Jennifer Maher recently hung a huge show of her paintings at Uncommon Grounds in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She holds the dubious honor of being the art-coordinator for both of our Albany and Saratoga Springs stores, so it’s nice to see her put together a showing of her own work on the walls. Along with being an accomplished painter, she recently entered the entrepreneurial world with her Custom Toy Portrait website. She quickly gained some high-level attention from the blogging world for her charming portraits of childrens’ toys, made custom to be kept for years to come. We sat down with Jennifer to get a bit of background information on her, her work and her portraiture business:
Uncommon Grounds (UG) : When did you start painting?
Jennifer Maher (JM) : Well, I’ve always painted but “officially” I started as an undergrad, I had a double major as an undergrad in fine arts and English writing. I was trying to sort out what I was going to narrow it all down to. So I did a lot of both; I wrote poetry, I wrote fiction and I tried to do a big project that I got a Ford Fellowship for as an undergrad where I tried to depict ideas in parallel ways with painting and writing. It didn’t really work very well and I ended up focusing on painting as I went into grad school. I put writing by the wayside.
UG : Where did you do your graduate studies?
JM : After undergrad, I came to Albany and got my masters and my masters in fine arts from SUNY.
UG : It was all painting at SUNY?
JM : Yeah it was all about painting. I did a lot of different things; one of them being a huge series of paintings based on documenting rave and dance culture emulating Tolouse-Lautrec. He did the whole “Moulin Rouge” series and I wanted to paint rave culture as a continuation of what he started. I felt like they were cultures that mirrored each other. I did a lot of imaginitive painting that broke out of my original training which was very strict and classical. At SUNY it was all about breaking out of that and doing things that I wouldn’t normally do. It was very uncomfortable for me, but I tried to do it with the rave series. Painting from my imagination, painting from photographs; all things that were very taboo in my undergrad work. It was helpful to get uncomfortable.
UG : Your show feels very much like a “retrospective” with many different elements and feelings throughout the space. Were you consciously trying to set this show up like that?
JM : It’s a big space to fill and I have a lot of art sitting around that I would like to sell. I also have a lot of different interests, artistically. For example, the “fake Rothko” series. I love Rothko, but I’m not really an abstract painter. What happened is my dad requested a “Rothko-esque” painting for Christmas and so I started playing with that idea. Although Rothko’s (paintings) are enormous, I like to paint really small so I thought it would be funny to paint really, really small Rothko-type paintings. I thought maybe someone would like these so I put them in the show. Then I had a couple of years painting landscapes when I moved to this area because I was just overwhelmed with how beautiful it is up here. I did a lot of tiny little landscapes detailing my drive to work. Along with that, I added some paintings that I made when I lived in Albany that were evening scenes of modern architecture and I like showing both the rural landscapes and the urban scenes. I’ve shown these paintings a few times and I continue to make them on the side as I work on the portraits of stuffed animals and quirky toys.
UG : Yes! Speaking of that, how did the idea come about for your Custom Toy Portrait website?
JM : Well, I’m trying to continue to be a working artist which can be difficult at times. So this is a way to own a business of my own by offering something that’s completely unique. I really love to paint toys and have always done so. It’s a service that people might think, “Oh I’ve never thought of this, it’s something that could be very valuable to me.” I feel like I do it well and I’m just trying to hone it at this point.
UG : It seems like you love to do it! The paintings show a high-level of care and compassion towards the subjects often eliciting the feeling of perhaps what the owner feels towards the object… (See the recent “Choppable” challenge… and Jennifer’s painting here…)
JM : I love it! I’ve always collected bizarre little toys and painted them. I think that they’re a very forgiving subject matter because they are quirky and they have a bizarre little life of their own. Same thing goes for painting children’s portraits. I am very open to making children’s portraits. Since I started this business earlier this year, I’m just in heaven. The fact that people are paying me to paint these little awesome characters is amazing. I’ve gotten it to the point where I can knock them out really fast or linger on them for a few weeks and still have the same feeling about them. It’s a real treat to work on these paintings.