Artist Interviews 2022
By Laura Siebold
Jen Shakti is a mystic fine artist with many different talents. Coming from a thirty-year career in tattoo design, specifically sacred tattooing, she also practices Reiki and Shamanic Energy Healing. Jen Shakti is dedicated to the desert life and incorporates the energy of the desert and its wildlife into her illustrative paintings. In her interview, Jen tells us about the artistic legacy of her family, her education, and her methods of expressing herself through art. She reveals how she is influenced and constantly inspired by the “Spirit” of the desert and its species, as well as the desert ecosystem. Jen also gives insights into the motivation and meaning of her mystical art, and her work as a teaching artist. Jen Shakti lives in Yucca Valley, California.
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Your Desert HeART series includes many realistic images of the Mojave Desert and its wildlife. What fascinates you about the desert, specifically Joshua Tree National Park?
One of my youngest memories outside the family home was camping on BLM land in the Mojave Desert with my dad. I remember the earthy colors of the land, the quiet, clean air and how open it felt. I could see for miles. The desert can feel lonely for some but when prepared with the essentials for life, like shelter, food and water, I find the desert comforting. When I explore, I walk slowly and mindfully, stopping often to see what the desert reveals to me. I consider myself a mystic, and in nature my senses open up. I can feel my Spirit and when I say hello to the plants and animals I encounter, I get an answer in unexpected ways. The Desert HeART series began as ten paintings for a solo art show at the Tecopa Hot Springs Resort, near Death Valley National Park and continues to grow as I find new inspiration in the desert.
We are curious about your background. Did art play a role in your upbringing?
I grew up in Downey, California, a suburb south of Los Angeles. I’m the fourth generation of female artists on my mom’s side of the family. One of my first memories was being in my crib watching my mom oil paint and breathing the scent of turpentine. My mom always encouraged me to make art. With access to a variety of art supplies in the house, if I was bored, getting into a project or drawing was a good way to spend time. In school I had the reputation as the “artsy kid”, so the artist’s path was paved as well as something I have always been drawn to.
What made you choose the profession of the artist?
I was fortunate to attend the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts my junior and senior year. It is a magnet school for kids in the visual arts, theater, music, and dance taught by professional artists. It was such a rich and supportive community where we were allowed to express ourselves. The freedom from the typical high school environment really gave me a head start. I remember a specific moment; I was drawing in pencil reproducing a photo of my favorite band Iron Maiden and their iconic mascot Eddie when I had what I would call an epiphany. It was a realization and feeling that was so strong, like I was peeking into my future. I decided in that moment that I wasn’t interested in a 9-5 type job. I believed in my talent to be an artist, I decided to be courageous and pursue a life on my terms. I spent my first 2 years undergraduate as a sculpture major at the Art Institute of Chicago, and completed my BFA in painting at The Laguna College of Art and Design in California.
You mostly paint very realistically, with a focus on wildlife and plants. Where do you usually paint and what determines your choice of subjects?
I consider myself a multi-media artist, using tattoo ink, paint, and other more esoteric materials. Marketing my tattooing and acrylic painting skills made the most financial sense to me. I enjoy working with a variety of materials and techniques to express a multitude of ideas. Since moving to the desert, I have learned woodworking and taught myself how to sew. I created a YouTube channel where I produce videos about all the different mediums I work with. It can be a challenge to keep up with all my interests and ideas, at last count I have seven sketchbooks in progress to keep my ideas organized.
I have more opportunities to be out in the landscape in all seasons. Inspiration strikes when I notice an interesting plant’s details, or I have an encounter with an animal that I can photograph. I often “hear” what the title of the painting is to be. I believe it’s a transmission from the Spirit of the desert asking to be noticed and valued through my work. I feel that the animals are granting me permission to their secret world which I feel so honored to witness. I emphasize a whimsical feeling and the titles can also add humor. I hope that sparks curiosity to the landscape making it more personally inviting to the viewer.
I don’t use anything fancier than my phone’s camera and a simple app that later I can layer multiple reference photos to create my composition. My studio is a large open space in the front room of my home. I have a queue of paintings that I will work on during the summer months when it’s too hot to spend much time outside.
What have you learned from your interactions with the desert ecosystem? How can your paintings create a sensory experience for your viewers?
I feel like a biologist because I’m fascinated with the systems of life, and I want to know all I can about how plants and animals relate. I consider myself an environmentalist because I have a strong desire to preserve the desert ecosystem. The desert is ancient, fragile and is under extreme pressure from population growth and climate change. I want my paintings to showcase the treasures of the land and to speak to people’s hearts in order to preserve, protect and enjoy it. Having a relationship with the land is part of my Spiritual practice.
