Visions of an Alternate Universe

In Dialogue with Mixed Media Collage Artist Jenny Brown

Photo of the artist. Photo credit: Brittany Taylor

Providence-based artist Jenny Brown’s mixed media collages and drawings visually present the viewer with her imagined visions of an alternate universe in which the sublime beauty of nature is heightened. She layers vintage photographs, sketchbook drawings, and other paper ephemera of plants and sea flowers, adding delicate linework and speckled marks with ink to create maximalist compositions that invite one to question if how we perceive our own natural world is indeed limited. The artist’s fascination with our current understanding of how time, space, energy, and matter intersect largely informs her art and the process of creating itself.

Brown’s prolific career began over two decades ago after graduating from Bennington College in Vermont. Since then, she’s earned her MFA from The School of Visual Arts, secured representation from several contemporary art galleries, had her work published in multiple magazines, been invited for numerous solo and group exhibitions nationwide, as well as collaborated with retail brands including Anthropologie, Sheaffer Pens, and Alex & Ani, among others.

“As an artist who sees the process of creating art as non-linear, I find that I experience the past, present, future, and parallel lives of my work all simultaneously. I also find that simple everyday curiosity, physical mementos (such as photographs & paper ephemera I use in my work), and the history and images from past travels to be present every time I bring my pen to paper. For when one speaks to me about my work and my creative process, I wish they could see it all-the beginnings, the unknowns, the forgotten, the lost, the joyous, the dreams, the future of the story that brought me to this exact place and time.” – Jenny Brown

Tell me about your background. What initially drew you to art?

I was fortunate enough to have a grandmother who was a professionally trained painter and art educator, so art supplies were part of my toy chest from day one. I loved drawing maps of imaginary cities and creating names for all the businesses and streets, and my parents encouraged me to draw which I am so thankful for!

Jenny Brown, Night Mint Blossom, Pen, ink, and collage on paper, 8.5 x 11 inches

In what ways was attending art school a formative experience for your work?

I studied painting as an undergraduate, but I definitely was floundering a bit during those years as to what my primary medium would be. My Intro to Painting teacher was the artist Amy Sillman (I know, pretty incredible, right?), and she encouraged me to really reflect on whether or not I could imagine my life in the future without art. After four years of school I knew the answer was no! By the time I made it to graduate school almost a decade later, I knew in my heart that drawing and collage were the best ways for me to express myself, but I received a lot of push-back on the collage aspect as being “too crafty.” Ultimately, that was the best thing that could have happened because it forced me to really develop my drawing skills and add collage when it made sense, not just because I wanted it to be in the piece.

Your focus now is working in mixed media where you collage found images of natural elements, specifically plants and sea life. In thinking about them formally first, could share a bit about your process?

I typically have a couple different pieces going at once, each with a different starting point to inform the next step in the work. Usually works start either as ink on paper, acrylic on paper, or one striking collage clipping on paper. Sometimes they sit on my table in that state for weeks, sometimes I start working on them right away. When I find myself no longer thinking about how I could possibly change a piece when I’m lying in bed trying to fall asleep at night, I know it’s done!

Your practice seems innately tied to collecting. Within each piece there’s always a variety of elements to look at and explore, but even with all of the intricate details, the compositions are very deliberate. Can you talk about how you strike this balance between adding and editing in your work? What piques your interest when you’re searching for materials to use in your collages?

I like thinking about each work almost as a time capsule. Each clipping has its own history from its past existence (for example, a clipping that was part of a Victorian greeting card between friends). But in the context of my work, that greeting evolves to reveal its future self. And if time is perhaps not linear, it is a moment when all versions of this greeting sentiment meet as one entity – past, present, and future.

Jenny Brown, Night Frosted Flowers, Mixed media on recycled mat, 10 x 12 inches

Conceptually, you’re interested in ideas of an alt-universe. In what ways do your works speak to this?

I like presenting an image that seems familiar at first glance and then on further inspection appears a bit peculiar. For example, a rose at first glance that then seems like a jellyfish on the second pass – presenting life bending and evolving in space time, or perhaps just on the edge of a dimension that humans can’t yet see. I think of it all as a nod to acknowledging there is more to everything than just what is in front of us, whatever that might “more” might be.

What has been your most ambitious project to date?

This year I did my first large scale commercial collaboration with the newly opened The Wayfinder Hotel in Newport, RI. I created work for the guest rooms, hotel stationery, and the coolest of all, the key cards! I learned all about large scale print production, billing, invoicing, and promotion, so it feels good to have that new knowledge in my tool box for future projects.

You recently hit a major milestone of working full-time as an artist for a year. Congratulations! What has that transition been like, especially considering that part of that was during the pandemic?

I have come to understand after leaving my day job (which was non-stop human interaction), that I often forced myself to be an extrovert just because I needed to get things done, not because I loved being in a big group of people talking to everyone. Being in my studio alone working feels much more like the real me. I am grateful for every single second that I have to do my art during this incredibly difficult stretch of time in the world, and don’t take studio time for granted for a moment.

Do you have any upcoming exhibitions, projects, or collaborations you’d like to share?

I am currently working on a fun branding collaboration as well as a hospitality project that I can’t quite share publicly yet, but this fall you can find my work in the Era Contemporary exhibition “The Pre-Raphaelites,” and as part of “Word and Image: Creative Crossovers” at the Multicultural Heritage Centre in Story Plain, Alberta, Canada.

Jenny Brown, Moon Feast, Mixed media on recycled mat, 11 x 14 inches

All artwork images courtesy of the artist

Alicia Puig is a curator and arts writer currently based in San José, Costa Rica. She earned her MA in Art History from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia and is a regular contributor for Create! Magazine, Pikchur Magazine, and Art She Says. Her second book, “The Complete Smartist Guide”, was recently published in the summer of 2020 and is currently available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.