Twenty-six-year-old artist Jen Chilstrom is soft-spoken, but her artwork is bold. Her vivid paintings, photos, fashion designs and writings convey a breadth and depth that some say is beyond her years.
Chilstrom's mature poise and striking outfits are so remarkable that you might expect her to be extroverted. Instead, Chilstrom is surprisingly reserved, though in conversation she becomes increasingly animated and hammy as she recalls Thailand travels or talks about her art class in between sips of coconut chai.
The up-and-coming artist's expressive eyes are highlighted with turquoise petals of eye shadow. She wears clunky metal earrings. Dyed brown streaks are braided into her long, dirty-blond hair. They accessorize sculptural blouses and skirts, bringing new meaning to thrift store finds (Chilstrom cuts and stitches together vintage clothes).
Growing up in a poor household, the resourceful Chilstrom started making clothes for herself. Her parents weren't artists, so she learned by doing, making her largely self-taught. She never went to design school and attended college just briefly, quitting to pursue art studies independently. After her enterprising outfits caught others' eyes, she began her own fashion label in 2001, Djenne, named after a small African village.
Chilstrom is busy. The designer, artist and writer teaches an art class to underprivileged girls at Old Arizona, 2821 Nicollet Ave., all of which doesn't include her day job. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Chilstrom works at the Loring Park framing shop, Hang It, 1621 Hennepin Ave. S. (which also has a gallery space at 2712 Lyndale Ave. S.).
Chilstrom has been making art since she was a kid. Recently, her mixed media photography hung at Jungle Red Salon, 1362 LaSalle Ave. while her handmade leather journals sell at the consignment shop Clich, 2403 Lyndale Ave. S. In mid-May, Clich will also feature her mixed media work and later carry her one-of-a-kind clothing line.
Clich's owner Josh Sundberg said that the journals are magnetic. In the six months that he's carried them, they've sold steadily (and range from $15 to $50). They attract even "mall girls," or those who aren't as exposed to art, he said.
Said Sundberg, "I'm really into it. I think her pieces are amazing. She's so soft-spoken, but her artwork is so urgent. It's on the edge of scary."
He also praised her willingness to exhibit her artwork that shocked some and inspired others.
"Some artists are so guarded about their work and afraid to share. She seems like such a giving person."
Out of the dumpster
Currently, most of Chilstrom's art-making happens in the evenings or on the weekends at her studio inside of her Whittier apartment, in a space that was previously a bedroom. Chilstrom lived in Portland, Ore. for eight years before returning to her home state of Minnesota two years ago.
Chilstrom misses all of the West Coast farms and gardens to which she'd had easy access. It was easy out West to study botany and natural medicine (her hobbies).
One thing that she loves about her neighborhood now is the socioeconomic diversity. She notices her neighbors talking with one another. Ten blocks away the housing changes from low- to high-income housing, she said.
Just as she appreciates the mixed ethnicities and economics, Chilstrom loves to mix and match textures, colors and patterns. She doesn't have one medium. She'll draw or paint with dyes, inks, watercolors, oils, acrylics or anything else she can find. She collects objects from dumpsters and Goodwill stores for a rough-raw assemblage that varies on a project-by-project basis - such as the leaves she collected in Thailand, which ended up as labels in the Jungle Red exhibit. She has a few favored fine-hair paintbrushes, but mostly she tries to acquire materials inexpensively.
Usually composing art in quietude, perhaps with only the background noise of a CD that plays for hours, her work crosses all genres. "In general, I don't have a specific style," Chilstrom said. "I like to use all different kinds of forms and reinvent something. I never think of painting, writing, designing or making music as different things. They all come from the same place."
In an artist statement, she expanded, "There is a connection that cannot be expressed by allowing these pieces to perform in the same medium, style, monotone theme, frame," which may also be her credo.
Some of her art is political. One of her favorite projects is called "Code Orange," which she created on the day that President Bush declared war on Iraq. An indistinguishable face layered onto a drippy bright orange background, mounted on wood reads, "I know we can't pass over this situation, but we must live with the outrage of doing exactly that." The words are her own.
