The Dandelion Chandelier Luminary Café is the place to find a series of personal interviews with fascinating people who are stellar achievers in their chosen field of endeavor. Our Luminaries are sharing their origin stories, life philosophies, secret songs, guilty pleasures and hidden talents. It’s guaranteed to be illuminating.
Jennifer Clifford Danner is a New York City-based artist. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Jennifer has focused much of her work on narrative figurative painting and portraiture, and the study and interpretation of the ocean and its organic life forms in several media including oils, watercolors, ceramics and handmade paper pieces. A true colorist and lyrical painter, she creates powerful larger-than-life portraits of many of these organic forms and oceans, sometimes deconstructing them to reveal new interpretations, abstractions and humanism. Jennifer has exhibited in Providence, Rhode Island; Washington, D.C.; and New York City at Leila Heller Gallery and White Columns, among others. Her third solo exhibition at Stewart Clifford Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts will take place in summer 2018.
On a bright late-November afternoon, we sat down in Jennifer’s luminous and spacious SoHo loft for an engaging discussion, accompanied by her adorable and well-behaved Samoyed, Wolfie. The light-filled space is awash in stunning shades of blue accented by crisp white, and filled with art and lovely, cherished family heirlooms. Renaissance music played softly overhead as we spoke. As we settled in, we marveled to ourselves at the refined and deeply appealing space. For a layperson, it’s the embodiment of the fantasy of what the living space of a successful Manhattan artist should be: high ceilings, lots of natural light, visually stimulating, filled with intriguing vignettes, and absolutely gorgeous.
Tell us your life philosophy.
Always be grateful for what you have, work hard, continue to learn, be kind.
How did you decide to do the work you’re doing now?
I don’t think being an artist was ever a truly conscious decision – it has always been just who I am. My desire to create narratives and my love of the ocean continue to drive the painting and sculpture that I produce.
Who lights you up?
My family and close friends.
How do you like to celebrate?
I really enjoy hosting a dinner party. I do the cooking myself and guests will gather in the kitchen sampling hors d’oeuvres and chatting as I finish preparing the meal. Setting the table is a delight, as we have some beautiful things that we have inherited and each one is filled with memories of celebrations past. Music and candlelight are essential!
If you could travel anywhere, where would you go? Where would you stay?
Back in time? If that were possible, I would visit turn of the century Vienna, capitol of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a preeminent center of modernism. At that time, the city was filled with artists, writers, musicians, poets, architects and philosophers as well political revolutionaries who were either living there or passing through – including Adolf Loos, Sigmund Freud, Mahler, Schiele, Wittgenstein, Schoenburg, Oskar Kokoschka, Trotsky, Karl Kraus, Stefan Zweig, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. An interesting example of this is described in Florian Illes’ book 1913: The Year Before the Storm. He writes about the poetic irony of how both Hitler and Stalin loved to take walks in the park at Schönbrunn Palace and imagines it likely that they would have seen one another on several cold January afternoons that year – probably the closest they ever came to actually meeting and long before they were to sign the fatal non-aggression pact in 1939.
What’s the last new food item that you tried for the first time? Did you like it?
Blood pudding. I was in Ireland and blood pudding or black pudding seemed to be a very popular dish, especially for breakfast. It’s a sausage made with blood, fat and barley – it looks like a deep black sausage. After seeing this on my breakfast plate for several days, I finally decided to try it. It wasn’t all that bad, actually.
What song is on your playlist that people would be surprised by?
I have an eccentric playlist. I enjoy listening to Gregorian chant or Bach while I’m working because I find it soothing and focused. Probably the most unusual song would be the Pskov-Pechery Monastery bells on my Russian playlist. It’s a souvenir that I picked up while we were visiting the Monastery caves in Russia near the Estonian border. The monks sell the CDs. We were there as part of a group supporting the Stroganoff family foundation, which is dedicated to restoring historic sites in Russia.
What’s your favorite form of exercise?
Walking on the beach. It’s during these beach walks that I collect my seaweed, shells and other specimens to use in my work. In the summer, I love to sail.
Who is your favorite artist?
There are so many, and the list continues to evolve. I admire Joan Mitchell and Matisse for their use of color; Giotto, David Hockney, and Kara Walker for their profound narrative storytelling; Klimt, the great Viennese portraitist, and Egon Schiele for his emotive portraiture, his clarity of color and expressive line. Also, Walton Ford and Mark Dion – he just had an exhibit at the Drawing Center based on work done by the scientists and artists of department of tropical research in the early 20th century. Dion built a set to resemble the field stations of the scientist and explorer William Beebe, who used an early bathysphere to explore the deep tropical oceans and marine life around the Galapagos and Caribbean. Do Ho Suh, a Korean artist who creates the most fantastic, beautiful and ethereal fabric sculpture installations, which address among other things the physical and poetic malleability of space. Anselm Kiefer, who is a heroic painter and sculptor with unique insight into the German soul and its dark past. Breugel the Elder, whose beautiful narrative landscapes I saw in Vienna and Prague, as well as one here at the Met. And William Kentridge, a brilliant artist who uses text, drawing, stop-motion film animation, tapestries and other mediums to highlight political and social issues including apartheid – his opera productions of Shostakovich’s The Nose and Berg’s Lulu at the Met Opera were fantastic.
