Jenny Sharaf: The New Jenny on the Block
She may hail from the West Coast, but Jenny Sharaf's art can be found as far as the walls of Tokyo, Japan. Her murals are highly sought after (Sweet Green and The Ace Hotel Palm Springs have each scored an iconic Jenny wall), but the girl knows how to play hard to get. This is because Jenny Sharaf gets it. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she grew up observing the entertainment and art worlds. Sharaf understands the impact of digital media, and she has a business mind to accompany her creative tendencies. Jenny is now a leading lady of San Francisco’s art scene – a rapidly changing community thanks to the growth of tech society. I met Jenny in her Marin Headlands residency studio, as she prepared a massive installation. Although Jenny initially told me we only had 30 minutes together, we spent the rest of the day speaking the language of art, fashion, and the changing landscapes of these creative industries.
MO: It’s so refreshing to meet someone that can talk about both fashion and art... Did growing up LA have an impact on your artistic style and interests?
JS: Growing up in LA definitely influenced my visual language and interests. I’ve always paid close attention to pop culture and media. I’m a TV kid. Not only was I watching it constantly, but my parents worked in television, so being exposed to all sides of the industry was very stimulating. Also, my LA grandma was really into fashion and art and was even a docent at the Hammer Museum. She was a major inspiration for my style and overall life decisions.
MO: Is it fair to say that becoming an artist was always on your agenda?
JS: I wouldn’t use the word agenda, but I definitely always wanted to be an artist. I’m very entrepreneurial by nature, so that played a role in me wanting to build my own career. I tried other things along the way, but it felt like pretending or acting.
MO: Like Imposter Syndrome?
JS: Maybe a little of that. But I would work for start-ups, or galleries, or whatever company, and it felt like a make believe job. It always felt like a performance.
MO: Does it still feel that way?
JS: Yeah, sometimes it still feels like a performance in my mind. Especially during certain mundane moments - like conference calls or coffee meetings, where I know that I cannot be completely goofy or however I'm feeling in that moment.
MO: I’ve always felt like that a little also. I think it’s because people channel such a serious disposition when talking about work, and then I feel like I have to channel something super serious in response, even if it doesn’t feel genuine.
JS: Exactly. You have to keep it fun for yourself, even if it’s all in your head.
MO: And keep it real. I feel like it’s easy to let company culture, good or bad, start to taint your overall perspective.
JS: Yeah, you don’t want to drink the Kool-Aid. It’s a balance, learning how to not get too comfortable or too caught up. in whatever you're doing. The art world also has its ups and downs, often at extremes. It has a tendency to set you in your place.
MO: Do you like being a part of the art world? How do you maintain that balance?
JS: I don’t know that I’m part of the art world yet. I think all of that is changing though. There are a lot of artists out there making their own paths without the art world right now, but I’m not sure if that’s completely for me either. I try to be careful with being too commercial, and I’m also pretty careful about what brands I work with. I definitely say no to things that make me feel icky, or that I don’t want my name tied to. At the end of the day, I want the work to be taken very seriously.
MO: Feeling icky is such a real sentiment with social media now too. Even the word influencer…
JS: Oh yeah, it’s a very real thing, but Instagram and the Internet are also powerful tools to meet people and get your work out there. Someone told me the other day that I’m a “micro-influencer,” which sounds kinda sad... Unfortunately, I don’t see how you can avoid social media today being an artist. It’s just a part of things.
MO: What is your biggest goal as an artist?
JS: The goal is to get away with as much as I can within my art practice and make a positive impact on my community. Also, traveling as much as I can is always part of my goal. I love showing my work in new places.
MO: You’ve definitely hit on something that appeals to many, and has such great potential to make a big media wave like the Tokyo wall has. Are there any artists you look up to who made a similar impact?
JS: Good question. I like the idea of a media wave. I think Katherine Bernhardt, Katharina Grosse, Kenny Scharf, Jen Stark and Maya Hayuk all make a big media impact when they come into town and also happen to make very large and colorful paintings. It’s a certain mix of making work that appeals to the high-brow art crowd and is simultaneously accessible to everyone.
MO: What’s been a big lesson or something you’ve had to work on as you’ve grown into becoming an artist?
JS: I’m always learning how to care less about what people think of my work. It’s a constant lesson. As you get older, I think it’s natural to feel more comfortable in your skin, both as an artist and in general. But as an artist, you have no choice but to be bold and vulnerable, especially when you know there’s a community watching and waiting for you to do something new. It feels like jumping into a cold pool.
