HIGH DRAMA

BY SCOTT D. ELINGBURG

You may not know Jennifer Black, but if you’ve walked through the fashion district on downtown King Street, you’ve likely seen her name painted on the window of a small shop that displays her oil paintings.

“If you put your name on the side of a building on King Street, you become sort of famous,” Black says. “People say, ‘Oh, I think I’ve heard of you’ or ‘Your name sounds familiar to me.’ And it’s because there are about 4.5 million people that tour Charleston every year.”

Black and I meet downtown on a crisp January day so I can see her shopfront in person. It’s a window full of artwork I’ve walked past dozens of times but never associated with the thoughtful, artistic woman I’m speaking with. Black and I talk for about an hour as street sounds take flight, conversations from shoppers fade in and out, and the wind whips around the open doorframe. A few doors down, a violinist is warming up with dulcet tones and scales.

Inside of what Black calls “one of the tiniest galleries in Charleston” is a roughly 5-by- 12-foot space distinguished by a tall, multi-paned window, an exposed brick wall and a wooden staircase that leads seemingly nowhere. There’s barely enough room for an easel with a framed canvas on it, let alone two people standing in the doorway. A few shoppers walk by and see the open door, then look a bit startled when they realize the hallway-sized space only extends a few feet back.

But it is not the size of the space that matters, it’s the art that fills it up. Black’s mini-shop is decked out with oil paintings on canvas and linen, each one varying in size and subject but all very much the product of an artist who has never stopped learning, living and painting.

“All of art is really problem solving,” Black says. “You have to figure out what you’re going to do and how you are going to do it. The color, the composition, the technique, all of it. It’s hard work. It takes extreme concentration and focus, and it can be fun when it’s going right, when you’re really absorbed. But it is hard work.”

That hard work results in a sophisticated mix of paintings that dramatically pit light against dark and impressionistic, thick brushstrokes against tight, realistic lines. When applied to her subjects—from barn animals to Lowcountry landscapes to people waiting in lines—these techniques make her work bristle with vivacity and emotion.

“I call my style realistic impressionism,” Black says. “I’m after more of a feeling than any kind of exactitude. And I like to be dramatic and playful, if the opportunity is there. Light striking subjects in a dramatic way, warm against cool. It’s drama that I’m looking for, and any way I can heighten it is what I work toward.”

Both sides come through in a harmonious way, too. Titles of her paintings can be whimsical and fun, and even Lowcountry scenes carry a stark beauty that is balanced with sunlight or a lively human figure.

Black’s artistic life began at age 8, when she started drawing. She earned a degree in creative art from Florida State University before taking root in Charleston. It wasn’t until 2001 that Black made the leap into full-time artistry.

“I decided, ‘Well, it’s now or never,’” Black says. “I laugh and say that Charleston doesn’t need another artist, but it’s what I was born to do.”

Nearly 18 years later, Black works every day—painting commissions, selling paintings and prints on her website and at her miniature space on King Street, and exhibiting at the Southeastern Wildlife Expo (SEWE). It’s been a lifetime of learning and a lifetime of artistic inspiration that keeps Black busy in her West Ashley studio.

“In art, you learn your entire life. You never stop,” Black says. “I’m learning every day.”

Scott D. Elingburg is a freelance writer who lives in Charleston.