Broad shoulders: Jacinta Bunnell is an artist, activist, author & philanthropic arm-wrestler

Jacinta Bunnell (photo by Brooke Mitchell)

Jacinta Bunnell’s colorful collages and paintings evolve out of scribbled or patterned surfaces, be they worn gameboards, faded coloring books, old letters and ledgers, the pages of children’s encyclopedias, flash cards, scraps of fabric or even, in the case of her series A Life Well-Played, daily scorecards supplied by her stepfather from a rummy card game whose origins date back to her maternal grandparents and their Florida trailer park. Bunnell revels in the odd synchronies that occur in her collaborations with other artists, whether it’s the visual duet that she and Cindy Hoose executed in the Kinda the Same series, in which paintings by each were hung at an exhibition at the Rosendale Café in pairs, chiming and contrasting in a harmony riven with atonal notes, or her riffs off children’s art in “Shy as a Shrimp,” a show at the Kingston gallery KMoCA in which she displayed each brightly hued artwork over the juvenile piece that inspired it. The hokey element of craft in her work is endearing, rather than cloying, thanks to her narrative inventiveness and strengths as a colorist; alternately lush and transparent, bright and subdued, sizzling and somber, the works suggest Indian miniatures and Matisse in their masterful chromatic juxtapositions.

Bunnell, who grew up in a small town outside Scranton, Pennsylvania and graduated from Bucknell University, has also shown her work at the Allegheny College Art Galleries, Woodstock Artists Association & Museum, SUNY-Ulster, TeamLove Ravenhouse Gallery in New Paltz and Roos Arts in Rosendale. She is the author of four coloring books that feature gay and transgender characters and has toured the US and Canada to promote her books and teach workshops while accompanying her musician/artist friends, including Neko Case, DavEnd, Julie Novak, Irit Reinheimer and her partner Michael Truckpile, a drummer and guitarist. Bunnell is a co-founder of the local philanthropic women’s arm-wrestling league, Hudson Valley BRAWL (Broads’ Regional Arm-Wrestling League), and she chanted the rap verses for a high-energy, campy video of the League, in which dolls thrown on the floor morph into hilariously costumed people, with music and lyrics written by Truckpile.

She and Truckpile live in a fairytale farmhouse in Stone Ridge whose retro yellow-green kitchen and cozy living room with corner woodburning stove seem lifted from one of her pieces. Bunnell “believes in real handwriting, iced tea, small towns, lip syncing, her mom’s fruitcake and having the same best friend since you are two,” a nostalgic look back to a simpler time. But Bunnell is no sentimentalist; her traditional homespun values are leavened with her ardent feminism and activism on behalf of underserved youth, especially those who are queer and transgender: a population she connected with as a community health educator for Planned Parenthood as well as teacher and childcare provider.

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Almanac Weekly‘s Lynn Woods recently interviewed Bunnell at her home.

You majored in Philosophy in college. How did this influence you as an artist, and what did you do prior to committing yourself to art?

Philosophy is teaching you how to think and analyze. I chose a lot of Philosophy courses that were somewhat political and got involved in different activist groups on campus, including several feminist and LGBTQ groups.

I knew that when I left college, I wanted to do something that mattered – to use whatever knowledge and privilege I had to make the world a better place. In 1994/95 I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Washington, DC with the Brethren Volunteer Service. They’re like a domestic Peace Corps: They give you room and board and you get a small stipend. The issues were always about homelessness, mental illness, alcoholism and financial struggles. I met so many wonderful people, both volunteers and people who ate there, and it opened my eyes to the immense poverty in this country.

What brought you to the Hudson Valley?

In 1993 I spent my January term at college at the Grail, a women’s intentional community based on social justice and ecology in Cornwall-on-Hudson. I fell in love with the Hudson Valley and in 1995 got a job at Planned Parenthood in Newburgh. I went from doing health education to teaching a parent/teacher workshop in prison to a puberty class in middle school to teaching kids how to talk about HIV.

What inspired you to make art?

I always considered myself craftsy, but I never studied art. In the Hudson Valley I was surrounded by so many artists, the crafting evolved into painting. I asked people to teach me different techniques, and I learned from children after I started doing childcare.

The reason I started painting ten years ago was I couldn’t read for a year-and-a-half after I had a severe sledding accident and suffered a mild traumatic brain injury. I would get blinding headaches when I tried to read, and painting did not give me a headache. I was renting an apartment in Rosendale, and my friend Cindy Hoose and I decided to do a show together at the Rosendale Café where each painting had to have three elements that were the same, whether it was a color, a piece of scrap paper or the frame. We did a second collaboration in 2014, working for one year on 52 recycled gameboards. We’d pass each board back and forth, from four to 25 times. We showed these at the Anvil Gallery in Kingston and in the Berkshires, and just got a grant to show them at the Hudson Library.

Why do you prefer to work collaboratively?

I’m a very social person. I thrive on other’s people’s energy and ideas. When Dean Jones, from the children’s band Dog on Fleas, asked me to make a cover for his album When the World Was New, I listened to the album over and over again, and then I interviewed him. One of the songs asked if we could have been able to knit a sweater if not for the prehensile grip, which got me thinking of the world as a new craft project. That’s how I came up with the image of two hands knitting a globe.

Elizabeth Mitchell, a children’s performer, asked me to art direct a music video for her. I built a small animation set and I invited Emily Bennison Chameides to animate it. I made clouds and sky and figures, including little characters stuck on game pieces, and we did the animation together.

Does your use of recycled materials arise out of necessity, political consciousness or childhood memories?

Mostly political consciousness. I hate to see so much waste in the world. I also have a heavy nostalgia for the way things used to be made: the beautifully crafted handwriting, the elaborately decorated papers of the past.

