Jennie Summerall admits that her studio is a bit of a mess when she's in "collage mode." Boxes filled with thick, patterned rolls of paper from around the world cover the floor. "There's this forest of them I can choose from," she says. A blizzard of torn-up paper scraps litter the ground, sticking to her socks and leaving a trail throughout her Boston home.
The Charleston native, who's lived in Massachusetts for nearly 16 years now, normally works as a painter. The two shows she's presented at Corrigan Gallery in the last five years have exhibited her skills with oils, but the topics have remained consistent: people, especially nudes and mythological figures, and animals. "I've been drawn to animals and nudes since I was little," she says. "I just keep coming back to these themes. I don't know why. It's what compels me. It seems a bit repetitive at this point, but that's the way it is."
Her upcoming two-week show at Corrigan, Torn, features paper collages of animals and female nudes. Summerall says the show's title refers both to her creation method — tearing up pieces of paper — and how the show is torn between images of animals and people. "They don't really know what they're doing in the room together," she laughs.
Summerall first tried her hand at collage while exploring the West Coast more than a decade ago. Inspired by a beautiful piece of striped paper, she set out to mimic a bear based on an old photograph. Since then she's been collecting artisanal papers throughout her travels, including ones that are embossed, batiked, pleated, embedded with plants, and even one that's made out of elephant dung. "Finding them is rather like a treasure hunt — they are not reliably available, so I buy them when I see them," she says. "The result is that I now have an enormous array of papers in my studio from which to choose, something like a painting palette."
Summerall says she's had a lot of fun with this new medium, which she's focused on in earnest for the past year. "I've painted portraits for years, and with that enterprise there is always some pressure to convey an exact likeness," she says. "The collages have been liberating, because it's impossible to get too detailed with the paper. I try to find textures that will suggest an animal's fur or some other feature, but of course it's never exact."
Once she's decided on the composition, she starts tearing and gluing down the papers. She avoids using an X-acto knife, but sometimes it's necessary. "I really enjoy the tactile experience this gives me, and at the same time feel that I'm more or less 'painting' with paper," she says. "Each piece is a sort of puzzle, and sometimes I tape trial colors up to see if I like them. Some of the papers behave unpredictably when they become wet with glue, so some improvisation is necessary."
Although she's enjoyed her foray into collage, Summerall says she hasn't given up on painting. "I'm definitely an artist who doesn't stick to one track necessarily," she says. "I tend to circle back to these things. ... I can only really do one thing in my studio at a time. I either have the paints out or I'm in collage mode or if I get into printing mode that's going to take up all the room. I think it's probably good for me to change media a little bit."