Chilstrom brings that same attitude to her fashion designs drawing attention on the street. At a bar, one woman offered to buy Chilstrom's clothes off her back, at that moment. Another casual sighting prodded an impromptu fashion show in San Francisco. (That incident was before Chilstrom started Djenne; the woman who stopped her in San Francisco had simply assumed she was a designer).
Sundberg described Chilstrom's clothing as "refined" yet "sexy." She doesn't have to do much more than wear her clothes - or get friends to - in order to market her low-budget couture. Her clothes go from anywhere from $25 to $300 (her visual art goes for $50-$1,500).
Chilstrom doesn't regularly show her work. But it manages to sell itself. Because she recycles clothes, nothing is mass-produced and no two pieces are guaranteed to turn out exactly alike. She hypothesized that one reason her clothes generate so much interest is because onlookers can get a sense for how an ensemble actually looks worn rather than on a hanger, she said.
When asked her if she were afraid that others would copy her clothing designs rather than purchase hers, she said that would be OK by her. She'd rather that people create their own clothes from cast-offs, as she does, instead of investing in pricey new clothes.
"I don't like the fashion industry. I don't really want to be a fashion designer when I grow up," she said.
So how does Chilstrom see herself?
A self-portrait she painted on plywood is rendered intricately as tangents radiate from the figure of her like the spokes of a wheel; the sharp-edged lines form a mathematic-looking mosaic of simplified shapes or a focused stream of consciousness.
Although the figure is classically drawn, this is an abstract view combined with a variety of natural and artificial materials. Her head is posed to the side and her eyes seem restful. A honeycomb is glued above her head, accented by feathers that trim the top line of the portrait.
Some of Chilstrom's photo collages are impressionistic, bathed in light at slow shutter speeds.
Varnished by a thick, translucent gloss, a couple pieces incorporate Japanese letters that Chilstrom found in a dumpster in Utah. One Jungle Red passerby, Kristin Anderson, who attended the April art opening at the salon approved of the diffuse photo collages.
"I like the dreamy quality. There's a lot of cloudiness. You have to really look into it to see what things are," she said.
Anderson was especially fond of a series of photos that formed a visual sentence as it portrayed a spectrum of light-dark exposures.
"[Chilstrom] brings the lightest to darkest parts out of the process, showing that you have to explore all areas of someone's life, not just the light or dark."
Images of Chilstrom's travels to Thailand often appear in her work. Anderson liked the way that Chilstrom handled the camera during her journey, having to stick her neck into weird spaces between or above walls in order to attain interesting shots of gargantuan Buddha statues that towered over tourists.
Artist Jim Bozicevich, who works at Hang It with Chilstrom and exhibited with her at Jungle Red, agreed.
"She turned her vacation photos into fine art," he said.
Chilstrom said she learned a lot from a Thai mentor. In Bangkok, an established artist revealed his artistic processes to her. She observed as he took aluminum, wood, hot tar, a dowel and hammer to mold elephants, flowers, fish and Cambodian wars. Occasionally, he sprinkled sand and herbs together for complex mandalas.
That's one memory that Chilstrom said that she'll always carry, as well as a night she spent with a tribe that lived in the jungle. They cooked her dinner off a garbage can lid and got her drunk.
The idea that art making can be so secondhand or incidental is one point that Chilstrom tries to express to her students at Old Arizona. Instead of indoctrinating the elementary and middle-grade students who arrive after school with formal art theories or principles, she encourages them to follow their interests. They learn through observation and practice.
"Most of the girls who come to class don't call themselves artists," Chilstrom said. So I get them to draw or paint or make soap. It makes them feel like artists, especially as art programs leak out of our school systems."
She's helped them paint with henna and nail polish. They've also made origami figures and painted portraits. Chilstrom hopes to pass on some of her savvy.
"I like to show them that what they have at home is worthy or where they can get something for $1," she said.
Chilstrom watches them transform as they gradually gain confidence. There's the case of one student who always resisted class projects, such as making a beaded necklace, yet who can still be seen wearing her bead necklace daily, months later. The same middle schooler also penned a portrait of Chilstrom.
Besides getting ready for her next display at Clich, she vows to continue studying art no matter what. It should probably be expected that she can't be pinned down with specifics as to what she intends to do in coming days.
"Importance is empty without intentions, but intention can be misled by importance," Chilstrom said.
Words of wisdom from someone so young.