The material provides a springboard. A blank canvas is so daunting. When I teach a workshop, I bring found images, such as Scooby Doo, Strawberry Shortcake or the Incredible Hulk, so nobody feels the pressure of drawing on their own.

Your work has a handmade, whimsical quality that seems to exist in an eternal childhood, free from life’s humdrum responsibilities. How do you survive?

I receive royalties from my four books. I’m a personal assistant to a couple of artists, and I do home organizing and childcare. There are months when I don’t know if I’ll be able to pay the bills.

What prompted the coloring books?

While I was at Planned Parenthood, I started a discussion group for LGBTQ teens who didn’t have the kind of family or peer support they needed and deserved. When I left to start my own childcare business, I observed children playing unbiased and non-gendered games every day, and yet the toys, movies and clothes all around them were sending clear messages. I came together with Irit Reinheimer in 2001 to make a coloring book called Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls Will Be… We were both doing childcare and would commiserate about all the princesses, the predictable gender roles, the lack of queer and trans people in the books and movies these children were consuming. Both of us were making zines at the time, and the ethos of zine culture has always been that if you are not finding what you want to be reading, go and make it yourself.

We took images from other kids’ books, altered them on Photoshop and wrote the text. I sold thousands of our original and started a website. A lot of times my biggest customers were the specialty gay and women’s bookstores. Now there are almost none left. One reason is that chains like Barnes and Noble have a gay/lesbian section, and the other is obviously more competition from the online stores.

You refer to yourself as a queer feminist. Are those concerns also personal for you?

Though I have been with a man for the past 15 years, I also dated women. I came out when I was in college and worked with a lot of gay and transgender people. For many [young] LGBTQs, it’s a matter of a safe home. I knew kids who were getting kicked out of their homes because they came out.

There is a lot of academic discussion and theorizing about gender and sexuality. I wanted to approach these subjects with humor to make them more accessible. In classic Disney, female characters are portrayed as hapless, helpless, sexualized, weak humans who have to be rescued by birds, mice, fairies and elves. In Dr. Seuss, females are nearly nonexistent. In fairy tales, women are often battered, killed or tortured. Many of these stories portray females as untrustworthy, backstabbing or nagging. There is so much more to womanhood than that: There is cleverness, courage, adventure, intelligence and boldness. These are all inherently human characteristics, no matter where you fall on the gender spectrum. I want to bring characters like this to children.

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You eventually found a publisher for Girls Will Be Boys.

When it became too much to handle the orders ourselves, Soft Skull in Brooklyn took us on, [and for that edition] we art-directed illustrations by other illustrators accompanying our text. The illustrators got paid with free books. But Soft Skull was dying and went out of business.

When I decided to make a second coloring book, called Girls Are Not Chicks, I self-published and sent it out to publishers, but no one bit – until out of nowhere I heard from some folks who had left one of the publishers we had approached and started PM Press. They picked up the book and also my other books. Sometimes the Spoon Runs away with Another Spoon is mostly based on fairy tales. I wrote it and hired an illustrator I met while selling books at Bard. Illustrator Leela Corman did the fourth book.

What are you working on now?

I’m nearly finished with two books. One is a children’s book and the other is a guided journal of questions for emotional intelligence. For five years I was an assistant teacher at High Meadow School and did a lot of emotional intelligence work. I learned what questions help kids resolve conflict and understand someone different from them.

Does writing come naturally to you?

I began writing poems, little stories and journals in college. When I left Planned Parenthood, I took Lynda Barry’s workshop “Writing the Unthinkable.” She’s a writer and cartoonist, and her workshop doesn’t require you be a professional writer or journalist. I learned the beauty is in talking about specific details.

Your approach to life and art is always very inclusive of others.

Every person is born with the essence of who they are. I do what moves people’s heart and stirs them to think about something differently. In my workshops I invite people to make their own stories that are contradicting the mainstream and collect them into a book.

Tell us about the tours you’ve done.

Two were in the Midwest, one five weeks from here to Seattle, and one was on the West Coast, after the University of Washington flew me out to do a workshop for Women’s History Month. A lot of my friends are in bands. My friend Neko Case was doing a West Coast tour, and I sold books at her shows and did workshops at community centers. I toured with her a second time and created an overhead projection showing the coloring books.

Sounds like a lot of fun.

It’s a blast. My favorite tour was with Michael and artists DavEnd and Julie Novak in the Midwest. We drove this old Mercedes converted to run on vegetable oil. Because I could sell books and CDs, the road trip was paid for. There was a network of punks who put on shows in each town, and we would stay at their houses. We only paid $50 for fuel, and we were gone for three weeks. We had to go get veggie oil from a restaurant in every town. I’d pump it out of their dumpster. Japanese restaurants have the cleanest oil.

What kind of workshop are you working on right now?

A volunteer project with three other artists and activists for Planned Parenthood. We are teaching a workshop on how to create bold iconic signs that speak personally about how Planned Parenthood has helped you, someone you love or someone in your community. Bard students came to Planned Parenthood for a day of engagement. We helped students brainstorm ideas, teach painting techniques, bring the materials and create a safe environment. Our next group of young people will be from Kingston High School. We still have such a strange belief system and judgments around sexuality in general, so it’s not necessarily easy for a young person to walk through the door to get the health care they need. I had friends whose breast cancer or cervical cancer was detected at Planned Parenthood. It’s where some friends primarily got all their health care.

What is your advice in the current political situation?

Community based-organizations have always risen up out of people taking action. Whether it’s legal services for immigrants or domestic violence shelters, these are safety nets we need now more than ever before. It’s hard to look at the large-scale impact of everyone losing their funding and support, but if you pick an agency or two that speaks to your heart and contribute with money, teaching or time, that’s a concrete step.