An interview with St. Augustine-based artist Jenna Alexander
By Ambar Ramirez
If you’ve ever been to St. Augustine, you know how easy it is to feel inspired by its rich history, blended architecture and locally-owned businesses, each with their own unique contributions. One such contributor is Jenna Alexander, an artist based in St. Augustine.
Ambar Ramirez: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up and how does it, I guess, tie into how you started getting into painting and photography?
Jenna Alexander: So I grew up in Kansas City and then I moved over to Pensacola when I was in eighth grade, and I was just always into art. In high school, I always took electives in art, went to art camps on Saturdays. Instead of hang out with friends, I would just hang out in my bedroom and make art. I was one of those. And then my sister came to Flagler and I ended up marrying her friend, so that’s how I eventually ended up in St. Augustine. Then I always was like trying to put my stuff out there, so basically I had shown a couple of pieces during the Art Walk one Friday and months later, the owner [of the gallery] asked me to reopen. She was moving locations, and she asked me to reopen a store with her, and I was like, I mean, sure, I had some money saved up from a Kickstarter project I had done, and I was like, I guess that’ll cover the rent for the year. And if it doesn’t work, I’ll just at least be able to say that I tried. So it started with that and that was 10 years ago … I just moved out to a bigger location here on San Marcos Avenue about two years ago.
AR: Beautiful. It sounds like art has just kind of been a given for you.
JA: Yes, I think I have some natural gifts in that department and not some in other departments. Ha ha. But it’s definitely something that’s been kind of like a safe haven for me, and it’s just nice to, like, meditate. I always feel at peace when I’m creating. I’m very drawn to it. Pun intended.
AR: Oh, I love that. I love punny jokes. And with that, was there ever, like, a specific moment or a piece that you first drew that made you really think that you can make art a career?
JA: Oh, wow. That’s a hard one. I’ve never been asked that before. I would say my Kickstarter project that I got funded for. I taught in Tanzania after college for a year. I taught at an orphanage, and so I had 24 students and they were all adorable Tanzanian kids. And so I did this big old Kickstarter project and painted a bunch of their faces. I think I ended up doing like 12. and they’re 4 x 4 feet, very impressionistic, like tiny little pointillism brushstrokes of color. And I think that gave me a lot of confidence and also kind of jump started me into doing commission work for portraits. And that was back in 2011.
Ambar: Where do you find inspiration for your pieces?
JA: Oh, just around me, you know. My daily life. Like, one of my series is about oysters, and that’s from a time my husband and I would go and paddleboard to harvest oysters and then cook them and eat them with neighbors. So yeah, just like the life around me. I think this “Modern Summer” has been on my mind for a long time. Wayne Thiebaud is one of my favorite artists. He’s from the ’60s, and he was kind of branching off from pop art and kind of forming his own art genre. He’s very well known for all of his, like, pastry studies, candies and lollipops. But my favorites of his work is the figurative pieces because it’s just like these women sitting in like a mid-century mustard yellow dress, staring into nothing and, like, not even happy or smiling, but I’m so drawn to his figurative work. So I really wanted to capture that. I hired a bunch of models and captured people in kind of mid-century outfits, doing kind of mundane, in-between-the-moment type things. There’s one of a lady just holding up her glass as if she had just taken a sip of it. It’s kind of trying to give people a feeling of nostalgia during summertime.
Ambar: Yeah, I love all your pieces, but the “Modern Summer” collection feels really special. It’s really bright, and it’s like a perfect lead-in to like, you know, we’re right there at the brink of summer.
JA: Yeah. Thank you.
Ambar: Of course. Also, I wanted to talk a bit about your studio where you not only have this space to, obviously, work on your pieces but where you also hold events and classes. I’m curious about what sparked the idea of having not an open studio, per se, but having this space where you could invite others.
JA: Yeah, well, I love having people come to the studio because I think it’s just like a fun place to be. It’s beautiful, there are huge glass garage doors and, like, it’s a very big space. So during the pandemic, I took both my kids out of school and homeschooled them, and there were a couple of other moms that were doing the same, and they asked me to teach their kids art class. I was like, no … yeah, 100%, I’ll do it. Then they loved it, and I was like, this is actually really fun. And around that time, 2021, I was moving into this bigger space, and I was like I think I do wanna host art classes for kids, but I’m never gonna teach adults because they are terrifying and they’re so hard on themselves and like, what if they ask questions I don’t know the answer to, you know, just feeling like imposter syndrome. And then I was like, I should just try a Mother’s Day workshop and see if I like it. And then I loved it. It’s so fun. So now I have five workshops coming out this summer that you can sign up for. I’ll do seasonal workshops and then, of course, I can do a private workshop. It’s fun to teach people something that, to me, comes so naturally. It’s great to get to interact and have people in and out of the studio, and it gets more traffic in the studio, which can mean more sales.
