By Emma Castleberry
Jenny Pickens was raised around art. She has fond memories of watching her Uncle Billy Joe make art in a variety of mediums: from sketching W.E.B. Du Bois in pencil, to shaping a tree branch into a walking cane and carving a portrait of Elijah Muhammad into the handle. Despite the presence of this creativity, Pickens’ early years were far from easy. “My childhood was a traumatic time for me and caused me to search for ways to escape,” she says. “I quickly learned to use my gift—my hands—to release my internal pain into a positive expression for the world to see. When you receive a piece of my art, you’re receiving a piece of me—my healing, my pain, my journey.”
In her early days, Pickens experimented with many different artistic tools, but she had an immediate love for acrylics. “The moment I touched acrylics I knew that was going to be my medium of choice—brightly colored, easy to mix and easy to clean up,” she says.
A self-taught artist, Pickens is having a busy year. She was involved in the installation of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) mural in downtown Asheville, where she was the lead artist for the word Lives. “My design for the word was essentially how I felt about the lives of the Black communities in America,” Pickens says. “I wanted to design a picture story reflecting what our lives have been throughout history, past and present. The BLM mural is part of a movement to bring awareness to what Black people continue to face in society. This is 2020 and we have to continue to fight injustices and systematic racism in this country. This was my way to voice my pain and my hope for change.”
Pickens was also recently commissioned by Rae Geoffrey, managing director of the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, to design and paint a mural for the center’s new courtyard. “Her commitment to the arts, to amplifying black voices and stories, and her use of vibrant colors and patterns made her the perfect choice for this project,” says Geoffrey. Pickens designed the mural by looking over thousands of images from past events at The Wortham Center. “I wanted to highlight theatre, dance, performances and music,” Pickens says.
The scale of the project was substantial, requiring three panels totaling to a 4-foot by 24-foot mural. “In order for me to work on the installations for The Wortham Center, I needed space,” says Pickens. “I was fortunate enough to be approached by Hedy Fischer and Randy Schull, owners of Pink Dog Creative and 22 London Studio.” Pickens is now the first Artist in Residency at 22 London, where she will be working on the mural in the coming months. “Having this residency for the first time has inspired me greatly,” she says. “There are so many talented artists that go unnoticed and become discouraged. I hope to be influential to up-and-coming Black artists like myself to strive for greatness and continue their passion.”
Pickens feels it is important to be working on highly visible, public art in our community. “Art works as an identity to bring people together,” she says. “It can bring awareness of cultural heritages as well as healing. When I think of the history of Asheville, especially as it relates to Black communities, I realize how impactful this is. As a local artist who is Black, I am giving hope to my community and paying homage to my ancestors.”
View and purchase Pickens’ art at Noir Collective, 39 South Market Street in Asheville, and Mandala Springs, 445 Stoney Fork Road in Barnardsville. For more information, visit FineArtAmerica.com/profiles/jenny-pickens or Facebook.