Jen McCleary

Jen McCleary is an artist who works with mixed media and digital collage. She also creates one of a kind jewelry using antique watch parts, optical lenses, and found and repurposed objects. By day Jen works as a graphic artist. In her spare time, she’s a coordinator for Handmade Philly.

Jen, when and where were you born?
I was born in Coatesville, PA, in 1977. I lived in the same house for my whole childhood and my parents still live there today.

What was it like for you growing up?
We (me, my parents, and my younger sister) lived about a 20 minute drive outside of the city of Coatesville. The city itself is one of those old, slowly dying PA steel towns with lots of problems, but where we lived it was still almost rural. Definitely suburban, but the houses weren’t packed close together, everyone had lots of trees and there were no sidewalks and not much car traffic. I spent a lot of time outdoors, playing with my sister or kids in the neighborhood, riding my bike around. We didn’t watch very much TV or play a lot of computer games or anything like that. If I wasn’t outside I was probably reading- I was a huge bookworm (and still am). We were quite close to Hibernia County Park, and when I got old enough, I’d take off and wander around over there alone for hours. While I was away at college they flooded part of the park to put in a manmade lake. Some of my favorite trails are now underwater- it’s interesting to think of the traces of those trails maybe still being down there.

I’ve only realized in recent years how much certain aspects of how I was raised influenced me in a positive way- thinking about the whole DIY craft movement, the idea of making things by hand. My mom made most of my and my sister’s clothes until we were teenagers, and my dad had a woodworking shop in the basement. They had a huge garden, which at the time seemed like drudgery, but now I appreciate the value of growing your own food, making your own tomato sauce and I wish I had my own garden. Right now I have in my apartment furniture that my dad made and jam that my mom made, which is pretty cool.

What did your parents do for a living?
My dad was an engineer. I can never remember which kind even though he’s told me several times. I think he designed the electrical or heating/cooling systems for manufacturing plants or something like that. He used to bring home printouts of these amazing floorplans and flowcharts and things. I still have some of them, and have incorporated some of them into different collages. He retired from engineering a while ago, and now works as a teacher aide in an elementary school, providing one-on-one assistance for a boy with autism who is in a mainstream class.

My mom trained as a secretary, and is the library aide for the library of the elementary school that my sister and I went to. She basically does everything the librarian does except teach classes. I think she started working there when I was in third grade, and stayed ever since. The library recently got rid of their old wooden card catalogue drawers, and she was thoughtful enough to ask if I wanted it. I love things with lots of little drawers. It weighs a ton, but looks awesome and is great for storing odds and ends.

Were you involved with the arts as a child?
Definitely. I always loved art class the best, the feeling I got from making things. I also played piano for most of my childhood, although I think that was more frustrating for me than making art. Art was more liberating, more fun, whereas piano was stressful, it had to be “right.” I stopped taking piano lessons around the age of 13, around the same time that I started focusing more on art. I went to ordinary public schools that didn’t necessarily put a priority on the arts (the high school had a darkroom years ago but by the time I got there it had been turned into storage for football gear). But had some fantastic teachers who I can truly say influenced me for the better. My elementary school art teacher offered private lessons at his home studio one evening a week for four or five students. That was a great experience- we got to do stuff we never got to do at school- ceramics, screenprinting, woodblock prints. My art teacher junior and senior years of high school was wonderful too. At that point I was really focusing on art and knew I wanted to go to art school, and he was always helpful and encouraging and wrote some fantastic letters of recommendation.

How would you describe your work?
I like working in a number of different media and having multiple projects going simultaneously. Right now about half of what I do is digital (digital collages and photography) and the other half is more traditional (mixed-media collage paintings and handmade jewelry). I love the flexibility of working digitally, but if I spend too much time on the computer I crave the immediacy and tactile nature of working by hand with actual materials. It’s funny though if I mess something up in a painting the first thing that comes to mind is “undo! undo!” I think being able to hit that undo button on the computer makes it easier to try different things, but sometimes with the traditional media being forced to work through a mistake and go in a different direction has the same end result. My imagery comes from a number of places- I wander around taking pictures in the city, so there’s a lot of urban imagery, but I also love and am inspired by nature. I like exploring dualities- natural/manmade, light/dark, etc…I like decay and texture and especially color…


Tell us about your education…what did you study?
I studied Painting and Printmaking (double major, BFA) at Tyler School of Art. I spent one semester my junior year studying in Rome. Art school was simultaneously an amazingly wonderful and horribly frustrating experience. By the end of my senior year I realized that I wasn’t really a painter and I wasn’t really a printmaker. I was interested in
mixing things up, painting on prints, printing on paintings, making collages and books, and I didn’t really feel like there was a place for that. I didn’t really find the class critique thing helpful at all- hearing twenty different conflicting opinions just left me confused and uncertain. It took me many years and a lot of work after I graduated to feel confident about my art, to feel that I was making the work that I needed to be making.

