Jennybird Alcantara delves into the subterranean wonders of the unconscious and unearths an abundance of mysterious treasure which provides her with unlimited inspiration for the anthropomorphic beings who fill her imagery. Befitting the language of the subconscious, Alcantara’s work is replete with the symbolic and archetypal cues required to lure us into the rabbit hole. Once inside, we are asked searching questions by intriguing female characters and their narratives; predominantly revolving around themes of growth, transformation, interconnectedness and the sacred. Alcantara’s mastery of rich detail and her beautifully surreal incorporation of fable, myth and fantasy into the mix, ensure that her images stay bubbling around our in own subconscious minds long after we have turned our gaze away from them.
Jennybird Alcantara is a fine artist currently living in Oakland, California. She earned her BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and has been working professionally for over fifteen years. In that time, Jennybird has exhibited her artwork around the world and had numerous successful solo shows at galleries such as, AFA Gallery, Varnish Fine Art and Mondo Bizzarro Gallery.
WOW x WOW is excited to bring you this exclusive interview with Jennybird, in which the candid artist discusses her relationships with nature, symbolism and art history and gives her thoughts about beauty in art.
Hi Jennybird! First of all, thanks for agreeing to free up some of your valuable time in order to have this wee chat, we really appreciate it. To start us off, we’re interested to hear about where you’re currently living and what you like about the area? What is the art scene like there and do you feel a part of that community?
I live in Oakland CA. with my husband John and pups Sailor and Vegas. I love living on the sunny side of the San Francisco Bay, We lived in SF for many years, 12 of which were in the fog belt near the beach, so I’m delighted to be in the East Bay now.
I’ve always felt a bit outside of the ‘artist community’, but mostly I imagine that is of my own making, as I’m a pretty private person and don’t go to tons of openings. But some of my closest friends are artists who also live in the Bay Area so I they’re my art community.
Once you have an idea for a painting, what’s next? What do you use in the way of reference material and how do you go about sourcing it? If you could give us some insight into how you tackle the creative process?
I begin typically with a kernel of an idea and do some really rough sketches. I don’t have tons of patience for finished drawings, I prefer to get painting right away, so I don’t execute a full plan before diving in. (The exceptions to this rule are my works on paper, those have to be planned out completely, as there really isn’t room for error or changing my mind half way through.) My reference images are mostly a combination of photos I’ve taken and photos sourced online. However, if I use photos of animals, that I’ve found online for example, I almost never use just one image but many to compose my interpretation of that animal. All my resource materials I view as a launching point, as I tend to morph most images, rather then create realistic representations.
I would describe my process of creating a painting like a sort of dance where I begin as the lead and then at some point the painting itself becomes the lead or director and there is this push and pull back and forth between me making executive decisions and the painting wanting to go in a particular direction. It can be an equally rewarding as well as frustrating ‘dance’, but it is what it is and I try to accept it as ‘my process’.
We would love to hear you talk about your ongoing series of works in which the female protagonists serve as portals into fantastical and dreamlike worlds? What were the initial catalysts which sparked your thoughts about the concepts you’ve been exploring through the series?
As far back as I can remember, there has been an archetypal female protagonist as the major player in my paintings. She embodies the queen, the martyr, the damsel, the heroine, earth elements and much more, and being female myself with the allegory reflected through my eyes, using a female ‘lead’ just seems to be the most natural way for me to tell the story, although there are symbolic male elements in the work (and who knows an actual male figure will sneak in there at some point), ‘he’s’ been a ways off and usually the ‘newcomers’ linger on the outside edges of my brain for quite a while till the time is right and they hit their cue and jump into the tale.
I view my work overall as an unfolding story and I imagine that these characters are walking or flying, drifting or swimming from one series or world into the next, and they drag a bit of where they just were with them. The previous work influences the preceding work so there are recognizable traces running through it, but they grow and evolve as they move along.
Ideas relating to transformation often arise within your imagery. Can you tell to us a little about your fascination with change?
Change and evolution are a natural part of life and death is a part of that as well. I aspire to get to a point in my life when I’m not so afraid of death, and maybe exploring this natural process within the safety and comfort of my art is a way for me to try to make sense and become more comfortable with the unknown.
Symbolism is of vital importance to you and the way you work. Please talk to us a little about your relationship with symbolism, how it began, and how you are currently approaching the symbolic aspects of your art?
My work was quite loose when I was in art school and I’m sure that was partially influenced by the style of teaching at SFAI at the time. I enjoyed the physicality of creating large messy works that hinted at ‘the story’ I was trying to tell. There were animal heads and legs and girls faces, oh yeah, and sex parts, but all defused in this sort of expressionistic soup. Eventually I became dissatisfied with that process and wanted to really explore more than just a cathartic exercise of my creative demons. I started to become more precise, specific and deliberate with my content, and symbolism fit the bill. I love symbolism; it’s like a secret code that can be interpreted in many ways. It felt like a natural way for me to tell a story that can be open to mystery at the same time.
