Jennifer Diehl | Poetry on Canvas

Jennifer Diehl paints lyrical interpretations of light

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Jennifer Diehl, A Moment in Time, oil, 20 x 24.

Jennifer Diehl, A Moment in Time, oil, 20 x 24.

This story was featured in theApril 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  April 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Jennifer Diehl was exhausted when she dragged her painting gear onto the beach for the final paint-out of the 2016 Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational. Diehl had already painted an array of works for the upcoming show. But, as she surveyed the scene, something about the light and the sheer beauty captured her imagination. So instead of winding down, Diehl went to work. The sun was lurking behind a veil of clouds, and an intense light was washing out the sandy scene. She set up an umbrella and rolled up her pants legs to stay cool on the hot Southern California October day. Voilà! Two and a half hours later she completed TAKING IT ALL IN.

The following night, the event’s gala and show were held in an elegant venue replete with crystal chandeliers, white linen tablecloths, and candlelight. Diehl recalls sitting at a table in the back when the awards ceremony commenced. The next thing she knew, a room full of people was turning to look at her. It took a moment for her to realize that the speaker had just announced that she’d won the Artists’ Choice Award for her body of work, including TAKING IT ALL IN. “I was completely shocked by the honor,” Diehl says. “I felt so grateful that the other artists thought so highly of my work.”

The LPAPA Artists’ Choice award is not the only one Diehl received last year. She also won Artists’ Choice at Oregon’s annual Willamette Valley Lavender Festival & Plein Air Art Show. That’s significant because, for an artist, the Artists’ Choice is one of the most treasured awards. Other awards are often chosen by one judge, but as Diehl explains, the Artists’ Choice award is selected by a group of expert judges—one’s peers—who possess a deep understanding of what goes into a painting.

Last year was a busy one for the young, Oregon-based painter. In addition to the California and Oregon shows, she participated in four other group shows and two solo shows. At only 35, Diehl is already considered an established artist in a variety of genres, including figurative, still life, urbanscape, landscape, and interiors. Indeed, Diehl’s oeuvre comprises a host of disparate images, such as vintage telephones, ballet dancers, doughnuts, museum interiors, outdoor cafés, and pickup trucks. The reason for the variety, Diehl says, is that, for her, paintings are not about subject matter but about light and the way it falls on a subject, whether it’s a bakery in Portland, the city she calls home, or a prickly pear cactus in Scottsdale, AZ, where she was teaching a painting workshop as this story was going to press.

As an example of her penchant for following the light, Diehl describes a painting excursion from several years ago. At the time, she was in serious need of destressing and recharging creatively. Her husband suggested an overnight foray to Seaside, a beach town on the Oregon coast. Once they arrived, she headed eagerly to the beach while her husband napped at the hotel. But she didn’t get far. When she stepped out the hotel door, she eyed a telephone pole illuminated “by the most amazing light, with neat negative shapes between the wires.”

Diehl quickly discarded Plan A and painted the pole. “When I came back to the hotel feeling totally triumphant, my husband took one look at the painting and said, “Seriously? I brought you to the coast with this amazing view, and you painted that?” Diehl adds, “I got a pretty good laugh out of it. Poor guy. We were newlyweds, and despite how well he knew me, he still had much to learn about artists.”

Diehl learned a lot about the artist’s life at an early age. Her mother, Susan Diehl, had studied art when she was growing up. While her children slept, she painted. “When I was 4 and could say the word artist, I knew I wanted to be one, too,” Diehl says. “My mom tells me that, when I was still in diapers, I would stretch sheets of paper across the living-room floor. They were always connected by color or design. My mom said I wasn’t necessarily gifted, just focused.”

At 7, Jennifer began accompanying her mother to drawing classes. By then the family had moved to Seattle, and her mother studied with Ron Lukas. Diehl still remembers climbing the imposing steps to the local library where the classes were held, and she recalls how Lukas would slip his pint-sized student into an empty space near a still-life setup. “I had a giant pad of paper and a tiny little pencil,” Diehl says. “From my point of view, Ron Lukas treated me just like the adults, showing me how to measure, how to use different types of tools, and how to make certain marks and values.”

