Fangs & Flaws A Conversation with Jenny Doh
Text Oliver X
Photos of Jenny Doh Nick Holmes
Photos of Jenny Doh's art courtesy of the artist
I am relieved to report that noted artist, writer, activist, publisher, educator and crafter, Jenny Doh does not bite—thank God! I say this because I carry with me a measure of trepidation when embarking upon an interview with a subject I am not very familiar with. It's kind of like asking a person out on a date who you met just now on the elevator. It begins at awkward and can go up or down from there. The interviewer as supplicant-solicitor has not earned the intimacy of the moment he is constructing and must endeavor to sincerely create trust from the word hello. It helps a great deal if, after researching your subject, that she reveals herself to be supremely gifted, prolific, disarmingly charming, brilliant and genuinely in the moment. Whew!
Jenny Doh is cooler than shit.
Like the art she creates, Doh is a woman for whom whimsy is a co-conspirator, a condition that balances the requisite discipline of her methodology. As a creator, she's given herself permission to play – and to create art from play the way children do – as a means of creatively rebooting and staying close to the source of her joy and purpose in the process of making interesting things.
An immigrant who came to the U.S. when she was seven, Doh grew up in Bakersfield, California and received her Masters in Social Welfare from UCLA, after completing her undergraduate studies at UC Irvine. Doh's numerous art books showcase her maker's sense, her love of craft, words, interpolation and construction. Folio Magazine recognized Doh in 2009 as one of the top 40 leaders within the publishing industry. One of my favorite titles in her catalog is the book, Craft-a-Doodle: 75 Creative Exercises from 18 Artists, which takes the reader through the simple but detailed, step-by-step process of making delightful doodles, for doodles' sake! In her book Fangs and Flaws: FangGrrr Adventures, Doh introduces us to the world of FangGrrr and Lion, two delightfully drawn, unlikely besties who live, laugh and love through adventures that teach readers about humility, friendship, and forgiveness.
I spoke with Doh by phone in advance of her Reno event Fangs and Flaws: A Conversation with Jenny Doh of Crescendoh Studio presented by artist, photographer and designer Sarah Stevenson's Red Line Design, the third in a series of “Conversations With…” events from Stevenson, happening at The Basement March 16, 2017 from 6-8pm.
Oliver X: I am delighted by your art and was so thrilled to be exposed to your work.
Jenny Doh: Thank you!
Oliver X: Your oil paintings are striking by how much they resembled watercolor--due to the negative space--and how lightly the canvass holds the paint. Then I looked at your watercolor studies and saw how much your style informs the work you do in other media.
Jenny Doh: I appreciate that observation. And there are times that I do feel that some of the strokes that I make with the oil paint hints at what I feel when I look at a watercolor too.
Oliver X: When did you discover art?
Jenny Doh: Well, what I discovered is that I never didn't have it. I grew up in a very, very artistic and musical creative family. My mom and dad were both music majors and so that was sort of the environment I was raised in—to be musical and creative. So I think, by extension, I was also artistic. Things that swirled in my mind as a young girl, then as an adolescent and then into adulthood, was to always view things from an artistic point of view.
Now the complete full-time focus that I've had on my expressive art to become a true blue artist has been about five or six years. Prior to that I worked for several years as a magazine editor-in-chief of art and craft magazines. So I guess that's a long answer to say that I've always had art in my bloodstream.
Oliver X: Are you a paper nerd? Did you geek out on paper stock, weight and textures as a publisher?
Jenny Doh: I definitely was a person that geeked out about paper and texture. Definitely I was that person. Having said that, I am a person who geeks out currently with paint and how I can manipulate paint. But I am less about geeking out about paper these days, especially in my quest to live sort of a minimalist life. Consuming less, having less. Based on sort of that minimalist documentary (Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Thing), I don't know if you're familiar with it. Trying to have less and consume less to live a lighter and more rich life. Now, in the last few years, I am definitely interested in and fascinated about moving paint around.
Oliver X: Why do you paint? Do you feel it's essential for you to paint?
Jenny Doh: Not to shock you, but I think that the number one reason why I paint is that it gives me a reason to not say goodbye to this world. I feel like, in the most basic sense, it gives me a reason to live. Like right now I am thinking to myself that I have this idea for a painting tomorrow, so I might as well stick around. Like, why call it quits? And I'm not trying to say that I have suicidal ideation or anything like that, but it really is a compelling reason to live.
Oliver X: So you're still very curious as an artist. What factor does that play in driving you to create?
