Alumni Spotlight: Jenie Gao

Jenie Gao, full-time artist, creative director, and entrepreneur.

Q&A with Jenie Gao, BFA10 in Printmaking/Drawing

What are you making right now?
I’m working on a few different projects right now. I’m working on a mural for Lodgic Everyday Community, a coworking space with childcare. I’m doing consulting work for Milwaukee Artist Resource Network (MARN), a new art center that’s under construction and opening this fall. I’m working on an oral history project with Bayview Foundation to document the stories of neighborhood residents, in collaboration with photographer Jamie Ho. Finally, I’ll be publishing a series of essays about the role of art in a community ecosystem this fall, funded by the Madison Arts Commission. As a full-time artist with a mission-focused business, I feel lucky to do work that is entwined with social impact.

Where do you make work?
I run a 1,700-square-foot art production studio in Madison, Wisconsin, which is also where I host an internship/apprenticeship program for emerging artists to learn about arts entrepreneurism.

What’s your favorite and least favorite material/tool/process that you use?
My favorite carving/engraving tools are by E.C. Lyons. I love a good filbert brush or calligraphy brush for crisply painted line work. I could lose hours rustling through different types of papers and inks. I love precision and organizational tools. For example, I use the same scalpel handle from taking book arts at WashU, and make good use of metal rulers and 2H pencils. I’m a process/organizational geek. I love finding more efficient ways of doing things. I don’t know if I have a least favorite material or tool, but I despise poorly designed containers, and inefficiency is my pet peeve.

What do you listen to while you work?
I’m an avid podcast and audiobook consumer. Lately, I have been listening to LeVar Burton Reads, 99% Invisible, Imani State of Mind, and Scene on Radio.

Jenie Gao-Keep Singing
(left) "Keep Singing," 2020. Collaboration with Rae Senarighi; (right) "A Voice Crying Through the Vista of Time," 2019. Woodcut on Baltic Birch.

Do you have a ritual? A studio uniform?
I try to have breakfast outside (when the weather allows) with my partner. It’s too easy otherwise to spend the whole day in the studio and forget to take in fresh air.

I’m a pragmatic person, and pockets are a must for any studio uniform. Pocket leggings, pocket dresses, jeans with real pockets, vests with pockets, aprons with pockets. I used to wear whatever free T-shirts and worn-out jeans I’ve accrued over the years, but after a while you get tired of wearing crummy clothes for the majority of your workday. I still have those crummy clothes for really messy work, but I also have a rotation of well-fitting studio tops, jeans, and dresses that suit my style.

Must-have studio snack?
Dill or salt and vinegar potato chips. Dark chocolate with cayenne. Lots of herbal tea.

What do you do when you’re not in the studio?
I’m civically active, and perhaps the nerdiest way I spend my time is reading city budget proposals and preparing public comments to give during city meetings. I have a lot of bones to pick with equity and justice issues built into the civic process. This is perhaps one of the more stressful ways I spend my time outside the studio, but particularly in the age of Zoom, it can also be a lot of fun if you sign onto a city meeting with a group of your friends and a live chat running alongside the Zoom meeting. After all these years, I finally understand what football fans must feel when they’re yelling at a screen, booing their opponents, cheering for their team, and building camaraderie with their friends over excessively specific knowledge of their chosen sport. Except civic engagement is definitely not just a spectator sport.

Aside from that, I try to spend as much time as I can outside, either hiking in a state park, exploring the neighborhood, or having a bonfire with friends. I’m an introverted extrovert, so I pretty easily shift my time from going to all the happy hours to reading and writing in the company of my houseplants. My partner and I love to travel and go on road trips every year. I am also a skilled lounger and can lose hours of my life loafing with my cat, a graphic novel, and internet rabbit holes.

What influences your work the most?
I spend a lot of time studying systems. This can mean looking at what creates different patterns, behaviors, and cycles in natural ecosystems. It can also mean examining organizational systems in communities, governments, and companies. The study of systems manifests in my work in a few ways. In my visual art, it’s in my references to nature, and the way I combine patterns and forms. It’s in the allegories that I create through images. In my writing, I deconstruct systems in the arts industry, and name and create archetypes to help us better understand the contexts we work within.

Jenie Gao-How We Gather
"How We Gather," mural commission for Working Draft Beer Company, 2018.

What’s the biggest project you ever carried back from Bixby to the dorms?
Too many to list! A 4 x 8-foot pastel drawing triptych was probably one of the more nerve-wracking projects to carry back to the dorms. Several 3 x 4-foot drawings. A 4 x 4-foot piece of mat board from the campus art store that almost carried me away like a wind sail. A few 2 x 3-foot printmaking plates. Everyone will know that you’re an art student by what you carry home and to class every day.

