We had the good fortune of connecting with Jennifer Niswonger-Morris and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jennifer, have there been any changes in how you think about work-life balance?
Work life balance in art has always been a struggle for me. Even so, I have been finding a better balance recently. Many of my past projects had ambiguous timelines and, given the exploratory nature of making anything new or challenging, required an unpredictable number of hours to complete. On top of the physical labor involved, it can be difficult as an artist to plan out your schedule to encourage a good work life balance when your schedule is extremely unpredictable to begin with. From one day to the next, my schedule would vary dramatically, and no week was the same. As a fine artist, I would find myself constantly applying for exhibitions I would never get invited to, seeking jobs that weren’t secure for the long term, or sinking long hours into large projects that did not have a clear deadline or outcome. Sometimes though, I might find I actually received the grant I wanted or that big solo exhibition I have been working for and maybe even offered a great short-term project with a much needed paycheck – but they all had deadlines within the same weekend. With so many rejections out-balancing the few opportunities I was offered, it became hard to decide when to turn one down when there is a fear I wouldn’t be offered those opportunities anytime again in the foreseeable future or that my lacking resume would not allow me to compete for future opportunities. However, after a long stint of pulling 16 hour days in the studio 7 days a week, I started to become very much aware of the negative toll my habits were having on my physical and mental health. I pulled back and started incorporating more time off into my studio practice (because I guess the only way I don’t feel guilty about taking a break is if the break is part of the “labor” necessary – or at least that’s how I pitch it to myself). While this helped, I still struggled with balancing these issues due to the insecure nature of trying to teach as an adjunct art instructor. However, I was recently able to obtain a tattoo apprenticeship with tattoo artist and owner of Chico Lou’s Fine Tattoos, Sara Machen-Fogle. Concerning work life balance, the hope is that being a tattoo artist will allow me to have a steady and secure income as well as a much more predictable and consistent schedule with smaller individual projects. Work life balance has been my main focus this last year, and while I have made a lot more progress finding a balance, I know it is going to be an ongoing challenge for me with my artistic pursuits being such a large part of my everyday life.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I am often attracted to the ‘gray area’ found on the spectrum of extremes in arguments particularly regarding morality, principles and beliefs, and personal experiences. Other themes my work is inspired by includes debates surrounding nature vs nurture as well as the various masks people wear for the public eye in contrast to the ones they have in private. These are ideas I generally have in mind, but the scenes I choose to paint are constructed with fake characters and artificial environments inspired by news stories and headlines. However, I see the visual outcome of the paintings more as the outcome of myself thinking on complicated questions and not as a direct visual retelling of the real events that inspired the work. My most recent completed painting that will be in the 2021 ArtFields Competition and Exhibition is “Newsfeed: Social Media Circus,” a painting loosely inspired by the phenomena surrounding a sensational headline regarding the claim of cows feasting on skittles after an ambiguous tweet went viral. Though the story inspired waves of cries for action and changes in law, the misinformation in the story resulted in it being pulled from the vast majority of publications. Some of the things I was questioning when creating “Newsfeed: Social Media Circus” was social media, journalism, and information sharing in the digital landscape; politics as performance; manipulation through cognitive biases; propaganda and advertisement; removal of information post-publication; and flesh and fabric as the physical and symbolic material between what we experience as our inner selves and the world we live in and a visual representation of the space we negotiate between ourselves and the world around us. At 8 x 8 feet, “Newsfeed: Social Media Circus” is the largest oil painting I have completed and each canvas for my paintings I have built and stretched by hand. I am fortunate enough to have met and learned from many wonderful educators and mentors through my artistic pursuits. Creating has always been something I have naturally done. However, I would not have been able to expand my personal abilities nor able to navigate towards my goals as easily without the badass individuals who have helped me along the way.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
The magic of Athens is the variety of events that can seemingly happen at any given time in any given place. When the energy of the town is in full swing, some of the best nights are spent downtown where the music humming from the bars or the aromas hovering from the patios lure you in on a whim. In the recent past, my favorite venues to frequent were Go Bar and the Caledonia Lounge before the former announced they were transitioning into a restaurant and the latter permanently closed their doors. In the current landscape, it is hard to imagine the best things I might show a friend visiting from out of town. But, if I were to treat my friend to a day with my favorite things in Athens in a time that is safe, I would start by eating brunch outdoors at Heirloom Café, a small restaurant that sources ingredients from local producers, farmers, and artisans for their seasonal menus. We would then travel a short distance down the road to check out tiny ATH gallery for their monthly local artist exhibit, and then we would make a stop at Southern Star Studio next door – a community ceramics studio and gallery. Nearby you can also find the Athens Institute for Contemporary Art (ATHICA), an independent non-profit gallery supporting artists of all media through rotating exhibitions and events featuring local, national, and international contemporary artists. Another great place to check out a variety of work is at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia. Within the main building, there can be anywhere from six to fifteen exhibitions and installations at a given time featuring artists at various points in their careers including exhibitions curated by students and work by them as well. The Dodd is located right next to the Georgia Museum of Art to really make your afternoon of art viewing convenient. For dinner, I would recommend Clocked located downtown for some of the best damn burgers in town with a menu that has a wide variety of options including veggie and vegan options for burgers and sides. They use local and natural organic ingredients to deliver you “out of this world burgers.” After dinner we would start a night of downtown adventures by chilling at the cozy Manhattan Café or hang at the World Famous and see what live performances they have for the evening. Some of my favorite groups to catch are Athens-based goth rock bands Vincas and Vision Video. By the end of the night, we would likely end up on the Rooftop Bar at the Georgia Theatre for some high energy dancing and city scape views to end the night. The Booty Boyz always DJ great events for all your booty shaking needs, but I am a big fan of nights hosted by DJ Crowe, one of the founders of the Athens Goth Nights who always delivers great jams and is known for introducing goth and industrial fans to newer artists within the genre!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I will not be able to name them all, but a little shout out is in order to some of the amazing individuals who I’m grateful to have helped and supported me through this challenging career: Sarah Bielski, Rob Millard-Mendez, Katie Waters, James and Diane Littleton, Jack Ashley, Elizabeth Hatmaker, Sara Machen-Fogle, Veronica Hahn, Chris Garvin, Drema Montgomery, Sydney Daniel, Dimelza Broche, and Dr. Hillary Braysmith. But most importantly of all, the biggest thanks goes to my beautiful partner Anthony Morris and my talented mum Shawn Niswonger for being there always and bringing out the best in me!