I can almost promise you that you’ve seen the work of Jenny Eitel before.
As part of SCAD’s 40th Anniversary a couple of years ago, images of her seductive popcorn paintings, from the cleverly titled series "Pop Art," were turned into a car wrap that covered a black Volkswagen Beetle. I happened to see the sweet (or perhaps I should say salty) ride on I-95 driving back from Art Basel.
Then, last year, her alma mater ended up using more of the hyper-realistic kernels on some of the merchandizing for the SCAD Film Festival, including creating a large window display at Jen Library on Broughton Street.
And yet, the highly skilled painter almost didn’t become an artist.
"I was going to school and focusing on biology for a couple of years, and I was really bad at math," recalled Eitel during our conversation for this week’s episode of Art on the Air. "I kind of got stopped at a certain point because I couldn’t get far enough in my math classes to take the science classes I needed to."
Perhaps it was good for us fans of her paintings that her original left-brain educational pursuit didn’t work out, because she instead decided to go all-in on pursuing her art career. She left Chicago and came to Savannah to study at SCAD, and is now fully invested in Savannah, having lived here for over a decade.
"It’s a closely knit art community, which I like," Eitel said of the city we love. "It’s so beautiful. It’s very inspirational. And it looks good in all weather. When it’s raining it’s beautiful. When it’s sunny it’s beautiful. There isn’t really a bad season here."
Back to those popcorn pieces.
"They all started as a finals project at SCAD," she explained. "I was having a major artists block. And I went over to the gas station and grabbed some white cheddar popcorn. I just started looking at the kernels. And I was like, ‘These are really interesting if you really look at them.’"
She became fascinated with the concept of Apophenia, a misperception where our minds put human-like features on random objects around us, like when people see Jesus in their burnt toast. The earliest in the series used the admittedly expressive morsels that hit on this idea the best, but Eitel’s adherence to her early conceptual emphasis has transitioned over time.
"I don’t focus so much [these days] on whether or not there’s a face," she said. "Now it’s just the beauty of the kernel."
And the paintings are most certainly beautiful.
Initially the works were presented almost like still-lifes on simple monotone backgrounds, but over time they’ve become much more dynamic. The popcorn itself has taken on tinges of color, becoming more and more realistic as the artist has progressed though the series. The backgrounds, too, are now vibrantly colored and patterned, allowing each kernel to really pop.
"When I first started doing them I was using a lot of earthy colors like burnt sienna, raw umber," Eitel related. "It kind of struck me one day when I was looking at a kernel, there’s so much color in here. And I like the idea that something you look at and you’re like, ‘This is white!’ But it’s not: It’s all kind of different subtleties. Warms and cools and stuff like that."
In addition to her "Pop Art" series, the artist does food portraits of things like eggs and oysters as part of her "Larger than Life" collection, and takes a break from her ultra-realism via excursions into the Lowcountry and beyond to do plein air painting.
During this time of COVID and social unrest, her work is a nice bit of counter-programming to the negativity that we’re confronted with on a near minute-by-minute basis.
"Should I be painting something more significant politically?" Eitel asked rhetorically. "You do feel like conceptually, ‘Do I need to do something different to contribute to the time we’re in?’ But maybe…if something I did made someone happy, that’s okay."
See more of Jenny Eitel’s artwork @jennyeitelart on Instagram or by visiting her website at www.JennyEitelArt.com.
Next week I’ll be speaking with dreamer and surrealist painter Alan Kindler about his upcoming exhibition at Cedar House Gallery.
Tune in to "Art on the Air" every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show "Art on the Air."
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.