When 14-year-old Sylvan signs on to assist a top notch ‘Fogrunner,’ delivering a secret shipment of goods to the capital, his dreams of becoming a professional navigator seem to be coming true. Bernhard Krummholz teaches him how to find his way through the intricate slot canyons and floating bogs of the Foglands, but Sylvan will need more than maps and a compass to navigate the feelings he has for his mentor, his sister and the father he never knew.
That’s the inspiration for a science fiction novel called “Fogrunner” that artist and writer Jenny Jolliff (‘88) is working on right now, as she has cut back on her studio time in order to devote more time to her educational roots and work on writing.
“Imagine a fledgling Indiana Jones with a map, a mentor and some serious angst about his budding sexuality and role in life,” she said of her completed manuscript. “Please, if anyone has connections in the publishing world, send them my way.”
And she has just returned from her first ‘Artist in Residence’ gig since the beginning of Covid where she facilitated a large mural in a gymnasium in Pilot Point on the Alaska Peninsula. “Tundra, ravens and wolves,” as she described it.
Unfolding one canvas at a time, Jolliff said what she loves most about the artist’s life is that it is what she makes of it.
“I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule, and I get to work in a variety of art disciplines: woodcarving, creative architecture, painting, teaching, facilitation,” she said. “I also get to combine physical work with cognitive problem solving and design.”
After graduating from Vanguard, Jolliff spent four years at Middlebury College in Vermont where she earned a BA in English/Creative Writing and fell in love with the mountains and a guy from Alaska, her husband Ian Moore.
“While we were still at school, Ian and I started Gimme Dat Hat Co. creating dinosaur and animal shaped hats out of brightly colored fleece,” Jolliff said. “After I graduated, I worked for a year in Alabama at an environmental education center before moving back to Vermont to live with some old classmates and turn Gimme Dat Hat Co. into a wholesale business. I spent my extra time that year writing a book-length manuscript (never published) based on an adventure Ian and I had sea kayaking in the Exuma Islands. Ian was two years behind me in school and when he graduated we both moved back to his hometown of Anchorage. For the rest of my twenties I worked part-time as an Activities Therapist at a psychiatric hospital while studying printmaking at the University of Alaska Anchorage and continuing to sell hats to tourist shops around Alaska.
It wasn’t until she was almost 30 that Jolliff started doing fine art commissions for other people. “Ian and I had just moved out of our rental house and onto our own 75 acres of mountaintop property,” she said. “We were living in a tiny wood-heated cabin/workshop while we hand-built our timber frame house from the woods around us. There was no running water and no space to store all the fabric and sewing machines for the hat business, so it was a good time for a change.
Her first real art commission was a door mural for a friend. “I painted one side to seem as though you were looking through a garden gate and the other side was a close up of a rock face with a climber’s legs disappearing out the top of the frame,” Jolliff said. “A mischievous raven was plucking at the climber’s rope and carabiners. The guy loved it and immediately commissioned a second door for his guest cabin.”
Then Jolliff started doing home show events, setting up a booth with a mock-up mural and signing folks up for in-home quotes and commissions. A couple years later, she got her first public art gig through the Anchorage Downtown Partnership.
“That summer they hired me to create a 150-foot paint-by-number mural and lead workshops in the town square to recruit passersby to help get it painted,” she said. “They arranged to have a class of school children come to kick start the first weekend and that turned out to be the best part. Not only did the flurry of activity from all the kids painting attract a crowd who wanted to help, but the chaperone of that group went on to write a grant asking for me to do an artist residency at their school a couple of years later.”
That launched another major
facet of Jolliff’s career, which has been doing dozens of one- and two-week long artist residencies in rural Alaskan schools.
“Here, rural means not just driving way off down a dirt road, but flying hundreds of miles across snowy mountain passes and roadless lake-pocked tundra,” she said. “Once I flew across part of the Bering Sea to St Lawrence Island, only to find the village I was supposed to be working in deserted. Hunters had landed a whale on the other side of the island and everyone was off on their snowmachines helping to butcher it and pull it back to the village in their sleds. My most recent village school had only 12 students PreK-12.”
At each of these schools, Jolliff’s job has been to orchestrate painting collaborative murals. “I teach the students painting techniques and they create unique pictures on wooden tiles which, when I carefully assemble them, usually create a dual image of their individual images up close and a single larger image from a distance,” she said. “Check out my website to see this at jenjolliff.com There you’ll also see pictures of my large scale public art installations. When a public building is constructed or even renovated in our municipality, one percent of the total budget is required to be spent on public artwork for that building.”