What are you reading right now?
The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman. It’s an overview of philosophy from the perspectives of Plato and Aristotle, and traces the history of philosophical thought from Athens, ancient Rome and India. And Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.
Tell us about your style.
I seem to wear a bit of a uniform for my everyday working in the studio, complete with an apron, as things get pretty messy. However, in general I prefer a simple classic style – mostly black in the winter and white in the summer – and will dress things up with a jacket, coat or vest and occasionally a pop of color. For my work I look to nature for design. For my personal style, as well as for the spaces I’ve designed, I like mixing and matching the old and the new.
What is your favorite item of clothing? Who’s your go-to designer?
My Russian fur hat. For fashion designers, I like Prada and vintage Balenciaga.
What’s your dream car?
A 1921 model K red Stutz Bearcat. My mother gave my brother an electric toy version of this car from FAO Schwartz for Christmas (he had miraculously survived cancer when he was very young and she loved to spoil him). It was the most beautiful thing my sisters and I had ever seen and my brother generously shared it with us. I will never forget it.
What are you looking forward to?
Going to the Met to see the Michelangelo and David Hockney exhibitions. Also, Louise Bourgeois at MoMA, the Art and China after 1989 exhibition at the Guggenheim, the Wiener Werkstätte exhibit at the Neue Galerie and the Thaw Collection at the Morgan Library and Museum. Seeing the play Farinelli and the King. I bought the tickets back in April, as I am a huge fan of the actor Mark Rylance, and I’m excited to hear the counter-tenor Iestyn Davies. I’m also looking forward to Christmas – I love all the festivities around the holiday: pine trees, holly, music, eggnog, fruitcake, snow and celebrating with family and friends.
What skill do wish you had that you don’t currently possess?
A photographic memory. I have a really hard time remembering people’s names.
What’s your hidden talent?
I make delicious pickles. [She shows us a photo on her phone, and the pickles in mason jars are absolutely gorgeous – vibrant red, green and orange and not at all what we were expecting]. I have always loved to play the piano. I make horseradish sauce – I sketched a cartoon of my husband and me as horseradish roots for the jar labels.
What’s the most extravagant thing you’ve ever bought?
This loft, which I bought some 30 years ago. At the time, the neighborhood was quite different – mostly artists, and during the day there were still lots of sweat shops. At night, it was very quiet with few amenities. We’re pretty sure the next-door neighbors thru my studio wall were making porn. We bought the loft from the guitarist Andy Summers who was a member of the band, The Police – the loft was completely open with no interior walls, he had nothing here except a mattress on the floor, an open bathroom with only a curtain, and a retro kitchen complete with 1940s and 50s appliances (the exact same ones that my grandmother had at that time). Plus a huge mountain of unopened fan mail. It was beautifully proportioned with high ceilings, eight classic Tuscan order columns and glorious light. I was immediately able to see what it could become.
What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
Whenever I am asked this question, I am always reminded of the story my mother told me (as told to her by her mother) of Cornelia Gracchi of ancient Rome, who – when asked to present her jewels – famously embraced her children, saying “haec ornamenta sunt mea” or “these are my jewels.” This story always stuck with me and after I had my own children, I came to understand it on a visceral level. So my automatic answer would be that my two sons, Jamie and Charlie, are the best gift I have ever received.
Philosophy aside, as a literal gift, I have to say my art studio in Duxbury, Massachusetts. When my parents tore down the dilapidated old garage on the property at their seaside home and built themselves a new one-level apartment, my sister suggested that they think about building me a studio above it, which they did. It is truly stunning, with fabulous light and views of the bay.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Mit Schlag! My parents took me to Paris one weekend when we were living in London (my father worked for Citibank, and was transferred there for a time). I ordered the Fraise du Bois for the first time. An enormous plate of wild strawberries arrived topped with a luscious helping of glorious whipped cream. It is still my favorite dessert.
What does luxury mean to you?
Having the time to sit by the ocean and watch the tide come in. The smell of the sea is packed with memories for me and has a kind of language all its own. It’s just wonderful.
Jennifer Clifford Danner will have a solo exhibition at Stewart Clifford Gallery, 359 Commercial Street, Provincetown, Massachusetts in summer 2018. To explore her work further, you can visit her website: www.jenniferclifforddanner.com to view selected works and contact her for a studio visit.