Look closely at an abstract painting or piece of hand-painted jewelry from Mid-Missouri based artist Jenny McGee.
Amid the multitude of beautifully blended colors, textures and unfiltered expression, crushed freshwater pearls are found in nearly all her pieces. Jenny says they represent “the hard glistening object of oneself produced within the soft mollusk like flesh that is life, scars and all.”
Jenny is also reflected in each piece. Living, working in graphic design and experiencing El Salvador,
battling an aggressive form of breast cancer, raising her two now pre-teens alongside her husband Dave and becoming a professional fine artist makes up Jenny’s soft mollusk like flesh, as she described. However her faith, the love of her family and her unique, expressive art make up the pearl she has now become.
“One of the things that keeps me going as an artist is the rawness, the trueness, the realness, the connection I feel with God as I am creating. I feel like when I’m truly in the process of creating or making a series. … It is me getting out of my way and letting God speak through my hands,” she said. “It is incredibly inspiring to me that I can create something that might really impact somebody else’s happiness. Whether it is color, print, text and collage, or a piece of jewelry, I’m able to pass on a joy, a piece of myself and a sense of peace as I am creating.”
Born in the Philippines while her parents were missionaries, Jenny spent much of her formative years in Springfield, Missouri. Art was a longtime love for Jenny.
Her first two years after high school were spent studying at Drury University, where she also was part of the swim team. She then transferred to Missouri State University and followed in her older brother’s footsteps and earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design.
Jenny and Dave both graduated from Missouri State University. For their honeymoon, Jenny’s college roommate sent them plane tickets to visit her in El Salvador.
“After we got married, we jumped on a plane and went to visit her, thinking we would stay there for three months and three months ended up being seven and a half years,” Jenny said.
Not speaking much Spanish, El Salvador was a whole new world, culture, language and life to the young couple, and they integrated themselves into it as much as they could.
“That is what was so compelling to us because the culture was just incredible. The people are so hospitable, loving and embracing,” she said. “We realized then that we have this opportunity to broaden our prospective and our horizons, and see the world with fresh eyes.”
Jenny’s roommate introduced them to ENLACE (meaning “link” in Spanish), which is an organization that equips church leaders to become effective agents of change as they understand who they are as a body, listen to their community, and respond to opportunities for developing sustainable solutions to poverty, according to ENLACE’s website. Jenny became a graphic designer at ENLACE, helping them spread the word through print material and collateral, while David, who has a photography background and studied art and biblical studies, worked in the nonprofit organization’s communications department. Dave has since advanced in the organization and now serves as the director of development, conducting fundraising and church partnership for ENLACE.
While she worked in graphic design, Jenny’s interest in fine arts as a viable career choice really started after she moved to El Salvador. She observed and became invested in El Salvador’s rich culture and society, and Jenny began doing a visual documentation, or visual journal, of what she was learning, seeing and experiencing in this new land.
“I made a bet with myself that if I could do 22 paintings that connected themselves from a line from the song “Here I Am, Lord,” which is a really impactful song for me growing up. … From my earliest memories I sang that in church. The words all about this calling and connection that we can have with God and understanding how God calls us to serve his people. That song was like this beckoning, call from God saying here are my people. Love them, show them love and love them the best you can,” she said. “Each painting represents a line from the song and that reflects some of the issues facing El Salvador that I was seeing and some of my experiences. I thought if I could get through that series, maybe I should pursue art. … It was a big commitment, but an exciting one.”
While developing this series from 2002-2009 during her time in El Salvador, Jenny continued as a graphic designer for a few years full-time with ENLACE until she had her son, Jonathan, in 2006. As a new mom, she did graphic design on the side and continued teaching different art classes to children ages five to 12 in local villages.
With limited resources at their disposal, Jenny scoured what was available that she could use to help the children see the value of art and also utilize their creations to help their families and communities. One of those resources came from waste of a closed down sugar cane mill, which left a fibrous pulp that was damaging one of the vital water sources, nearby rivers.
“We were trying to come up with creative ways to use this pulp, and so I helped them take the pulp, blend it up and create different paper products out of it,” she said. “The kids were able to sell their journals and notecards they made for profit at the local market to help their families. That was one of my favorite experiences teaching.”
Jenny and her students also made jewelry out of other handmade beads, crafted ceramic symbols and Christmas ornaments, to name just a few projects under Jenny’s tutelage from 2004-2007. Near the end of her own education career in El Salvador, she started taking art classes for the first time herself. She learned a variety of print making techniques, painting and many other skills from a national art school in the country.
All of these experiences have played heavily into her artistic style and creations. Much like in her teaching, she used materials found in El Salvador for her paintings, such as its earth, clay, coconut fibers, recycled papers and other locally found resources.
“When I came back from El Salvador. That forest, the material I was first using, was an important material to me. We would bring back bags and suitcases of earth and clay and started incorporating them in the texture and the foundation of my paintings,” she said. “Now I incorporate earth and clay (from a company called American Clay in New Mexico) and freshwater pearl. In many of my abstract pieces you’ll see white bumps popping out of them and that is the freshwater pearls (obtained from a local jewelry store). Sometimes I will add different stones like turquoise, too.”
Often Jenny will incorporate the freshwater pearls into the hand-painted pieces of jewelry she creates. An artistic medium she started in 2005, jewelry became a way for Jenny to express her abstract style and reach individuals wanting an affordable, functional piece of original art.
Starting with a piece of copper or silver, Jenny hand-paints the jewelry, adding freshwater pearl and covering it with EcoPoxy, a crystallized resin that is free of volatile or nonorganic compounds and chemicals that she also uses are her large abstract paintings. Bracelets, rings, large collars and pendant necklaces are among Jenny’s original jewelry, which is now sold at Poppy in downtown Columbia, then Palm Springs at Christopher Kennedy store and Brandon Jacobs Gallery in Kansas City.
