Meet the Artist: Jennifer Drinkwater

Meet the Artist is a series of interviews with the Iowa Arts Council Artist Fellows.

Jennifer Drinkwater is nothing if not versatile. She cross-stitches as a form of meditation and paints because it’s “challenging and honest and horrible and reflective all at once.”

The visual artist and assistant professor at Iowa State University is one of five new additions to the Iowa Arts Council’s Artist Fellowship Program, which was created in 2014 to support professional Iowa artists who are exceptionally creative and contribute to artistic excellence and innovation in our state.

Over the next year, the new fellows will display their work statewide and talk with Iowans about the arts in their own communities. Each fellow will also receive career-development training and a $10,000 grant to support new work.

Meantime, we asked them to tell us a bit about their backgrounds, their work and their thoughts about the arts in Iowa.

So let’s start this year’s Q-and-A series with Drinkwater, a Mississippi native who moved to Ames in 2007 and figured she stay just a year or two. Ten years later, she lives in a 678-square-foot-house with her husband and an enthusiastic lab puppy, and she works in a studio above a detached garage — “a refuge from the dog,” she said.

“Lens 1: Seen,” acrylic on wood panel.

What’s your artistic medium of choice and why?

Tough call. I love to paint and I love to stitch and someday I will likely combine them. Painting keeps me on my toes by requiring me to be fully present in the process since I work fairly loosely and “painterly.” It is challenging and honest and horrible and reflective all at once. If I’m not in it that day, the painting spitefully lets me know.

Stitching, by contrast, is meditative. It’s often the only thing that will get me present, particularly after a long day at work. I learned to cross-stitch from both of my grandmothers, and I inherited each of their collections of thread when arthritis prohibited them from making any more work.

No one else in my family is a visual artist, so there’s something sentimental and nostalgic about connecting with my people. And it’s sure nice to be able to bring work anywhere.

What themes does your work explore?

I explore how art that is seen and experienced by the public encourages us to challenge our perceptions and actions as makers, participants, community members and citizens. Changes in perspective, materials and imagery used in new ways often prompts changes of perception and a broader awareness of the subject matter. My art effectively moves the public viewer into the role of participant, making the passive act of viewing art into an interactive activity. It’s my hope and goal that my art starts conversations.

This installation is part of “Art Vacancy,” an interactive exhibition in downtown Ames. The paintings were installed in an alley with motion-sensor lighting that responded to passersby.

In both painting and fiber work, I shift the original context of familiar images in order to challenge assumptions. I do this by using unusual materials in the process, juxtaposing unrelated imagery, or creating work that requires active participation.

For the past decade, I’ve been experimenting with strategies to transform paintings from objects to behold into objects of engagement.

To challenge how paintings conventionally function in the world beyond the studio walls, I began to make paintings that require and encourage physical touch: paintings hinged to gallery walls, paintings with movable compartments, paintings to write on, magnetic paintings with fluid compositions. Without viewer participation and contribution, each piece would be static and meaningless.

Initially, I appropriated existing images from American culture, such as dictionary pages, Old Master paintings and magazine covers. As my work has evolved, I’ve shifted from dissecting existing images into creating portraits of people I encounter.

“First Days Home (August 12, 2013: Part II),” embroidery floss and cotton.

In 2013, I began creating an embroidered archive of two weekly magazines, Time and People. The selections aren’t edited or chosen according to content; instead, they’re serendipitous, cycled every two months. Issues released on the same day are juxtaposed, which creates a broader documentation of our culture and invites viewers to formulate their own perceptions. There are several interesting parallels between the form and content of these pieces. The stitch replaces the pixel, and in doing so, interrupts the seamless imagery to reveal each cover as an elaborate construction.

The slow process of stitching is a meditation. The act itself soothes the melodrama of each cover, just as breaking down the image with thousands of stitches mediates the severity of the charade. The hours spent stitching each cover coincide with the hours each spends on the newsstand. These hundred hours are simultaneously short and long.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a new body of work (“Lenses: Seen and Be Seen”) for an upcoming exhibition in spring 2018 at the Lewis Art Gallery at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. This project explores the perceptions of 10 residents of a Jackson neighborhood. I am creating 20 paintings on 10 double-sided panels mounted on rolling casters. One side shows a painted image of a resident specifically composed to exemplify how they see themselves in their world. The other side shows the same resident posing as they feel they are seen by the outside world. Some images may be identical, some vastly different. Each painting is designed solely on the information provided by each participant, including photographs and interviews.

I am also working on a series of cross-stitch pieces (“168 Hours”) that documents contemporary culture of 2013. It consists of 24 individually framed cross-stitched images, each a life-size replica of a previously issued magazine cover. The individual pieces are intended to be displayed in pairs according to the date of release, which is included in the title of each piece.

What do you like about being an artist in Iowa?

I’ve always thought that, like Mississippi, Iowa is a secret. It’s a terrific place to live and work: affordable, beautiful, supportive of its artists. The art scene in Iowa is thriving yet still accessible enough to be inclusive and community-based and driven. It’s exciting to live here during what feels like a real state-wide push for creative entrepreneurship.

What would you change about the artistic field in Iowa?

Broader inclusion of artists in civic life and actionable recognition that the arts are a viable economic and community driver. Fortunately, the conversation surrounding these issues is changing. It’s becoming more accepted that art and artists are crucial beyond the conventions of adding beauty to a community. But I’m ready for that acceptance to translate into action. How can Iowa communities and artists support and involve one another in mutually beneficial ways? I’d like to see Iowa artists on city councils, commissions and boards beyond the public arts commission.

Current and upcoming shows:

July 2017 — “168 Hours” at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art in Anchorage, Alaska.

Spring 2018 — “Lenses: Seen and Be Seen” at Lewis Art Gallery at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.

Spring 2019 — A three-person show at Artistry in Bloomington, Minnesota.

See more of Jennifer’s work at

— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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