“Jenna Rae Tooley paints the moments that we have when we are most alive,” says professor Stephen Knudsen, speaking of his former student at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).
To see Tooley’s paintings is to grasp what Knudsen is saying: her uncanny oils frequently depict children on the radiant cusp between innocence and experience, often in bucolic, natural settings that reflect her own upbringing in Novato. The paintings display a profound sensitivity to light, in both the mystical and physical senses.
The 23-year-old painter has exhibited her work widely across the United States and overseas. A graduate of San Marin High School, she studied through the Spoleto Study Abroad program in Italy, and then in Savannah, Georgia at SCAD, where she earned her B.F.A. in painting and a minor in drawing. She received a grant for representational painting from the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation in 2019.
This spring, Tooley is a featured artist at SCAD’s semi-annual Open Studio. The all-virtual event allows enthusiasts and collectors to peruse over 1000 works by SCAD students, alumni, and faculty, including new Tooley painting The Last Night of Summer. In the 16”x’20” oil, a teenager stands in the humid darkness on a hot summer night, her head merging with the shimmery surge of the river beyond.
While speaking of Tooley’s incandescent depictions, Knudsen invokes another great artist from San Francisco: Jack London. “London called it the ‘sheet of flame’, a place where one feels ‘so alive that there is a forgetfulness that one is alive.’ When Jenna reflects on those moments in a painting like The Last Night of Summer, she delivers with enigma and visceral crush. This is the language of the beautiful precariousness of remembrance.”
“I have a memory book I’ve created,” Tooley explains. “I draw little scenes from memory, in crayon. They’re rudimentary, but I can get the essence of a memory down into this book. Then I can create a realist painting that’s based in these memories, so it functions like an archive. Someday I’ll have hundreds of these books that I can flip through to review my collected memories.”
Tooley’s website presents her multi-dimensionality: The fine artist is also an accomplished production designer and director. (Step into the world of her short film “Fuzzite Fighters” and emerge a different person.) “I’m so visual that if something doesn’t make sense visually, it doesn’t really click in my brain,” she says.
This summer, Tooley will relocate from Savannah to Atlanta, that rapidly expanding capital of the film-making world, to focus on her career as a production designer. Atlanta also offers significant infrastructure in the fine art world for the young painter. Still, she remains a daughter of the Bay Area (“San Francisco is my dream place to live!”) and envisions returning one day. In the meantime, her visions come to life in her paintings, those oil-on-canvas, memory-fed sheets of flame.
SCAD Open Studio, curated by SCAD Art Sales, takes place this Fri., Sat., and Sun, April 30-May 2, 2021.
Photography by: Jenna Rae Tooley