Connection to the earth is a relationship we all share. Earth energy can be nourishing, healing, and rejuvenating if we pay attention to it. I believe Earth and nature is a feminine energy which is why many call “her” Mother Earth or Gaia. This isn’t a new concept, but I have delved deeply into this subject matter as part of my spiritual practice. My paintings are a portal to bring the viewer into sacred moments, moments that are available to anyone who looks for them. Many people have shared memories and stories with me that my paintings evoked for them.
What is the meaning behind the images displayed in your Provenance Gallery?
The Provenance gallery is my idea to have an active role in establishing the current value of my work while I’m alive. The Provenance gallery is a price and authentication record for collectors to have access to a record of the original artwork. Based on the highest value of my sold work I’ve slowly increased my selling prices a little bit each year. It’s absolutely deliberate and it’s how I’ve gotten past the challenge of pricing.
I’m a very practical person and fortunately I have an interest in business. I consider myself an entrepreneur, but I still want to spend the majority of my time creating. What I produce needs to support my life and pay the bills. I work consistently to be visible and develop my brand. That may sound very bland, but my creative coach taught me that marketing is understanding your heart connection to your work. The clarity that marketing with authenticity brings is joyful and satisfying. That is where I feel people want to support me. I have been in that place where marketing is such a turn off, but I chose to answer that invitation for me to look deeper within, check what was not working and try to heal that. Marketing is always an invitation to growth with clarity that supports creativity instead of being at odds with it.
Your mystical paintings displayed as part your Provenance Gallery are very different in style from your Desert HeART series. Which role do the mystical creatures play in your paintings?
I categorize my varied interests into series. I cycle through different themes, like fantasy/mystical spiritual paintings, the “Good Spirits” series of colorful cute characters, the botanical texture series that are close ups of plants and now the more landscape-oriented Desert HeART series. Each is a standalone body of work. I give myself permission to work in more than one theme, but there is a consistency of stylistic elements. The hallmarks of my style are illustrative, mystical realism and detail. Bright color, movement, juxtaposition of size, scale, and humor. These series evolve year to year as I circle back around and add a new work to an older series.
The role the mystical creatures like mermaids and faeries play in my work is my connection to the empowered feminine “Goddess energy”. I’m fascinated with magical beings that inhabit other dimensions. The painting is an enchanted portal into this other realm that is special for mortals to experience. In that way my fantasy paintings are a related thematically to the Desert HeART landscapes that allow the viewer to witness something out of the ordinary through the “window” of the painting.
You custom make the frames for all your artwork. How did you develop your unique style of painting and framing? Which materials do you use for both processes?
My realistic painting style developed from a natural talent to be able to look at something, translate what I’m seeing through my brain into shapes, patterns, and textures. I can replicate these patterns with my hands using certain materials. Realism goes back through the generations of my DNA, yet it required many years and hours of practice to be able to take realism to the next level and be able to successfully create the scenes from my imagination.
The first job I had in high school was picture framing. I always frame my work because it doesn’t feel finished to me without a frame. It can be very costly, so I found creative ways to frame my work inexpensively. I began by upcycling old frames, restoring, repainting, and adding special touches to make the frame an extension of the art. My husband Brandon built an awesome woodshop in our garage for his art and craft projects. Having a woodshop gave me the opportunity to learn to use power tools to make my own custom frames. The “toasted frame” burning style was inspired by ideas from makers on YouTube. I love how fire brings out the beautiful grain in the wood. The lightning strike pattern looks like branches that complement the nature in the paintings. Even a framed print has a one-of -a kind original frame that perfectly matches the work.
You have a thirty-year career in tattoo design. How does your practice of “Sacred Tattooing”, as well as your Reiki and Shamanic Energy Healing education add to your current primary artistic direction – fine art?
I bring my creativity and imagination to everything I do. The label of artist isn’t broad enough to describe a creative person. I have developed my consciousness alongside of my visual art which includes all the mediums I work with. I have spent 30+ years training with wonderful teachers to develop and understand my healing gifts. Reiki, Shamanism, and intuitive energy healing are modalities I’ve studied with different schools.
Sacred tattooing is a modern version of ancient rites of passage that I was guided by Spirit to create. It is about healing and empowerment with a tattoo being the permanent evidence that transformation has occurred. Like a healing session, a sacred tattoo is different for every person. It involves being open, listening carefully and guiding the client on their own inner exploration. I help them to connect the dots and develop a sacred symbol of empowerment
Sacred tattooing and intuitive energy healing are both intimate and demanding work where I am really present for the client. Both require a high degree and trust and safety. I can use my ability to develop and fulfill their tattoo wish or to help them clear issues that may be holding them back. Both sacred tattooing and energy healing have parallels but are separate practices, requiring different skills.
