How Back Stories Add Meaning to Art — Taking a good look at Jennifer Chalklen’s armour and what lies beneath
Being a working mother is hard enough. But when your work is art, things can get a bit tough. “If someone asks you what you do for a living, and you say doctor, lawyer, teacher, they take you at face value. But if you say artist, you just know that they’re wondering, is she any good, does she really have a right to call herself that, or is it just a hobby. As an artist, you constantly find yourself put in the position of justifying your worth from the get-go, in a way that people with other professions don’t have to.” This is Jennifer Chalklen, mother of 3 and figurative painter from New Zealand, now residing in Singapore. She’s weathered her fair share of knocks but it’s only made her resolve stronger and her self-belief fiercer. And anyway, she’s past caring what you think. The process of discovery is what matters, not your opinion. This is what it looks like when grit meets creation.
It’s not altogether apparent that Jennifer has armour when you meet her or see her paintings. She is as ethereal, fair and willowy as the women in her hypnotic paintings. But delivering work so delicate, vulnerable and full of light has taken years of strength. “I was always interested in painting. But I think my mum was concerned about career prospects so I didn’t take art as a subject at school. I was in an accelerated learning programme focused on physics and other sciences. I eventually went to design school but it didn’t work out. My teachers told me I didn’t belong there.” It was a formative time, and this meting out of tough love could have stopped Jennifer in her tracks. But as it happened, it conflated with another concern she was already having: “I just decided I didn’t want to be poor.” So, without further ado and no looking back, Jennifer baggsed herself a “proper” job and did pretty damn well at it!
Before digital marketing was even a thing, Jennifer was at the forefront with a knack for selling the concept to big business and showing them a return on their investment with ease. She even had an eye for talent and hired her future husband, who now works at Google. “It was obvious to me that it was a completely measurable tool, so I just got granular to explain that to clients.” What was not so obvious at the time was that her creativity was using opportunities like this to manifest itself. And that it was building a tolerance to naysayers that would come in handy later.
Arriving in Indonesia a little while later, to support a career move by her husband, Jennifer landed a job with an advertising agency project managing client pitches. She was successful. But with two kids in tow and another on the way, her true calling was clamouring. Instead of sinking hours of creativity into other people’s ideas, she decided to put time into her own. This was easier said than done. “I had ideas but I didn’t know how to convey them,” says Jennifer. “I had no technical skills. When I was at art school, abstract work was seen as cooler and more in demand by galleries. So that’s what teachers pushed. To the point where complaints grew because you had to go to an atelier under your own steam if you wanted any chance at gaining technical skills. I’d made attempts with abstract work in the past but I’d get dissatisfied, put them away and not look at them again. And then I realised, that as a viewer, I loved looking at figurative work. That’s what I wanted to do. I just needed to figure out how to execute it.”
This kicked off an apprenticeship with two art teachers that could have seen Jennifer give up altogether. But once again, what could have been a series of bad experiences were salvaged by Jennifer’s incredible ability to turn adversity to her advantage. “I hadn’t mixed a skin tone before, so I sought out a well-known Indonesian artist to practice with. She wasn’t a great teacher — she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak much Bahasa — so to overcome the language barrier she would just take over and do things for me. But she did show me how to create a palette. When that ran its course, I found another teacher. I lasted one session. She asked me to bring along references of what I wanted to paint. Unfortunately, she told me that my material was too complicated and beyond my skillset. She said I’d be better off doing something else. She crushed my dreams. After that I decided to do things myself.”
Jennifer set herself a syllabus and got to work. “There was a lot of artists I admired and imagery that inspired me, so I just steadily focused on developing skills without worrying about what my style was. I watched tutorials, studied paintings and was totally committed to learning. I treated it like a job and did it every day (or night as it was back then, when the kids were smaller). I have no attachment to my work from back then. It helped me grow.” And what of those teachers? “Well, I’d had enough of being told what I was and wasn’t good at. Finding out that I’m stubborn and don’t like being told what to do has been an asset.” Whether this was innate or grew out of her setbacks, it was to serve her well for another, much more personal hurdle.
Navigating a creative life alongside a corporate one can rub. And if you decide on this path after the ink has already dried on the marriage contract, then it’s probably inevitable that you’re going to deal with concepts like how time is valued, perceived responsibility, the weight of decision making and power dynamics. In other words, yielding to the call to become an artist is bold enough. Throw a partner and parenting into the mix and there’s some seismic shifts that are going to need to take place, and they’re going to affect people you care about. “I don’t know if my husband took me seriously when I started. Maybe he thought I’d give up. But as time passed he realised I meant it. That brought about some envy for a while — he’d like to take time out to write a novel, for instance. But this isn’t something that just happened. It has taken discipline and sacrifice to get here. I used to work at night so I could look after the kids in the daytime. I didn’t watch TV. I practiced even when I didn’t want to. I built up stamina so that I could eventually develop my own style and become an artist in my own right. He supports me but it hasn’t always been easy.”
Mother’s guilt? Fuck you very much. “Maybe it was because of what I’d already been through, but I was able to let go of this idea that I had perform or deliver when I was in the incubational phase of honing my skills. It wasn’t easy but it toughened me. The struggle to become what I am has gone into my work. Now, I feel detachment from my final work and can thoroughly immerse myself in the act of creation with no ego and expectation. It’s a joy. And I think this shows in the work. My kids love coming in to the studio and I think I’m better for them being the way I am.”
The learning curve continues for Jennifer. “I’ve just been away and some of my best work seems to come after I’ve been travelling. Right now, I’m enjoying eliminating colour and bringing it back in a more controlled way. I’m experimenting with light too.” The veils of light and layers of colour in Jennifer’s work are both delicate and deep, adding additional dimension and symbolic strength to her subjects. Ultimately, she manages to convey that obstacles won’t prevent her from being open and using experience to increase the knowledge and empathy shown in her work.
“If I think of painting as a language I think I can speak it quite well now. I used to be quite heavy handed with the brush but I’ve grown gentler and more delicate the stronger I’ve become.” Oh, the irony. While repeated criticism and lack of support could make a lot of us brittle or even bitter, Jennifer has fed it to her determination, wearing her armour lightly but never getting steely. And she reminds us that when we look at art, we’re not seeing just an individual painting, but everything it’s taken the artist to get to that point. The back story is what makes art so beguiling.
Stay tuned for details about Jennifer’s upcoming virtual exhibition, “Invisible Spaces”.