Jenny was seeing how becoming a fine artist could truly be a viable career while living in El Salvador. Despite working toward that goal, she still hadn’t shown anybody outside her family her “Here I Am, Lord” series, which was in the secret room she used as a studio in the back of their El Salvadorian home.
Hosting a team of people at their home one night, one of the gentlemen asked to use the bathroom and accidentally opened up the wrong door, revealing Jenny’s secret room and her paintings. Amazed he inquired about it and knew Jenny needed to share it with others.
“He happened to be from New York City and happened to know the (owner of World Trade Art Gallery in New York City). He sent her pictures of my work and she really connected with it and started selling my work in her gallery,” she said. “God totally orchestrated that fun connection, and they have been a great gallery to work with.”
That same gallery showed another important series of paintings Jenny created during one of the most challenging times of her young life. In 2008, Jenny had Ema, who is now 11 and about two years younger than her son Jon. In late 2009, Jenny was breastfeeding Ema and discovered a lump on her breast. Diagnosed in El Salvador with an aggressive form of stage 3 breast cancer, Jenny first sought out treatment in Central America, but the distance to the nearest facility was not going to work. McGee family moved their life back to Missouri 10 days later.
They landed near Columbia in Hartsburg, close to her family and where she could seek treatment immediately at Missouri Cancer Associates. During a two-year period, Jenny went through chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation.
“It certainly puts life in perspective and makes you realize how precious this life truly is. Getting a new sunrise and sunset every day is a gift,” she said. “The doctor says I had a 50-50 chance and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I went into my art 200 percent. I think creating feverishly was a way I could just hold onto life and also create pieces of myself that I could leave behind if the worst case scenario came.”
She opened up an art studio, Orr Street Studios, during that time and began painting. Trees were at the forefront of much of her work – individual trees, collective trees and treescapes. It became a powerful symbol for Jenny and her work.
“I was moved heavily by the quote from Brother Lawrence that said ‘The secret to the life of a tree is that it remains rooted in something deeper than itself.’ In that time of such uncertainty and unknown, I think holding onto those words and the intention to hold onto God was my fortress and my rock during that time,” she said. “It was my certainty … so diving into the more spiritual side of myself coincided with that important part of healing.”
It was a big transition for Jenny and her family. But being back in the Midwest and near Columbia in Hartsburg has been a “wonderful place to land and get healthy,” she said.
Completely healthy and in remission, Jenny continues to flourish as a professional fine artist and painter. She has taught several lessons – everything from charcoal drawing to pure abstract expressionism – and helped other artists find their own creative path.
She has worked with HGTV designer Kelli Ellis, who featured her paintings and artwork on the television channel’s “House Hunters Renovation” show and Lynne Green, former group president of The Estee Lauder companies. Her paintings hang in numerous private collections, publicly at World Trade Art Gallery, Brandon Jacobs Gallery in Kansas City, The Christopher Kennedy Compound in Palm Springs, Poppy and Kindred Collective, which is a healing, wellness and expressive arts collective in Columbia. This community of mental health and wellness practitioners, healing artists, educators and consultants where individuals, families and groups can receive support in their healing journeys through creative expression, learning and unique wellness techniques.
“They are an amazing center a holistic wellness. I was able to help set up their art room. A lot of therapists are part of this group and they bring their clients into the art room where they are able to draw on the walls, the ceiling and really just express themselves however they feel they need to,” Jenny said.
Jenny has also had a lot of fun working with a local Dream Factory child recipient, who was able to create artwork with her mom and sister at Jenny’s studio using the pouring technique. One of Jenny’s favorite abstract techniques, pouring starts with multiple cups filled with a Elmer’s glue, different colored paint, water and silicone before they are added layer by layer to one big cup. The artists can then spill the cup onto a surface or canvas, creating a unique piece of abstract artwork.
“That is what compels me to abstract art. … I love abstract art because when I’m in that mood where I need to let go of control. … Something like the pour painting technique or another abstract technique allows the fluidity of the process to take over,” she said. “Your controlling, logical mind does not take over, and it feels really good.”
Still creating abstract pieces, Jenny has most recently come full circle with another art collection she began about seven months ago. Having made prints of recycled paper paintings for some time back in El Salvador, she now has started the Midwest Poster and Postcard Collection, depicting different scenes using handmade recycled paper collages digitizing them with of her original abstract artwork into posters and postcards.
The first pieces were inspired by Dave, who is an avid rock climber. He has helped develop a bunch of different routes and climbing areas around the Midwest and in and around Columbia. He is currently working with two partners on opening a rock climbing gym in Columbia, and Jenny got the idea to feature scenes of rock climbers to for people to take home that had a connection with that area.
“I revisited the paper/recycled collage material and create posters of the areas. It started with local climbing scenes,” she said, such as Henley Wall in Henley, Missouri, and Capen Park in Columbia. “Then it took off into featuring different locations in Columbia, the State Capitol in Jefferson and Katy Trail.”
Other popular prints from this collection include The Arch in St. Louis, The Plaza in Kansas City, Westminster Columns in Fulton and Faurot Field at University of Missouri in Columbia. Jenny continues to add to her 50-plus pieces, now designing collages depicting different Missouri state parks.
Jenny encourages her students or anyone taking lessons to create and know their voice is important and an asset to the world. When someone relates to and is moved by the voice speaking through her artwork, Jenny knows she has answered that calling.
“When somebody tears up in front of your work and has an emotional response, it is a game changer,” she said. “You know your language is being translated, and that is a really, clear, cool feeling. It is really memorable.”
For more information and to request a commission, visit www.artistjennymcgee.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.