Jeni Stallings grew up in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and from an early age, she developed a talent for creating art with anything she could get her hands on. When the Memphis College of Art offered Stallings a scholarship to study painting, she happily accepted.
At MCA, Henry Easterwood introduced Stallings to her long-standing medium of choice, encaustic. Easterwood taught fiber and collage and led Stallings to incorporate beeswax into her delicate, graceful designs.
"I like the idea of reusing things, so I use a lot of materials that I find at thrift stores. My favorite things are old pillowcases. Sometimes, I'll just see a figure in it," Stallings says.
A popular material in the '60s, encaustic involves painting with heated beeswax to which pigments are added, providing the opportunity for sculpting within the work or collaging other materials onto the surface. After returning from a trip to Africa, Stallings adopted the method as a way to express her newly formed ideas and emotions with something different and more organic. The experience has continued to influence the very core of her vision. She still gets her wax from a local farmer in Arkansas.
"I never thought I'd end up painting flowers, but I did this show several years ago called 'Apiology.' The whole exhibition was supposed to be a way for me to show appreciation for bees without actually painting them," Stallings says. "I started looking at how bees see things. They see the flower very differently than we do. It's very geometric and all blown up, so the paintings started to look like that."
She traveled to New Mexico through a program at MCA and was eventually showing her work at Guadalupe Gallery in Santa Fe. Linda Ross, proprietor of L Ross Gallery, went to Santa Fe in search of artists to represent in Memphis and just so happened to stumble upon Stallings' work. Ross contacted the artist to set something up and was then informed that she was from Memphis. L Ross has represented her work ever since. Stallings currently lives in Atlanta with her husband and young son, but she primarily exhibits in Memphis. "People have been collecting my stuff in Memphis for years. Linda just has this magic," Stallings says.
"I thought I would go into art therapy after I got my bachelor's degree but was having a lot of success selling work before I graduated. I decided to put off grad school for a while and explore painting as a career, and I've been doing that ever since."
The organizers of the annual RiverArtsFest contacted Stallings as one of three artists they were considering to design this year's poster, and she ended up receiving the honor with the painting River Poppies.
"I got really inspired by flowers. It sounds so nerdy, and it's been done a hundred times, but I just let that be the inspiration, [and get] into more of the shapes and how you can take a flower and make it more graphic-looking," she says.
"It's sort of like how Georgia O'Keefe would take the flower and blow it up really big. Sometimes you recognize that it's a flower, but sometimes it's not so recognizable ... it's more about the circle. When I'm painting flowers big like that, they're almost like figures to me because they're sort of life-sized."
The sixth annual RiverArtsFest, a three-day celebration of visual, performing, and culinary arts, will take place on South Main in late October. More than 170 artists from around the country will present original fine art, including paintings, jewelry, textiles, photography, sculpture, and ceramics in what's become the region's largest outdoor juried artist market and urban street festival.