Jen Uman is a refreshing reminder that talent can be cultivated without art school

The painter and illustrator tells us how she has “found a sort of contentment in exposing myself in a language I made up.”

12 October 2021


There is a remarkable subtlety to Jen Uman’s art. As much as its idiosyncrasies are charming, it’s the complex web of emotion and thought behind each of her pieces, which keeps us so intrigued. “I’m the product of a hard-working liberal reform Jewish creative family who encouraged me to see through my ideas for every reason and for no reason at all,” Jen tells It’s Nice That. “We didn’t have much but they made my sister and I feel like we had everything.”

Originally from Long Beach in California, Jen got her creative start as a “post-disco rebellion, latch key, DIY generation kid from the ’90s,” where she felt encouraged to hang out with her friends and paint, draw, make videos and take pictures of anything and everything they had going on. After a childhood full of cinematic Barbie escapades and hand-drawn menus for every meal she ate, Jen blossomed into a creative juggernaut and set her sights on New York City. “I moved to New York City in the mid ’90s and began painting and experimenting as a consistent practice with the most economical gouache, which I still use,” she says. “Overall, I lived in Southern California and New York for 24 years each and I’m not sure which of them is more where I’m from than the other anymore.”

It wasn’t always easy for Jen to adapt herself and her art in the midst of a drastic change of scene, however. “It took years before I found a pattern in what I was doing,” she says. “I didn’t go to art school, so there was always a reluctance about my approach or talking about my work.” Still, Jen offers up a certain type of sage advice: “Through time and mistakes, undercurrents of worry, responsibilities, support and life getting in the way, I’ve found assurance to just keep going and hold on to my point of view with conviction.” It was perhaps this philosophy brewing beneath the surface that guided Jen over the years as she worked jobs to support herself as an artist and get her work out to more people in the scene. Soon, Jen’s art landed in the hands and homes of collectors across the country. “From there, I was asked to do my first editorial op-ed illustration for the New York Times, and began several collaborations and solo projects,” she says.


Jen Uman (Copyright © Jen Uman, 2021)

Currently back in California, Jen has time to reflect and muse over where her artistic influences all began. “Frank Stella in 1986 was my first exhibition,” she says. “I walked through that show at 16 years old and was introduced to work that was abstract and modern inside of sculpture and dimension and painting and math and glitter – he changed my frame of reference forever.” It’s a fitting reference point, as Jen’s work evokes a combination of experience, nostalgia and the always-moving parts of life. “To be honest I never had a direct intention for where my work should be,” Jen explains. The nature of how these influences have disseminated across her work remains murky. “I have always grappled with the complexity and paradox of being true to art and the world of commerce.”

Now, Jen’s beautifully careful and delicate work circumvents the over-saturation of contemporary art and culture. “I put my works together in one place online: a website,” she says. “My hope is that what I do communicates a perspective that holds a space of its own.” Such a method is evident in Jen’s work. In Black and white drawing with iphone, which draws on Caravaggio’s famed Narcissus, Jen takes on technological singularity and solipsism with entertaining results. “I found when I was sketching [Narcissus] out that the content could be morphed with terribly drawn dimensions and a broken Pilot Hi-Tec-Pen.” Meanwhile, in Checkered painting, Jen recalls how the work absorbed a lot of the grief from her mother’s passing. “It was something I could keep coming back to.” Perspective and non-uniform shapes fill the canvas, bringing Jen into a design where she connects and expands “without any limits or sense”.

But, of course, these are simply snapshot representations of Jen’s portfolio. Her level of talent plumes to a much larger cloud than can be summarised here. She is refreshingly unpretentious and, most admirably, remains modest – somewhat humble, even. As she puts it herself: “I’ve found a sort of contentment in exposing myself in a language I made up.”

GalleryJen Uman (Copyright © Jen Uman, 2021)

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Jen Uman (Copyright © Jen Uman, 2021)

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About the Author

Joey Levenson

Joey joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in May 2020 after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.

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