Ambar: Yeah, and I feel like a lot of the time artists are very private about their process like, you know, the tortured artist. They don’t want to show their work until it’s absolutely finished and stuff. And I feel like you, having this studio space where you can invite others, creates this homey feel.
JA: Yes, that’s what I hope because I remember feeling so intimidated. This is kind of different, but in the surf world, as a female surfer, like, oh, my gosh, you’d be called a poser, and I would never want to go surfing. And now that I’m in my 30s and surf all the time, it feels like that whole culture is kind of opening up a little bit. And I hope artists kind of start to do that too because it can be so intimidating, and it is so vulnerable to create a piece of art and like, what if you don’t know how to do it? Or what if your hand shakes or, you know, you can’t get it right?
AR: Absolutely. I do pottery myself, and I just paid for, like, a membership at a local studio over here in Murray Hill, and I was super nervous. It felt like I was going to my first day of school, but then you kind of just go in there and everybody’s so kind and they’ll help you if you have any questions. So being an artist doesn’t have to be like a lone rider thing. It should be open to others, and nobody has to be perfect at it. Art is not about being perfect.
Do you think being located in Saint Augustine has affected your work and how so?
JA: Yes, I would say in two ways. One, the town of St. Augustine is the most creative and very, very supportive of small businesses. And then living in St. Augustine and how that affects how my artwork actually looks, I would definitely say it’s played a very large role because I didn’t even eat oysters before I moved here. Also we live by the lighthouse, and so we’re super close to the beach and ride bikes all the time; we’re always on the sand. So a lot of it is like native nature that we’re just on the go and I see it in a certain light and I’m like, ooh, I want to paint that, you know? So I would definitely say, all these little moments add up to, like, how my art is.
Ambar: That sounds beautiful. I think it’s kind of hard to not be inspired by everything around you.
JA: I feel like I’m in a storybook here all the time. Especially around dawn and dusk.
Ambar: Every time I go to St. Augustine, I feel like I just stepped into another time. Like, I am not in 2023.
JA: It is gorgeous. It really is. And my studio is just north of the fort and then my home is by the lighthouse. So my commute is like the prime beauty.
AR: I’ve tried painting and stuff like that and I really enjoy it, but I found that my passion was with ceramics. It felt right to me. How did you get into painting and photography? What made you go down that route?
JA: That’s a good question. I got my first camera when I was 10. So, like, I always loved taking pictures, and I took a few photography classes in high school and college and like film and all that stuff. So I learned how to work a camera and that was like just kind of basics. And then when it came to painting, I really admired my college professor’s work. It was a kind of almost hyperrealism portraits like a large scale, six-foot face right in front of you. So I think his work really influenced my work. And I work with oil mostly, but I also dabble with, like, chalk pastels, drawing in charcoal, some gouache and a little watercolor. So I really do like switching it up a lot and probably because I have ADHD, but also it just keeps things interesting. But yeah, the “Modern Summer” is all oil on canvas or paper.
Ambar: And they came out gorgeous. And you were saying you were really inspired by your professor who did hyperrealism work. Would you say you also fall into that type of art style?
JA: Oh, gosh, I don’t know what I am making.
Ambar: Ha ha! That’s OK, you can make up your own.
JA: I try. I am very tight and rigid in my work. I try to get it to look as best as I can to be accurate, but I’m trying to loosen up and get a little bit more impressionistic and more like, this is a representation of a chair and a shadow. And I think that as I’m aging, I’m less worried about the meticulous details and mastering it because I know I can do that. And it’s more of like how do I want this to make you feel.
AR: Yeah. And that’s really great that you brought up that it’s about what you want your viewers to feel. What do you want your viewers to feel when they view this new collection?
JA: I want them to feel like they’re in a moment. I want them to feel calm. I want them to feel like maybe nostalgia towards their childhood or like the good old days. I just want them to feel kind of inspired.
AR: Absolutely. Yeah, I can definitely see people feeling that way. And what are some things people can look forward to with the opening exhibit?
JA: So yeah, Sunday is the restaurant in the front of the property and my studio’s in the back. So we decided to have the whole show in the restaurant because they kind of double as a gallery for me. So I’m going to hang my paintings in there. We’re gonna have complimentary charcuterie, drinks available for purchase, we are having The Dewars play, twin brothers who are perfect for the “Modern Summer” series. They have this, like, Southern California, mid-century vibe about them. And I think I have like over 25 originals and then some prints and tea towels for sale.
AR: That’s so exciting. People will really be delving into the work with the music and then they’ll be able to have some snacks and drinks while seeing your pieces.
JA: Yes, that’s the plan!
Ambar: I love it. It’s so exciting. I can’t wait.
JA: I’m excited. I’ve never had a show on a Wednesday, so I’m a little nervous about it, but I think it’ll be fun.
Jenna Alexander’s “Modern Summer” collection perfectly captures everything we love about the season. If you happen to be in St. Augustine on May 3, don’t miss the opening of Alexander’s collection. For those who can’t attend, you can still check out her work on jenna-alexander.com.