We had the good fortune of connecting with Jennifer Dunbar and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jennifer, how do you think about risk?
Over a decade ago, I noticed that I was a person whose first instinct was to answer “no” to most unexpected asks. At that time I determined as a New Year’s resolution to start saying, “yes” and to think of unexpected asks as opportunities. Leaning into those risky situations lead me to change careers, to embrace teaching printmaking, and to joining a printmaking non-profit.
To me a risk is any venture that requires me to lean into the discomfort of the “not knowing”. By the not knowing I mean not knowing the outcome, not knowing how I’ll get there, and not knowing what tools, resources, or collaboration I’ll need. One example of a risk that absolutely terrified me was an offer to teach a short STEAM workshop for educators. The minute I was asked my stomach ached a bit and I felt the familiar jaw clench of uncertainty grasp me. But I said, “yes” and then there was nothing left to do but get to work! As I started to research how others have approached integrating the arts into STEAM I learned about Maker Culture, a term I was not familiar with. Reading about the first aerial photographers using kites to hoist cameras into the sky captivated my imagination. I was invigorated by the hours of study I undertook just to be able to teach a 30-minute class. Even more rewarding, the synergy continued as I pulled the discomfort of not knowing into the lesson and invited the educators to do some creative problem solving and to apply meaning to their hand-pulled prints. That rich and layered experience would not have happened if I had not taken the risk.
I now have a folder in my email called “Art Adventures” and it’s where I put all the “asks” and where I file the adventures that I have begun to seek.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I work in landscapes and my art is deeply connected to my experience of place. Prior to the pandemic I was an avid traveler. I would take a few months of the language of where I’d be headed and set out to be in the place and outside my comfort zone. While abroad I would connect with the nature around me; noticing the light, the colors, the smells, the sounds, the feel and look of the rocks and leaves, I would make a memory by being totally still in the place and then take photographs to add to the memory of that feeling of being there. In my art I use color and line to communicate the sense of being in the place rather than what the place actually looks like.
For me, the art of printmaking is a moving meditation. When I’m drawing the image I’m adding the energy, but then as I carve, I’m coming into the meditation of breathing, carving, breathing, carving. Even mixing ink and watching the colors shift then checking my photographs to see if there’s a hint of another color there just slightly pushing the hue to a more complex tone or shade. Then there’s rolling the brayer. I prefer very large brayers and large-scale blocks so a whole body movement is needed to apply the ink to the brayer and then to the block. This is a kind of rocking movement, again with the breath. Pressing the block onto the paper using a hand crank is another rhythm and again induces the meditation.
When I’m working I am deep in the state I’ve heard called “flow”. It’s a knowing without thinking and hours go by without notice.
Currently, I work in a non-profit gallery and workshop space, Printmakers Inc. in the Torpedo Factory Arts Center in Alexandria, VA. The space is really special because the public is invited to interact with the artists as they work. Initially, I feared it would be challenging for me to go from the deep flow state to chattering away about my process. However, the enthusiasm of the individuals who are interested in the work is a true delight.
Where I am today with my artist endeavors is attributable to what I discussed about risks. I would not have found the Torpedo Factory, the non-profit studio where I teach, Discover Graphics, or the non-profit gallery and workshop space at Printmakers Inc. if I had not leaned into the unknown and just said, “yes” and then swiftly got to work!
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I’m quite fortunate that my best friend does come to visit me every year! We typically head out the Shenandoah Valley to do some beautiful hikes, then pop into one of the local arts venues to do a workshop, and finally ALWAYS eat some local Vietnamese food.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I would like to dedicate my shout out to Paul Wittenbraker at Grand Valley State University. Paul started a course called Creative Problem Solving that revealed the magic of bringing the creative process into a sense of place and community.
The Creative Problem Solving course rented a space off campus in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Students were invited to explore the ideas of John R. Stilgoe and Miwon Kwon, among others, by concentrating on the location of the offsite space. For our semester the space was right outside a major transit hub at the intersection of historic railyards and a brand new bus station depot. We spent our class time learning about the history of the place, learning about the neighborhoods, learning about transportation and learning techniques of other artists with which to be in the world as both an experiencer and as an observer. We started thinking in new ways and making beautiful and challenging connections. We then created art based on these connections and invited the public in to participate. This was truly rewarding as we shared what we were learning with the community members who lived around our classroom.
This class under Wittenbraker’s direction, created deep meaning for me in how I relate to life as an artist. It became part of how I view and interact with the world and I am forever grateful for that experience.