By Coco McCracken
Portland-based artist Jenny Ibsen was born in China, adopted by her Scandinavian parents in Connecticut, and grew up in a multigenerational home. Her family was as open as possible about her adoption. “My mom had a little photo album of her trip to China when she came to get me. We would look through it together when I was little,” she said.
And she had a group of peers who were also adopted from China, and which gathered annually. “My mom went to China with a Lutheran group that adopted a few babies from the same Chinese orphanage, and we stayed in touch… . I experienced racism and many bias-incidents as a kid, but never had the language to process it. So it was pretty incredible, having a group that had similar experiences.”
Being creative was valued in the Ibsen home. “You could say I was raised with an appreciation for tactile craft in my family; my grandfather, my dad, and brother are all skilled woodworkers. They were always fixing things. They built our home, and both my father and grandfather worked in the maintenance department at my school.”
But according to her mother, appreciation for art was not meant to translate into a career choice, for financial reasons. “You can do anything except become an arts major!” her mom told Ibsen, who laughs at the memory.
Ibsen graduated from Bowdoin in 2018, but money had been somewhat tight in her family while she was growing up. “Even though I grew up middle class, [our education was always supported by financial aid], and my parents wanted something different for me. There’s this notion that craft and hands-on work isn’t lucrative.”
And Ibsen is interested in issues of class and social justice. “I’ve really always been interested in what undercurrents labor stirs up, what that looks like in a class context, and how it intersects with craft.”
She is a multidisciplinary talent who refers to herself as a printmaker, writer, storyteller, and restaurant worker, all identities that have woven together, especially since COVID. During lockdown, Ibsen called on what she refers to as “forced structure as a source of comfort.”
For example, she started each morning with a grapefruit, methodically preparing, eating, and cleaning up after it – only to repeat the same routine the following day. “I thought of it as like ‘faking it until you make it.’ Enforcing a routine at home until I felt sane again,” she said. She took the process further by freezing these moments in printmaking, an art form that leans on repetition.
“I was reading How to Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell, who asks, ‘How can we stop thinking about ourselves by our productivity, and instead think about maintenance, and taking care of the things that already exist around us?’ ”
“Taking care” is a notion that Ibsen follows not only in her artwork, but in the activism space as well, and in the industry where she’s been working since 2014. “My first hospitality job was at Bowdoin College as the omelet prep person. I’ve been in and around the industry ever since,” she said.
“Everyone was so confused,” she recalled about the early days of the pandemic. We all asked one another: ‘Should I be working?’ ‘What should I do – I asked to work on the patio, but got scheduled to work inside – is that allowed?’ There was no guidance, and no support system for the workers.” Enter the Restaurant Workers Coalition of Southern Maine (RWC). Ibsen said, “Our first public meeting was this April, and our next will be in June. Anyone who works in the industry, who is not an owner, is welcome to join us. It’s a safe place to share issues in the industry related to anything from COVID woes to discrimination.” The RWC is also about shining a light on success stories. “We want to give a voice to those who love where they work, so we can learn from the positive experiences, as well.”
I pondered Ibsen’s life again after we parted ways. Printmaker. Writer. Storyteller. Restaurant Worker. She never suggested the hierarchy of one identity over the other. To her, they all carry equal weight and weave together to form a truly cohesive body of work.
Ibsen’s print “Goldenberries” – as one example of her work – reveals the vulnerability of the hand that forages, gathers, cleans, cuts, and cooks a meal. Add in the public factor of working in a busy restaurant, during a pandemic, and her prints unveil layered emotions surrounding the daily practice of feeding oneself, and the unrecognized privilege of being fed. Through the work on the paper, the viewer feels the time she has lent to carving, layering, and rolling. Ibsen’s roots in carpentry kindled her love of craft, but it’s her attention to slow processes, and safe spaces, that carry resonance for the viewer, and linger long after viewing her work.
Find Jenny Ibsen’s work online at jennyibsen.com
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