PORTER – As a young girl from the Midwest on vacation touring the country, the beauty of the Pacific Northwest brought joy to Jennifer Kuhns. Now as an adult with a family of her own, the accomplished artist brings beauty and joy to the Pacific Northwest through mosaic art.
“I always knew that I wanted to be an artist,” said Kuhns, 42, who lives in Porter, south of Elma, with her husband, Mike, a special education teacher at CHOICE High School in Shelton, and their 9-year-old daughter, Anouk, who attends Elma Elementary School.
The house they had built is situated on five acres that includes a rustic cabin, a greenhouse, gardens, goats, chickens, geese, dogs, a gazebo-enclosed pizza oven, bee hives and many artistic projects in the making. The land also supports a large studio where Kuhns keeps her foraged materials – donated ceramics and glass from contractors and stained glass artists, cabinet doors and old windows, dishes and do-dads, as well as drawings, paintings and containers of materials in various stages of washing and sorting.
The décor inside their house reminds one of a serendipitous potluck dinner where everyone brings something different to the table, but it all somehow deliciously fits together. The bright colored walls – blue, green, yellow, orange and purple – combine to create an inviting atmosphere and also set off much of Kuhns’ work – from a mosaic tree on the wall behind the wood stove to shimmering stair risers in cool colors that look like a waterfall, to portraits in mosaic that are so startlingly realistic it’s hard to believe they were created with little pieces of glass.
Growing up in a very remote part of Northern Michigan, the quiet-spoken, but warm Kuhns said she was extremely shy. “I didn’t really talk. My mom was an art minor and I would watch her do her work. I remember watching her and picking up how you draw a face or mold a face. Dad was studying biology and made sure I understood the fundamentals of scientific theory and critical thinking.
“I also spent a lot of time exploring the forest with my cat. I kind of lived half in Narnia. I have a lot of clear memories of things that couldn’t possibly have happened, so I must have had a pretty strong imagination,” the blonde says with a warm laugh.
With college students for parents, money was often tight, “but at the same time, my mom decorated our house so that it was stylish, covering the worn furniture with well-arranged blankets. And they taught me to be resourceful and build a good life on very little – skills I continue to employ.”
Despite the tight budget, her folks would pack up and travel across the United States. “That was formative for me. … I loved the landscapes, especially in the Pacific Northwest. When we would hit the Midwest and I’d watch the mountains in the back fade away, I would cry.”
So, when it came time to head off to college, with an aunt as an alumna at The Evergreen State College who still lived in the Olympia area, and the memories of the landscapes, Kuhns decided to attend Evergreen. She took many art classes and received her bachelor’s degree. Later she even worked there for a time.
BROKEN TOILET SPARKED PASSION
Kuhns’ training and passionate love of color and design would have certainly led to great artistic expression of some kind, but it was a broken toilet in the rented house in Olympia, where she and Mike lived as newlyweds, that paved the road – piece by tiny piece – into the world of the ancient art of mosaic.
“After the owners fixed the toilet, they had to patch the hole in the floor. It looked ugly and they knew I liked art and they had some broken tiles, so they asked if I could fix it up. They encouraged me to do something fun, so I created a random abstract piece of tile all mished together. It was really fun and I was hooked. Suddenly, I was sticking ceramics on everything.”
It’s fitting that such a mundane problem as a broken toilet would slowly lead Kuhns down the intricate and precise path of mosaic – especially because Kuhns celebrates the fact that mosaic art can often be so functional.
In addition to framed fine art pieces, she uses tile or stained glass to create art on stair risers, pizza ovens, signs, partitions, fireplace surrounds, countertops, backsplashes, table tops and shower and bath enclosures, for starters.
Then there’s the house in Yelm, where she designed and constructed a 16-foot tall tree of shale mosaic inset into a tile grid. And there’s the outside installation of 30 stair risers near Steamboat Island, west of Olympia, which connect the house to the Puget Sound shore with a flowing water design.
“There’s something very satisfying about mosaic,” Kuhns said. “Breaking and cutting the pieces feels like a release, and the process of piecing them together into something whole and beautiful is therapeutic. I work in bright colors and organic hues, abstract and representational designs, creating flat, shimmering surfaces or highly textured, three-dimensional work.”
