To Live an Artful Life: Laugh

“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.”
~ Francis Bacon



e are a species in perpetual pursuit of perfection. We are told that everything from how we entertain our guests to the way we manage our money can be turned into an artform. Surely “life as art” is an admirable, worthwhile goal, but life as in art without risk can be empty and meaningless. The pursuit of beauty and fineness certainly must also contain room for experimentation, for looking foolish, for on occasion making a loud and unceremonious splat as we hurl ourselves off the cliff into the icy waters below.



Austin, Texas ~


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Deanna Phoenix Selene: How does your training in neuroscience play out for you now as a painter?


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Birdface | oil on wood | 40″x30″ | SOLD | Jennifer Balkan


Jennifer Balkan:  I am obsessed with brain science, specifically brain/behavior relationships. I love thinking about perception, am drawn to portraiture for this reason. An urge to illuminate what lies under one’s skin or state of mind. One of my favorite books is Eric Kandel’s The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present. Psychology of mind drives my artwork.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: You apply such a whimsical treatment to your nudes. We find ourselves tumbling into a vaudevillian-like, madcap terrain. Was this your response to how overly seriously we tend to take this genre? Are you attempting to break down a little of what feels to you like pretense and artificiality? Or is this a way of tipping your hat to the environment in which you grew up?


X-ray Vision | Jennifer Balkan

X-ray Vision | oil on wood | 30″x24″ | SOLD | Jennifer Balkan


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O Fortuna III | oil on wood | 30″x40″ | Jennifer Balkan


Wilted oil on wood 36" x 30" Jennifer Balkan

Wilted | oil on wood | 36″ x 30″ | Jennifer Balkan


Jennifer Balkan: I really appreciate the framing of your question. I take my paint application very seriously but feel compelled to bring levity into the subject matter. Over the years, I have found myself playing with traditional portraiture: turning it a bit on its head, so to speak. I am inspired to create characters. They say all art is autobiographical. I believe there is no way one cannot put a bit of her or himself into the work.[quote]My portraits include some of who I am, who I wish I was and who I wish I wasn’t.[/quote]

Deanna Phoenix Selene: The childlike quality of your subjects I also find fascinating. We get a sense that they are on to something we have all since forgotten. Can you tell me a little about this?


 Jennifer Balkan

Jennifer Balkan


Jennifer Balkan: We are taught that we are supposed to leave our childhood behind us; yet many of us still have an affinity toward what was so important to us way back when. I find this to be visceral.


Birds | oil on wood | 36" x 30" | SOLD | Jennifer Balkan

Birds | oil on wood | 36″ x 30″ | SOLD | Jennifer Balkan


Dog and His Boy _ oil on wood _ 30_ x 40_ _ Jennifer Balkan 700

Dog and His Boy | oil on wood | 30 x 40 | Jennifer Balkan


Deanna Phoenix Selene: As humor is often used as a powerful tool to re-balance power, would you say that you are making a feminist statement with your work? Or do you simply paint whatever gives you joy?


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Lady in Wig | oil on wood |30″x24″ | SOLD | Jennifer Balkan


Jennifer Balkan: A little of both. The idea comes first, and then the paint completely takes over, so much so that the original idea may get lost for a while and then resurface later. I find that if I can lose myself in the process then I will be completely present, ultimately helping me to create a stronger work, even as it may end up being quite different from my original idea.

I have been painting women because it is what resonates with me. I find my strongest voice depicting women. I don’t call it feminist, per se. I get into my character through paint and that character has always been a woman. Though at times, my “characters” have been quirky still life objects or more recently land and waterscapes.


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Foggy Morning | 24″x24″ | Jennifer Balkan


Deanna Phoenix Selene: Can you tell me about your Moths Fly to Light series?


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Moths Fly to Light | Jennifer Balkan


Jennifer Balkan: I began incorporating maps into my figure paintings because I found a strong connection between our biological systems and the infrastructure that a map represents, between veins and arteries and roads and rivers. I liked the idea of featuring the moth as the majestic winged creature, often overlooked by its more popular sister, the butterfly. The moth flies at night and is drawn to light. The moths here depict a dream; the sly pig mask hides the deceiving long nose. This vision symbolizes an ill-at-ease feeling in one’s skin.


Moths Fly to Light 3 | Jennifer Balkan

Moths Fly to Light 3 | Jennifer Balkan


Deanna Phoenix Selene: If you could design the adventure of your dreams, what would it look like?


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You Do Not Have to Worry | Jennifer Balkan


Jennifer Balkan: What a cool question.[quote] When I dream, I am often fearless. I have the ability to magically traverse immense landmasses and soar over mountains. I am a thrill seeker of sorts but live the tame safe life of an oil painter. [/quote]My adventure would involve traveling the world in a circus of sorts ~ an utterly romantic notion of it ~ sustaining myself through performing: singing, dancing and playing the ukulele perhaps. I admire incredibly what performers are able to do.

Deanna Phoenix Selene: And which is your favorite of all your works? Is there one you feel was particularly successful in giving voice to your dreams?

