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