“I wanted to be a potter, but it’s a bulky media,” Jenifer Cameron said, explaining how she developed her distinctive art style. “I had to figure out something that was more easily accessible. I came up with this way to fuse fiber or textiles on to copper.”
Cameron, a retired elementary school art teacher, longtime local artist and former member-owner of Two Street Gallery, creates her works by adhering fabric and textiles to thin copper sheeting. She uses a collage approach, cutting shapes and images from cloth in the form of foliage, animals, people and more, then creating scenes often depicting common sights of Interior Alaska. By layering different fabrics atop each other, she gives her pieces a three dimensional sense that painting on canvas wouldn’t convey in the same manner.
Cameron said she hit on this style in the late 1990s after being stymied in her efforts at painting patterns and textures that resembled fabric on clay. “I decided instead of painting fabrics or those types of textures, what if I actually used fabrics or patterns?”
To accomplish this she needed to place the material on a foundation stiff enough to get the nuance she wanted. She had a roll of copper on hand and asked herself, “What if I can figure out a way to put the fabric on the copper?”
“I spent a summer experimenting,” she said. Once she had it down, it became the focus of her body of work. Some of her most recent pieces are on display this month at Two Street Gallery.
Originally from Minnesota, Cameron came to Alaska in 1978, first to Talkeetna, then moving to Fairbanks in 1983 to attend college.
“I started as an art major, but my adviser at the time thought maybe I needed to pad that art major with something,” she recalled. “He suggested I take some education classes. I actually fell in love with it. So I kept with elementary education and had an art minor.”
After graduation, Cameron taught in St. Mary’s, followed by Wrangell, before returning to Fairbanks and taking a job as an elementary school art teacher with the school district.
“It’s a program where you go to all the elementary schools,” she said.
Rather than keep an art teacher in each school, the district employs several teachers who go from school to school, introducing ideas and techniques to the children, and supplying classroom teachers with tools to teach the curriculum. “It’s a very unique program.”
Cameron, recently retired, remains grateful to the school district for funding the elementary art program despite the ups and downs brought by uncertain budgets. “I always say, we grow our own artists here, and we have to educate and support them.”
She added that personal growth helped her teaching. “I had a great opportunity with the support of the school district to go out for training. Going to national art conferences where you’re able to go to sessions on how to grow yourself as an artist. It’s not always about teaching students. Sometimes it’s about teaching yourself.”
While working in the schools, Cameron was also developing her own ideas. “For the last 20 years I’ve had this side art business,” she said. “An art teacher by day, artist by night.”
As she became a professional artist, Cameron said, “I didn’t put my work in a gallery because I like meeting the people who buy my art. They give you feedback. I did a lot of Christmas bazaars. A lot of standing behind the table.”
Cameron said her work falls under the broad spectrum of what is known as “femmage,” decorative artwork by women that involve collecting and assembling objects into collages or similar forms with a feminine theme.
The term femmage was coined by Miriam Schapiro, a pioneer in feminist art and leader in the Pattern and Decoration movement in the 1970s. Cameron stumbled on the term online, long after she had developed her style. “I looked at this whole thing of women collage artists, and I sort of found my people.”
Women are the theme of her showing this month, something Cameron said she was inspired to do by the annual Women’s March. “It was the first time I felt connected to women all over the world. I was so inspired by that. The images were definitely influenced by this global connection of women at the time. I didn’t plan it that way. I didn’t do it to be political or anything.”
While the pieces collectively have a global feel to them, Cameron didn’t try to capture specific cultures so much as blend ideas from different ones, giving the work as a whole a sense of the universal commonalities of women’s lives.
She also let the pieces come together somewhat spontaneously rather than planning them first, which is her normal approach. “I’m excited to show it. It’s totally different from what I do.”
Most of her work is inspired by her surroundings, and as she is now in the process of moving from Fairbanks to Seldovia with her husband, Cameron said. “I see myself trading ravens and moose for eagles and otters.”
Cameron keeps a sketchbook handy in case inspiration hits, and advises others to do likewise. “Ideas come morning, noon and night. If you can write them down and keep them in a book, then when you go back and look at those things, you can cherry pick the ones you like.”
Reflecting on her career as teacher and artist, Cameron advised those looking to sell their art to “put yourself out there. Have a thick skin. If somebody says no, don’t let that stop you. But listen to why. There has to be that feedback.”
She concluded, “Everybody is an artist. When you’re creating and you’re expressing yourself and making marks on a paper and engaged in the process, that’s what artists do. I believe everybody’s creative. Our brains are built to be creative and curious. It’s hard to not be.”
Jenifer Cameron’s show, “Femmage: Portraits of the Female Aesthetic,” will be on display throughout October at Two Street Gallery in Co-op Plaza, 541 Second Ave.
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Creating Alaska is an ongoing series documenting the lives of artists and creators in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.