Toby Sells/Jenny Slaver
Then and now: Jenny Slaver did not know she'd become the "MCA billboard girl" back then and didn't know the billboard was still up now.
You know Jenny Slaver, even if you don’t know her name. You may even see her every day.
A lock of her blonde bangs obscures one eye, but the other eye is bright, alert, and hopeful, a student’s eye ever-watchful for the future’s horizon. She stands behind a canvas painted with two vases and a colorful bouquet of red, sweet-smelling flowers.
Her no-nonsense, plaid button-up is rolled to the elbows. Paint spatters her jeans. A black hair tie wraps her wrist. It’s clear Jenny Slaver is not afraid to get her hands dirty, to get to work.
Someone else, a classmate maybe, stands behind her in a black hoodie at an easel of their own, but the person’s back is turned away from the camera. But Jenny has turned away from her canvas to look at you, sitting in your car on Sam Cooper as you drive back into Midtown.
And there she’s been. For nearly 15 years, Jenny Slaver has looked from that Memphis College of Art (MCA) billboard at Sam Cooper and East Parkway, greeting you back to town on your travels from all points east.
The Overton Park billboard at Sam Cooper and East Parkway.
She never knew she’d be on that billboard. When contacted this week, she didn’t know the billboard was still up.
“I’ve been immortalized as a 19-year-old!” Slaver wrote in an email from Atlanta, where she’s learning to weld metal sculpture. ”Yes, its totally weird. But I’m honored to be a tiny part of Overton Park history. Plus side, that billboard reminds old friends to call me every now and then.”
Slaver has moved around since her time at MCA, from which she graduated in 2007. She lived for a time on a ranch in Texas but recently sold it to travel. She now resides in “sunny California” but, again, taking some time to learn welding in Georgia.
She’s been busy. She paints, of course, and her work can be found at jennymakesart.com
. She’s also an educator and an illustrator, now working on her fourth book.
Slaver at work.
Local internet denizens recently wondered ”whatever happened to the MCA billboard girl.” A local source knew her (digitally, anyway) and pointed us to her website. The Flyer
contacted Slaver and sent her some questions, which she graciously answered. But there was also one thing Jenny Slaver really wanted Memphians to know. But you'll have to read on to find out exactly what.
So, you were 19 at the time? When did the billboard go up?
It seems like a lifetime ago, but I was probably around 19, maybe a sophomore in college at MCA. I graduated in 2007, so most likely in 2004. It was so long ago time has escaped me.
Did you know MCA was going to put you on a billboard? How did they approach you about it?
One day I was working on an oil painting in the studio at MCA and a photographer walked by and snapped one photo. I didn't think much of this, since, well, it is art school so that is a very common occurrence.
Soon after, I was told nonchalantly by administration that there was a photo of me being added to some MCA promotional material, possibly a poster.
I had seen many posters, flyers, and catalogs from the school with many students on them so I didn’t think much of that either … until a few weeks later when I was driving down Sam Cooper and nearly swerved. I was definitely not expecting to be on a billboard. The school did not officially inform me nor compensate me for the image.
What was the response to it at the time?
I was a student ambassador on a full tuition scholarship at the time, so one of my jobs was to go to college fairs around the area to promote the school. It was odd having my own face on the promotional material, slightly embarrassing, but it made for a good story.
Jenny Slaver on the MCA billboard.
There was definitely a dark side to this, mainly some unwanted attention from men in public places. I was approached many times in public and at school, “Hey aren’t you the Overton Park billboard girl?” Which was fine until several male students frequently began questioning, “Did you even paint that? It looks totally staged. I bet that is someone else’s art,” and so on …
As a female artist, I was no stranger to this behavior but expected more from students in a liberal arts college. It was very frustrating, but I decided to ignore the sexist remarks and move forward with my creative endeavors, unfazed.
Let me say for the record that I was surrounded with support from many amazing fellow students of all genders who did not question my abilities based on my gender. It's just a shame when a handful of creeps try to get to you. Every woman has felt this in some way, sadly.
Memphis College of Art was and is an amazing place full of creative energy and support, and I am honored to have been a small part of its history. My heart aches that MCA will be closing its doors forever soon.
You said you were surprised to know it was still up. You didn’t know? Is that weird to know it’s been up all that time?
I’m surprised it’s been up this long! I've been immortalized as a 19-year-old! Yes, it’s totally weird. But I’m honored to be a tiny part of Overton Park history. Plus side, that billboard reminds old friends to call me every now and then.
What are you up to now? Where do you live? What do you do?
As I’m writing this, I’m spending time in Cabbagetown in Atlanta, Georgia, learning to weld metal sculpture. I travel a lot these days, but currently I live and work in sunny southern California.
I am a painter, educator and illustrator. I am working on a new series of botanical oil paintings, and I am just finishing up my fourth book (illustrator, not the author) about a day in the life of a little girl living in South Sudan. A portion of proceeds from the book will go to drill water wells in the war-torn villages of South Sudan.
A sample of Slaver's recent work.
You can check me out on Instagram @Jenny_Makes_Art
or my website jennymakesart.com
for more info.
Your art looks amazing online. How would you describe it for someone who hasn’t seen it?
My paintings are motivated by nature as inspiration, typically very vibrant and expressive. I want to reveal the poetic moments I feel in nature to create work that is full of life and visual pleasure. I love to experiment with different mediums and textures in my work, letting the feel of the material shine through.
Tell me a little about your work with horses.
I lived on a ranch in Texas for several years and just recently sold it so I could travel. It was a bold move, but wanderlust was calling.
Slaver stands on a horse.
In the future I hope to plant my roots again with a few horses. But for now I’m on the road with my Husky, Skye, and the love of my life, Jason.
Horses are my muse, they will always be a big part of me. I ride whenever I can and still have one beautiful rescue mare back home in Texas that my mom, Charlotte, cares for with all her heart.
Anything you want to tell the many thousands of Memphians who see/have seen you every day?
Yes, I painted that (piece of art on the billboard)! And I hope you all are encouraged to create, too. Now, go make art!