Microscope inspiration for art based on life

by Stacia Friedman
Posted 1/13/22

“Art was always my first love, but my interest in biology and medicine influences my paintings and drawings,” said Hannum, a Mt. Airy resident. Yet her work in no way resembles medical illustration or textbook images. It has a profound depth and mystery which Hannum, 45, achieves by using a classical but time consuming technique. “I work in layers of acrylic glazes,” she said, “Sometimes up to two hundred layers.”

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Microscope inspiration for art based on life

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The titles of Jenna Hannum’s drawings and paintings read like a Jules Verne novel or a pharmacopoeia: Misbegotten Sea Creatures, Specimens, Beastly Bodies. The difference lies in Hannum’s process.

“Art was always my first love, but my interest in biology and medicine influences my paintings and drawings,” said Hannum, a Mt. Airy resident. Yet her work in no way resembles medical illustration or textbook images. It has a profound depth and mystery which Hannum, 45, achieves by using a classical but time consuming technique. “I work in layers of acrylic glazes,” she said, “Sometimes up to two hundred layers.”

The result is a build up of reflected light usually associated with Renaissance Masters. Meanwhile, her delicate and kinetic graphite drawings on paper call to mind other masters of the medium, including Giacometti and Esher. It was one of these drawings, Sphaera Oculus, that was accepted into Woodmere’s Juried Show in 2018. 

“A rejection from the Woodmere Annual is almost like a rite of passage. It was only my second time applying, so I was very happy to be included, especially given that I loved and respected the work of so many artists in the exhibition,” said Hannum.

Her graphite drawing for the Woodmere Show appears to be an enlargement of a microscopic view of an exotic form of aquatic life. In reality, the image represents nothing found on land or sea. “It started on paper as clusters of identical graphite cells that replicated and began to differentiate themselves to form an imaginary sea creature,” she said. 

And yet, a viewer would be correct in thinking Hannum’s larger acrylic paintings have their roots in human biology. She describes this series as “unconventional portraiture,” inspired by her knowledge of science as well as personal experience and memory. This ethereal series of paintings could be an enlargement of a single drop of plasma or a constellation of stars.

Hannum has a journeyman’s view of the artistic process. “Visual art is a lot like being a bricklayer. Just keep doing the same things every day and you develop motor skills,” she said. And yet there is something magical about her work. For instance, how does she create the illusion of bubbles, as light as air, dancing on the surface of her paintings?

“I get asked that a lot, especially during Open Studio tours,” she said, “I explain I have a favorite paintbrush and demonstrate how it’s done.” However, she is quick to point out that when she needs a large, three-inch brush, she’s just as likely to pick up an inexpensive one at Kilian’s Hardware as she is to visit an art supply store.

Growing up in a suburb of Lansdale and graduating from North Penn High School, Hannum received a BFA in Drawing from Kutztown University in 1999. She later studied Ala Prima Painting at Fleisher Art Memorial, a technique of applying wet paint directly on top of wet paint. She also took figure drawing classes at PAFA, the Plastics Club and Sketch Club. When it came time to support her art, Hannum had no illusions.

“Everybody has a day job or trust fund,” she said. For Hannum, it’s a day job - managing a team of designers that develop software learning solutions.

After living in Center City and South Philly, she moved to Mt. Airy ten years ago. “I had extended family here and was always drawn to the area. Mt. Airy was always my favorite neighborhood.  I love the diversity. It’s like a village where neighbors know one another,” she said.

For the last ten years, Hannum has rented studio space in the Stenton Guild Arts Building, a former factory in the Wayne Junction section of Germantown. The building contains twenty art studios, currently used by visual artists, filmmakers, woodworkers and craftspeople. “It is good to be surrounded by other artists and I was able to accomplish more because it was like commuting to a job. It also helps to have a space where you can make a mess and not worry about cleaning up because someone is coming over.” 

That is all about to change, as Hannum is converting her basement and garage into a home studio. “Over the past year, I’ve been cleaning, waterproofing and replacing the original 1920 wooden garage doors with carriage doors from a Lancaster craftsman,” she said.

The pandemic had an impact on Hannum’s art and family. “Within three years, I lost my mother and then my sister died of Covid. I stopped working on my art and showing it because grief got in the way. I really needed quiet time,” she said.

Now, Hannum is processing her loss through her art. “I’ve started to embroider my paintings, using needlework over acrylics on linen.” she said. “My mom was a master quilter and my grandmother tried to teach me how to crochet. I didn’t take to it as a child, but I am drawing on muscle memory and re-learning from online workshops. This is an homage to the women in my family.”

For more information, visit JennaHannum.com or instagram.com/jennahannum

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