Artist Feature – Jennifer Whitten

Term: 2 Year: 2020

Jennifer Whitten is an American artist, who immigrated to Australia in 2009. Jennifer’s photorealistic paintings encompass themes of autobiography, absence and nostalgia. In 2015, Jennifer completed her Masters in Contemporary Art at the Victorian College of the Arts. She was the recipient of the Athenaeum Club Visual Arts Research Award, the University’s most prestigious honour.

Can you identify any major influences or moments of realisation in your development as an artist?

The most pivotal moment in my artistic career, if I had to define one, was the day I dropped out of pre-med. My colleagues were shocked that I could be so foolish as to give up a career as a doctor. “What a waste of time and money!” they said. On the surface, I could see how they might have thought that—art and science are separate fields.

Yet, I felt the opposite; not only were art and science totally intertwined, but I felt I had a singular advantage as a fledgling artist. My time devoted to the sciences taught me to investigate, to question, to hypothesise and through observation, to come up with logical solutions to complex problems. While others struggled technically, my science brain allowed me to break things down and to come up with methodical, trust-worthy methods.

So Jen, where does your impulse to create come from?

In high school, I was mesmerised by science—by the splendour and breathtaking detail with which the universe is designed. Pre-med (ironically) sucked the life out of my sense of wonder, which taught me that it was the art of science that moved me, not science for its own sake. The experience compelled me to lean into the innate creativity I had all along and cherish it as valid. Identifying what didn’t make me tick was just as invaluable as determining what did.

I feel confident that the magic happens when you interweave fields and ways of thinking. By combining my painting practice with science and music (mathematics), I created one of my most important works to date: a score for cello created by translating constellations into music notes. I’ll always remember Bernhard Sachs (the head of my department) telling me to come up with the most difficult, ambitious idea and start with that (instead of working your way up to it)—as terrifying as the plunge may be, this has proven to be true time and again.

Nic Plowman
(Zart Education)
in conversation with Jennifer Whitten