift spaces. But I found there was no substitute for continuous art-making. So I would set up a studio just about anywhere: an old garage, an attic, barn, someone’s spare room. It took an enormous amount of committed studio time to begin to develop work that was strong and unique to me. For that reason, I have always loved this quote from Chuck Close:
…Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.
Another challenge for me was accepting my natural work schedule. It seemed I could not make it to my studio until the afternoon, and then I would paint through dinner and into the early evening. I still do this today. Morning is for emails, office work, making lists, clearing my plate for studio time. I spent years beating myself up about my timing. I thought I was always late to the studio and that I was procrastinating terribly. This turned out to not be true. When I finally accepted my natural schedule, I realized that I was really disciplined. I did show up and I did make the paintings, lots of them.
Looking back I can see the dedication it took to show up and develop my work, to override self-doubt, and to face the turbulent ups and downs that is the creative process. I had a very slow curve of confidence building.
In the studio on any given day: I don’t know how to do this. A nap on the couch. Action. Aha! A breakthrough. Hope. I feel like I have never done this before. The bliss of solitude. I’m lost. Despair. I found something! I want to leave. I’m ready to give up. I’m staying. This is getting somewhere.
For me, painting is a collaboration between myself and the materials. A conversation starts that has a beginning and an end, but everything in between is unpredictable. At first some exciting things show up, vigorous lines and lots of color, but I try to disregard these initial, too beautiful bursts, work over them, and develop something deeper. As the painting evolves, shapes and lines solidify, and I begin to see how the parts affect the whole.
By layering, adding and subtracting, a kind of history develops on the canvas. Shapes have a story to tell. Lines that have been obliterated and resurrected over and over again have an emotional charge. What started as a wild party ends up as a contemplative, carefully edited composition, involving precise modifications, while hopefully leaving some life force in tact.
This process mystifies me. Although I am always in some phase of a painting, I’m so in it that it’s as if I can’t recognize the familiar steps. It is unknown to me what is really happening while the paint is being applied and taken away. The decisions that are made are not quite of this world, not meant to be completely understood.
What I have discovered is courage — the courage to show up and go deep into the work.