Artist of the Month September 2011


Jenie Gao

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Jenie Gao is an artist and printmaker specializing in the mediums of woodcut and ink drawing. Her work focuses on the interdependence of preservation and change. She discusses how the objects we choose to keep and places and images we associate ourselves with act as anchor points in our families, friendships, and relationships. The desire to anchor ourselves in familiarity contrasts with the need to grow amidst inevitably variable surroundings. At the same time, a grounded sense of identity enables further growth, by creating opportunities to connect with others and change along with our environment. Jenie received her BFA in Printmaking/Drawing from Washington University in St. Louis. She currently lives in Milwaukee, working in art education and leading her own woodcut demonstrations. Within Milwaukee, she has exhibited her artwork at various venues including Cedar Gallery, Dean Jensen Gallery, the Third Ward, Caggio, and RedLine Milwaukee. She has also shown in St. Louis and Illinois and has had her work reviewed and featured in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, SGC International’s Graphic Impressions, and ArtMail: Milwaukee.

How and when did you start creating art?

The first sign that I was serious about my craft was when I was two years old. As the story goes, my aunt drew me a cat and I told her she didn’t draw it right and drew her a better one. I guess that means I was a harsh critic from the start, which was probably a good sign for the long run. As I grew up, I continued to be very serious about the work I made, though for a long time I fought this notion and concentrated my studies on other things. Where I really became serious about art was in college. I was pursuing degrees in both engineering and art at the time, when it finally dawned on me that while I enjoyed other subjects, the point at which everything else I was learning about stopped being fun was when it took my time away from what I really wanted to do, which was make art. If I had to pare down everything in my life to just one purpose, I would choose to be an artist before anything else.

What media and genres do you work in?

I have worked with a large range of media and my education is in printmaking. I specialize in doing large-scale woodblock prints and ink drawing. Much of my subject matter begins with family narratives and histories.

Who or what are your influences?

Historically, I am enamored with old woodcuts, engravings, and drawings such as those by the master, Albrecht Dürer. I am interested in how visual art functions as a form of communication, on its own and in combination with other methods. For instance, the paintings of Chinese artists such as Bian Wenjin are wrought with meaning and embedded in historical significance, though they are meant to stand in isolation, expressive of the artists’ feelings without words. Comic artists such as Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland) engage in the interplay of visual and textual communication, using the individual strengths of these methods to create a fuller and richer story. I love to follow the writings and listen to the talks of artists and other innovators who are active today. Two people worth listening to are Tricia Rose Burt and Brené Brown. I find that teaching and sharing what I do enriches my own work and am therefore drawn to those who are passionate not only about working in but also speaking about their field and extending that passion to others.

The featured piece: “Attention,” a 40 x 60 inch woodcut printed on canvas. The images I use in my artwork largely stem from daily life and family narratives and my interest in what personal belongings say about their owners. The clothes and furniture in “Attention” are my own and the pigeons a part of a greater story that runs through my work. There is a default sense of “home” built in to the cities where we grow up surrounded by family or go to school surrounded by colleagues in our fields. As someone who has moved a few times in the past year and moved recently to Milwaukee, I have found myself uprooted in the midst of unfamiliarity. Because of that, however, I have had to work hard to take ownership of where I am in order to obtain a sense of home shaped by my identity instead of from a shared history with my location. Additionally, I feel like every artist has an image or subject that he or she attaches to and always feels slightly guilty about reusing; for me, it’s the homing pigeon. My dad raised hundreds of them his whole life and I have always been enchanted by a homing pigeon’s instinctive desire to always fly home, a desire that takes precedence over any other attachment to a mate or its community.

Describe your creative process?

My artwork evolves out of an ongoing correspondence between concept and physical process. I am always thinking about stories and the significance of the subjects I use. I am drawn to a variety of textures and seek to relate them visually, so while the images that result are fantastical the ways in which their different parts combine seem very logical. When I draw, the types of marks I choose to make are very important, both in what they communicate visually and metaphorically. Soft shapes interrupt hard lines within my images; some areas come into strong, intensely detailed focus while other shapes are implied by simple lines. There is a sense that my subjects are frozen in movement, isolated in their connection, both abrasive and tender. My artwork centers on the tension between change and preservation, and consequently my use of woodblock also carries a tone. Whereas painting consists of covering a surface with layers, woodcarving is the act of cutting away to arrive at the final image. The term, “create,” implies a need to add, but my process of creating something new requires that I cut pieces out.

What are you working on currently?

I am working on a new series of drawings that I will be showing in October with my friend and fellow artist, Jason Anthony LeRoy. He and I will also be doing one or two collaborative pieces for our joint show, so stay on the lookout for those!

What are your near/long term goals as an artist?

My short term goals are aligned with my long term goals. Day-to-day, I am always looking for ways to engage other people in what I do, both as viewers and doers. I love both sharing the ideas behind my art and teaching people the trades that I know. I want to run my own studio space, where I can show my art, share my own works-in-process, and teach classes to the public. It’s a matter of handling the days one at a time while keeping sight of what lies ahead, of approaching life—unpredictable as it may be—with patience, hard work, and resolve.

Where can people view/purchase your work (gallery, website, etc)?

People can view my artwork online at and contact me at to purchase originals. I sell digital prints at and share updates on my blog at Don't be shy if you want to get in touch! I love and thrive on new conversations.

Open Imagination

Attention, 40 x 60 inches, Woodcut on Canvas, August 2011

Open Imagination

Home, 5 x 7 inches, ink on paper, March 2011

Open Imagination

Bonding, 15 x 21 inches, ink and watercolor on paper, March 2011

Open Imagination

Push, 14 x 24 inches, ink and watercolor on paper, July 2011

Open Imagination

Stick, 14 x 10 inches, ink on paper, July 2011

Open Imagination

Loose, 10 x 14 inches, ink on paper, July 2011

Artist Website
All Images @ Jenie Gao
All Rights Reserved

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