MEET THE NIERATKOS - JEN UMAN IS NOT JUST A JEW

I try to look at the big picture in life but sometimes in doing so I miss the small details. My friend Jen Uman is a perfect example. Turns out she’s a painter and quite serious about it. I never knew that, I always thought she was just Jewish.

I mean, she is Jewish. But unbeknownst to me that’s not what she does. She doesn’t Jew for a living and it comes as a big surprise because that’s what I’ve been thinking she did for the past decade. When she mailed me a painting of a man putting a gun to his head, with her name signed to it I was like, “Damn! She’s still bummed at me for almost killing her husband.” It made me sad.

I figured it was high time to make amends and to ask her about/tell you about her profession (the painting, not the Jewing).

Weren’t your paintings in The Royal Tenenbaums?
You’re thinking of Blade. Wes Snipes.

Didn’t Clem Snide use your art for one of their album covers?
Yes. I painted two of their covers. I was super flattered Eef asked me. His music and words school me. I made two new paintings, one for each record. Eef was patient and trusted me and I owe him my liver. You've liked Clem Snide for a long time so tell the world to like them.

When/how did you start painting?
I never went to art school but I always liked painting at home with cheap paints. I'd paint things off the TV or the guy with the little face from the deli who I called "Little Face." I found a box of poster paint in the house after not having used them for a long time. I made paintings of singers I was listening to, none of which came out looking anything like the singers I was listening to. I kept painting and painting, finding better brushes, better paper and my paintings started growing up.

How would you describe your paintings?
Details are important to me. I'd rather focus on one subject and color it with detail than fill an entire canvas. I paint a lot of portraits and document my life through parallel situations and characters I make up. I like painting friends, influences, and nostalgia. My life has been equally beautiful as it's been brutal and I try to be fair to both sides. Pulling from the brutal part isn't always necessary, so that's when I lean on the beautiful. It goes both ways. My paintings are small in size but I’m about to begin a series of plants on large canvas. I'm a little obsessed with plants right now. I work a lot in series where I make a group of different paintings based on one idea and put them together to work as one collective form. Like ants!

You did a series of blow job paintings called Karaoke and also a bunch of dirty sex paintings. Where did all that come from? That seems out of character for you.
Wait, really? Why out of character? Those paintings came from so many different places in my head, but honestly they are just straight forward portraits. I didn't paint them to be ironic, I did them from my point of view based on things I’ve seen and heard or what I am hiding behind. Sex is what we do, so I recorded it. Not from the beginning or the end but the middle where there's that total connect. That's the space I'm most comfortable painting.

Do you remember the time I nearly killed your husband in a DUI car wreck? And why don’t you two hate me for trying to kill him?
I remember. I wasn't with my husband yet, we were "just friends." I was living in NYC and all I knew was that you guys were driving somewhere far upstate. I was waiting to hear from my husband on my land line, because this was 89 years ago, when you were crabby, with long hair. When I got the call he sounded like he'd aged 114 years. My thoughts were more about him being OK and less about hating you. You figured it out on your own and made good with your life. You know we can't hate you because we went a year without knowing your cat died, we never come over, we never remember your birthday, yet you never give up on us.

Why isn’t the painting of Coco, Ice-T’s wife, on the site? And why should everyone love Coco?
Darlene! T's first lady with the legs. I just found the scan and still feel bad I didn't give you that painting, but you did try to kill my husband. Coco keeps it classy.

True or false, Ghostface is the greatest rapper ever. Why haven’t you painted him?
True. I wish I painted the front of Supreme Clientele that's a great cover. If I did paint him you'd be critical and say, "Why didn't you paint his gold eagle bracelet" or "Where's his hat, you didn't paint him with a hat?" I can't handle you getting all Morrissey.

Tell me about Jemmy Button.
Jemmy Button is an illustrated book I just finished with Valerio Vidali who's an awesome artist from Italy. I admired his works and emailed to tell him. He responded telling me in horrible English he only spoke Italian. I spoke no Italian. We used Google Translator to communicate for years until we met face to face last year. He got to New York still not knowing English but he picked it up fast and I learned that the letters J, K, W, X, Y don't
exist in the Italian alphabet.

Valerio told me the story of Jemmy Button which is true. Jemmy was a "savage" boy from South America who lived during the 1800s. British explorers arrived to his village and brought him back to England to be "educated." The explorers hoped his return would result in Jemmy's cultivating new land for the British. But Jemmy dropped the things he learned and went back to living exactly as he had. Naked and primitive. The British plan failed.

Valerio and I found parallels in Jemmy's life and our own and agreed it was the perfect project to collaborate on. We made the storyboard and worked together everyday for months. The time we had together was filled with long workdays and one year later the book was done. Valerio went back to Italy and entered our book into the Bologna Children's Book Fair. Our Jemmy Button illustrations were selected for exhibition in the fair in Spring. After the exhibition we can start meeting publishers internationally to find the perfect home for Jemmy and actually talk about it in the same language.

Miracle.

For more of Jen Uman go to http://jenuman.com

CHRIS NIERATKO

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