The New York Times once said Jennifer Li’s paintings have “an element of the weird,” an assessment the artist considers a distinguished compliment.
“The last you thing you would want as an artist is to be obvious or normal,” Li said in an interview last week.
The newspaper also called her work “straightforwardly beautiful,” which works on multiple levels. Indeed, there’s an earnest loveliness in the colors and composition, but the word “straightforward” also serves as a basic statement on the positioning of her characters, who are nearly always facing the viewer, both eyes staring unblinkingly forward, shoulders squared straight.
Peer into their eyes, which is impossible not to do, and you get a glimpse of not only their soul, but Li’s as well.
“Painting them that way is the only way I feel like I can engage with them as characters,” she said. “It’s like a character in a book, and if they’re turning away, I feel like I can’t see them.”
Li has been an artist in the Flathead Valley since 1998, known mostly for oil paintings, although she has also produced watercolors, drawings, etchings and sculptures. The wide range of her talent will be on display at Flathead Valley Community College from April 3 to April 17, with a reception held April 3 from 4 to 6 p.m. on the lower level of the Arts and Technology Building, where the exhibit will be located.
The artist plans to show oil and watercolor paintings, pencil and charcoal drawings, and perhaps sculptures as well.
“I want people to see what my technique is like for all of those,” she said.
Li substituted this semester at the college for Susan Guthrie’s art class while Guthrie was overseas serving as a professor for FVCC’s Venice Abroad Program. Li also taught a painting course for the college’s Senior Institute. She was initially offered an adjunct teaching position, but her oil painting class didn’t garner enough students, so she was pleased to have the opportunity to fill in for Guthrie.
“I’m so grateful for Susan,” Li said. “Everyone at the college has been really supportive.”
Li will also substitute for Karen Leigh’s summer watercolor course, and then she hopes to continue teaching at FVCC into the fall semester. Teaching isn’t new to her, as she previously co-founded and ran the Glacier Art Academy in Kalispell’s KM Building.
Li grew up in Mill Valley, California, and as a child she frequently visited Montana, where she had family. She went on to study painting for more than a decade at the Art Students League of New York under distinguished realists painters Harvey Dinnerstein and Frank Mason, but fond memories of Montana vacations beckoned her to Big Sky country.
Two decades later, Li is happy she made the Flathead her home. While many artists here translate the inspiration drawn from their wild surroundings directly to the canvas, with depictions of landscapes and wildlife, the impact of Montana’s beauty on Li’s work is less obvious. Her scenes are character-driven and take place indoors, and even her human subjects are spawned by imagination, not first-hand reference material.
That freedom to operate entirely within her own head stems from her extensive training as a student in New York, where she would paint every day with human models, studying every minute detail.
“After doing that for years, you develop a sense of how to do the human form and face without needing a reference,” she said.
Without being beholden to models or reference material, Li approaches each piece as its own adventure and tries to “empty” her mind in order to let her internal muse guide her.
“Sometimes when I start out, I don’t know what’s going to be in a painting,” she said.
Yet, even if her fellow Montanans don’t necessarily appear in her paintings, at least not consciously, they stir her creative impulses all the same.
“I lived in New York, where everybody tries to block everybody out, and I found that so alienating,” she said. “Here, there’s that pleasantness, that friendliness. It’s the people here that are really inspiring.”
To see more of Li’s work, visit www.jenniferli.info.