Jen McCleary Interview

[Interview by Kara of Urban Cheek]

Tell us a bit about yourself (name, location, affiliations, personal stuff).
I’m 30 years old, and have lived in the Philadelphia area my whole life. I currently live in the Mt. Airy section of town with my boyfriend, two chinchillas and a parakeet. I went to Tyler School of Art for painting and printmaking, then also did a continuing education certificate program in graphic design at University of the Arts. I’m currently in an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts program at UPenn where I’m studying the intersections of art and other aspects of culture. My thesis project will be on the connections between the art of Joseph Cornell and sixteenth-century cabinets of curiosity. I also work fulltime at UPenn as a graphic designer, and do freelance design work as well.
Apart from creating things, what do you do?
I play violin- not terribly well since I’ve only been playing for three years. It’s very challenging, in a good way. I love music, and it’s been rewarding to see my own progress from starting out making terrible screeching sounds to something that sounds like actual music. I also love cooking- I think it is similar to making art in a lot of ways- combining different elements to form a harmonious whole.
What first made you want to become an artist?
I have always loved making things- drawing, painting, whatever. It’s just a part of who I am and I can’t imagine not doing something creative.
My parents are both very hands-on people. They have a huge garden and so I spent a lot of my childhood helping with that. At the time I resented having to spend so much time doing work in the garden instead of playing, but in retrospect I think it instilled a love of “making things” in me, and an appreciation of how much more you can enjoy something that you worked hard to create.
My dad had a woodworking shop in the basement and made toys and furniture and other things, either for our use or for gifts. My mom used to do a lot of counted cross-stitch projects, and made clothes for my sister and I too. She tried to teach me counted cross-stitch, but I hated having to follow the pattern. I just wanted to sew and see what happened. I think that feeling of experimenting, playing with colors and textures, making my way through a process and hopefully coming out with something beautiful at the end is what I love most about making art.
Please describe your creative process (how, when, materials, etc).
Right now I don’t get to spend as much time creating as I’d like since most of my time is spent either at work or school, or doing school-related reading and writing. I squeeze my art time into evenings and weekends. I probably don’t get nearly as much sleep as I should.
I usually like working on multiple projects simultaneously, but sometimes I really focus in on one thing, usually when it is nearing completion. I make both digital and traditional collages, as well as jewelry, but the process is really similar for all three even if the media is completely different. I have many boxes of paper scraps for the regular collage, digital folders of photos and scans for the digital collage, and little boxes of beads and watch parts for the jewelry. I basically just dig through the boxes or folders, adding or removing things as I go, seeing how the pieces fit together. The beauty of doing digital work is how easy it is to undo mistakes. But sometimes good things come from having to accept a mistake since it might push a piece into a new direction. I work pretty intuitively, usually not really having a specific plan. I might set out to make a collage that is mostly blue, or contains trees, but I like to remain open to new ideas as I go. It’s boring if I know in advance exactly how it will turn out. Making art, for me, works best when I am able to find the middle ground between being in control and letting go.

What handmade possession do you most cherish?
A leather purse my grandfather made for me. My sister has one too. He died last year and this purse really reminds me of him. I remember going to the store with him and my sister, and picking out which kit we wanted. The pieces were pre-cut, but he did all this beautiful stampwork on it and sewed the pieces together. Mine has a cat and flowers, and my sister’s has a horse. He gave us little scraps of leather and let us play with the stamping tools which was a lot of fun.

Name your top five books, movies, songs/musical groups, and web sites
(besides Etsy).

I love things that make me go “wow, I wish I could do that!” Books that make me want to write, music I wish I was skilled enough to make. Even though I can’t make exactly those things, I think they inspire my art process somehow.

  • Movies– I love the stop-motion animation of the Brothers Quay. Beautiful, bizarre and wonderful. Lots of old and rusty things.
  • Music– I seem to be really into dreamy layered instrumental music lately. Stuff that’s good to listen to while making art- interesting but not too distracting. My current favorite band is Destroy All Dreamers, from Montreal. I also like Godspeed You Black Emperor and Mogwai a lot.
  • Books– Hmm, all I’ve been reading recently is Japanese history and stuff about Buddhist art, for school. I recently re-read the entire Harry Potter series, just for something easy and fun to counteract all the academic reading. I like a lot of Margaret Atwood’s writing. She has a wonderful way of describing things. I also like Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy.

What do you like most about selling on Etsy?
I love being part of a (virtual) community of people who love to make things, and a (real) community of local sellers too! I think the internet is doing so much to revolutionize the way people make, sell, and view art. I love being able to sell my work directly to people from all over the country. I’ve even made a few sales to people from other countries. I also love buying things from other Etsy sellers- I think it’s important to support my fellow artists.

How do you promote your work? Do you show/sell your work anyplace other than Etsy?
Word of mouth is always good. I always have business cards available at any shows that I sell at. The big thing I want to work on is increasing my online presence- I have a Trunkt portfolio, I’m on a bunch of social networking sites (Indiepublic, Facebook, StumbleUpon), I recently started a blog…It’s a lot to keep up with.
I sell my work at Vix Emporium and Curiosity Shoppe here in Philly, and usually sell at a few craft shows during the year. I’ll be at Art for the Cash Poor this year on June 14-15. I’ll do gallery or coffee shop shows if people contact me and ask me to do it, but I haven’t actively been trying to get that kind of show recently, just because of not having enough time. A lot of my mixed media work is currently being shown at Papercuts & Gluesticks gallery in Rocky River, Ohio.
In ten years I’d like to be…
Still making art. Anything else is extra. A lot of people who go to art school give up after few years because they can’t figure out how to support themselves at it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to support myself entirely with my art, but I don’t ever want to stop making things because of that.
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