Yes, I may be a little biased with me being in Chicago—but artists here in windy city have got TALENT! Chicago-based painter Jennifer Cronin paints worlds full of magic and mystery, filled with moments of familiarity with something askew. Eerie and uncanny, Jennifer masterfully finds that specific place that is right on the border, and in between place that sits right on the edge of reality and dream. Yes, her work gives us calm, Midwestern scenes of a picket fence or a road sign in a field—but she shows us that something is beneath the surface through her use of neon, radioactive-like pigments that often show up in her paintings. Her work is like a light in the dark—but what if that light is an unnatural green? What if the light seems to travel like fireflies in a glowing, pink line through the air? Question the light, question the dark. This is the strange and magical world that Jennifer gives us.
Join Jennifer and I in conversation as we talk about letting go of the rules, the importance of finding magic in the mundane, and her new solo show at Elephant Room Gallery in Chicago (a must see!).
Jennifer Cronin is a visual artist known for her uncanny realistic paintings. Her work has evolved many times over, exploring psychology, inequality, climate change, and liminal spaces. With each iteration is a new attempt to find meaning amidst chaos, and to take comfort in the fabric of our human connection. Jennifer works in her at-home studio in Chicago and is represented by Elephant Room Gallery and Salonlb.
Where are you originally from and what brought you to Chicago?
Chicago is basically home to me. I’m originally from Oak Lawn, IL, a southwest suburb of Chicago, and I’ve lived in Chicago proper for over a decade. I have a lot of roots here, and I love the city and its people. I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon.
Your skill in painting is unbelievable! Where did you learn your incredible skill? What other mediums do you use to create your art besides oil paint?
Thank you! I slowly acquired my painting skills over time. Growing up, I felt surrounded by creativity in all forms. My siblings seemed to have an endless well of creativity, always working on one creative project or another. My grandma was an art teacher, and I was lucky to have my pick of supplies and plenty of inspiration when I would go over to her house. I was also lucky to have great teachers all my life, generously sharing tips and tricks as I moved through my childhood and adolescent years. When I was in high school, I took two classes at the local community college that were very formative—they really planted the seed that I was capable of being an artist. Then I went on to study art at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which essentially sealed the deal in me becoming an artist. There wasn’t one specific moment when I learned many skills, it just happened very slowly over time, and I’m definitely still slowly learning as I move through life as an artist.
While I do mostly oil painting, I’ve recently branched out a lot. I’ve done a few murals, and I’ve worked in the medium of drawing and screen printing. I’ve also recently been dabbling in digital art and animation—it’s been a lot of fun.
The tone of your paintings has a sense of mystery and magic to it. Can you talk about the supernatural elements of your work?
One thing I’ve always loved to do as an artist is play with ambiguity. Even though I work within the realm of realism, I love the way abstract art can be read in an infinite number of ways. Each viewer can bring their own stories and experiences to a piece that color what they ultimately see. I love to make work that generates questions rather than answers, which is why I love working with these mysterious elements. But beyond that, I think after the long years that we’ve all had, I realized that I had to create artwork that nourished me, and allowed me to simply have fun. These mysterious elements allow me to access a child-like sense of wonder and play, and to share that with viewers.
Congratulations on your solo show There is Still Magic Here at Elephant Room Gallery in Chicago! Can you tell us about the work included in the show?
Thank you so much! I am so happy with this show, and so grateful to Elephant Room Gallery for making it a reality. I’ve been working with the folks over at Elephant Room for over a decade, and I deeply admire and respect the work that they do for local emerging artists. The work in this show is really special to me, and came after a period of burnout that I describe in the next question. I think the best way to sum it up is that it’s my attempt to see the world through a lens of color, wonder, beauty, mystery, and fun. For more, I think my show statement says it best:
When the world began to feel a little too gray, I started walking. It was nothing notable, just walks in the vicinity of my apartment. Often, the route was the same - the same houses, the same alleys, and sometimes the same people. But sometimes, on these otherwise ordinary walks, I would notice something that felt special. Mundane pieces of the landscape arranged just so beckoned me to come closer, look longer. I got lost in these seemingly ordinary compositions, photographing something that looked like nothing at all. But it meant something to me.
These seemingly ordinary spaces became portals to something extraordinary–the space between day and night, between known and unknown, between here and there. In these liminal spaces, I found magic. I decided to let go of my rules, and I dove into this world of magic. I let myself believe campfire stories. I let myself remember what it felt like to play outside as the sunlight faded away. I let myself play in the space between reality and somewhere else, delighting in symphonies of color and bursts of neon brushstrokes. I saw that even here and now, there is beauty to relish in, joy to surrender to, and magic hiding in plain sight.
Can you tell us about a time where there was a shift in your artwork/practice and what led to the change?
Yes, I love this question because I just went through a huge shift in both my artwork and practice prior to creating this series. My work tends to be constantly evolving and shifting into something new. Starting around 2014, I began making work that was more documentary in nature. I wanted to use my art to highlight stark realities of the world, such as income inequality and climate change. This was a really important season in my career, and I learned a lot as I made this work. As I created this work, I questioned myself a lot, and I also pushed myself really hard. It ultimately led to major burnout, and I couldn’t go near an easel for nearly a year.
During this hiatus, I focused on other things in my life. I started a side-project with my fiance called “Billy & Bear,” a digital cartoon about a bear and possum best friend duo. I made simple digital drawings that were playful, colorful, and joyful, and I began to realize that my art could be all of those things, too. Time has always been a struggle for me, and when the pandemic hit, I suddenly found myself with more time on my hands. I began dipping my toes back into my art practice, first with small drawings, and eventually with larger paintings. As the world around me felt as though it was falling apart, I wanted my practice to be a safe place—somewhere gentle and joyful, where I could be myself and where I could play. So, it was a huge shift in my work and practice, but it felt very right.
What three emotions fuel your creative practice the most?
Wonder - Wonder is currently at the core of my creative practice. At every stage in the process, from gathering references, to photo editing, to the actual painting process, I feel driven by wonder.
Fear (and excitement) - I hate to admit it but I occasionally teeter into a fearful place while working—fear of what others think, fear of not producing enough, fear of leaving my comfort zone, etc. Fear is generally not a fuel for me, unless it is paired with a sense of excitement.
Curiosity - Curiosity is a very helpful emotion in my practice. It usually leads me into a new direction, and helps me to make small joyful discoveries as I work.
What are you reading and/or listening to right now?
I’m between books at the moment, but I listen to podcasts voraciously. One that I’ve been really enjoying lately is “Dead Eyes.” On the outside, it’s an actor’s seemingly trivial quest to find out why Tom Hanks fired him from a small acting role, but it’s filled with vulnerable, candid conversations about the little things that make up our lives. It’s funny, absurd, moving, and also set to a soundtrack of Aimee Mann. And for all of the creatives out there, my favorite creative podcast is Creative Pep Talk; it has truly helped me and given me much inspiration.