Jenny Pickens Paints To Remember The Mother She's Never Known
Artists often clean their studios before visitors arrive. But inside her Swannanoa home, Jenny Pickens’ painting studio is always immaculate.
The first clue that this is so: Pickens’ studio is carpeted—a rarity among painters—and you won’t find a drop of other color on the plush butterscotch.
“Growing up, I had limited space. My grandmother, oh gosh, she would fuss at me all the time—‘you wake up with a crayon, you go to bed with a crayon,’” she recalled. “I had to be clean with whatever I used.”
Pickens organizes her paints, brushes and doll-making materials just so. She said it’s likely her response to a fractured childhood. Pickens was raised on the south side of Asheville by her father’s parents, whose deaths during her teens derailed Pickens’ plans to go to art school.
“I don’t know my mother,” she said. “When I was a young kid, my mother and dad got involved in the drug scene, and my mother went to prison. She did, I think, five years, and I saw her again when I was 5 for, like, three days, and I haven’t seen her since.”
Pickens is known chiefly for her painted portraits, many of them created on commission, and for the cloth dolls that sell out every time she has a booth at the Big Crafty. She’s also on a recent run as a muralist—first as one of the lead artists for the temporary Black Lives Matter street painting in Pack Square and then for her commissioned panels at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts.
Installation for Pickens’ triptych mural in the courtyard of the Wortham Center is Nov. 17.
There’s a refined yet roughened illustrative quality to her work—some might label it as folk art—and black women are almost always her focus.
“My mother, trying to see what she looks like, not knowing what she smells like, not having that memory of my mother kissing me, hugging me,” Pickens said of her artistic inclinations. “And if I run into her, how’s she going to look? So I make sure these eyes are, like, staring at me. Everything you can see through the eyes and the lips and the hair.”
Pickens’ first name is Irene, but her mother began calling her Jenny almost from the beginning, and that’s the name she has always used. In her grandparents’ home, she began drawing and making dolls from as far back as she can remember.
“That was just something I was always known for in school—all through elementary school, middle school and high school—was being an artist,” she said.
Pickens’ grandmother taught her to sew by hand and, through her dolls, she said she escaped into lives and settings of her imagination.
“Cuz there was so much craziness going on around me, I created my own world,” she recalled. “OK, so when I get older, I’m gonna have my house to look like this. I want my living room to be this way, I want my bedroom to be this way.”
After graduating Asheville High School, in 1988, Pickens felt forced by her grandparents’ deaths to turn down an acceptance into the Art Institute of Atlanta. She redirected her ambitions to fashion design, and she took on jobs doing nails and hair and cookie decoration, among other work. Through a job clerking at Green’s Mini Mart, on Asheville’s Depot Street, Pickens had her first adult validation as an artist.
“I used to sit behind the counter and I’d have a drawing book, and I would do these drawings that were stipple,” she said. “I would take a pen and do dot drawings, so people would come in and see me work, and Mr. Green was also, like, ‘You gotta see this girl—she’s amazing.’ One day I got approached by a gentleman for parks and recreation and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m looking for a lady someone said could draw really good,’ and I said ‘I guess that’s me.’”
The City of Asheville commissioned her to paint a mural on the W.C. Reid Center, the first of a handful she has painted locally. Pickens became a teaching artist for LEAF Global Arts and the Asheville City Schools Foundations, Youth Transform for Life and Word on the Street. Through the Big Crafty, she found a ready market for her dolls.
“I had 50 dolls, maybe, and I had a little, small table, and I was nervous, and I thought nobody’s going to buy anything from me,” she recalled. “I sold out within two hours left in the show, and all my dolls were gone, and I thought ‘Why didn’t I do this before?’”
As a single parent, Pickens has raised two children, who are now adults, but only during her six years with the man she later married did she entirely fallen away from art. As if marking her return to artistic flight, Pickens is having the wings expanded on the phoenix tattooed on her back.
“People used to say to me all the time, ‘Why are you still here? You’re doing so good, you need to leave Asheville,’” she said. “I’m thinking, ‘Why should I be treated like a guest in my own home. I’m not going anywhere,’ and I have not left.”