Intuition and a ground-up process inform the art of Jenniffer Omaitz
Story by Carlo Wolff
Photography by Michael C. Butz
For the decisively hands-on Jenniffer Omaitz, process is important, whether it involves building startling, three-dimensional work or mixing her own pigments for paintings.
The rubble from this artist’s installations, at floor level of the studio space at her home in Kent, cohabits with her paintings – all planes, perspectives and texture – on the walls, showing her progression over the past 15 years.
“I think one informs the other,” the soft-spoken Omaitz says of her different kinds of expression. “I find that doing both allows me to feel a little more full as an artist.”
Omaitz assembles her constructions from the ground up, knows how to get the discount at local hardware stores for supplies, and customizes the blends for her acrylics and oils.
Procedure and result matter equally to her. If that seems contradictory, attribute it to the ambiguity this nonobjective, abstract artist so profoundly leverages. Alchemy fascinates her, too. So do transformation and evolution, both in her art and in herself.
Omaitz’s art is muscular, explosive. It’s also as palpable as the workspaces in the home she shares with her husband, Steve Collier, and their dogs Juneau, an Alaskan Malamute, and Yukio, an Akita.
Take “Currents,” an installation recently displayed at “Hypothetical Constructs & Translucent Boundaries,” a show she shared with Cleveland Heights artist Andy Curlowe at the Klemm Gallery at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Mich.
The site-specific installation, a mash-up of mesh, industrial labeling, tape, cut-up paper and what appear to be blocks of silver packaging material, is abstract, for sure; it also hints at a kind of urban topography, conjuring the mess and promise of city life.
“The House That Art Built,” another installation there, resembles a house, complete with stories (the physical and the mental kind), roof and doors. It’s also a house of crazy angles, unstable yet inviting, a house after a tornado. There’s sharp humor at work here.
Curlowe loved watching Omaitz assemble her installations.
“During our install, I was able to witness Jen’s unique and intuitive installation build process,” he writes in an email. “It was transformative to see from start to finish her installation evolution, from unloading her car – packed to the brim with found and made material – to seeing her paint, tack, glue and weave all of these elements into the wall installations for our exhibition.
“It was positively fantastic to see her completed installations, but as a fellow artist, truly compelling to see how she did it.”
During a wall tour of her home, the thoughtful, deliberate Omaitz points to “Building Something out of Nothing,” a work of stripes, daubs and translucencies, its planes in combative dance. Its title vamps on “Building Nothing Out of Something,” the name of a 2000 anthology by indie rockers Modest Mouse.
Noting the painting is not too “plasticky,” Omaitz says, “it’s very gestural, it’s very expressive, it’s very free. I put on some music and kind of let myself go; intuition plays a big part in the initiation of the painting.
“If I want to do something in one piece, I can force it or let it happen,” she says, calling her process organic. “I’ve come to the realization that I need to let it happen for it to be authentic. … It has to have that, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen that before in my work’ moment.”
As the child of a single mother (both her parents are deceased), Omaitz grew up with beauty – literally. Her mother owned and ran a beauty shop in Mayfield Heights for 21 years, including the ones Omaitz spent at Brush High School in Lyndhurst, where she regularly won awards for her art.
“My mom urged me to follow my dreams and stay creative – and really nurtured that; I think that’s partially how I gravitated toward that skill,” she says.
“I grew up watching women and men come in and be transformed in the span of 20, 30 minutes,” she adds. “I think watching this transformation from this idea of beauty to this other idea of beauty right in front of me all the time was really … it had an impact on me.”
Omaitz also wanted to stand out; couldn’t help it, seeing as her mother, Ginnette, stamped her only child with a name with two sets of consonants. As a little girl, Omaitz was always looking for a souvenir labeled “Jenniffer,” with two F’s. She finally found one, a pencil. She’s sure the “Jenniffer” in the wood was a typo.
What wasn’t a typo but her choice was changing her last name. “I changed the S to a Z. You don’t get famous unless you have a Z,” she quips.
Why visual arts rather than, say, theater?
“It’s just easy for me to have a pencil in my hand and a piece of paper in front of me. That was just something my mom always kind of gave me (at the salon) and I would just sit there and start to sketch all these women who were sitting in their chairs or occasionally a man sitting in a chair. … Oftentimes I wasn’t as skilled when I was younger and people would say, ‘Oh, Jenniffer, you’re doing a horrible job, I don’t want to see it.’ But later on, people would say, ‘Please draw my portrait, please, please draw my portrait.’ I still do it to this day when I teach figurative drawing.”
Those early portrait forays helped refine her creative path.
“I had that conversation very early in my life,” she adds, referencing her comprehension of beauty. Art school – she attended the Cleveland Institute of Art when it was a five-year school, graduating during what’s known as “The Era,” which also featured such graduates as Amy Casey and Robert Goodman – only quickened her gravitation toward an artistic community that continues to nurture her.
A 2002 graduate of CIA with a BFA in painting, Omaitz also studied at the Lacoste School of the Arts in Lacoste, France, in 2000 and earned a Master of Fine Arts in painting at Kent State University in 2009.
Schools of thought
Education clearly matters to her, too.
The only Ohio artist to participate in midwestartiststudios.com, an arts education project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Omaitz thinks “it’s really important to keep the education of the arts alive. I want to teach, I want to be part of that process and I believe in the power and the dynamics of the arts.”
Serving her last month as visiting college lecturer at the University of Akron’s Mary Schiller Myers School of Art, where she was senior lecturer from 2010 to 2015, Omaitz also was on the adjunct faculty at Kent State University and the Cleveland Institute of Art from 2011 to 2015.
“Over several years I had an opportunity to see the work that flowed from her students’ efforts,” Richard Fiorelli, a professor in the Foundation Department at CIA who is retiring this year, says of Omaitz, his former student. “She has a natural ability to bring out the best in her students. The walls were filled with strong work from her students on a consistent basis.
“I have a wonderful memory of Jen requiring/encouraging her drawing students to eat with chopsticks so that they would develop greater dexterity and finger control. I loved the idea. Nudging students outside of their own personal comfort zone. Flap your wings and fly. Such are the moments of a gifted teacher and artist. Chopsticks and drawing dexterity! Very cool.”
Even when she relaxes, Omaitz is on the creative hunt. She does marbling, modern variations on a printmaking process hundreds of years old. She creates mono prints. She investigates book art.
And she participates in several shows a year. Last year, there were two major ones. One was “Shifting Spaces,” at a gallery in Denver, where she lived in 2006. The other was “Folding Gesture,” at Robert Maschke’s 1point618 Gallery in the Gordon Square Arts District of Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, where she regularly shows. Her paintings cost between $400 and $7,000, depending on size.
“I don’t know if you can make a living out of art here,” Omaitz says of Northeast Ohio. “But you can live as an artist. It depends on the kind of art you make.”
Count on Omaitz to make art edgy. CV
Lead image: Jenniffer Omaitz discusses her marbling – a creative endeavor she undertakes in her spare time – while in her studio in Kent.