During a month-long October residency at Colorado Academy, Denver artist Jahna Rae inspired students, teachers, and visitors alike with her vibrant and layered approach to symbolism, portraiture, and murals. Her unique vision, which melds evocative human faces with natural forms, rich colors, and geometric patterns, filled the main gallery in the Ponzio Arts Center during a culminating final show that also included student works produced in collaborative workshops that Rae led during her stay.
“I’m drawn to bold, bright colors, patterns, and sharp contrast,” Rae says of her work, which includes indoor and outdoor murals in Denver and beyond, oil and mixed-media paintings on canvas, and even digital NFTs—non-fungible tokens, tradeable digital identifiers that can hold artworks, video, music, and other valued assets. Rae’s creations contain an emotional quality that, she says, “gives them an inherent narrative that unfolds throughout the painting process. As I create, I weave together inspiration from poetry, music, spirituality, and the stories of my community.”
Rae was an ideal choice for CA’s Guest Artist Program, says photography teacher Karen Donald, who coordinated her visit. “Jahna is a wonderful emerging artist here in Denver, and we were so excited to be able to support a local creator after making a connection with her through Platteforum’s Michael Gadlin.” Rae recently completed a residency with the Denver-based arts nonprofit, where Gadlin, the Executive Director, is also a painter who was a visiting artist at CA in fall 2020.
“Our Guest Artist Program gives the young artists of our [CA] community a chance to meet professional artists who have made a career out of making art,” explains Director of Visual & Performing Arts Katy Wood Hills. “Meeting and learning from these professionals makes them realize that they too can be an artist.”
During the two weeks of workshops that Rae led for CA’s advanced studio art, photography, videography, and ceramics students, she spent time conferring with artists about their works in progress, and she shared valuable career information acquired along her winding route to becoming a professional.
Surprisingly, Rae told students, “I never actually thought it was going to work out” to become a professional artist. Her education, which included interior design and digital user experience design, was colored by hopes for a traditional career rather than her lifelong passion for art, and it wasn’t until she started connecting with mural artists around Denver via Instagram that she became determined to focus on her creative side.
What she learned along the way, she emphasized, is, “We all have so much to offer the world if we just let ourselves be open.”
Rae underscored for students the importance of building connections and community with fellow artists, art institutions, collectors, and other organizations, and she went on to give advice on building a digital portfolio, carving out time for being creative, using social media for marketing works of art, and earning public exposure.
“Early on in your art career,” she said, “don’t be afraid to do something for free or for cheap. We call it ‘exposure coin.’ We always want to get paid for the art we do, but if it’s going to get eyes on your work, that’s just as valuable.”
Rae also advised students, “Get good at writing about yourself.” The skill of talking about one’s own experiences, art process, influences, and ambitions is vital not only for producing an artist statement or website biography, but also for applying to college or a job, she pointed out.
Her final piece of advice for CA students: “Don’t be afraid to fail. Sensing that you’ve failed is actually pushing you toward making another piece that’s better.”
An inspiring presence
Rae dedicated much of her time on CA’s campus to observing students at work and offering her ideas and encouragement. Senior Portfolio artists were thrilled to get one-on-one time with Rae in their studio space in Ponzio, and she shared valuable insights with students working on video, photos, and ceramics.
“What struck us about Jahna is that she herself works in many media, so her critiques and suggestions were so accessible and relatable for our students in multiple disciplines,” says Hills. “She is also just so approachable as a person that it was never intimidating to work side-by-side with her.”
Adds digital media instructor Octavia Betz, “As someone who identifies as a woman and a person of color, Jahna’s presence was really important for my students, who are a pretty diverse group. Being able to see someone who’s successful reflecting a part of their own identity back at them was a powerful affirmation.”
Perhaps the highlight of Rae’s visit was the art-making sessions she shared over several days with many Upper School artists. They were working on a collaborative project about the theme of “home,” creating symbolic home-shaped boxes by applying paint, photos, sculptural elements, found objects, and even video projections with personal significance.
Earlier, students had experimented with one of Rae’s techniques—word-mapping—to sketch out their ideas connected to the notion of home, and at the final exhibition of the group project, this part of the art process, as well as discarded paint, rough drawings, and other artifacts, was displayed alongside the finished pieces. Hills describes this as her “favorite part of the show.”
Observes Betz, “The collaboration really forced these artists to step outside of their comfort zone to spend a day engaging with media they might not have been familiar with, and taking a risk. Being able to explore new ways of making—having conversations with photographers, painters, and ceramicists—was a really healthy takeaway from the experience.”
Hills adds, “Bringing so many of our art students together for a single show is not something we get to do every day, and I think we ended up seeing a group of artists who were able to shift their way of thinking about art making completely.”