Jenny Doh: Yes. I am curious. Everyday I'm curious. And I'm curious about, 'Hmm, I wonder how I can do that?' Or 'I wonder how I would approach that?' It could be anything. It can be as simple as 'I wonder if I can capture that shimmer on that cup of water? I wonder if I can do that?' So sometimes the curiosity is simply about whether I have the technical skills. Have I developed them enough? Do I have control over the stroke? So that's a curiosity. And I think that what hovers above that curiosity of a technical nature is 'I wonder if that expression of that still life, or that flower, or that portrait can exude a feeling that interests me. Like feelings of melancholy; feelings of sassiness. Attitude. I don't want to be like a dusty painter. You know, those paintings that are so boring and dusty. I don't want to do that. I want my painting to be interesting and cool and emotional.
Oliver X: Your paintings are like diary entries. Speaking as a new fan of your work, the paintings seems very personal. They must speak back to you while showing the viewer your interiority.
Jenny Doh: What you just said, those sentences. I mean, I want to thank you for that. For an artist to hear that kind of feedback, that's what it's all about. That the work that I do could cause you to feel something. So, first of all thank you! Second of all, yeah, I am really uninhibited. I always joke to my family and friends that I was born an exhibitionist and I will always be so. And I do so by, yeah, I guess by letting the viewer in my soul and my essence. I guess it is sort of a visual diary. Because interestingly, even if I don't intend to share something very private about myself, I'll paint something and during the course of making that it causes me to think about those things, or it causes me to extract a lyric from a song I was listening to while I was painting, or it ignites a memory. I don't hide that, I share that and express that as well.
Oliver X: You really love plants. Do you pose plants or do you work off of photos?
Jenny Doh: For a lot of the flowers I will use photo references. But I just met this amazing florist near my house and I am really excited about that relationship, because she is an artist herself. So sometimes I will actually work from real life on those recent floral pieces that I've done. When I encounter a beautiful photograph of florals, I will use that as a reference.
Oliver X: How much experimentation is part of your creative process? How do you get into that groove where you're feeling served as a creative?
Jenny Doh: That's such an interesting question and I would have answered it differently five years ago. Five years ago when I started painting it was with acrylics, not that I don't use acrylics today, but I would say that 80% of what I do is oils and 20% is with acrylics because I lot of people who want to paint with me are drawn to acrylics. So that's why I still have that in my life. Having said that, when I started with acrylics, it was under the guise of this sort of like anything goes. There is no mistake and I agree with that to a certain degree. And then I moved into oils and I really got serious about teaching myself perspective and proportion. And I'm sorry but there are certain things that you need to pay attention to for something to look the way you want it to look.
Sometimes when people say “experimentation” they mean, 'Let's just roll around and see what happens.' Then there's people who say, 'Let's light a candle and say an incantation.' And I don't believe in any of that. I think that there is no candle you can light that will help you become a better painter. You have to sit yourself down and you've got to study and you have to draw and you have to practice. You have to know how to make a face look like a face. But am I interested in experimenting with a face that I've painted correctly let's say? Then I can start destroying it a little bit right. I can destroy it by adding strokes that are unusual or overlapping. Or I like to do this other thing where I put a crown of thorns on top of faces that I do. That's kind of experimental. I guess there's a discipline of freedom. I love being free, but in order to be free to do that destruction of the face that I have just done, I have to first practice the discipline of discipline. Of learning how to do it; then I can be as free as I want to destroy it.
Oliver X: Do you wake up knowing that you have a routine and that you're going to paint?
Jenny Doh: For the most part, yes. I wake up and have my coffee and then do some email replies. When I go to bed I have this idea of what I want to paint tomorrow morning when I get up. Usually when I go to bed, it's a good night if I have some inkling. So I wake up, I do some computer things and I get some breakfast or do a couple of errands. But I start fairly soon and by 10 or 11am I'm painting.
Oliver X: How did you develop the discipline you have as an artist? The typical artist cannot make a living without being a business person and that takes discipline. And related to that, how has e-commerce impacted the volume of the art you create, knowing that you have a landing place for your art on your website and that you're not struggling to find a place or an audience for your art—but that you have both. That must be like a new world compared to how it used to be back in the day?
