Phoenix artist Jen Urso creates intricate, well researched depictions of everything from favorite cactus patches, best solo running routes to the perfect neighborhood place to get a caffeine fix.Just in time for Arizona's birthday, we celebrate all things local by catching up with Jen about her latest creations.
What is your favorite part of the maker’s process?
It’s probably the beginning where I’m gathering copious amounts of information and maybe researching historic information—understanding the layers of time that brought us here. That and also the point when I realize something is finished, or as finished as I’m going to let it be.
How do you go about starting new designs, do you plan ahead or just jump right in?
Almost all of my work involves a ton of research and writing. For both my Cactus Map and the US Endangered and Native Plants Map I was using multiple sources of information online, in books, in person and then gathering it all in a spreadsheet. But before I get to that stage, a new design just starts with a question in my mind or a wondering if something exists already in the world because I want to know that information. Like, I want to know what the most endangered plant is in Arizona and then what is it for California? Pennsylvania? What about the whole country? How would that information look all together? Wouldn’t it be amazing to illustrate every plant on a map so people could familiarize themselves with the interesting plant world around them? Because I want to see a map that shows me something other than highways and what the most “major” cities are.
Do you like a tidy work space or functional chaos?
It can depend on which stage of the process I’m in. When I start a new project, I usually end up cleaning my entire workspace so my brain can be fresh and undistracted. When I’m in the midst of a project, the chaos just starts piling up but I know where everything is. I just accept the mess.
What has been your biggest challenge as a professional artist?
Having the confidence to believe that what I’m doing is something unique and worthy of attention. I spent a large part of my life putting myself down, and probably still do in a sense. But, I’m finally figuring out (at almost age 50!) that I see and do things in my own way that others seem to appreciate. I’ve always felt compelled to do the artwork I do but I’ve not always felt that anyone else is interested in seeing it.
What brings you the most joy outside of the studio?
My son, Ilia, who has an endless supply of ideas, stories, images and worlds that he can describe in great detail. As difficult as parenting can be, he is silly and wonderful beyond words. Outside of that, it would be gardening or even just seeing how plants grow—seeing their intelligence and selectiveness. I like to witness their resilience and adaptation.
What do you wish to see in the future to support artist owned small businesses in AZ?
I don’t know about artist owned small businesses, but for artists in general I’d like to see more awareness and appreciation of how much time, money and effort goes into creating work. We should acknowledge by now that art is a vital aspect of our lives and in order for it to be created, artists need to be compensated like anyone else for their time and work. Every artist I know, including myself, is continually working double-duty to make a financial living and continue to progress in their artwork. I have seen some changes with this in Phoenix and Arizona but there needs to be more for talented artists to not pack up and move to another city.
Anything exciting in the works/coming up for you this year?
For the past year, I’ve been working on getting funding for a new project titled “Leaving Land to Itself” which is a slow-moving, living art laboratory and landscape experiment. This is a long-term project that will start with acquiring a piece of undeveloped land on a long-term lease to conduct plant and microbial life observations and seasonal maps. I’ll encourage existing plant life to thrive by removing detrimental and invasive plant species, allowing plants to mulch, channeling rainwater and removing non-biodegradable waste. While this project will generate drawings, maps and other work, I see this as a long-term performance of my body engaging thoughtfully with the landscape with unknown results. I’ve already begun with a piece titled “Unplanted Land” by taking soil samples from different parcels of land in Phoenix to see what will grow from them. This new piece will be on display for Modified’s 25th Anniversary exhibition, opening on February 16, 2024.
You can check them out around the web: