It is often said art is expression, where it can take on the language of communication, the catharsis of introspection, and the function of conduits for societal commentary. The role of art throughout time and communities has been an important one that continues to lend voice not only to the artist, but also to emotion, collective memory, and ideals. There is a power in the medium, where abstract, realistic, and symbolic—with its inherent ability to move audiences—have invited onlookers on a journey of reflection, disruption, and inspiration.
For Jenny Vyas, contemporary fine artist based in Chicago, Illinois, whose art is influenced by the beautiful complexity of the human condition, art—particularly public art—is a means of catharsis beyond the artist where the viewer can create their own interpretation and feel a sense of ownership to the work.
“I think art is suggestive. I think design is suggestive to the person experiencing it and I think that is the beauty of the versatility in art,” Vyas said. “I don’t think there is a singular message an artist is trying to convey, and for a viewer to take that message and turn it into their own—create their own interpretation of it—that is what art means to me. Most art is created as a means of catharsis for emotions or life learnings that artist wants to unpack. Once it is painted, I think it becomes just that for the viewer.”
A mixed media artist, muralist, and designer with an educational and professional background in graphic design and digital marketing and development, Vyas has become known for her striking mural and street art throughout the Chicago area and beyond. From “Wings” at Federales Chicago in the West Loop in collaboration with Chicago artist Caesar Perez, “#BeTheBridge” for Soul City Church in the West Loop, and “#HowWillYouRISE” at Clifton Street Art Gallery in Uptown, to her Indian murals at ROOH Chicago and ROOH Columbus, Vyas has an ability to capture a story and breathe life into her work that lives on long after completion.
“Essentially, I talk about human condition and I am fascinated by human frailty and this space where weakness lies, because I think strength really comes from understanding your flaws. Flaws are beautiful and I think we have lived with a misrepresentation of what strength is in the community, in the world, for so long where we don’t talk about pain as openly,” Vyas said.
“I think that paradigm is shifting this year and the last five years, but that is what my work is about: exploring that space where you can be comfortable with your flaws, comfortable with your pain, and comfortable with your imperfections, because if we weren’t that, I don’t think learning would ever come through,” Vyas added.
Prior to launching her own studio in 2015, Vyas spent more than 15 years working with corporations and brands in ecommerce, brand development, and marketing, including a four-year-long role as the ecommerce manager of The Oprah Store at Harpo Productions in Chicago. While an avid sketch artist and drawer throughout, Vyas noted it wasn’t until a personal, and significant, transition in her life led her to immerse herself in painting and pursue it full-time.
“I went independent and started doing commerce consulting for clients and right when my fiancé proposed, I started feeling this desire to paint and I didn’t know where it was coming from, because I didn’t have a formal education in that background or field. Then, four months after he proposed, we broke up,” Vyas said. “That is basically what propelled me to paint: a broken heart.”
It was in that transition period Vyas began to explore the concept of vulnerability and emotion, using her studio as a safe space to communicate self-reflection through acrylics and other mixed media. Initially focusing on monochromatic work using negative space to convey a singular emotion, Vyas set about creating a 100-day painting series known as “#100VulnerableDays” that explored the discomfort of vulnerability, ultimately claiming it as a strength rather than a weakness.
“I unpacked vulnerability in multiple different aspects: relationships, professional lives, relationships with parents, relationship with yourself, and really dove deep into that space and painted about 100 days in 2015,” Vyas said. “It established me as an artist, in Chicago especially, and allowed me to understand that conveying emotions is incredibly important to me—and acrylic gave me that.”
Mural work, which has ranged from painting strong, progressive women to convey strength and tenacity, to splatter paint projects with children, has led Vyas to work not only in indoor and outdoor environments, but also office and residential spaces locally in Chicago as well as in other states, such as Ohio and New York. Recently, Vyas had the opportunity to work on two pieces that hold a special place in her heart: “#HowWillYouRISE” in Uptown and the “#BeTheBridge” in the West Loop. The “#HowWillYouRISE” mural features a woman with a single phoenix wing on a blue background with colorful splatters, which were done with the help from children from a local homeless shelter.
Though a self-described “accidental muralist,” Vyas’ personal work reflects an intentionality and authenticity to the exploration of the uncomfortable and the beautifully flawed; and her public work has become a vehicle of message, access, and inspiration to large audiences.
“I think it is so important,” Vyas said. “I truly feel this gift essentially doesn’t belong to [the artist] and I think it is our responsibility to share it with the world. If you can spread even a moment of positivity through public art, I think that is your responsibility as an artist.”
Full text originally published in Great Lakes By Design: Raising the Bar, 2020.
Text: R.J. Weick
Photography: Jenny Vyas | David Sabat | Colby Campbell