Jenny Doh: Yeah, I think it is a significant advance that we artists are working under, we artists who can have a voice and a following through e-commerce. But to comment on your earlier question about how I developed discipline as an artist. I think I've always been disciplined. I've always known that the way I'm going to kick ass in whatever I do is by hunkering down, getting serious and not screwing around, wasting my time and answering the question 'What do you want to do?' Okay, so I wanted to be a magazine editor. Then go kick some ass and focus. And when I was doing that I was very focused. So when I realized that I wanted to paint, I knew that I would not be able to make any sort of impression on any part of this universe if I didn't really focus. It might be funner to go do this and that, but I just don't do it. I stay hunkered down and I practice every single day.
Oliver X: So you're experiencing continuous learning as part of not only your natural curiosity but as part of your process that you depend on and it works for you. I know that so many artists still struggle with that who are still emerging. What advice do you have for those artists who still need to develop better habits to manifest their desire?
Jenny Doh: There's this thing where painters want to become painters, but they really don't spend any time drawing, which is a big prerequisite to being a good painter. So I guess my advice is grow the hell up. Stop complaining and start practicing. Don't make excuses because you want to go do this other thing. Shut up and just do it. Now, I say that with a little asterisk. I have a family that supports me. I have this ability to do it, so it might be really hard if you have lots of struggles. I don't discount that. But if you don't have those struggles and all that it is about is your attitude and your time management, then I guess my advice is grow up. Get serious.
Oliver X: What is scribble theory?
Jenny Doh: I teach a lot of privates and one of the ways I get people to loosen up with painting—especially landscapes—once we have the basic drawing in place I ask them to make a scribble up there of that tree or that cluster of leaves that you see. Is it green or is it gray—whatever it is—just scribble it in and do not paint it in. And then we'll scribble a little shrub over here and we'll scribble that tree trunk over there. And usually that does get the people who are painting with me to loosen up. That's one way that I teach.
Oliver X: Switching reels a bit here, what are your thoughts about the current administration's deportation and border policies?
Jenny Doh: I do not support the administration's deportation policy that targets all undocumented humans who have lived in the United States, including those with no criminal record. Good people who already live in the shadows of our society are starting to live in heightened fear because their families could be broken apart, as a result of this policy. The contributions that these humans make in American society are underestimated. The administration's rhetoric regarding creating impermeability through building walls is an extension of a nationalist world view that deeply troubles me. It is short-sighted.
Oliver X: You're coming to town soon and I am very excited about that. Tell me about Fangs and Flaws.
Jenny Doh: Before I tell you about Fangs and Flaws, I want to tell you about the way I segued from my magazine editing days to my current pursuits. I told myself, Okay, I'm going to stop being a magazine editor and I'm going to use my skills and my relationships with people who will work for me freelance to go to book publishers and say 'I can make books for you.' And that's exactly what happened. If a publisher said for example, Can your team make a book about creative lettering, like calligraphy and fun lettering. I would say 'Yes.' And then we would recruit 15 or so contributors who are really good at that and then the art would come to my house and then my team would photograph it, design it, write it etc. That's a really important bread and butter backbone that allowed that segue to happen. And that's the road that allowed me to still have that room to experience the expression of my art. And now I really don't make that many books, because I let that go to become the artist that I am.
The only book that I ever self-published, and I didn't do it for a publisher, is Fangs and Flaws. It is sort of autobiographical and it is a book that is illustrated in a very minimalist way with very, very simple characters. There's a girl (FangGrrr) who has had some wrongs that have happened to her, so she grows these fangs and starts being a person who expresses anger and discontent with her fangs. And she meets Lion who doesn't express himself through his fangs, but through the ability to play and wonder and laugh. They go on this journey where she listens to bad voices like Snake, who comes to try to convince FangGrrr that maybe she should be mean to Lion. So all these things happen and she learns great lessons about what life is all about; that Snake is not the one to listen to, or that the inner angry voice to be angry isn't really the right voice to be listening to. Lion also teaches her lessons about how we all have fangs and that we all have flaws. We're all sort of maneuvering through life and we can either choose to use our fangs, or accept our flaws and have fun and laugh and express and drink chocolate milk.
Don't miss Fangs and Flaws: A Conversation with Jenny Doh of Crescendoh Studio happening March 16, 2017 at The Basement below West Elm in downtown Reno from 6-8pm. On March 17th, Jenny Doh will be teaching a one-day oil painting workshop with a focus on portraits. March 18th and 19th, Doh will be teaching a two-day acrylic painting workshop. Follow these secure links for details and to register: http://crescendoh.com/studio_crescendoh/oil-painting-in-reno-with-jenny-doh.shtml – http://crescendoh.com/studio_crescendoh/painting-by-heart-in-reno-with-jenny-doh-2017.shtml
This article is featured in the 2017 March RTT: