Jennifer McCracken experiments with nature and enamel at Studios on High

During quarantine months, the artist drew inspiration from the natural world for new enamel works at Studios on High

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
"Emerging Weed," enamel artwork by Jennifer McCracken

In the last year, Jennifer McCracken has spent more time outdoors, wandering through a Blendon Woods ravine in Westerville. Sometimes she brought along a kitten she adopted just before the pandemic hit. Because the cat turned out to have ringworm and had to spend most of his days cooped up in a bathroom, McCracken trained him to walk on a leash to help the kitten avoid going stir-crazy.  

“You meet a lot more people when you've got a cat on a leash,” she said. 

The more time she spent outdoors, the more McCracken began to discover details she hadn’t previously noticed. She spotted a woodpecker and realized the bird was responsible for a chirping sound she’d never been able to pinpoint. And as the seasons changed, she saw the foliage around her with fresh eyes, particularly the various shapes of leaves, trunks, roots and vines. She took photos of the shapes, but the pictures never quite did them justice.  

“When you do photorealism, you never capture the true experience that you have when you're outside in the wilderness,” McCracken said. “So I decided using enamel would help me get a feel of what I was experiencing as I was going through the woods and seeing these different trees or vines or rock formations.” 

McCracken, a 1990 CCAD grad, is fairly new to enamel, having discovered the medium about three years ago. Before that, she spent 19 years doing missionary work in Taiwan, where her art focused mostly on comics-style illustrations for a Taiwanese Bible. Once McCracken tried enamel, though, she knew she’d found her medium, and she began making jewelry to practice different enameling techniques such as graphite drawing and cloisonné.  

Lately, McCracken has been using enamel to create striking, woodland-inspired panels for an exhibition titled “Experiments in Nature,” opening Saturday, March 6, at Studios on High Gallery. In one colorful piece, “Intersecting Vines,” McCracken referenced a photo to determine the shapes and lengths of various vines, then cut them out of copper.

“Then I had a panel of copper that I have to enamel on the front and the back — enamel is basically powdered glass that melts onto the copper,” she said. “I then sprinkled [the panel] with two layers of powdered enamel and scratched into the enamel to get some of the tree shapes in the background.” 

"Intersecting Vines," enamel artwork by Jennifer McCracken

Part of the fun, and the mystery, comes from the firing process in the kiln. “It's kind of like ceramics, where you're glazing a pot and you don't necessarily know exactly how it's going to come out because it's all dependent on the fire,” she said.  

After living outside of the U.S. for nearly 20 years, McCracken is practicing her art in a country that changed drastically during her time away. “People are at very extreme ends of thoughts and ideas,” she said. “It’s kind of sad that there's no compromise or understanding, just people forcing their opinion and not really listening to what other people are saying. We need to be civil with each other.” 

Perhaps relatedly, the artist’s next enamel project will focus on the carefree dogs she met on the streets of Taiwan. “They were the most chill, relaxed, happy dogs in the world,” she said. “I like how they're just happy with who they are, and I'd like to express that feeling of getting people to be happy with who they are.”