Jolliff’s wood carvings and murals are featured in several schools and libraries around Alaska. “I make low relief wood carvings of usually larger-than-life animals out of local birch,” she said. “Some are carved with fur texture, others with abstract designs. Some are painted and others are simply rubbed with oil to bring out the natural luster of the wood. I do private commissions and sell them in local galleries.”
Jolliff said she’s always been an artist and the process of making it into a career has been more of an evolution than a decision. “I think my mother has a photo of me at about age two or three, sitting at a little table in the corner of the kitchen drawing with a spirograph,” Jolliff said. “My mom always kept a cupboard full of stencils, stamps, crayons and markers for me to use. She saved meat trays for making toy boats and jar lids of every color and size. We had a whole drawer full of construction paper of every color and glue, tape, staples…but not glitter. She hated glitter. Plus, I had a lot of free time.”
Totally unstructured time when her parents weren’t controlling or even observing what she was up to is what fueled Jolliff’s passion. She needed that space to practice making messes and choices and discoveries, she said. And she remembers, at Vanguard especially, being categorized by her friends as “creative.”
“At the time, I wasn’t always sure it was a compliment,” she said, “but if you look at young adult literature these days, well it’s a more appreciated trait than it used to be, I think.”
Jolliff’s advice to young artists: Practice every day and be patient. “Art may not be your only job, at least at first, but learn from whatever you’re doing at the moment and try to think creatively,” she said. “When you take photos of your friends, think about balance and composition, color and light. When you’re waiting tables at a restaurant, think about the patterns of people coming and going, how to arrange a table to make the biggest visual impact, how to convince the owner to pay you to paint a mural on the wall. And when you start to make artwork you think is worth sharing, be prepared to market yourself.”
Jolliff and her husband, Ian, and have a 13-year-old son, Springer.
“We’re a pretty tight family and spend a lot of time together,” she said. “Almost every day we’re out hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, sledding or climbing mountains. Since Covid hit and Springer’s been doing on-line school, we sometimes spend a whole week without ever getting in the car.”
Jolliff and her son do a weekly serial story podcast together called “the Cats.”
“It’s been a great way for us to do something creative together and the Thursday AM deadline means we do it every week,” she said. “Forty-five episodes to date. It’s the ongoing story of an angst-filled cat and his misadventures. Check it out at anchor.fm/thecats. On the extended family side, my niece, Brooke is a Junior at Vanguard this year and my mother lives just around the corner from the school. Both of my brothers, Dave and Rob, went to Vanguard back in the 80s too.”
Though she said she’s never been great at taking instruction, Jolliff said Vanguard prepared her for success.
“Ask any of my Vanguard teachers about that,” she said. “Having the small classes and group discussions in English were one of the biggest things I valued both at the time and in later years. Accessibility to teachers outside of the classroom was another thing which I think set Vanguard apart from bigger, less personal schools. Many of my teachers I really respected as people and their willingness to acknowledge me as a person made a huge difference. I took art classes three different years and each of those teachers gave me a different valuable take on what art is, and how personal it was to them.”
Jolliff was definitely ready for college. “I chose a pretty competitive college, Middlebury, and got in, so in that way I was prepared,” she said. “I did find some things more challenging than I expected. I really had to step up my game in both writing and critical thinking, but what’s the point of going to college if you know it all before you get there?”
Some of her most remembered teachers were in English and German. “Mrs. D was smart as a whip and some of the students thought she was a little harsh, but I knew she believed in me and respected me and her encouragement with my writing and analysis of literature made a world of difference in my ability to even act like a rational human being most of the time,” Jolliff said.
She remembers that Mr. Peters was “super enthusiastic” and had high expectations for everyone to become German speakers in the first year of language study.
“I remember the first week of class, none of us knew any German yet, and he had us transcribing long paragraphs of European geography which he read aloud from our text book with the expectation that we’d be able to distinguish words and spell them properly,” she said. “It was so tough. We memorized lyrics to German pop songs and classic poetry. I still remember most of Die Lorelei, 99 Luft Balloons and Rock Me Amadeus. But perhaps the most important piece of advice which he gave us, and one which pertains to so many situations in life as well as getting up the nerve to talk to a bunch of Germans is, “Ein Bier ist das bestes Wörterbuch.”
At the end of the day, Jolliff has learned that success doesn’t look like just one thing.
“Be curious,” she said. “Try new things. Experiment. Be playful. But at the same time, live your life with an overriding sense of intent. Do whatever you do with pride and care to detail. Share what you learn. Strive for efficiency, but take the time to be kind and interested in other people.”
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