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Jennifer CrawfordSketch Pad


Jenn Crawford
Focus on family
by Kathy Anderson

enn Crawford draws on the arts to help people heal themselves through art therapy. She also leads wellness and self-development workshops using the arts as tools for relaxation, goal development, personal knowledge and transformation. After several moves between Portland and Somerville, Mass., Jenn and her husband now call Portland home. The lush landscape and rolling hills of the Willamette Valley remind Jenn of Vermont, where she was born and raised.

Evening arrives
"Evening Arrives," Aquarelle

It's in the paper
A fascination with color, texture and materials led Jenn Crawford to combine water-soluble media with oil, chalk, wax and inks. She also tends to work quickly, so prefers media that responds immediately to her ideas.

"Mostly I use water-soluble media like Aquarelle," she said. "Since I love color, I love media that allow me to create saturated color. Aquarelle is a form of intense crayon that can be used to draw or paint. I usually do both in my images.

"And I nearly always work on paper because it's a medium itself. The paper absorbs the pigment, or not, and helps to create depth and texture. I love creating lots of layers."

Right on the button
Jenn has made a commitment to use materials that are non-toxic. She also gets great satisfaction out of remaking used objects or materials into a new piece.

"So far my art has lots of buttons," she said. "Now I'm working on a piece that involves rulers and explores questions about how to measure a life – particularly the life of a carpenter.

New mother
"New Mother," Aquarelle

"Later I hope to look at a seamstress, a medical assistant as an archetype for a healer, a cook and a gardener or migrant worker.

"I want to play with our ideas about sacredness via mythology, such as the seamstress Arachne, and compare the sweatshop worker to the goddess of weaving," she said.

"What are the differences, exactly? What is sacred about their work?"

Kindred spirits
Jenn's family members have been a big influence in her life's pursuit. Her father is a carpenter who "creates incredible houses, and does it with a sense of sacredness and a sense of humor." Her mother was all-around creative, with an eye for interior and landscape design.

"My grandmother has the unique gifts of moxy and will," she said. "When she decides to make something she just throws herself into it without reading the directions – and she usually creates something wonderful. She taught me to just jump in and try to figure it out; a skill critical to the creative process."

Artists that inspire Jenn are: Anish Kapoor, a British artist who creates art from oil, dirt, wax and pigments; Eva Hesse, who created beautiful forms from industrial materials; Motherwell; David Hockney; Georgia O'Keefe and several quilt artists.

"But every artist I look at influences my work somehow," she said.

river
"River," oil pastel, chalk, watercolor

For inspiration, Jenn thinks of Vermont in the fall, which she describes as like being inside a painting. She's also inspired by good dirt, old quilts, industrial areas, traveling, markets and sparkly things – especially pink glitter. And she loves the colors of the Oregon coast – the silver, dark blue-black and green water, seaweed, driftwood and crab bodies.

"Maybe most of all," she said, "I'm inspired when my loving artist-friends tell me to make some art, now!"

Not just for show
A big part of Jenn's life is doing art with the mentally ill. She managed a program called Artful Endeavors that helped artists with mental illnesses create and sell their art, as well as cards made from the pieces. They sold more than 3,000 cards the first year.

She also assisted students in the painting of a mural at James John Elementary School in Portland's St. John's neighborhood.

Jenn felt extremely successful when she had a show at Mt. Tabor Hospital, a cancer treatment facility, in Cambridge, Mass. The art was hung in patients' rooms. At the closing, several cancer patients approached her and said that they looked at her art while getting their treatments and that it helped them to feel better, that the art inspired them to keep going.

"It doesn't get any better than that," she said.

Her work has also shown at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., and at Lewis & Clark College's Classism Symposium.

first home
"First Home," Aquarelle

Into the woods
When Jenn was eight her parents decided to buy land and build their own home. The family lived in a 14-by-15-foot cabin without electricity or running water while they built the house. Jenn grew up romping through the woods, and believes being so close to nature helped her develop as an artist.

"Since I was living in the woods I got to make up a lot of games – my creativity was always engaged," she said. "We also didn't have a TV."

Jenn always made sure she took at least one art class each semester in high school. In college she designed her own major, which was essentially a double major in art and psychology, with a minor in women's studies.

"I went to London my junior year and studied the art of contemporary women artists in England. I also went to graduate school for art therapy," she said. "My degree is a master's of art in expressive arts therapy with a concentration in art therapy."