Favorite WashU memory that you can share with the general public.
My roommates and I once invented a game called “Nascar.” To start the game, every passenger must enter through the driver’s window. Once aboard, we were only allowed to take left turns to get to our favorite St. Louis greasy spoons. U-turns did not count. We did not use GPS. Once at our destination, we all had to be sure to exit through the driver’s window. Anyone who forgot this would lose the game for the whole group.*

Another happy memory is that I adopted my cat, Charlemagne, while studying at WashU.

What’s the best thing you learned as an art student at WashU?
For me, WashU was a great proving ground in terms of how I understood and expanded my capabilities. I grew up in semi-rural Kansas, attended a not-so-great public high school, and came from an immigrant family without a lot of means. WashU is an exclusive, privileged, private school, and when I was in college, terms like “white privilege” and “wealth privilege” weren’t mainstream yet. I received a scholarship to attend, and while I might not have admitted it back then, I felt pretty out of place when I first arrived. I didn’t know if I’d be considered “smart” or “learned” outside of a small town. The best thing I learned while I was at WashU was just how capable, dedicated, and determined I really am. The gaps I felt when I first arrived compared to students from better schools closed, and I gained a self-assuredness and foundation that has stayed with me ever since.

What advice would you give to our students?
Learn your self-worth, and practice self-advocacy as community advocacy. Artists tend to have a chip on their shoulders because the world stigmatizes our profession, and this often manifests as masochistically working ourselves to death. Add to that, people of color and those of us whose parents may have come to the United States under dire circumstances tend to feel a great deal of indebtedness to others and pressure to deliver. Hard work and persistence can be great things, but they must be coupled with well-being. I wish I learned self-regulation and self-care sooner. I would have suffered fewer repetitive stress injuries. I would have established healthy boundaries and expectations sooner. I would have charged more for my work and negotiated harder earlier in my career, instead of taking what in retrospect were sometimes exploitative gigs. I would have burned out less often. I would have been as good to myself as I expected myself to be to and for others. AND I would have still made great artwork and contributed to the community meaningfully all along the way.

Learn the bigger picture. Learn about the field, what works and what doesn’t. Art, despite the romanticism of the white box gallery, does not exist in a box or a vacuum. Art can be generative and beneficial. Art can be exploitative and cause great harm. Whatever role it plays, art is inextricable from the human ecosystem. How well we understand art’s role determines the impact we have with it.

Reach out to people, especially when you arrive in a new place. Find your art community. Don’t be afraid to contact someone in your field to get to know them. Most people are pretty friendly and will be happy to hear from you.

Show up and be present, wherever you are.

What is your favorite thing about St. Louis?
There’s so much to love about St. Louis, that gorgeous, red-brick, Midwestern city. On the short list for when I give recommendations to friends visiting St. Louis, I always say to visit the Soulard Farmers Market, go to Cherokee Street and visit the print shops and get Diana’s Bakery, spend a whole day at City Museum, visit Forest Park, check out the Kemper Art Museum, go to Crown Candy in Old North St. Louis, buy bulk spices at Jay International Foods, and get the lunch buffet at Everest Café in The Grove.

Tell us something we should know about you that we forgot to ask.
I hire interns. I wasn’t joking when I said reach out to people.

Jenie Gao-Portal
"Portal." Public Art Installation at Tenney Park, Makeshift Festival, 2018.

Bio

Jenie Gao is a full-time artist, creative director, and entrepreneur. She specializes in large-scale projects including murals, public installations, curatorial works, and creative direction. She is an interdisciplinary leader with a professional background in the arts industry, public education, and lean manufacturing, and an advocate for equity for artists and creative labor. As a first generation American, she is a spokesperson for the arts as a path to cultural relevance for a diverse citizenry.

Jenie is an arts ambassador who has served as the vice president of Wisconsin Visual Artists, chair of the Biennial at Museum of Wisconsin Art, and Public Art Committee member for Madison Arts Commission. She is a founding member of Arts + Literature Laboratory and Dane Arts Mural Arts, where she has served as a fundraiser and systems builder for the financial longevity of these nonprofits. Jenie is a TEDx Madison speaker and outspoken advocate for the value of the arts in our ecosystems. She is a former artist-in-residence at Proyecto’ace in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Museo de Arte Moderno in Castro, Chile; Iowa Lakeside Laboratory; Madison Public Library; and Artist Campaign School with Fractured Atlas. As a curator, she has produced exhibits at companies like Promega Corporation and AC Hotel Marriott as a way to build bridges between artists and businesses.

Jenie currently runs a 1,700-square-foot production studio and has hosted 20 interns since 2018. Through her interdisciplinary work, she has become a visionary leader who knows how to bring together industries, education systems, and cultural representation to create a more equitable ecosystem for everyone.

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