Billings painter blends animals, surrealism, medieval imagery
By Russell Rowland/Last Best News
When Jennifer French was in first grade, she drew a horse. And after looking at the similar drawings of the other kids, she realized her horse looked a lot more like a horse. From that moment forward, Jennifer knew exactly what she wanted to do.
When people asked her as a child, she told them straight up, “I want to be an artist and a part-time waitress.”
So even then, French had a notion that being an artist might represent a conflict between the creative and the practical.
French’s father worked for Conoco, and because of his job, they moved every three years or so.
“I was an introverted kid, so that was very hard for me,” she said. “Every time I’d get close to one or two friends, it would be time to move again, and I did not like starting over time after time. So making art gave me a sense of stability and continuity with all the moving. Also an identity, I suppose.”
But moving around also exposed French to different cultures, something many of us don’t get a chance to experience. When father was stationed in England, she ended up in boarding school there during her high school years.
“I think living among all that history coincided with the time that my aesthetic was forming,” she said. “The dark heaviness of medieval art and architecture appeals to me. I always like some darkness with my beauty and vice versa. I was listening to a lot of The Smiths, and I also fell in love with the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement.”
The influence must have had a positive effect on her work, because right out of high school French was accepted into one of the top art schools in the country, the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. And it was there that she started blending these styles that she found so appealing with her own family history.
Every summer, French’s father would bring the family back to the ranch, just outside of Red Lodge, where he grew up, to help with the haying. That exposed her, during her entire childhood, to the outdoors and the creatures in it. Thus the drawing of the horse, and eventually the introduction of animal figures into her paintings.
French’s style is a fascinating blend of these elements, with one of her specialties being portraits of various animals posing in a natural setting, fully clothed, often in medieval costume. These portraits have a sense of humor, but they are also stunning. In a piece called “Spring,” a deer sits demurely on a large rock with woods behind it, pulling her dress aside to reveal a colorful array of other animals and plants, announcing the arrival of the season.
French’s paintings are powerful enough that after living in Montana for just three years, she is already represented by three outstanding galleries, Radius in Missoula, Altitude in Bozeman, and the new but quickly emerging Stapleton Gallery in Billings.
Lisa Simon, the owner and curator of Radius Gallery, first heard about French’s work when she was showing some of it at the Tart Gallery in Bozeman. Lisa was just about to open Radius and asked Anna Visscher, the owner, for recommendations of artists for their first open showing. French was among the artists mentioned.
“I loved her work right away,” Simon said. “Not only is she incredibly gifted as an artist, but she also has this amazing contrast between the medieval and contemporary work. And then she takes it one step further by taking us into this surrealism that is really powerful. She has these figures, these animals, that are actually doing something, or they’re dressed in these incredible clothes. So you have the human aspect represented by their bodies, but then each figure has these animal heads. So it’s a fabulous characterization of the conflict we all live with, between our human intentions and our animal instincts.
“Jennifer has even explained to me that she deliberately gives these animals completely blank expressions, so that they are not just devoid of thought, but they aren’t thinking about anything. Deer in the headlights.”
Simon says that French’s work is hard to keep on the walls in Missoula because it’s so much in demand. But she also said that “occasionally, a piece just doesn’t work. It’s interesting how if she doesn’t quite capture that conflict, people aren’t drawn to it. The people that buy her work are generally educated, thoughtful people, so they get it. It’s not an accident that they like her stuff. They get the surrealism.”
In French’s own words, “I’m interested in combining iconic ‘Western’ imagery with symbolism that is part of my personal vocabulary, in order to elicit new meanings and associations.”
French’s work took an unexpected turn after she returned to Montana. She and her family were visiting the family ranch soon after they moved to Billings, and they came across an old cow skull. One of French’s twin sons asked if he could take it home, and they hung it on the wall of his room. But French found herself wondering whether she might make use of this thing, this skull, and eventually she asked her son if he’d mind if she painted on it.
The result of that one experiment has led to a whole new audience for French’s work. Because she works out of her home, she works with acrylics, and she has now painted about 4- skulls from various animals, including deer, horses, buffalo and even prairie dogs. “I try to put myself in the head of these animals and incorporate what they would see,” she explained.
So these skulls are generally covered in brightly colored flowers, or other animals. But she has retained the medieval influence on these pieces as well, with some of them showing a strong influence from the ornate tapestries that were popular during that time. The skulls have quickly become a popular item, and French currently has them on display at several galleries, including Altitude in Bozeman and a recent month-long showing at the Lewistown Art Center. She also has a few on display at the Coila Evans Gallery in Roundup.
French will also be showing several pieces at the next show at the Stapleton Gallery in Billings.
Amy Kirkland, the owner and curator of Altitude Gallery in Bozeman, was quick to take on French’s work when Tart closed its doors a couple of years ago. Altitude has been in business for 11 years and represents several dozen artists now.
“I love 3D art,” Kirkland said, “so I have been particularly attracted to Jennifer’s skulls, because they are such a wonderful combination of the Western motif with a more contemporary painting style. Painting skulls is not a new idea, but because of her style, these are unique.”
For a young mother, being so much in demand might prove to be both a blessing and a curse, but French seems to be comfortable with the position in which she’s found herself.
“I approach it just like any other job,” she said. “My twins are 9 now, so they understand that sometimes Mom needs to work in the evenings. But I’m able to get most of my work done during the day, while they’re in school. And my husband also works at home, so he’s a huge help as well. I know how fortunate I am to have time to devote to painting, and that there are people that connect with and see value in my work, so in some ways I’ve already achieved my goals. I want to keep improving my craft and finding new inspiration. I think that’s a lifelong pursuit. And hopefully get my work seen by more and more people.”
Which brings us to the most challenging aspect of French’s current work: Where does a person find skulls? French has gathered all that were available on the family ranch, but she has been fortunate to have many friends who live in the country, or who have relatives that do.
“I have traded a couple of pieces for skulls,” she said. “For instance, my friend Amber Jean and her husband Raymond gathered up a bunch of them from their place, and some of them are out in the back yard right now.”
She scrunched her nose and added, “It might be a while before they’re ready.”