When I was in school I hated the idea of using the computer to make art, but I soon figured out that I was completely wrong about that! I started exploring what I could do using Photoshop to manipulate images and starting to create digital collage work. I eventually figured out that I’d be a lot happier if I could do something more creative as my job, so I took a Continuing Education program in Print Design at University of the Arts. After that I got a job doing graphic design full-time at Penn, and took advantage of the staff tuition benefit to do a Master of Liberal Arts program. It was an interdisciplinary program, so although I focused on the general areas of art/art history/culture, I took classes from a variety of departments including English, Political Science, Sociology, East Asian Studies, and History. It was perfect for someone like me with varied interests. I just completed the program this past December. It was a lot of work, taking classes two nights a week, working fulltime, and also still trying to do my own art projects, but I think the difficulty of it made it more rewarding. I really believe in continuing to learn and grow throughout life, whether that is formal education or just self-education through reading about different things and trying new things. I think I’m going to start taking some more continuing education classes- I want to learn sewing and metalsmithing.


How have you been influenced by the art community? Who/ what inspires you?
I’ve been pretty uninvolved in the art community, at least until the last few years when I joined the Philly Etsy Team/ Handmade Philly and got more involved with selling my work at various local events and shops. I’ve never been that comfortable with the traditional fine art world, which I think can be very insular and overly competitive and pretentious. I feel much more at home in the DIY/crafty/handmade world, which I think is more open and accepting and fun. I’ve never had to write an artist statement or feel like I had to justify what I’m doing and why I’m doing it at a craft show. I like selling my work at local art/craft events because it’s fun to just set up a table and put stuff out there and see what appeals to people. It’s awesome getting to talk to the people who are buying my work. I like the idea of art being for everyone, that it should be affordable and part of everyday life, not just something for wealthy people to invest in or something to go visit in a museum. I feel that the traditional boundaries between “art,” “craft,” and “design” are blurring and overlapping, and that overlap is where some really interesting things are happening. It’s been cool to meet other people like myself who work in a number of different mediums. I think that whether you’re making paintings or photos or dresses or cookies, it all comes from the same kind of creative impulse that should be nurtured whatever form it takes.

Do you have a career/ job (other than the art you create independently)?
Yes, I work full time as a graphic designer at the University of Pennsylvania, since the summer of 2006. For the six years before that I worked as a production editor with an academic publisher, and before that I worked for a small internet/catalog music company. I worked for the music company part-time while I was in school, and was quite happy when my boss said I could work full-time once I graduated, since I was completely freaking out about what I was going to do to support myself. I think I started working before I even graduated from school- I had to take a day off to go to my graduation ceremony.

I’ve pretty much always had some kind of full time job in addition to making art, and that’s a decision that I’ve very deliberately made. I don’t think there’s anything romantic or inspiring about the whole stereotypical “starving artist” thing. I have a pretty low tolerance for uncertainty and stress, so I can’t imagine that worrying about if I can make rent every month and fretting over the number of things I’ve sold or not sold would make me a better artist. I’ve always been afraid that depending on my art as my sole means of income would make it stressful, which would be awful since making art is one of the great pleasures of my life. So far things have worked out well enough. I like having the extra income from art sales and freelance work, and sometimes I do think about the possibility of trying to support myself entirely with that but I’m a long way away from that being feasible or even desirable. The main drawback to having a regular full time job is sometimes feeling that I lack enough time to focus on my art, but it’s just a matter of making efficient use of what time I do have. Luckily I seem to do well without very much sleep.


Have you had any careers not related to art?
Yes, the publishing job. It was fine when I started out there, when I thought of it as just a “job” and not as a “career.” It was something I did for money to support my art. But I was there for a while and did a good job so I kept getting promoted, which normally people think is a good thing. But it actually caused me a lot of stress, because I felt things shifting from a “job” to a “career” and I didn’t want that. I felt like if you’re in a management position in a certain field, then that’s what your primary thing is, and anything else you do is just on the side like a hobby, and I wanted it to be the other way around. It was a good job that I liked for the most part, and I worked with some really great people, and I did get to use my design skills sometimes, so it was very difficult to leave. But I knew that I was not on the right path and was increasingly miserable. I decided I wanted to find a job that was more specifically art-related so I wouldn’t have so much of an identity crisis about what my focus was. I got really lucky with a design position opening at Penn at just the right time. I was worried at first that doing creative work all day would leave me with little energy for my own projects, but if anything the opposite is true- it all kind of feeds into each other.