I’m always seeking to express my interests and passions in terms people can understand. Sacred tattooing has been very successful because tattoos are popular, but also because my skills and experience as an empathic healer offer a unique experience. This often goes beyond a simple monetary exchange in a traditional tattoo shop.
It’s a treat for me when I get to express my personal vision with fine art that doesn’t include a client’s parameters. I’m so grateful and honestly surprised when people resonate with my vision and it’s just about me. It feels really good to have that support of my work, that allows me to feel I’m not just a commercial / graphic artist working for others. in 2020 I started thinking more seriously about legacy, what can I create that is longer lasting than tattoos and my lifespan. It was a difficult decision to put tattooing aside and bring fine art to the forefront but I knew intuitively it was the right decision.
What are the challenges of being a professional artist in a more remote location like Yucca Valley?
Galleries in the desert have been a great way to connect with other artists in the community. I make occasional sales through the local stores and galleries, booths at local art fairs and by participating in the Highway 62 Open Studio art tours in October. Galleries that support higher priced work and connection to art collectors are back in LA, San Francisco or even Las Vegas. I left the city because I felt so crowded and assaulted by the noise, traffic, and pollution. I feel like I often have to travel back into the noise and traffic for bigger opportunities.
Have you ever collaborated with other artists throughout your career? Why/why not? If you could choose freely, who would you like to collaborate with and why?
I haven’t collaborated with other artists. When I was tattooing full time, I didn’t have the time or energy to do much more than a few paintings a year and a few group shows. I wasn’t really tuned into the art community in other places I’ve lived. Now that I’m in Yucca Valley, putting down roots in the community where there are so many creative people, it’s a different story. I’m certainly open to collaboration, and the support that comes with community-based art. I’d really enjoy collaborating with other YouTubers, muralists, children’s book authors, interior, fashion, or landscape designers.
If I had a time machine, I’d enjoy collaborating with the Godfather of art nouveau Alphonse Mucha. I have a lot in common with Georgia O’ Keefe, we could paint bones and flowers together in the desert. It would be amazing to work in a circle of the anonymous female artisans from the Swiss and German convents of the 17th century bejeweling the skeletons of the catacomb saints. What a blast it would be to sketch characters with 90’s sticker guru Lisa Frank, the infamous Dr. Seuss, or walk on the Far Side with quirky cartoonist Gary Larson.
What are you currently working on? Can you give us an insight into some future projects?
I’m in the process of submitting to galleries in Palm Springs and LA for spring 2022. When it’s too hot to be outdoors this summer I’ll be painting the next works in the Desert HeART series. There’s a bobcat, a Painted Lady butterfly in creosote, and an “extreme” moonlit hedgehog cactus flower to name a few.
Long term big picture, I’ve been working on my legacy through education. I’m a teaching artist with an organization called Groundwork Arts. GWA brings professional artists into the classrooms of the local schools. I teach 9 classes, and every month brings a new project. It’s important to me to be planting the seeds for future artists. I enjoy exposing the kids to different materials and artists in the community. I’m surprised and happy to see the interest and talent many of the kids demonstrate. Teaching young people the value of imagination and that being an artist is a worthy occupation, is important to me.
In a related vein of education and activism, I created a community group called UnDo! Clean Desert Project. There is a big problem of illegal garbage dumping in the desert. As population increases, the problem grows. Along with support and encouragement for those who do clean up the trash, I want to have conversations about why this unfortunate problem persists. I believe in shifting the disappointment and anger towards the polluters into a positive direct relationship with the land. Cleaning up trash is a simple, accessible form of activism that gives a good feeling in a short amount of time. I created a character for UCDP, called the Blue Magoo. Like Woodsy Owl of the 70’s, the Blue Magoo is a friendly outreach to motivate kids and make picking up trash with the family a fun outdoor activity. I am working on a game called Desert Trash Bingo as well as some cool rewards. Creating a puppet version of the Blue Magoo for a school program in is my big picture vision for what can bring long term changes and greater stewardship for the desert.
I’m working on a series of short videos to grow my YouTube channel. YouTube allows me to tell complete stories about my work exactly how I want to present it. The video medium blends entertainment, education, humor, and playfulness with a positive message. I have over 100 videos, including a playlist of time lapse creations of the Desert HeART paintings start to finish. I share tips about materials, my thought process and painting techniques. Check it out and don’t forget to subscribe!
The YouTube channel supports my Patreon membership page. Patreon is an online platform where I preview my new work and creatively engage with my patron community. Patrons pay a small monthly subscription to support my art. There are cool welcome gifts and other benefits like being first in line for a limited number of tattoo appointments. Patrons have access to me for asking creative or materials questions, share their work along with exclusive posts and videos I make just for them!