Jennifer Steffey's trio of paintings, grouped together under the title of Agrivulture, will be on view at the Mulberry Street Library through August 30, 2013. An illustrator for the American Museum of Natural History, Jenn also has a wide range of independent artistic projects. Using pen and ink, watercolor, and even animation to capture her inimitable style, she is Influenced by comics and superheros, surrealism, photography, pop culture, and especially her unforgettable Murphy the dog. I spoke with Jenn about her artwork.
Were you one of those kids who loved to draw?
Root by Jennifer SteffeyYes, I loved drawing as a kid. But I think almost all of us drew or painted when we were kids, I just never stopped. I have an older brother who drew a lot, so that was a big influence on me. We copied a lot from Star Wars comic books. I remember we had Star Wars dixie cups in our bathroom and I know I copied those too. But if left to my young druthers, I'd be drawing animals, specifically cats and dogs since those were our pets. I drew up a flyer for business venture into dog walking. "WHY WALK YOUR DOG WHEN I CAN?" read the top of the flyer, with a profile of a cocker spaniel underneath. My father made xerox copies of it to hand out around the neighborhood, but my terminal shyness got the better of me and I never gave any to anyone.
What was the inspiration for the trio of paintings you have on display, "Agrivulture"?
"Agrivulture" is a name I came up with when I was thinking about Big Ag business and corporate farming. The three paintings that I chose to hang at the library were each done as a stand alone piece about 10 years ago. The same issues of genetically modified foods and unsustainable agriculture were around then as they are now. I am concerned, like most people, about the long term effects of GMOs as well as how we will be able to feed the world's exploding population. To me it seems there is only short-term thinking to what is obviously a long-term problem.
Like our other current artist, Fred Gutzeit, you also use dogs as inspiration in your art.
I think Fred's work is wonderful and I too have created a lot of dog themed artwork. As I said before, I drew them as a kid. Recently as an adult I got a dog of my own. She was the first dog that was mine and not the family dog. Murphy was a Boston terrier and a perfect muse. Being black and white and a complete goofball, she was a perfect subject for ink drawing. I made some mini books of her (which you can see here and here), several animations of her (1, 2, 3) and much, much more. She passed away last year but she'll always be in my heart. The best way for me to commemorate her is through art.
How does working as an illustrator at the American Museum of Natural History inspire your art?
Working at the American Museum of Natural History is a fantastic place for inspiration, not just for art but for life in general. I am incredibly lucky to work in an environment that it's sole purpose is to explore and question the world around us. I spent one winter, which was unbearably cold, staying indoors at lunch and walking around the museum just drawing. I took a 5 x 7 inch sketch pad and a ball point pen with me and drew whatever caught my eye. There is no way I could ever draw everything that is in there, which is a nice feeling.
The Thankless Role of Great Power
You attended the Rhode Island School of Design for art school, what was your greatest take-away from that experience?
Art school for me was really about my classmates. The collaboration I had at that point in my life was so vital. I came from the suburbs and was feeling like the lone art nerd. Being in an entire college of art nerds bolstered my confidence as an artist. I am still friends with many people that went to RISD with me, even those who were before or after. It is true that art school teaches you the rules of art so you can go out and break them. Though I have to say that a lot of the fundamentals I learned there I still rely on today. It was a wonderful experience.
What do you like about showing your artwork in a library?
Showing artwork in a library is great because you have such a large flow of people passing by to see it. Library patrons are already open minded and curious about new things. Plus libraries are instutions of thought and learning. They are sanctuaries of quiet reflection in an ever distracted world of non-stop, hand-held media. What better place can an artist ask to show their work?
Agrivulture will be on view at Mulberry Street Library through August 31, 2013.