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Artist Jenie Gao Creates Activist Art in America’s Heartland

Artist Jenie Gao Creates Activist Art in America’s Heartland

Jan Mercker

Gao’s activist art reflects America’s political divisions

When Jenie Gao was growing up in rural Kansas, she was often the only kid of color in her world. Now, the Madison, Wisconsin-based artist is a rising star, known for activist art — and a fierce commitment to her community.

Gao is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and has spent her adult life in Midwestern cities. She runs a Madison-based studio, Jenie Gao Studio, that focuses on printmaking, large scale murals and public art.

“These are democratic mediums,” Gao said. “A mural, like a print, is meant to communicate to a mass audience. With print, it’s via distribution. With murals and installations, it’s via literally taking up physical space. That’s something that can be incredibly powerful for delivering a message. It’s also something you need to be incredibly careful with in terms of the politics surrounding the space that you’re transforming.”

Gao notes that murals are often used as a tool for gentrification and to draw attention away from property damage following recent protests, as businesses are boarded up and plywood is covered with painted murals.

“Our response to the tragedy is to paint over it with positive messaging,” Gao said.

Madison activist art
Jenie Gao’s artwork, Portal, made of hand-painted fabric panels on steel armature. [Photo by Latasia Dhami]

‘How do I lend what I have to help this cause?’

For Gao, recent protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis have sparked soul-searching in her own city and a search for how she could meaningfully contribute as an artist and small business owner.

“It wasn’t my place to make any art in response to this. I’m not black. That’s not my experience…But I do have a platform and I do have a voice. So how do I use this to the best effect at this moment? How do I lend what I have to help this cause without taking space that isn’t mine to take?”

Gao’s approach was to make financial contributions to local nonprofits serving communities of color in her city. In early June, she gave 100 percent of her art sale profits to two Madison-based organizations. Freedom, Inc. works to end of violence against women, gender-non-conforming and transgender individuals and children in communities of color. Free the 350 Bail Fund works for jail and prison reform in Dane County, Wisconsin.

“We really have to put our dollar where our words are. For me, as a non-black POC [person of color], as a small business owner who has definitely been affected by the pandemic, it was a way to send a signal,” Gao said. “If a small business like mine can make this donation to support this cause and can put this level of priority on the part of our community that’s hurting the most, why can’t other entities do that because that’s where real change begins.”

Jenie Gao’s house mural, Rest and Rejuvenation. [Photo by Latasia Dhami]

The cultural cross section

Gao’s activist art and reputation as a visual storyteller have deep roots in her unusual Midwestern childhood. Gao is the daughter of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants. Gao’s immigrant parents followed family members to the Midwest, and she grew up in rural and semi-rural Kansas.

“My experience falls at the cross section of a lot of different things,” she said.

Even as a kid, art and storytelling were her way of making sense of the world.

“I specifically wanted to be an author who illustrated her own books…That’s kind of manifested itself in different parts of my career,” Gao said. “Storytelling and writing have been a very key component of the type of work that I do and the way that I deliver it.”

Gao earned a BFA in printmaking from Washington University in St. Louis and landed a job as an art program specialist for Milwaukee Public Schools, working with kids from low-income neighborhoods who had limited access to art and music in school. She then started a career as a project manager for a manufacturing company in Milwaukee. That employer transferred her to Madison, and when she quit to start her own company, she decided to stay. 

Just like her cross-cultural childhood, both of Gao’s past jobs have influenced her activist art and her approach to owning a small business.

“From the youth in the schools whom we don’t give access to creative education to the workplace where we divest in creative autonomy and the development of the people who actually make this work possible, it became clear that the type of business that I needed to build had creativity and critical thinking built into the core of the business model,” she said.

Polarized spaces

Gao’s work explores the cross section between her Asian heritage and her experience as a born-and-raised Midwesterner. She’s also a woman of color who makes art in America’s heartland.

“I’ve always existed in very polarized spaces..I’ve always been surrounded by extreme opposites. As a result of that, I think that the work that I make lives in navigating that tension,” Gao said. “I explore a lot of relationship dynamics in my work.”

Gao’s “Survival Tools” series is made up of fascinating large-scale woodcut prints of dogs, with inanimate objects, including a gun and a bullhorn, as heads. These represent violence on one side and protest and speech on the other, Gao says.

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Activist art - Jenie Gao
Jenie Gao’s Enough to be Dangerous, woodcut on baltic birch, 48″ x 38″
Jenie Gao
Jenie Gao’s Enough to be Dangerous, woodcut on baltic birch, 48″ x 38″

Her own lifelong experiences with culture clashes, and living in Madison, a “blue dot” in a swing state, has inspired reflection on America’s political divisions in her work. 

“I don’t actually think that the reason most of us are caught up in division is because of how different we are. I think that what makes disagreement in society so painful is because of how similar we are and yet incapable of reconciling these differences,” she said. “How do we have such a different view of what’s actually happening? That I think has become a really critical piece of my work and is a direct result of the experience that I had growing up.”

An art hub against all odds

Madison, a predominantly white college town, is Gao’s home by choice. It’s a city that’s full of potential but with plenty of work to be done, she says, both in terms of social justice and building equal access to the arts. According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, Wisconsin is last on the list for per capita arts appropriations, a statistic of which Gao is acutely aware. 

“We’ve got some incredibly talented artists here and a really lovely arts community because of that. I also think that we have some real challenges because of that. Part of it is that Wisconsin is fiftieth in the nation for arts funding,” she said. “We basically have no arts infrastructure in the entire state…As a result of that, you’ve got a lot of disparity in who can actually participate in the arts.”

But those challenges are part of the attraction for Gao, whose instinct for activist art keeps her motivated, engaged and working for change in her evolving city.

“One of the products of an environment that’s difficult to survive in is you’ve got a lot of people with incredible heart who really want to build something here,” she said. “It’s in the building stages, which can be exciting.”

See more of Jenie Gao’s work at her studio in Madison, on her website, or on her Instagram.

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