Jennifer Towner is an amazing and generous artist living and working in Seattle, WA. I first met Jen in the late ‘90s when I was an awkward teenager and she was my super cool camp counselor for multiple summers. She and I both pursued bachelor’s degrees in fine arts at the University of Washington and I’ve always admired her for her bravery and ability to bring to light the most vulnerable parts of herself. After completing her BFA at UW, she pursued a MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and I’ve been following her career from a distance for awhile. A few weeks ago on a trip home to Seattle I had the privilege to sit down with at her studio in Seattle’s International District and reconnect.
What emerged from my conversation at her studio was an incredible talk about her path as an artist, the influence of her father, honesty about mental health and the art of not giving a fuck.
SF: Jen, I know that you and I were at UW at the same time, but I don’t know much about you before that time other than you being an amazing summer camp counselor. Tell me about how you discovered art as a path.
JT: I was never very good at school. Turns out I had undiagnosed learning disabilities, but you know it was the ‘80s. In school I was very athletic and I did cheerleading and was always very active. After graduating high school I went to college at Central Washington University, but ended up moving back to Seattle after a year and took classes here and there at Shoreline Community College and worked at a Red Robin for awhile until I quit going to class. I got an admin/mail room job at a law firm because that’s what both of my sisters did and I just followed what they were doing.
Eventually I thought that I would like to be a teacher, but I wasn’t good at math or school in general, but I started taking arts classes at Shoreline Community College and that’s when it all clicked. I realized “This is something I can do.” And so I decided to pour my energy into art.
I enrolled in the University of Washington's Ceramics program, but I wasn’t doing a lot of traditional ceramics. I was making a lot of accumulations of things like slipcast eggs, and creating sculptures out of items I collected. Looking back I recognize the impulse for these accumulations as a form of comfort, which is kind of an ongoing theme in my work and my life.
When I finished my BFA, I asked my professors for advice on grad school programs and they gave me a list to check out. I ended up getting accepted at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in their Fibers and Materials Studies program. At the time I didn’t really realize that I was in this great school and I didn’t really worry about it the way other students did- I just made what I wanted to make.
SF: From what I remember, your work was more performance based in grad school.
JT: Yes and a lot of it was about me – about my experience as a middle-aged woman and stuff like that. The work started out being out my transition to a new place and eventually I realized the work was actually about me, so I started putting myself in it.
SF: But I also know there was a consistent thread of humor…
JT: Yes but looking back, it came from a very self-deprecating place. When I look back I am in a very different place now.
SF: Can you talk a little bit about your transition after graduate school?
JT: After graduating, I was showing fairly well. I was in New York for about three months and did a documentary series where I stalked Ann Curry on the Today Show. I was making all of these signs that were puns of Ann’s name and I would show up with the crowds outside and hold up my signs and have my friends TIVO me to record my performance. Eventually I ran into this problem of how to sell/market my work and so made prints of the screen shots and when it came time to exhibit the work for a show in Miami I showed a lot of documentation of the performances.
When I moved back to Seattle, I was still doing more performance type work. I did a series of casts of my feet that were a play on the bad feet that run in my family and a performance piece called “I Will Survive” at Crawl Space Gallery that was about my desire to be on television.
I also made an audio piece called “Take Care of Yourself” that was 10 minutes of voicemails from my father. It spanned a time where he had a stroke and so there is a voicemail in there from my sister that marks when that happened and then it continues. It’s a long ask of people to listen for ten minutes.
SF: What gave you the impulse to save your father’s voicemails?
JT: My father was a librarian and storyteller. I liked the sound of his voice- it was comforting. My father was also an artist of sorts. After he died I kept most of his art supplies and one of his screenprinting screens. The shapes that remain in the screen are incorporated into a lot of my current work. It’s interesting how much overlap I’m discovering about us since he’s passed. The work I’m doing now is mostly abstract forms. I find the repetitive shapes and forms to be almost a type of anxiety release.