Do you consider yourself an artist who works with contemporary social issues?
Not really, not overtly or deliberately anyway. When I make something, it’s never like “I’m going to make a painting about X.” My process is more intuitive, experimenting as I go and letting a piece develop even in different directions than I might have expected. When it’s right, when something is working, I know it somehow. There are a number of social issues that I am interested in, which may seep into my work. I’m sure some of my images, particularly the landscapes, could be read as commentaries on post-industrial urban decay or environmental destruction or something, but it’s not deliberate. I like leaving things open for interpretation rather than being obvious about what something is supposed to mean.


What are your goals? What are your plans for the future?
Right now I’m focusing on making some new work, new paper collages and watchpart jewelry. Things have been a little slow on Etsy lately, and it’s so easy to get too wound up in the numbers, the “oh no, I’ve only sold X this month!” When I start getting like that I know it’s time to step away from the business stuff and just focus on making stuff. That’s why I choose to have most of my income come from elsewhere, so I can do that. Overall I feel like I’m in a pretty good place and I’m happy with how things are going so I’m not making any radical changes to what I’m doing. I hope to add shopping functionality to my own site soon, and maybe take on some more freelance design work. I’ll probably look for more local shows to sell at and also new shops to consign work with. I have a bunch of half-finished projects sitting around- magnets and coasters, tons of unfinished collages…

What are you currently reading?
I just finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. I love a good post-apocalypse story, but I wasn’t blown away by The Road. It was ok, but I didn’t love it. Lahiri is one of my favorite writers- most of her stories are about immigrant families from India, but even though they are about this very specific set of people, they are also about human relationships in general, love and loss and difficult circumstances. She has a lovely way of conveying all these tiny details of life and describing things, which I’ve also noticed in the work of other Indian writers such as Arundhati Roy. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or a language thing or what, but I like it.

I just started reading The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. I wanted to get his Remains of the Day since I’m on a mission to read all the Booker Prize winners, but the library didn’t have it. I like reading one non-fiction book and one fiction book simultaneously. I’m about to start on a book called Maps of the Mind: Charts and Concepts of the Mind and its Labyrinths.” I picked it up from the free book pile at my job. It looks really interesting- illustrations and explanations of different historical and modern conceptions of how the human mind operates. I like reading things from all different fields- science and philosophy and history, whatever catches my eye.


What are you listening to?
Right now I’m listening repeatedly to the soundtrack to a computer game called Neotokyo. It’s by an Australian composer, Ed Harrison. It’s really excellent music that stands on its own apart from the game. It’s mostly electronic, but has live vocals and instruments including violin, which I’m a sucker for since I play violin (badly!) myself. I mostly like instrumental electronic music, multi-layered, complex, and beautiful, and this definitely fits those criteria. It’s the perfect music to paint to!

What’s on your mind lately?
Thinking about how I define artistic success for myself, because I’m not sure that the standard American equation of success equals fame and fortune really works for me. By the standard definition most artists are “failures” so I think we really need to rethink that. I think that success has something more to do with living a meaningful life and producing the work that you need and want to produce, but I’m still trying to formulate exactly what that definition is and how to implement it.

I just started a new non-art project for my blog, where I’m going through all my underused cookbooks one by one and making each and every recipe…should be fun and interesting…I love cooking, it’s another creative outlet that is strictly a hobby. In the past I toyed with the idea of pursuing cooking as a career, but again I ran into the same problem that I’d lose the pleasure of just cooking for my own enjoyment if I made it my job!

Do you have any upcoming shows/ exhibits?
Yes, I’ll be at InLiquid’s Art for the Cash Poor at the Crane Arts Building on June 13-14. AFTCP is absolutely my favorite event to participate in, and this will be my fourth year. It’s always a lot of fun and has a great mix of artists. I always have to exercise a lot of restraint to not spend everything I make on other people’s art! I always buy something though, because it gets boring having nothing but your own art on your walls.

Jen McCleary’s Website & Etsy Shop.

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