Jenie Gao

My day job is artist and business owner. I run my business, Jenie Gao Studio LLC, full-time, and specialize in large-scale installations, murals, and fine artwork. I see art as a way to transform the spaces people share and make meaningful impressions of who we are. I partner with other mission-focused organizations that build and strengthen our creative culture and economy.

I fell in love with the arts very early: When I was three I had a vision I was going to be an artist. But I grew up in a very pragmatic family—first-generation American—in semi-rural Kansas and there were a lot of impediments to becoming an artist.

In my teens, I wrestled with the dichotomies put before me: should I be more creative, more logical, choose something based on my ideals, something that’s more practical?

I enrolled in computer science in college but realized my first year that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I started taking art classes and was introduced to printmaking my second year. From that time I’ve considered myself a printmaker and it’s come to define who I am as an artist and why I make art.

Print is both an art form and a technology; it’s creative and it’s logical. It brought together these different elements that I’d heard throughout my childhood could not be brought together. And with print you’ve got the foundation of literacy and democratic education as we know it today. It’s embedded in the philosophy of all the work I make.

My favorite printmaking medium is woodcut. There’s something permanent and decisive about needing to cut pieces out, in order to create something new, that’s embedded in the process of woodcut. And ink is fluid but permanent and committal—you can’t erase it like pencil or go on top of it like paint.

I also do large-scale installations and murals. Art has the power to transform the spaces people share. It’s a way we practice community stewardship and citizenry: It matters how we take care of spaces we share with one another, and I think what draws me to printmaking is the same thing that enamors me with public art. These are accessible art forms that become mass forms of communication. A print can be replicated and shared. A public artwork becomes connected with a place and the community’s identity.

There’s a cultural tendency to shop for art like it’s extra. But we don’t invite things into our lives with hope they blend in—we invite them with the hope they make a statement and become a presence. That’s the power of big work that I love. It’s like having a big voice and being willing to stand up for things I believe in.

We live in a society where art is treated like a privilege and a luxury. As long as that remains true, we’re going to suppress a diversity of voices in the arts. That’s part of why I’m so emphatic about the business side of art. As a first generation American and woman of color, I get why a lot of people would never even consider a creative career as a viable option. So I’m building my business and practice as a signal to others, “You belong here.”

My most memorable caffeine was the Monster energy drink I had after pulling two all-nighters in a row. I’m pretty caffeine sensitive, and I’d always been so stubborn about no caffeine and I didn’t drink it at all in college, but that day I was in charge of getting volunteers to an animal shelter and I wanted to make sure I stayed awake. When I got to the shelter, I was so wired on caffeine I didn’t walk the dogs like we usually did—I ran them! And of course after that caffeine high came the caffeine crash. One of my volunteers later found me napping in the cat area cuddled up with my favorite cat. That experience defines my relationship with caffeine.

My current caffeine of choice is a chai latte—anything with a good blend of spices.

My favorite place for caffeine is the Chocolatarian—at their new location on University Avenue. I like mission-focused businesses: It adds a dimension to a company.

I appreciate how Chocolatarian has invested in local art, stands with its values and opened doors to people doing projects, such as Sue Medaris (check out her giant rooster on display there) and Alaura Borealis, a performance artist.

As a result, I reward them with my business.

The people I’d love to share a cup of caffeine are these artists:

Olaffur Eliasson. He has a studio in Denmark that employs 100 people and he’s very committed to their health and well-being. He’s prospering and collaborative across industries, working with engineers and architects and scientists, which differs from the stereotype of a solo artist hidden in his studio. Much of his work has to do with climate change.

Swoon is a street artist who works in woodblock and creates ephemeral outdoor pieces. In her early days, people thought she must be a man, which she used to take as a compliment because women weren’t expected to work in the field the way she did. But at some point her awareness shifted and she started to be more clear about what her mission was as an artist and her advocacy for women. I’d love to talk with her about that shift and what drove it.

Sanaz Mazinani is an Iranian-American artist who does installation work that uses patterns that mimic sacred geometry, which is common in many types of religious buildings. From a distance her pieces look like beautiful gemstones, almost iridescent. But when you get up close you find they include weapons and images of strife.

I taught about her work to high school students when I was a teacher and they really responded to her. Many of them were from disenfranchised backgrounds and had experienced some terrible things at a young age. Art gave them a way to talk through what they’d experienced. It showed they can have a voice and there are channels for them to educate themselves and others.

Marjane Satrapi is a graphic novelist and the author of Persepolis, which is her most well-known work. She grew up in Tehran during the Iranian revolution and watched her country move from a progressive one to a regressive one. She helps us understand that even in times of chaos, there can be good changes too—paradigm shifts that might not happen otherwise. There’s one panel in the book that captures what I think we’re currently seeing in our country: That if a woman leaves home with her attention completely on whether she’s risking a beating because of how her hijab is positioned or she’s wearing makeup, she won’t worry about what’s going on politically and the loss of her freedom of choice.

Last would be Song Dong, a Chinese artist who created a piece call “Waste Not.” This is made up of the 10,000 items his mother hoarded in her lifetime. His mother lived through the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, a period when public schools were closed for years. There was a sense that you had to be very frugal and couldn’t throw anything away, sort of like some people who lived through the Depression in the U.S. Her hoarding grew more exacerbated after the passing of her husband. It became almost a metaphor for being unable to let go and bear the loss. I grew up in a family that lived through these same events, and so this work resonates on a deep and almost painful level. I want to talk to Song Dong about what it was like to create this work and to persuade his mother to let him take these items, with the promise they would be cared for under his stead for this artwork.

 World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: providing access to the arts. If I had the power of the right amount of caffeine—and lots of money!—I’d create an art library. Instead of books, people could check out art from local, regional, and national artists. There would be gallery spaces and residencies for artists. Artists could have studio space, funding, and time to dedicate to their practice. And be within arm’s reach of amazing artwork.