Jennifer Balkan: Gosh, it’s so tough to choose my favorite. Honestly, I’m constantly looking forward and finding that I can no longer sit with older works. Though there are a few. Mermaid is one that I feel particularly proud of. It is somewhat of a daydream….a yearning for a another life. This woman wishes she could be something she is not. I am still pleased when I look at this image. I can still feel the intensity of longing. I am pleased with the color harmony and paint quality of this one.


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Mermaid | oil on wood | 45″x30″ | SOLD | Jennifer Balkan


Jennifer Balkan: I recently started a new body of work I am calling, The Geography of Self, paintings that connects one’s sense of place to one’s identity and vision. The technique involved here is one in which I have to be quite thoughtful about where I lay paint down: it requires me to lay it down and take it away; to say what I need to say with as little as possible; to leave a conversation between the maps and the paint. It is my latest challenge and speaks to where my head has been lately.


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Jennifer Balkan


Deanna Phoenix Selene: What was your greatest take-away from working with the mentally ill and developmentally disabled? What did they teach you?

Jennifer Balkan: I learned so much about myself, how terribly impatient I am, how too concerned I am about what others think, and how hard I can be to please. As free as I am, these qualities constrain me. Some of the disabled people with whom I worked seemed freer than me in a lot of ways.


Primal | oil on wood | 36"x36" | Jennifer Balkan

Primal | oil on wood | 36″x36″ | Jennifer Balkan



Further Notes

Jennifer BALKAN grew up in New Jersey and began to draw at a very young age. She studied neuroscience in college and considered pursuing a path in psychology. After living in Boulder and Seattle, she moved to Austin. She attained her Ph.D. in 2001 after conducting anthropological fieldwork in Mexico. Although her experience in Mexico was rich, Jennifer longed for artistic creativity. In August of 2001, Jennifer spent a month in Spain, France, and Italy where she saw masterworks that would become her inspiration. She then threw herself into oil painting and now paints fervently. She writes “my time studying the human psyche both psychologically and sociologically must have left its imprint on my brain permanently…because I cannot seem to stray too far from it in my painting.”

Jennifer has taken art classes at Laguna Gloria Art School, the Austin Fine Arts School and at the Art Students League in Denver. Jennifer currently paints in her studio and in life painting groups. She has been teaching figure and portrait painting in oils to private groups of students since 2005. Her work has been exhibited across the United States and in Europe. Currently, she is showing work in the fifth annual juried international “Women Painting Women” show at the Principle Gallery in Charleston, South Carolina and at the “Pay It Forward” show at the Principle Gallery in Alexandria, Virginia. You can find her work at and at Jennifer Balkan Art on Facebook.

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Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.


  1. Chelsey on December 4, 2014 at 10:18 am

    I myself also take a significant interest in psychology and the processes of the brain. This interview has definitely encouraged me to consider taking a deeper dive into the world of neuroscience to better my knowledge on the subject and hopefully influence my work in a positive way. I feel that work that takes a certain neurological direction such as Jennifer’s often tends to resonate in the mind of it’s audiences over other works (such is my personal experience). Jennifer’s work is certainly beautiful and has left a generous space in my mind for reflection!

    • Jennifer on December 4, 2014 at 7:43 pm

      Hi Chelsey,
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful response! It sounds like we’ve got some common ground. I suppose if art is expression of self then psychology is embedded in it. Enjoy your exploration Chelsey!! Cheers, Jennifer

  2. Sharon Pomales-Tousey on December 4, 2014 at 10:41 am

    Great interview! I identify with Jennifer’s work since we both have used humor to communicate through our paintings, wonderful work!

    • Jennifer on December 4, 2014 at 7:45 pm

      Hi Sharon,
      So nice to see you here :). and thank you!! Ya know, I’ve never been able to take myself too seriously. And I love love love the sense of humor in *your* work.
      see you online! Jennifer

  3. Alia El-Bermani on December 6, 2014 at 1:32 am

    Jennifer’s work is so uniquely her own. It’s so great to read more on her and see more of her works here. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite too, but only because these are all so wonderful.

  4. Randee Fox on December 6, 2014 at 8:32 am

    I really enjoy your works, blending a beautiful painterly style with humor and delightful visual surprises. As an observer, I am drawn in to interact visually with your paintings, then look closer, eyes darting around your wonderful sense of design and pattern. And as an artist myself, I identify with your statement about ‘the process’, surrendering to the paint, the moments within and allowing something new to emerge. This creates an energetic, rhythmic movement spontaneity evident in your brush strokes, the repetition, the life force you invested, the contrasts of light, color and shadow – that cannot be planned! I find the same ‘give back’ when teaching Nia – creating art with people in movement, starting with a concept or intent then allowing the music and moment to moment sensations to ‘take over’ within the framework of the technique and freedom in form. In the end a personal movement masterpiece was created by those who chose to ‘show up’. Nia and art…synchronous, each feeding one-another. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and work Jennifer! Warmest cheers, Randee Fox, Nia Faculty Trainer, Artist, Equestrian Educator

  5. Anh bui on December 7, 2014 at 7:56 am

    It’s amazing to see where inspirations can come from in ones past as a painter. I love you works, especially the beautiful and textured brush economy.

  6. Annie Strack art (@AnnieStrack) on December 7, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    I love these paintings! Extraordinary talent!

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