Written by Erika L . Block
Jenie Gao knew at a very early age that she wanted to be an artist. Her parents frequently spoke with her about how most artists struggle to make a living, the fierce competition within the art industry, and how countless incredibly talented artists don’t ever find notable success. This did not sway Jenie from the arts, but rather convinced her that she needed to be incredibly dedicated if she was going to make it as a professional artist. She began carrying a sketchbook at all times, drawing from observation, and finding as many reference photos and guides as she could from the library or elsewhere. She practiced constantly.
Jenie nearly gave up art a few times throughout her youth, and wavered on studying it in college. Ultimately, she earned her BFA in Printmaking/Drawing from Washington University in St. Louis, after which she held a myriad of different jobs. But no matter what she was doing or how well it was going, she was always pulled back to the arts. Two years ago, Jenie Gao finally made the leap to full-time, self-employed artist. She describes herself as both grateful and enthralled to be in the “early but blossoming stages” of building an art business that has been her lifelong pursuit and passion.
Though she spans across several mediums, Gao primarily works with ink drawings and woodcuts. Ink drawings and woodcuts have been mainstays in her practice, not only because she studied Printmaking in college, but because Printmaking is considered both a technology and an art form. “Printing is about sharing information with the masses. We wouldn’t have journalism or any other generation of media (i.e. social media) without the foundation created by Print. Print revolutionized education. It democratized literacy and education as we know it.” She regards her work as a “Modern Day Aesop,” breaking down contemporary human dilemmas and presenting them in the form of a story that resonates with most everyone. “There is something beautiful and impactful about working in ink, a sense of permanence and decisiveness that I think people can be scared of, but that we often find ourselves missing and yearning for in our modern day, transient, low-commitment culture. I like being able to commit to a mark, whether that’s cutting out a piece of wood or defining something in ink.”
For Jenie, the most important part of being an artist is resonating with people. “I hope my artwork sparks connections between different ideas that people may not have thought of otherwise. I hope it gets people to think critically about what they see, and to then better align their practices with their beliefs.” Her work is often inspired by people, nature, economics, cultural history, and our relationship with our environment. Tasked with challenging and shaping our perspectives through her work, research and observation are key to her creative process. As an excessively organized, methodical, contemplative and meditative artist, Jenie tirelessly looks for connections and patterns. “There is repetition in what I do. I’m a teacher and communicator by nature, so I’m always looking for different ways to explain the same ideas, and the role that teaching plays in my practice is to get others to also invest the time, practice, and repetition necessary to appreciate and more deeply observe how we make and see things.” Her current works have become increasingly social and carry a lot of social, political, and historical themes. In the future, Jenie hopes to do more public artwork, such as murals and installations.
My newest work follows my research on migration and the environment and stories I’ve collected of people who have survived domestic abuse. I parallel the health of the relationships we have with other people and with the environment, of policies and systems designed to protect us, and what happens when we violate and break the trusts we’ve established. This work is about ending cycles of violence and restoring healthy ecosystems.
We live in world in flux and in conflict. We physically move more frequently between cities, states, and countries, and mentally and emotionally encounter more drastic points of view. The purpose of this work is to understand the role of migration, which is no different a narrative than that of Pioneers. These are the stories of those who have the courage to venture forward, to break new ground and create new maps and patterns that future generations will look to for guidance.
These are the stories of families who have moved with no guarantee of common language or opportunity. These are the stories of boomtowns turned ghost towns turned tourist towns, of migrants and locals alike, who are often pitted against one another, but who, in a healthy ecosystem, depend on and benefit one another.
To tell this story, each image features different native and migratory birds. The birds are all native species to Wisconsin, who migrate annually to Mexico. Birds like the bald eagle have both permanent and migratory populations. Mockingbirds are permanent residents who learn over 300 songs in their lifetimes, songs they “copy” from migratory species like the Blue Jay and use to establish their territories.
All of these animals share the same threats as people when we push for stronger security over stronger partnerships. Fencing divides the territories of the endangered Bighorn Sheep and Mexican Wolves, whose populations are now below 100. City and security lights steal insects away from pollinating our plants and crops and disrupt the migratory paths of birds that memorize the pattern of the stars to navigate by night.
Distrust creates dangerously destructive barriers. The Pioneer story is one of progress and conservation. It’s about protecting our values and communities, and coupling that with an embrace of change and versatility.
This is the story of the silent majority, whose brilliance we believe in and education, voice, and legacy we will continue to cultivate. I hope these stories will help all of us to venture forward, to start new patterns and discover what makes us feel at home.
Jenie Gao is an artist, writer, and disgustingly organized project manager. She sees her work as a teaching tool, a way to challenge conventional wisdom and invite others to do the same. Her artistic roots lie in the history of printmaking. She is known for her bold woodcuts, ink work, and allegorical storytelling style that address our universal—yet often isolating and divisive—human dilemmas.
Having worked across industries, from education to nonprofit to lean manufacturing, Jenie is passionate about cross-disciplinary work. She believes that fair access to creative education is fundamental to human prosperity and is a big proponent of the emerging maker movement, in using creativity and logic to foster our connection to how and why we make things.
Jenie continues to work collaboratively across the worlds of fine arts, business, and nonprofit. Her recent clients include Planned Parenthood and Artists Working in Education. She advocates for the role of the arts in the building stronger, smarter, kinder communities.
To learn more about Jenie Gao and her work, please visit her online: jenie.org
Stay connected: instagram.com/erikalblock