While she enjoys the process, clearly others enjoy the result. In the nine years since she’s had her first commission, she’s won fine art contests, been invited to exhibit in international juried shows and had her work installed in numerous businesses, homes and gardens.
INSTALLATIONS CAN BE SEEN
Her work includes the back-lit, glistening glass pictures and signs at the Swing Wine Bar, two large glass panels featuring mythical vines covered with fruits and flowers at the Cascadia Grill, both in downtown Olympia, and the winsome monkeys and vines on the entrance pillars and windows at Olympia Pediatrics in Lacey. In addition, many of her fine art pieces are on display at Matter! Gallery in Olympia and are available online at Frank and Dunya gallery of Seattle.
At the beginning of June, Kuhns completed leading a community art project for the City of Olympia – beautifying the artesian well in the middle of downtown at Jefferson Street and 4th Avenue.
Some may recall the slogan, “It’s the Water” from the Olympia Brewing Company years ago. The slogan comes from Olympia’s underground system of artesian wells. At that intersection, fresh water gurgled up from a pipe into a parking lot, and people who know about it came to fill jugs and water bottles with the fresh-tasting cool water.
The City decided to create a place of beauty for the well, building a little courtyard and a kiosk. Kuhns was selected to complete the project. With the budget in mind, she suggested involving the public – everything from Girl Scout troops to senior center members – by having groups and individuals create mosaic fish that she could then adhere to the area, skillfully placing them and pulling the courtyard together into a cohesive piece of art. And, what could be more functional, than a place to get water?
“The response to the artesian well project has been overwhelmingly positive and the City is absolutely thrilled,” Kuhns said. “The experience was transformative for me, personally, and it was amazing watching the artwork bring a polarized community together – at least in one small way.”
FROM CERAMICS TO GLASS
Kuhns started working primarily in ceramics, but when her husband found some old stained glass in a back closet at school and began a stained-glass class there, she volunteered to help, and in the process learned how to cut glass. Now she prefers to work in glass, but still works in a variety of media.
So how much does it cost to have an original work of art constructed in a home or business? Kuhns said her pricing is based on square footage, the complexity of design, whether she can do a part of it in her studio and later transfer it to the site and what materials and colors are used. For example, typically warm colors in glass cost more because they are more difficult to find and many of them actually contain gold. “I can tailor the job to people’s budget. I just tell them, “with that kind of budget, here’s what we can do.”
“Mosaic is really labor-intensive. Just to get my materials there is a lot of collecting and driving around and sorting,” she said, showing off a bucket of assorted colors of glass that she had washed several times.
“Doing mosaic is a really, really slow art form, each piece has to be cut to fit.”
Then I carefully file each piece. I don’t want to have people cut themselves when they touch my work. … Even a simple mosaic takes about two hours per square foot for me to do.”
“I have always been a representational artist, creating stylized people in bright, surreal colors. But I have come to enjoy making abstract mosaics, using a contrast of organic materials with glass, playing with light and color. I find these mosaics to be more playful and less strenuous than trying to create a specific image out of random pieces. “When someone calls me I like to find out what I’ve done that they liked, what colors they like, and also to see the place where it will be installed. I want to see what style is there and what the aesthetic is and also the type of substrate and what complications I might run into.”
Right now, Kuhns said, stair risers are her favorite. “They’re fun to create. It’s something unexpected, a surprise. I like how the design shifts as you climb. It comes apart and back together as you ascend, and the colors and light change as you move too. I really like doing risers…
“With mosaic, it can be fluff and decoration or it can have deep meaning and relevance. I like it too, that people can have art in their lives in very functional ways – you can always use backsplashes, shower decorations and countertops.
“In fact, now often when I see plain concrete, I feel compelled to cover it. Plain concrete offends me. I just envision what could go on those concrete retaining walls, or building pillars,” she said.
To see more of Jennifer Kuhns’ work, visit her website at jkmosaic.com, or her Facebook page, where she posts regular updates about her projects at JK Architectural and Fine Art Mosaic. She can be reached at jennifer@jkmosaic or by phone at (360) 482-8024.
Gail Greenwood Ayres is a former Daily World writer and is now a freelance writer living in Brady.