Art can be a transformative experience. For Jen Derge, it is a source of healing. Her paintings present powerful imagery of self-discovery through nature. Blending classic technique with a unique style, her work is the result of extreme devotion and her own personal vision.
“Jen is free spirit who truly loves art like I’ve never experienced another person loving art because she lives and breathes it. If she is not creative, she is not alive,” Gwen Giddens, former boss and friend, said.
Free spirit, indeed. After a 58-day hike across Colorado, Derge used college fund money to buy a van and named it the Manatee. She and her partner decided to travel the southwest together, living in the aquatic mammal. They believed that if they could live in a van together for two years, they would make it forever.
Their adventure led them to Arizona, where they became part of a community of travelers living in their vans. Their bohemian lifestyle was the stuff of novels. The two got married as soon as they returned and Derge began working for the District 11 school district. Sadly, they were divorced a year later.
“It was hard, being in a house with walls brought out so many triggers,” she said.
Feeling an obligation to allow her partner to pursue her dreams, Derge says the trip was her idea, she became the couple’s sole source of income to allow her partner to return to school.
“Issues with my past mental health complicated everything,” she said.
Financial pressures and the shock of returning to a more traditional lifestyle began to strain the relationship. Derge felt an enormous burden to provide her spouse with a quality life. The pressure was too great. Derge said she regrets that her past proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to their relationship.
“There’s a lack of intimacy, there’s a lack of finding yourself, living authentically; I feel like I have been fighting that my entire life,” she said.
She has seen a lot of anguish in her past and her art is a way of dealing with it. She says her childhood was full of pain.
“My dad came from a background of trauma. His father was a verbally and physically abusive alcoholic,” she said.
The trauma made for a dysfunctional childhood. Growing up in such toxic conditions fueled her introspection and increased her artistic output. There is a theme of nature and its power to heal throughout all her paintings, featuring important figures in her life as specters and abstracts.
Her work is diverse, and she is extremely prolific. She embosses fractal flowers into beer cans with ballpoint pens. She encapsulates intricate drawings using multiple layers of clear plastic shopping bags. Practical totes are crocheted out of those same bags, resulting in a very intricate accessory.
“There’s an urgency, a feeling that she’s not wanting to waste a moment.” Caroline Peters, associate professor of Contemporary Theory and Art History, said.
Derge’s paintings are a thematic journey full of religious symbolism. Snakes, apples and gardens are featured throughout. Haunting images of ghosts and judgement also peek around every corner. Classic cubism and elegant impressionism contribute to her style but there is something ineffable about her work.
“There is an intensity to the images that comes from someone who has something extremely important to say, but neither words or images alone can capture it. Her paintings communicate is on a visceral, not logical, level,” Peters said.
Derge’s work can be viewed at the Student Show in the Art Gallery beginning Nov. 10.
Editors Note: Derge’s name was spelt wrong in photo captions in the print version of the CSU-Pueblo Today November 1, 2017 Volume ⅩⅩⅣ, No. V.