“I have always loved flowers and the garden. The variation is endless.”
– Jenni Christensen
Although in the high desert of the Great Basin, you could mistake a small patch of Pleasant Grove, Utah, for a flower-filled backyard in Oahu, Hawaii. “The place isn’t quite as lush as I’d like it,” says Jenni Christensen as she points to hundreds of plants that surround her home, lap pool, and studio. “It just gets more difficult to keep up as I get older.”
Christensen’s life is such a mix of gardening, art making, and domestic living that it’s difficult to determine the delineations, if they even exist. Now that her three children — Cutler, Anna, and Lili — are grown and she’s living alone (divorced long ago), almost every room of this 1,876-square-foot brick duplex built on a third of an acre in 1973 has evolved into workspace. Even the kitchen is a workshop when the grandkids visit. “I love making messes with them — paint, glitter, whatever.”
Born in 1949, Christensen lived in Oahu until she was 13 and is “forever impressed by the warmth and variety of the people, spaces, the flowers” found there. She recalls the “greens” of everything, “the ebb and flow of the ocean, the islands.” Christensen had an almost-feral youth, as she “didn’t wear a shirt or shoes” until she was 9 years old. When she reached 6th grade, she had to wear something on her feet “for at least half the school day, but then walked home barefoot.” This was normal to her, and it wasn’t until she reached adulthood that she appreciated how those early years of sandy feet, sunburned skin, wind-messed hair, and ubiquitous Hawaiian flowers had affected her life and career.
Her life as a beach girl ended at 13 when her dad “decided to be a cowboy” and moved the family to an Idaho ranch in 1962. The artwork of her adult years pulsates with floral influence of that faraway island of her childhood, but not a hint of the un-tropical ranch lands of Idaho, although she acknowledges “swell school-spirited years in Caldwell.”
Raised in a Mormon family, Christensen made a natural transition to Provo’s Brigham Young University in 1967. She was drawn to the art department, as it fit her profile of “exploring, dissecting, collecting curious things.” Her early artistic influences were through her music and ballet teachers in junior high and high school, the only “real artists in manner and attitude I met until BYU.” Her maternal grandmother, Pearl Olsen, a writer and poet, also provided inspiration toward Christensen’s artistic side, skills her grandmother “honed throughout her life.”
Off the Idaho ranch and into the art studio, Christensen was all in. “Once I zeroed in on the art department and the folks there, I was on my way.” She found “school was a time to idealize and fantasize about many things. Anything was possible.”
“I was an ‘art’ student. When I couldn’t be working on art, I would read art books — books about artist’s lives, writers, dancers, theater folk. My roommates were all art students, my friends were art students. I was completely smitten, submerged in the possibilities.”
Motivated by those possibilities, and being guided by critical, but supportive faculty, Christensen was awarded a BFA in craft design (1973) and an MFA in printmaking (1977). “My time in the MFA program was more a time to work, nurture, and foster my fledgling attitude.” She was drawn to printmaking, first experimenting with silkscreen, then intaglio and the use of aquatint in her studio practice:
“Stirring up grounds, mixing up mordants, generally cooking up something messy but always interesting in one way or another. I still feel it is the most direct hands-on printmaking process. I draw directly, etch directly, ink with my hands and print. Much of it’s unpredictable, but what a nice (most of the time) conversation with a process. After my plates are etched, the color is wiped on with a tarlatan (ala poupée) and all the colors are printed at one time. It’s difficult for anyone of my prints to be exactly like the one before because they’re inked and printed in a more painterly than precise way, a bit of an understatement.”
After graduation and working in Boston at the Experimental Etching Studio and then in Portland at the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts, Christensen returned to Utah, established her own studio in Pleasant Grove, taught at BYU for 10 years, raised three children with then-husband Day Christensen, and of course, gardened.
She says her productivity can be attributed to bipolar disorder. Christensen tends to “jump in, make some kind of beginning, and see where and how it goes,” and says her “let it fly” attitude “usually results in happy accidents.” The longer she works, “the more possible solutions” she’s aware of, constantly maintaining “a forward progress, slow but consistent.”
Christensen’s work can be divided into four main areas: printmaking, painting on gourds, painting on board, and most recently, collages related to family and friends. This doesn’t include offshoot production of dolls, jewelry, postcards, mosaics, and stained glass.
Throughout her long career, Christensen’s love for flowers and other plant life — more poetic than botanical — has shown itself in her compositions, her direct unpremeditated line gestures, and strong color sense. Almost all of Christensen’s work (not counting some early silkscreens) — prints, paintings, and collages — is floral, whether plucked from her garden or clipped from photographs. Her work laments our threatened natural world and asks viewers and collectors to consider the beautiful aspects of creation — “feeling and responding to the beauty that surrounds us, of looking for it, expecting to find it, filling up with it.”
“Having grown up in Hawaii, I had taken the growing things for granted. Flowers seemed innocuous enough — actually, entertaining — I became, and still am to some extent, intrigued with their sensuality and infinite variations. The possibilities, as it turned out, continue to challenge and appeal to me. The flowers and plants don’t move (much) or complain; occasionally they die (very poetically)! I’m not so much interested in the botanical correctness as in the overall aesthetics.”
Once Christensen moves from one major type of work to another, she seldom returns to a previous genre. Since she decided to stop making prints, she has not placed a single piece of damp rag paper across a zinc plate to pull through a press. That was in 2007, “18 months after my grandparents died.”
