Photos by Nicole Midwest
When heading down a dusty road to visit artist Jennie Ward, we at Design & Living had expectations. We were prepared to learn more about her art, explore her process and to see what her home studio set-up was like. Armed with questions about artistic inspiration and her origins, we were happily unprepared for the scene we encountered. As we trudged through crunchy cornfields, held rabbit kits and climbed an authentic barn ladder, the real story of Jennie Ward unfolded.
A hidden driveway off a gravel road leads to the Ward family barn and farmhouse. We spotted the artist leading her 18-year-old horse, Rudy, in from the pasture. Two goats are relaxing in the hay and a donkey named Ivy nudges her head over the chicken wire, asking to be pet. Ward’s daughter Bella sits at the mouth of the barn, quietly drawing in a notebook. Well accustomed to the farm-life surroundings, she is unbothered by the clucking chickens and stays focused on her pencil drawings. Turns out the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Artist Jennie Ward was born and raised in Detroit Lakes, and after some time Minneapolis to New York City, the prodigal daughter returned to this rural region. With her husband Chris and their two kids, Jennie lives peacefully on a small hobby farm in Lake Park.
Ward attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), where she explored a number of mediums, but most notably painting and drawing. Here, she met her husband, an art teacher well-versed in a number of mediums as well. While trying to find her place in the art world, Ward moved around from one metropolitan area to the next. However, she got lost in the fast lifestyle and, after some time, found new life in the Christian faith and Minnesota’s idyllic countryside.
Her artistic sanctuary is now the damp basement of her rustic farm cottage. Her halcyon days alternate between painting still lifes in the basement and using charcoal to sketch the bucolic environment. Her current body of work centers around farm life, illustrating her animals, vegetables harvested from the garden and her family. The relaxation in this chapter of her work comes in the form of free brush strokes paired with careful observation.
While the outcome has an untroubled and light air, this isn’t to say that each stroke isn’t intentional. Erasing and rewriting her signature on each piece, often ten to 12 times, everything needs to be just right.
No longer bothered by the pressures and expectations of being a full-time, big-city artist, Ward produces work when she feels it. Just like when signing her name, it has to feel right to her and she has to be in the right headspace to create. “If it’s not in [my heart], it’s not going to come out,” she said.
Since her earliest memories, creating art has been part of Ward’s life. As a child, she spent a lot of time with her babysitter/grandmother-figure on her cattle farm by Detroit Lakes’ fish hatchery. “I remember a little blue wooden table and I’d have a plate of macaroni and I would just draw,” she shared. “My aunt would come over for coffee and she would always give me a piece of paper and do these line drawings that I’d color in. I loved it. I still to this day can remember those and those big patchy colors and just sitting and listening to them have coffee.” As she grew older, the coloring turned into drawings of whatever she had source images for. From drawing a whole bird book to illustrating the encyclopedia, she remembers she was always drawing. While other mediums of art have come and gone during her career, drawing remains her passion.
Lately, Ward has found herself enjoying photography too, saying that it fulfills to her in a different way than painting does. “Painting is just something I go and do. And I have to dig for it, because you are with the piece for a long period of time, even if it is just for a night,” she said. But a photo, a photo can be captured in an instant, preserved and ready to be turned into a painting later down the road. “It’s a moment in time that is so precious and you can’t really get that in a painting,” she said
But when she is feeling inspired to create, the process is meditative, and almost automatic. Enlivened by capturing the soul of specific moments, art is a deep connection for her. To be able to document a live moment with the mark of a pencil or paintbrush is her gift. “Sometimes I just go to the barn and sit and draw. Sometimes these are moments with God alone, where I just draw and not look at anything,” she said, sifting through a stack of her drawings.
During our time on the farm, a red tea kettle and a fresh loaf of bread sitting atop a rustic oven created a picturesque scene. Just as Ward noted, artful vignettes come up everywhere on the farm. In the most unassuming moments, a beam of sun illuminates a moment begging to be preserved. These such moments are what Ward captures. “If I see something, like three apples together or three onions together, there’s just something about the weight of that,” she said. Setting up and capturing still life pieces are what Ward repeatedly leans toward. When she sees things come together and said it’s just like food to her, she just wants to devour the paint.
While the hunger of a bustling concrete jungle rumbles in many young artists, the reality of an idyllic farm in the rural Midwest is where Ward finds her real inspiration. Humble about her art, she noted, “Everybody’s different, but I think everybody’s an artist.” While capturing warm depictions of the simple life might come naturally to her, it truly is a skill.
Leaving with gifts of a carton of farm-fresh eggs and the loaf of broad that was cooling atop the stove, Ward offered us a slice of her life. When setting out to do this artist feature, we were ready to showcase an artist. But Ward doesn’t identify as an artist, “I am not trying to accomplish the world or trying to be somebody, I am just being. Just being with God and trying to follow Him. It’s just so peaceful. It’s so great. It’s so different.”
She’s not an artist. She’s a wife. She’s a mother. She’s a farmer. She’s a generous host. She’s kind eyes and a warm smile. She’s Jennie Ward.