There’s always been room for childhood in Jennifer Zwick’s art. Even before she became a mother to two boys she strived to evoke a sense of mirthful surprise and carefully avoided self-seriousness in her work. Her art is fun to look at—you don’t need to know anything about aesthetics or art history to appreciate it. It ranges from large-scale trompe l’oeil installations to meticulously staged absurdist photographs to paintings the size of a matchbook. She aims to give people the opportunity to step outside themselves for a moment — a “little tiny hiccup,” as she describes it. She says children are her favorite art audience.
“For kids, there’s less of a boundary to interacting with the art; they’re more interested in just exploring something,” explains Zwick, “A grownup might stand back and want to understand it first — to ‘solve’ it. Kids are just as thoughtful as adults but they have less of that buffer, which means they have a really easy road to enjoying art.”
While Zwick was studying for her MFA in photography at the University of Washington, she worked as an education intern at the Frye Art Museum. That experience taught her how to talk to children about art. She learned to ask open-ended questions like, “What do you see?” and “Why does it look like that to you?”
She incorporated these insights into her artistic practice. At her 2017 show “The Idea and the Thing Itself” at 4Culture Gallery, which featured an upside-down waiting room (below) and other perplexing installations, she gave a “Tiny Talk” to children and their caregivers about the exhibit. The kids took part in papercraft activities that explored the idea of metaphor, designed with short attention spans in mind.
Zwick investigated her own childhood memories and fantasies in the 2017 “Constructed Narrative” photo series. She built fanciful life-size environments such as an open-air bedroom in the woods, an 11-foot-tall house of cards, and a doorway altered to give wide berth to a pregnant belly. She populated these tableaus with girls who stand in for her own adventurous younger self. The result is a series of images that are hyper-real, anxious and fantastical, like the wanderings of a child’s imagination.
For her 2015 “Playful Photo Opportunity” series, Zwick printed out life-sized reproductions of everyday scenery and installed them at their original locations with face holes for viewers to poke their heads out, creating a ridiculous photo opp that looks Photoshopped but is, in fact, real. In the “Head Sets” series the concept took on three dimensions, and viewers were invited to insert their heads into tiny replicas of a living room and a gallery in the Frye Art Museum. She set up these works at outdoor art festivals, where they were major crowd-pleasers both for kids and their grownups, successfully creating a “little tiny hiccup” in mundane reality.
“It was just so fun to see people relax and want to be in this picture,” she says, “Just getting to drop whatever they were thinking about for this little moment and be invited to be completely out of their context.”
When Zwick began having her own children her attention turned to maternity. She mused on the public nature of the pregnant body in “Hello 2,” in which her fully impregnated belly is presented out of context, projecting proudly from a vibrantly patterned fabric scrim. She elaborated on the piece in the recent exhibition “Kids/No Kids” at The Factory by adding a mesmerizingly rotating belly button, a madcap illustration of the absurd changes a pregnant body undergoes.
For one of her latest projects, Zwick takes her artistic preoccupation with kids to a new level. She solicited self-portrait drawings from her 7-year-old and his friends and reproduced them in embroidery. The pieces are touching and hilarious in their total faithfulness to detail, enshrining each little gesture including erasures and stray scribbles.
“One thing I like about kids’ drawings is there’s so much decision-making that goes into them,” Zwick explains, “By translating them into embroidery, I’m calling attention to all those decisions in really specific ways. Embroidery anchors things that seem really casual in a [kid’s] drawing, it shows how deliberate they actually were.”
One consistent quality of Zwick’s work is a willingness to chase a curious notion to its illogical conclusion, however arduous, silly, or unexpectedly elegant the result. Reflecting on how she experienced art as a child, Zwick says, “It felt like art was something you could never really do wrong. The process was truly as valuable as the end result; a situation where I was completely in charge, where I invented my own goals and decided when they were complete.”
Zwick brings her eldest son to art shows around town, sometimes in his pajamas. Her youngest, age 3, understands that she “makes stuff." Both boys can point out art around the house that mommy made. Though motherhood has shaped — and limited — her work in various ways, art has always been what she does. At the height of her last pregnancy, when producing large-scale work was out of the question, she made tiny paintings of Nintendo consoles. Motherhood has sharpened her playful instincts; her children serve as a sort of auxiliary turbine for her creativity, a durable source of inspiration.
True to the open-ended nature of her approach to parenting and art, Zwick has no particular artistic aspirations for her kids. “I don’t have any kind of grand scheme for them being artists,” she says, “But whenever they want to make stuff I love to do it with them.”
All photos courtesy of the artist. See more of her work here.