SF: To me, this is a big shift in your work moving from more performance work to this abstract 2-D work. How did this shift take place?
JT: At my first residency at the Vermont studio center I was in a dark place- my father had just died, I had a bad breakup, and mentally I wasn’t doing well. I just started drawing circles on this roll of paper and it’s a piece that I continue working on to this day. But there’s traces of that in all of my work. There was a piece I did years ago with soda can connectors- where I just cut and reshaped them and it was really about the repetitive act just de-assembling and re-assembling. I’ve also always been screenprinting. It’s great because it’s super portable and I can easily take it with me to my residencies. So this is when things kind of went in a new direction.
SF: How did you get a foothold as an artist in Seattle after being away for grad school?
JT: When I got back to Seattle, I was looking for community so I joined Crawlspace - the co-op gallery space. I left after there was some division over the direction of the organization. Since then I’ve developed a great community online through my coaching practice. Community is really important and essential in anything I do.
Initially I had a little office space in my apartment that I though would be a good studio space, but it ended up becoming a hoarder closet for me! I never could work there.
I went back to the Vermont Studio Center in 2017 and realized then that I needed to find a space to get my shit together, so when I got back to Seattle I found my current studio. That same year, the space on the ground-floor became available and I decided to create a Go Fund Me campaign to pay the rent for that space and create a gallery for the artists in the building to show their work. Right now we don’t have formal programming, but we take turns rotating our work through and sharing gallery-sitting responsibilities.
SF: One thing I’ve always admired about you is how you seem to be able to have a studio practice, work a full time job and also remain active in fitness and coaching. What do you do to support yourself as an artist and how does your work-life impact your art-life?
JT: When I came back to Seattle from grad school I was showing pretty regularly, but I needed a job. I went back to working at law firms and the one I’m at now is great. I’ve been back to Vermont a couple of times for residencies and they let me take the time off and come back to my job. It’s been a good situation.
Now I’m also a health and fitness coach and I’ve spent a lot of time really working on myself and my own mental health. It’s been a huge shift.
The dream is to work in the studio full time. I would like to get to a point where my coaching practice sustains me financially because it provides me more flexibility time-wise in the studio.
I really believe in the “woo woo" - the law of attraction stuff. That you have to define what you want and put it out there. If you are putting in the work and time, opportunities will come your way. It may not be in the time or way you expect, but they will come. It’s interesting to me because my father was really into Jungian psychology and the idea of a collective unconscious. The more I learn about him, the more I discover there is a lot of overlap in the things we cared about.
SF: How do you define success for yourself as an artist? I know one of the things that is really hard for me is shaking off some of the perfectionist tendencies I learned growing up. I’ve had to really take a hard look and reevaluate what my priorities are and what is worth worrying about and what isn’t worth it.
JT: It’s nice to be at the point in my life where I just don’t care what other people think. I make work that is important to me and feels good to me. I’m just making what makes me feel best. In grad school there were a lot of people worried about the perception of their work, market expectations, etc. but I think since I was a little older, I just didn’t care. I just did what I wanted to do.
SF: I think this where I struggle a lot - a balance between expectations of what people want to see or what is considered “contemporary” and what people want to make. What do you do to block out the stress and anxiety?
JT: Self-help practice has helped with this. I think I’ve always had a strong internal compass of who I am and what I care about. And the work I’ve done recently in strengthening my own health and habits has only helped that grow.
I’m also not afraid to share a lot of myself. I post a lot on social media about my struggles, my journey, my day-to-day life because depression and mental illness is not something people talk about enough. I want to make it ok to be imperfect!
SF: Jen Towner thank you so much!
JT: Of course!
Jennifer Towner lives and works in Seattle, WA. Her work can be found on her website at http://www.jenniferltowner.com/. She has a solo show opening at Bellarmine Preparatory School in Tacoma, WA on September 6, 2018. You can find Jen on Instagram @jenniferltownerart and @jennifertowner. Jen is also an amazing health and fitness coach and you can find more information on her website here or connect with her on Facebook.