MO: Jumping into a cold pool seems like a very accurate metaphor.
JS: That’s what it feels like! I have to remind myself that not everyone is going to love my work, but I have to put it out in the world anyways. Every artist has their place in the mess, and the only way to find that place is to test the waters and experiment.
MO: What’s been your proudest water-testing moment?
JS: Hmmm... Going to Tokyo to do a 90 foot long mural was a very proud moment. That came about purely from the Internet, from Instagram! It was a very authentic way for someone to find my work, and now I have this big mural on the side of a train station in trendy neighborhood in Tokyo.
MO: Has that experience motivated you to focus on growing your online presence?
JS: I’m not sure how it’s motivated my online presence, except that I’m more inspired to DM random people in different countries for opportunities. There's nothing to lose. The Internet has a funny way of making the world feel very small, and that definitely increases my ambition a bit. I have just started to think about a self-organized mural tour in Europe - reaching out to people online that may know of walls or spaces that need work.
MO: Yeah that’s huge, to reach the eyes of so many people! I’m sure you see photos of the Tokyo mural all over Instagram now too.
JS: I often times get tagged when people take pictures in front of it. I’ll never get sick of making paintings for myself in the studio, it’s a great form of meditation, but creating a mural like that feels so rewarding. The feeling of seeing the public connect with your work is amazing, and I feel very grateful for it. I also love seeing people selfie and photograph against the walls. I want my work to make people feel unique and beautiful while they stand in front of it.
MO: Did you ever imagine yourself doing murals?
JS: Not so much. I started painting murals right after graduate school because of a random opportunity with Absolute Vodka. That’s when my painting process (on canvas) was adapted for a wall. My partner, John Duket, and I have been making adjustments ever since. As the work gets larger, new challenges come up. Hopefully I get to do a lot more murals soon. I’m totally addicted to the process.
MO: Do you feel the impact of Instagram on the art world, especially now that there’s such an inclination to post photos of art and murals?
JS: Oh yeah, Instagram is making the art world a lot more democratic. People can decide they like you work from their phone screen and ask you for a solo exhibition right then and there. Also, if you want someone important to see you work, you usually can. This is a huge game changer.
MO: How does that change how you approach social media?
JS: At this point, I can’t afford to be shy. If my livelihood and success is dependent on the right person seeing the right piece, if I’m getting jobs on Instagram, then there’s really no holding back. I try to stay authentic and not over share boring life details, although sometimes it feels unavoidable to be “basic."
MO: How about in a personal sense? How do you feel about social media outside of your career?
JS: When I notice that I check it too much or I have that phantom reach thing, I shut it down. I’ll take a break and put it away. You have to! I also feel super lucky that my boyfriend doesn’t like Instagram. I can’t imagine having two insta-addicts in the family.
MO: It can be so addicting... I catch myself reaching for it without even thinking about it.
JS: Same. It’s a tick we should break.
MO: What advice would you give young creatives, just starting out in the art world?
JS: One thing I wish I knew, or at least understood more, is to have no expectations and you won’t get disappointed. Especially as an artist – you never know what’s going to happen. Projects falls through all the time and people disappoint you. If you don’t have expectations and remain grateful for everything, then you’ll always be happy.
MO: What would you tell yourself, if you could have a conversation with yourself 10 years ago?
JS: It sounds cliché, but I think I’d tell myself to worry less and enjoy my youth! Those are really good years, so be in the present and quit worrying about the future. Things fall into place if you work hard and stay genuine to who you are. Enjoy the process.
MO: Do you feel like you’ve grown a lot since then?
JS: I think I’m definitely a different person now. Ten years ago, I was way more distracted. Not sure of exactly where I wanted to be going, not that I’m 100% sure now either… but, I’m more focused on my career now. Still waiting to feel like an adult.
MO: One last question - What would you be if you weren’t an artist?
JS: People used to tell me I’d be a good casting agent... If I wasn’t an artist, I’d have to be an entrepreneur or work for myself. Sometimes I pretend that I’m in advertising, when trying to pitch projects. The scary part of being an artist is that you don't have the certainty you might have with a more conventional job. You have to be ok with that. I think, or at least I hope, that if I can listen to both my intuition, then I'll end up where I need to be.