Jen Robson has used art throughout her life to overcome adversity.
The Dundee artist has fought off a number of health issues such as anxiety and depression with drawing, stitching and painting over the years.
But now the 32-year-old is overcoming her most serious battle, with the potentially deadly Crohn’s Disease — by drawing her own intestines to understand what is wrong with her.
The Duncan of Jordanstone graduate was initially struck down with intense pains down the right hand side of her stomach at the end of last year, but doctors thought all she had was appendicitis and scheduled her into hospital for an operation.
But, six agonising weeks later, Jen was still in a huge amount of pain and was unable to walk properly.
She went for further tests to find out what the problem was and when the test results came back she was delivered the diagnosis of her worst nightmare.
She said: “After I had my appendix out I was told I would feel like a million dollars, but I just felt worse.
“While they were trying to find out what was actually wrong with me, I had been going on Google trying to find out what it could be and I scared myself with what I read.
“I was desperate for it not to be Crohn’s.
“The night before I was saying to Ewan my boyfriend, ‘as long as it’s not Crohn’s it’s OK’.”
But after the diagnosis, Jen was adamant she would turn the negative into a positive and, just as she had with her anxiety and depression problems, would overcome illness with artwork.
She said: “When I was first told it was Crohn’s I was annoyed at first. But I’m that kind of person who keeps fighting, although I’d be the first to admit I can sometimes throw the dummy out of the pram.
“Artwork helps though. Whether it’s drawing, sculpting or sewing, I always have something nearby for me to use.
“That’s what I did with my anxiety and depression, I find clouds the most therapeutic, so I draw them.
“With Crohn’s however, I’ve been doing drawings of my body instead.
“I just have to know how my body has been changed with the surgery, so I’ve been drawing a lot of intestines and things.
“Obviously it sounds quite gruesome, but I try to make things brighter — I always want to make something beautiful out of the terrible.
“I just think the body drawings help you connect to your own body, especially as what’s happened to me, you can’t see, as it’s inside.”
Jen still may need to go through surgery, but for now, steroids are helping her condition and she’s on the mend.
While she’s not fit enough to begin teaching again — Jen held classes at Wasps Studio before she fell ill — she has a number of items from her ‘The Girl Who Had a Tail’ show at the Meffan Museum and Art Gallery in Forfar.
Jen’s work can be purchased by getting in touch with her at jenniferrobsonartist.wordpress.com.
With thanks to Will Lyon
The Girl who had a Tail
The Girl who had a Tail by Jennifer McLaren
Dundee courier 19th july 2013
DUNDEE-BASED artist Jennifer Robson has blended personal stories with myth and fairy tale to create her new exhibition at The Meffan Institute in Forfar. The Girl who had a Tail demonstrates an evolution in her work, with media ranging from painting and drawing to large-scale sculpture, poetry and short stories she has composed.
Pictures: Steve Macdougall Jennifer alongside the head section of The Horse, below The Hare King.
It is arguably Jennifer’s most revealing body of work yet as she creates a narrative using her own experiences as inspiration. Dealing with stories from the universal to the personal she has reinterpreted the tale of Little Red Riding Hood by casting herself as the main character, Little Blue Riding Hood.
Jennifer explains: “I realised that story is such an important part of human life. We live by story and we all love a good story – even in its simplest form. Children learn from stories and, as adults, we continue to learn from stories, it just gets a bit more complex!
“I wanted to tell a story, perhaps my story, but also a universal story. And if I was going to tell a story then I needed to start collecting my own language and researching and learning the language of story that has gone before me. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last three years.”
Jennifer, 31, was born in Dundee and continues to live and work in the city. She graduated from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in 2004 with a degree in drawing and painting. After art school, she managed The White Gallery in Dundee until 2009. She now works full time in her studio at Meadow Mill inWest Henderson’s Wynd.
She was invited to exhibit at The Meffan after her work The Blue Hare won the galby lery’s winter exhibition purchase prize. It is now owned by Angus Museum Collections and features in the show.
Jennifer is pleased to be at the Forfar gallery: “It feels wonderful, The Meffan is a fantastic space and has a great exhibition programme, which celebrates local east coast artists and provides a home for new emerging artists.”
After years of working with portraiture, Jennifer has come into her own, developing her style and expanding her practices: “This last year I’ve spent working on my show, completing commissions and teaching oneto-one and small group classes to people who want to build confidence in their art from my studio. I love teaching my classes. It has been great fun to see people really flourish in their art and enjoy it, rather than being scared of the paper.”
Jennifer has also taught at McManus Galleries in Dundee, the University of Dundee, Toutie Studios in Alyth and run workshops for local art societies.
In 2011 she worked as the lead artist on a production by Scottish theatre company Poorboy entitled Blood and Roses. It featured specially-commissioned works by upand-coming Scottish artists, and she created around 20 pieces for the production. It was during this time she realised her creativity flowed when she was responding to a story that inspired her.
Drawn to fairytales as a child, Jennifer continues to be inspired by themes such as allegory, mystery, lessons, heroes, magical creatures and other worlds. Her interest in words developed a few years ago when she began writing poetry. Since then she has attended a number of creative writing classes in Dundee.
She explains: “I’ve always liked fantastical and macabre stories and when I started writing I was really inspired by female writers such Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter.”
Jennifer adds she was also influenced by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung’s idea that fairy tales provide a metaphor for the unconscious and the inner psyche.