In 1996, when she was about 14, the family moved again and this time to Phoenix, where she soon began studying with another noted artist, Henry Stinson. Diehl attended his classes as well as painted with Stinson once a week for several years. “I can’t believe how fortunate I was to have someone dedicate so much of his life to teach me,” she says.

Then one day when she was 18, her mentor sat her down and said, “Okay, you are done. It’s time to leave, find a gallery, and discover who you are as a painter.” Diehl says that she felt a sense of panic and thought, “No, not now. I’m an uncooked pancake.”

Cooked or not, Diehl went in search of a gallery in 1999. That same year, an unexpected opportunity came her way. One day while accompanying her mother to Scottsdale’s Long Gallery (now closed), the younger Diehl was asked to show her work. The gallery soon asked to represent her, and the following year—still in her teens—Diehl had her first show, a mother-and-daughter presentation. Diehl displayed six still lifes, including one featuring her father’s power drill. It was her first sale. After appearing in Southwest Art’s annual feature story “21 Under 31” in 2001, she received several more gallery offers as well as more shows and accolades.

Diehl is not one to rest on her laurels. A hard-working soul, she believes in constantly learning and growing. Although she has studied with many gifted artists throughout the country since her teen years, she credits artist Simon Kogan with imparting “a new way of seeing.” For 18 months, she drove two hours each way every Friday to study painting with Kogan in Olympia, WA. Before studying with him, Diehl says she diligently toiled away trying to reproduce subjects precisely. “I had completely ignored the emotional engagement with the viewer that involves creating a space for them to feel they are experiencing a world they can walk into,” she says. “Creating that experience is something that takes a lifetime of fine-tuning and may be something I work on until the end of my days.”

For seasoned observers, the reason Diehl’s paintings are so appealing is exactly that: she creates visual narratives and poetic worlds that people can experience. Not only is Diehl’s work engaging in that way, says Jim Peterson—owner of Mockingbird Gallery, which represents Diehl—but more importantly, her paintings convey emotion and are about how people feel. “I have watched as collectors view her paintings and smile,” Peterson says. “The works are not just whimsical but uplifting. Jennifer’s joyful personality is often reflected in her work.”

When it comes to style Diehl prefers not to pigeonhole her paintings. But Peterson is fond of describing them as transitional. “They bridge the gap between representational art and modern, contemporary sensibilities,” he says. “They’re about broken edges and paint application. She doesn’t overwork anything. She takes it to a certain place and then confidently puts her signature on it.”

Denise Cole, owner of Cole Gallery, describes Diehl as one of her top-selling artists, whose playful, unfettered, and fresh brushwork sets her apart from other painters. “The brushwork communicates exactly what she wants to convey,” Cole says. “Every brush stroke is intentional.”

Diehl admits she possesses a keen interest in brushwork, which stems from a trip to Florence, Italy, where she saw Botticelli’s famous painting THE BIRTH OF VENUS. “I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen,” she says. “Every single brush stroke and shape was beautiful with such attention paid to it. Seeing that changed how I viewed brush strokes and the importance of each one.”

Today Diehl works in a studio located in her home. Like her mother, she paints in windows of concentrated time while raising her children. She maintains an open-studio-door policy for her family but no one else. If she has a pressing deadline, her husband, she says, is supportive and helps set boundaries with her two daughters, so she can focus on painting uninterrupted. No doubt her husband has learned a lot about the artist’s life since their first Seaside sojourn. He now knows that artists can get excited about painting a telephone pole. Or as Diehl says, “Things that used to surprise him are now second nature.”

Cole Gallery, Edmonds, WA; Mockingbird Gallery, Bend, OR; Lawrence Gallery, McMinnville, OR; Edward Montgomery Fine Art, Carmel, CA.

This story was featured in theApril 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  April 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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