Artist Jenie Gao connects the political with the personal

Gao created Working Draft's mural
Artist Jenie Gao connects the political with the personal
Courtesy of the artists

Visitors to the Museum of Wisconsin Art earlier this year were confronted with two startling images: a “gundog” and a “bulldog.” That is, dogs with handguns or bullhorns for heads.

“One represents war and violence, the other protest and speech,” Madison artist Jenie Gao explained in a statement. The exhibition illustrated that even the most contrasting viewpoints stem from what people believe is necessary to survive now and in the future – and how those shared instincts should “be the basis of how we understand one another.”

As an activist-artist working in woodcuts, ink drawings and other media, Gao strives to forge connections and show how the personal and the political are linked.

Many of her projects are highly visible, such as her sustainability-inspired wall at Working Draft Beer Co. and a Trinity Lutheran Church mural representing refuge and community, made when she was a lead artist with Dane Arts Mural Arts. Some are temporary, like an installation of migratory birds fashioned from old clothing, the result of her arts residency at the Madison Public Library last year, and an installation that debuted this fall along 300 feet of chain-link fence surrounding the Bayview Foundation.

Yet it’s Gao’s transparency about the resources that go into any artistic endeavor that is perhaps her most profound contribution to artistic innovation. She won’t stand for hidden labor hours, and she believes building a sound business leads to opportunities not just for herself but also for her collaborators.

“I’m really, really adamant about the value of creative labor,” she says. “I’m clear about what it takes to make something that has depth and has quality.”