A life-size sculpture of a leaping horse hangs in the centre of the gallery, constructed from aluminium wire. Other sculptures inspired by Victorian mourning jewellery are made from synthetic human hair. The exhibition features drawings and small objects made by Jennifer alongside selected museum objects, including a horse skull on loan from the University of Dundee’s D’Arcy Thompson Museum.
She adds: “This exhibition is really a chance for me to bring all the threads of my work form the last four years together in one show. It is also a platform which has allowed me to push my work to the next level, to challenge myself to not only make large-scale work but to pull together all the various skills I have gained in a coherent body of work that ultimately tells a story.”
Outbye Gallery hosts Jennifer Robson's first solo show Telling Tales (Tails)
Horses, braids and the colour blue are just some of the themes that appear in the work of Dundee-based artist Jen Robson. After years of working with portraiture, she has now developed her own unique style. She spoke to Jennifer Cosgrove about her first solo show — and why she's embracing all inspiration.
"I honestly don't know what attracted me to horses," Jen tells me as we sit in her studio at Meadow Mill in West Henderson's Wynd. "I asked my mum, because I was trying to work it out. I could show you drawings I did of horses when I was eight or nine years old. They were just magical from the start and I always loved them."
Her first solo exhibition Telling Tales (Tails) opened at The Outbye Gallery by Pittenweem last week — a giant step for any artist.
"I knew I had to get a solo show because I have so much work and, together, it all makes a story," she explains. "I was also really pleased to receive a Dundee Visual Art Award for £250 to help with the cost of the show."
It's been a productive time for Jen, who was chosen late last year to be lead artist on a production by Scottish theatre company Poorboy entitled Blood and Roses.
An audio play, it led audiences through the public streets and hidden spaces in Glasgow, visiting sites and art installations around the city. It featured specially-commissioned works by up-and-coming Scottish artists, and Jen created around 20 pieces for the production.
Blood and Roses was praised by critics and Jen recently discovered the play is to be reprised as part of the Made in Scotland showcase at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
"This was brilliant news," she says. "We were so bereft when it ended, so we are happy we are getting to do again."
Jen (29) was born in Dundee and attended Braeview Academy before preparing her folio for art college at Dundee College. She studied at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, graduating in 2004 with a BA (Hons) in Drawing and Painting.
Telling Tales (Tails) : Recent work by Jennifer Robson, runs at The Outbye Gallery until May 28. Vist www.theoutbyegallery.com for information.
After college, Jen decided to try and make it as an artist, funding her way with jobs in calls centres and supermarkets. The simple fact is making it in the art world is tough, and she admits it was difficult to stay in a creative mindset.
Then, out of the blue, she was contacted by The White Gallery in Dundee's South Tay Street asking whether she'd be interested in taking on the position of manager.
"I was just so lucky because I happened to be showing my work at the gallery — then I received a call."
She spent three years at the gallery, which started out as The White Gallery run by local architect Peter Inglis, but was then taken over by Nael Hanna, becoming Hanna's Contemporary Art Gallery.
Throughout her time as gallery manager, Jen continued with her own art, exhibiting at establishments in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kinross, Forfar and Crieff. When Hanna's closed in 2009, she went back to art full time — but took with her valuable experience of the art world.
"What I got out of the gallery was people skills. I learned how to sell art, interact with people and also how to promote myself," she explains.
Love of portraiture
Portraiture is Jen's bread and butter, and she has shown a number of self portraits over the years, also taking on commissions.
"I do all sorts — people, pets — but many people don't think buying art is open to them. I'm hearing from some of the galleries I work with that they are not selling as much as they usually do. People somehow have the idea that art is very expensive because of the price famous works go for.
"Art can be a personal gift and the way I paint and draw, you can tell I love it. The movement of the hand — especially when I draw hair — it's a beautiful thing to have someone do for another person."
Another of Jen's favourite subjects is horses, and it is from this fascination that her style has developed, with references to mythology and even Surrealism.
"It's funny, because I used to look at artists and wonder where their inspiration came from. What I am doing now just started around two years ago; I began picking up things I liked and then I realised I was starting to form my own world.
"I also found my sky. I love blue sky and the way the colour makes me feel — it cheers me up."
Breaking away from traditional pastels and paints, Jen now works in a variety of media including drawing, collage, embroidery, installation and jewellery. Storyboxes are also new to her work. These are the sculptural pieces contained within upturned drawers and other recycled pieces of furniture, providing a platform for the arrangement of figurines and found objects.
"I experiment with blue a lot and I do blue drawings. I recently found an old book I used to love as a child and all the horses in it were pink and blue. These are the exact colours I keep obsessing over now, and it's strange to look back and see these," she says.
"While I was at art school, I always stayed away from horses and glitter because I thought it might seem cheesy, but now I've had a change and I try to embrace everything I can, not worrying about what other people think."
Talking to Jen, you really do get a sense that she has settled into her art. Instead of searching frantically for inspiration, she is now happy to let stories and themes run their course in the knowledge she has found her style.
"There are animals that feature regularly in my work and they've all started to take on a character — but I'm not sure who they are, yet. I'll have to wait and see.
"The horse keeps metamorphosing and the more I draw him, the more I find out about him. There are different horses, as well. One is strong and is protector, whereas there's another with wings who is like a prince or a king.
"Art is a language and animals are part of this language and it's something you have to learn and develop. All this is really new to me - I didn't know about all of this stuff and I went through art school! I'm more about the right medium for the right work and it can be nice to go back and do self portraits.
"For me, it's like play - I can do anything and I can work out ideas. All the different things I do feed different parts of me. One day, I might play about, and another I might draw. It's just fun. You never know what might happen."