For someone to be able to come to one of my paintings with the arsenal of their own life experience and to be able to connect with the work in their own way, with their own meaning, regardless and unaware of what it means to me, it’s the greatest reward to me when a painting achieves this.
I’ve thought of at some point creating a little book of Cryptography images to give meanings to some of the personal symbolism I’ve created in my work. But maybe I’ll wait till I’m 90 for that.
You have found inspiration within the ‘symbol rich mythological and religious paintings of the Renaissance’. Please tell us about your relationship with art history.
Well, my first taste of symbolism was when I was a young child. My parents were catholic and the church was filled with beautiful and melancholy images of Christ, Mary and the saints. All the ornate pageantry that went along with that experience both fascinated and terrified me. I’m not a religious person but I defiantly feel that seeing those images as a child and hearing the stories had an influence on me as an artist. Once I was old enough to recognize that these stories had a universal thread woven through all religions and mythologies it all it struck me as worthwhile of artistic exploration. A lot of the Renaissance art explores life, death, the afterlife and nature, all themes which are of interest to me. The Renaissance paintings are of particular interest to me not only because of the beauty of the works themselves but because they also are exploring humanism against the backdrop of religious influences preceding that time period. Perhaps that’s why I identify with its aesthetic, that push and pull between supernatural and scientific thought.
The animal kingdom is another important source of inspiration for you. What are some of the earliest memories you have, which contributed to forming the foundation of your life long passion for, and interest in wildlife and the symbolism it carries?
I don’t think it’s a unique experience, but when I was a child I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, I love animals so much and couldn’t think of a job that I wanted to do more than one which revolved around animals. I don’t remember at precisely what point I realized that part of the job of being a vet meant cutting open an animal to operate on it, but as soon as that epiphany visited my child brain I was like, “hell no, I’m not doing that.”
I did have a pet bunny when I was a kid and we had a dog when I was really young, but we didn’t have many animals when I was growing up. I think that my parents had their hands full with five kids, so they didn’t have a lot of patience left for furry family members that required attention too, but I literally had an army of stuffed animals. I’ve just always had an affinity for animals. My mom confessed to me recently actually, that when I was really young she brought me and my sister and brother to a store that had a gorilla that lived in a cage in it, she feels so guilty about it now and I was horrified to hear that story and also thankful it’s wiped from my memory. Maybe the knife in the heart feeling I have for the plight of animals on this planet stems from my little innocent eyes looking into the eyes of that sad beautiful creature way back then. I shudder to even imagine bearing witness to that misery.
Its really tragic what humans have done, not only the planet but to the all other living creatures that inhabit it. In my work, part of what I’m doing by depicting hybridization and anthropomorphism is to show the connection between all living things.
Have there been any occasions where you haven’t always necessarily had a full understanding of the symbols or dialogue that emerge from the narratives within your art? Could you give us and example of an image you painted that ended up revealing something to you after its completion?
Yes, there definitely have been times that this has happened, but the things revealed tend to be of a personal nature so I’d rather not go into specifics. But I will say, a lot of my inspirations come from a semi dream state, that little sliver of time just before drifting off into sleep. Visions or images can appear in that period and I try to capture those ideas before they escape me. I think as an artist fishing in this sea of subconsciousness, it’s quite possible to pull up things whose true meaning is yet to be revealed.
As we move through life we continue to grow and change. In what ways have you seen your work evolve since you started down the path of being a professional artist?
I’ve seen my work become more complex. I’m always pushing myself to ‘do better work’. I’m a pretty harsh self critic and have a strong impulse to outdo the last painting I created and happened to love. I don’t know if this is necessarily a healthy impulse, but it definitely keeps me going and exploring and interested, and so that drive can’t be all bad.
What are your opinions about beauty in reference to man made artifacts? Is beauty something that you search for in art and is it something you consider when producing your own work?
Yes, I am certainly trying to achieve beauty in my work, but beauty is a subjective thing; for me, strange and unusual is beautiful. But in my opinion you can use something lovely to draw a viewer in to see and be engaged with something that might be unsettling had it not been rendered beautifully. In reference also to the last questions about the evolution of my work, my paintings used to have much more obviously grotesque elements, but I’ve learned that refining and making those things exquisite, enables me to ‘get away more’ with darker or strange content. It’s like ‘a spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down’. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love raw painters work and sometimes miss the looseness I once had, but for me the way I’m working now is what I enjoy.
What do you regard as the greatest motivation for you to get up every day and create?
I’d say the greatest motivation for me to get up every day and create is understanding that what I am able to do is a gift, one that I have to work really hard at, but a gift none the less. To be able to do what I feel is the purpose for my life is something that I cherish and am ever so grateful for.
What’s next for Jennybird Alcantara?
Hibernation mode. I have a studio full of fresh new panels and I’m about to journey into a new body of work. So it’s a thrilling and daunting moment. I typically work at least a year, usually more, on a solo show and I’m at the beginning of that process again now.