Happy accidents

Photo by Kris Vagner

Jen Charboneau’s exhibit Yesterdays News is on exhibit at Reno Art Works, 1995 Dickerson Road, through May 1. The gallery will hold a closing reception, 6-8 p.m. May 1, featuring Washington D.C. band Teething Veils, an artist’s talk and portraits made on the spot. For information, visit jcharboneau.com and www.renoartworks.org.
Her Alley Art show will be part of Reno Sculpture Fest in downtown Reno May 6-8. For information, visit renosculpturefest.com.
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Jen Charboneau is an artist, a nomad and an organizer of community painting events who’s turned rolling with the punches into an art career.

One day, her car broke down on the way out West, so she decided to stay a while and plant some roots in the Reno art community.

“I can see from this weird, outsider viewpoint,” she said, multitasking during a recent reception for her exhibit, Yesterdays News, at Reno Art Works, where she’s the new gallery and workshop director. Earlier in the evening she’d set up a small workbench where visitors waited in line, each with a newspaper page and a dollar in hand. For that low price, she drew a portrait of each person, a resourceful, assertive gesture drawing in bright pastel chalk, right on the newspaper. She moved to the front room to give an impromptu talk to an appreciative audience of about 20. Smiling broadly and moving like a dancer, she gained rapport instantly. She kept chatting with the crowd as she bent to the floor to dip a broad brush into pink paint and fill in a large, white canvas—which had been hanging on the wall all evening blank—with brushstrokes and drips over a charcoal sketch of the audience. (The first two syllables of her name, by the way, are charbon, which means “charcoal” in French.)

Still painting, she explained how her upcoming painting events will work: “You get to paint. I’ll put in some subject matter. You paint some more.”

On the spot

Charboneau, a Minneapolis native who uses a Canadian-sounding “O” in words like “out” and “about,” finished college in Minnesota in 2009 and promptly started wandering the globe.

In each city she visited, she said, “I would always find out where the art markets were. I’d do the $10 pay, and I’d set out a blanket and set out these smaller pieces of mine.” One day, selling art at a market in Broome, a remote resort town in northwest Australia, she got bored. She decided to start painting right there at the market to keep herself busy.

“Once you’re doing something active it catches people’s eyes a little bit longer,” she said. People stopped to watch her paint. She joined forces with a charismatic seven-year-old, the daughter of the market manager. Both Charboneau and the girl found working on the spot was a more stimulating, more lucrative way to sell their work than sitting and waiting for customers. Little did she know at the time that painting outdoors and interacting with the public would soon become her hallmark as an artist.

In 2013, after a teaching stint in Korea and more globe-hopping, Charboneau held an event she called “Alley Art” in the Australian cities of Perth and Fremantle. She invited 10 local artists and musicians to paint and perform outdoors.

“We had this big canvas set out for anyone who came to paint on it,” she said. “It was a community-created painting, then at the end all the artists that were drawing all day, they came in and edited the painting to make it a cohesive piece. So it was like 50 people created this piece, as a part of the community.”

Charboneau came back stateside, teamed up with a friend, and toured the event, starting in Denver.

“We went to 15 different cities around the U.S.,” Charboneau said. “We would flash-flier, hire local musicians and artists, get a good venue, a good alleyway next to a café. People would come, listen to music, then they could also paint with the project.” The tour culminated with a gallery show in Brooklyn, a self-published book, and a more refined idea about how to best encourage public participation in art events.

“The biggest thing that I took away from it was learning about actual communities that you were going to,” she said. “To be a visitor and just show up at the most popular venue that you can find on Google or Facebook isn’t always the best. Go interact with the community. Then they can relate to you a little bit more.” During an Alley Art event in St. Louis, for example, she asked the locals to draw something that inspired them about their city.


In Reno, she’s found it easy to interact with the community.

“I’d thought about moving out West for a while,” Charboneau said a few weeks ago, as she was installing her exhibit at Reno Art Works. “I was actually heading toward San Francisco.” That was in October. Her car broke down in Colorado. The nearest offer for a place to stay came from some friends in the Lake Tahoe area, so she rented a car and drove to Tahoe.

Within a few days, Charboneau’s hosts introduced her to Rachelle Lanning, owner of a Reno yoga studio called The Studio, who hired her to paint a mural.

Lanning said, “She was just a friend of a friend. I saw her art. I thought it was great. I asked her to paint it in the stairwell for me. She did a great job. It’s a surreal, Asian, mountain-esque setting, where a temple would be, with a spiritual vibe. She came up with that idea.”

As soon as she finished the mural, Charboneau stared exploring the city’s art scene. She went on ArtSpot Reno’s mural tour, visited the Generator, and met Reno Art Works director Aric Shapiro at a birthday party.

“I was like, ’Whoa, Reno!’ I was like a kid in a candy store,” she said of the easily available resources and connections she found here.

She got a studio space at Reno Art Works and hung her exhibit, a collection of paintings and meta-paintings, in the three gallery rooms and the hallway. She paints traditional works on canvas, board or newsprint; types poems onto index cards with an analog typewriter; scribbles charcoal drawings and annotations right onto the walls, and often arranges all of these together into one piece. She filters the images she sees on the streets and in the media into drawings, painting and collages. When she exhibits her work indoors, she goes half by gallery rules and half by street rules, achieving the kind of organized fluidity and deft, confident rule-breaking that only comes with years of practice.

Charboneau hosted a version of her Alley Art event at the Fourth Street Victory Way Block Party April 23. She plans to host yet another version during Reno Sculpture Fest downtown May 6-8.

Each city Charboneau lands in fuels her thinking in some way, whether it’s the street markets of Malaysia or the small but supportive art community she met in Moab, Utah. In Nevada, as she explored the hills, valleys and hot springs, a thought occurred to her:

“You can take a mural into the middle of the desert.” She’s now developing a plan to paint murals on transparent surfaces, such as Plexiglass or clear painters’ tarps, bring them out to the desert and photograph them with the landscape visible through the plastic.

Charboneau said she’s still a nomad, and that six months in one place is a long time for her. She’s been talking with contacts in Santa Fe and The Netherlands about projects there, but she doesn’t have immediate plans to move on.

“Reno is looking like a more stable accident,” she said. “A happy accident.”