About 10 years ago Jenn learned how to make paper sculptures. Her first pieces were made from sticks, newspaper, tape and wallpaper paste.

red bird
"Redbird," wood, paper, acrylic, beads

"With such simple and inexpensive materials I was able to make wonderful, powerful pieces that provoked interaction from the viewer," she said. "I made some smaller birds with beautiful art paper wings as well as small totem-like figures.

"I do some commission work with the small creatures. I love that these pieces have a special place in their keepers' homes. My art keeps them company next to their beds, in their workspaces and in their living spaces.

"They live with my art and it inspires them," she said, "they don't just own it."

We the living
Jenn believes art is often falsely separated into art and craft – with fine art in the world of the rich, or at least the well-to-do and educated.

Since her family is working-class, she wanted to find a way for them to enter the world of the arts. Art museums make them uncomfortable, so Jenn started making art that is "meant to live in their world."

"I made a large three-foot-by-four-foot piece for my father," she said. "It's a massive head with a piercing expression. Both archetypal and tribal, it has a wild, ancient feeling. I painted it in browns, yellows and gold. Sticks and antlers spring from its head like a giant mane. I finished the piece and brought it to my dad and told him I had created something for his barn.

ben
"Ben," watercolor

"Well, my artwork was a big hit. The guys promptly named him 'Otis' and to this day interact with him regularly. They dress him up for holidays and other important events, like deer hunting. He's even gained some more mane material in the form of turkey feathers.

"So what is my point exactly? Well, I believe that art lives through our experience of it. I want my art to be where people are living.

Hand signals
Keeping the family theme, Jenn has also created art that is a collaboration with other family members. One piece was about ancestors and the durability and transformative nature of plant fibers. All the elements were plant-based and reusable or recyclable.

Using a quilt her grandmother made from old clothes as the background, Jenn set a kitchen stool into a pile of dirt and placed underneath it a papier-mâché grandmother figure. On the stool was a paper bowl with her grandparent's handprints inside and buttons hanging from it – some from the very clothes sewed into the quilt. Around the stool were strips of paper with writings by her grandfather.

"I had asked him to write about his life starting each sentence with 'These hands ...' Well, he wrote his whole life story through the voice of his hands – going to war, meeting his wife (his hands were eager to touch hers) and holding his daughters, then grandchildren," she said.

"I love the timelessness, the 'timefullness' of the piece. Women have been sewing for thousands of years; fiber turns to dirt and grows more fiber. People make their lives with their hands – especially artists," she said. "My family is a family of hands, their hands really tell their story, as do mine."

wedding bowl
"Wedding Bowl," buttons, papers, acrylic

Super bowl
For her next big collective piece, Jenn chose to make a bowl for her wedding. She gathered handprints from her entire family – aunts, uncles, first cousins, grandparents and her husband's family, too – over 100 handprints.

"I layered the handprints over each other inside the bowl. Since they were printed on tissue they're transparent," she said. "The little kids' hands went around the top with their fingers tickling the edge.

"Next, I gathered green and white buttons from both sides of the family. One grandmother went into her barn to get buttons her mother had given her! I sewed the buttons on the outside of the bowl. Lastly, the outside of the papier-mâché bowl was layered with beautiful art papers of varying transparencies to create a pleasing texture with some subtle spirals."

night
"Night," oil pastel

Wedding guests were invited to write a blessing on a leaf-shaped piece of paper and tie it onto the bowl. Some added small objects, like shells, signifying where they came from.

"The piece has a quiet political aspect," she said. "The handprints are from working-class Catholics and Episcopalians, middle-class Lutherans and Catholics and Protestants, and middle- and owning-class Jews.We represent people from Eastern Europe, Germany, Scotland, England and Canada. Just a few hundred years ago, or even today, people from these groups were not allowed to marry and faced great conflict when they did.

"It is a powerful statement to bring them together for just one moment in the bowl, and to celebrate the marriage of my husband and me."

starbirth
"Starbirth," Aquarelle

Unnatural resources
Jenn wants her art to be with people and of people. She is working on the nitty-gritty of finding places where she'd like her art to be.

"I hope to get to a place where I can make art as much as I want with total disregard for others' expectations," she said.

"I want to be well-known enough to be able to call on community resources to make wonderful projects happen. And I want to bring people joy, and a complex understanding about life.

"Art is wonderful and irreplaceable because it can contain paradox, wonderment, despair and joy all in the same piece. Nothing else can do this, only the arts."


E-mail Jenn at jenn_crawford@yahoo.com. Photos by Grace Weston. Reach Kathy at kanderson138@attbi.com, and draw on other Sketch Pads.



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