As she began to transition away from etchings, Christensen started painting on gourds. “Gourds — why not? … they’re just so … organic.” To Christensen, the gourd paintings are serious artworks made more interesting because of their “three-dimensionality” and the challenge of designing, drawing, and painting “around rather than flat.” They also hearken back to Hawaii, where gourds are an integral part of the cultural heritage of the islands.
When she launched into this new medium, drawing on a curved surface wasn’t her only challenge. “When I started working on them, I didn’t happen to get it right the first time or a couple of dozen times thereafter.” As she learned, each gourd responded differently to whatever colorization she was using — dyes, stains, and paints. “There is a certain tediousness — and a large amount of patience required (of which I’m in short supply) — to the work and at the same time, different solutions to different problems present many different results.”
In her February 1995 Southwest Art “Best of West” article, Ellen Rosenbush Methner observed that Christensen’s “transition to three-dimensional work didn’t happen overnight.” But once she resolved the challenges of working with this new material, her gourds became “awash with tendrils, petals and sprigs of ornamental flowers … Her luminous colors cover the rounded bodies and serpentine necks.”
Just as in her etchings, Christensen’s spontaneity and line control transferred to gourds, “a bridge between printmaking and painting.” She starts work by drawing floral designs directly onto the gourd with a pencil, then incises the line into its skin using an etching needle from her printing supplies. “Then I use oil paint, glazed in layers, to get the color. When the glazes are dry, I mix powdered pigment with mineral oil and rub it all over the gourd, then off the gourd, so that just the lines remain dark [which is the opposite of her etchings which remain white as the ink isn’t rubbed into incised grooves]. Before the final varnish, the negative area is repainted (beefed up), two coats of varnish are applied and I’m done — hopefully, the gourd is too.”
Welcome to My Garden: Selected Works by Jenni Christensen, is an exhibition at Brigham Young University’s Gallery 303, curated by its director, Jason Lanegan. Lanegan was stunned when he visited Christensen’s home/studio, surprised at the extensive work from which he had to choose. Besides the large number of prints —both framed and unframed, but all carefully stored — she had many paintings on board. Shelves full of painted gourds were carefully kept in a pantry. Work areas were filled with finished and in-process collages and a large supply of pressed and cutout flowers and other images. “I can tell my work is cut out for me,” he commented wide-eyed at her productivity. Fortunately for Lanegan, collectors have purchased Christensen’s work for years, and those works are in their homes and businesses across the country, not in the inventory through which he had to sort.
“What I find most impressive about Jenni is her drive and commitment to create,” comments Lanegan. “Her unquenchable passion and prolific output are to be respected. The result is simply astounding and to be in her ‘garden’ is a delight for the eyes and heart.” He says he feels it “a privilege to be let into Jenni’s world and be given the opportunity to curate this exhibition. To meet and work with an artist so skilled and widely collected, who also has such an unassuming and sincere demeanor, is a pleasure.”
Before she moved on to her most recent medium, collage, Christensen produced two types of paintings — potted sunflowers and close-ups of tropical plants. The color is bold and vibrant, unlike the subdued, controlled colors in her etchings. “The sunflower paintings,” she says, “started as an homage to Van Gough and then took on a life of their own.” Although her tropical floral series preceded her sunflowers, they also contain the nervous, animated color and brush strokes similar to Van Gough’s. Unlike Christensen’s prints, gourds, and sunflowers that have been previously exhibited, her tropical floral paintings are being shown for the first time by Lanegan. He also premiers the few collages on display, homages as well, this time to family, friends, ancestors, and progeny. “Finally, after trying for so long to be an artist, whatever that is, I realize with great clarity that in the end, what really matters, more than my art career, is my family.” Her collages are an exploration into that recognition.
Although a graceful line runs through Christensen’s prints and gourd paintings that serve to tie them together, a not-so-graceful line has run through most of her life. “At 31, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder,” she says, sitting in her Pleasant Grove living room. “My life has been fraught with creative highs and despairing lows. There were times when I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t stop stacking, gluing, piling odds and ends found in the trash, anything around, stuff literally rubber banded together making art; self-medicating; feeling that all I had was my artwork. All I could do was work.”
Once the cause of her mood swings and productivity was diagnosed, the inner turmoil that plagued her since early adulthood started to make sense, not only to her, but also to her family and friends. That sensemaking, however, didn’t mean her condition would disappear. “I’ve just had to keep working, to stay ahead of my excessive mood swings.” Working in her studio — her lifeline — has helped; but she has also been buttressed with assistance from a good physician, family, friends, neighbors, and trust in her faith. Christensen continues making works of art, managing her struggles, and, when possible, helping those besieged with manic depression. “I encourage others with this disorder to talk it out with someone and seek help.”
As Christensen enters her 70th year, she maintains, “life is a gift, but not an easy one.” Her life, however difficult, has seeded a troubled world with beautiful images that can calm troubled hearts. Her invitation: “Please come into my garden, be encouraged.”
Welcome to My Garden, selected works by Jenni Christensen, Gallery 303, BYU Harris Fine Arts Center, June 18-July 10; Artist’s Reception June 20, 6-8 p.m.
Frank McEntire, former executive director of the Utah Arts Council, is a sculptor, independent curator, and arts administrator and was the art critic for The Salt Lake Tribune and Salt Lake City magazine.