So it's no secret by now that AOA spends a fair amount of time at Uncommon Grounds.
And lately we can't help but smile at the art on the walls. The current show includes a group of portraits of quirky, well loved, interesting toys -- bunnies, lambs, squeezy bath toys and Japanese cartoon favs.
They're the work of Jennifer Maher -- known in local rave circles as D.J Jen Haley.
Jen's on hiatus from the rave scene (or what's left of it) until her new daughter gets a little older. These days she's writing a little and painting a lot --specifically custom portraits of favorite toys.
She talked with AOA recently about her art, the allure of toys, and the common ground between cuddly animal paintings and rave culture.
Why toy art?
I'm always looking for different subject matter. I do landscapes, architecture, portraits. I did a lot of self portraits and portraits of friends and it just sort of led to an interest in portraiture in general. I thought it would be kind of funny to do portraits of toys at first. I've always collected unusual stuffed animals --things that aren't too name brandy or Disney or anything like that-- I still do. But I've come back to painting portraits of toys.
Toys have sort of a personality... people anthropomorphize them. And if you just catch that thing in the eyes and expression -- they just sort of comes to life. They're just a presence in the room... that's interesting to me.
How come you still collect stuffed animals?
Maybe partly because I'm not much of a fan of real live animals. I had a wonderful cat for 17 years, and now that she's gone I'm kind of done with pets. I don't like zoos or farms much either... but I think animals as a form are perfected in the abstract, or at least much improved! The features that make an animal adorable are emphasized in toys and their more abject characteristics are non-existent.
Also, I think that people generally feel towards stuffed animals as we do toward pets, in that we freely express love and adoration toward them that we might hold back somewhat from the people in our lives.
You said the toys have a personality? How do you capture that?
I prefer to paint from life but I can also produce them from photographs. I like to spend some time with the toy and look at it in different lights - figure out what makes it special to the owner. But once I do I can do the painting very quickly. I don't really go back into it it's kind of impressionistic process. I just look at it and try to figure out what it is about it that makes it special to its owner.
And people just give me their stories - I don't even have to ask for it. When parents want portraits of their kids "loveies" they just tell me things. "Oh you know she has always done this with it and she takes it these places and this is her name for this."
Also, as subjects, stuffed animals are forgiving -- nobody knows what they are supposed to look like. These paintings are small, affordable ($100) and fun to paint.
What makes a particular toy a good subject? What do you look for?
Usually the more character, the more age, the better. But one of the ones that just sold was Totoro from the Japanese cartoon "My Friend Totaro" and Hoctro the hamster. But that was a risky one because it might have ended up looking like a cartoon--I don't want them to look cartoonish.
One interesting toy that's up in my collection was a very beat up old lamb that my mother got me at a a tag sale or something. It's wearing pajamas and you wind it up and it plays a religious song or something. I have that painted on its back like it's been dropped. There's almost a story that's implied, you know-- that it's been left there-- the pajamas and the way it's all beaten up and how it's sort of lying askew on the floor. It's not exactly a portrait. Iit's almost a narrative.
Do these toys usually come to you pretty beat up or "well loved ?"
Oh yeah. There's this one in the show that is called Gee Gee and it's actually like a Ty Beanie Baby of a koala bear, but its owner, this little girl Ruby, thinks of it as a lion. It''s just been beaten up it's all stretched out and threadbare, but you can just see why she thinks it s a lion because it's been almost molded by her own hands into what she imagines it to be. It's just fascinating the way they come to me sort of well worn and well loved and molded into what the child thinks of it.
From rave DJ to painting cute cuddly toys seems like a pretty big jump.
Maybe, but it all ties in. Rave culture has a child like esthetic. And actually for my MFA I did a whole series of rave paintings -- big paintings of huge sort of bacchanal dance scenes. I was sort of fascinated with Toulouse Lautrec's paintings of the Moulin Rouge that documented the turn of the century dance culture. I did a series that sort of paralelled that --with people dancing at clubs with all the outfits and crazy things they would wear.
To me it was beautiful. I loved the whole idea of just the ecstasy of the group dancing dynamics . I loved being a part of it. I loved being in charge of it as a DJ . I know there were some ugly sides to it, but to me it was mostly a really beautiful scene with it lasted.
Jennifer's toy paintings will be at Uncommon Grounds in Albany through June 23rd. If you can't make it, you can see them online at etsy.
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