If you’ve strolled through the St. Joseph Farm Stand or a pop-up market in Central Arkansas in recent months, you may have seen colorful displays of stickers, prints, and wood carvings paying tribute to all things squishy, squirmy and sweet under the banner of SLUGKNIVES. Or perhaps you’ve come across cheerful woodcut slugs and illustrations of insect-infested jell-o molds adorning your Instagram feed.
The artist behind those creations is Jenna Jones, mixed media artist and 5th-grade educator in the Little Rock School District.
Jones’ playful creations serve up the stuff of nightmares (roaches! spiders! worms!) with a spoonful of sugar. Her warm and welcoming works on canvas, wood, and paper mix overtly funky femininity with the unexpected and surreal. Floating fungi, day-glo worms, and roaches in roller skates are boldly brought to life in a vintage valentine palette. The results are cutesy and kitschy, with an underlying appreciation for darkness and decay.
Jones recently chatted with the Arkansas Times about her journey to unleash the wild and whimsical SLUGKNIVES.
When did SLUGKNIVES launch?
I didn’t start sharing my art seriously until November of 2021. It was something that happened during lockdown, just exploring things more creatively. I had a burst of creativity in my sketchbooks and the paintings I’d been crafting in private. You get this feeling as you get older that you aren’t as willing to care what other people think and you lose some of those guardrails to protect yourself.
I’ve always been a doodler and interested in painting and crafting, but I wasn’t always comfortable sharing it. SLUGKNIVES came partially out of therapy and a decision to start showing up for myself more. That’s something I talk to my students about — having a growth mindset and taking risks. I felt I was speaking that with my mouth, but my actions didn’t line up. I was playing it safe with a lot of things in my life. Putting myself out there artistically was a big step for me.
Aspects of your work — the colors, the cuteness — feel like commentary on some of the visual tropes of femininity. Is that how you see it?
Yes, I do think that’s me embracing the feminine. There’s a vulnerability for me in liking things that are cute or frilly or glitter or sparkly. I remember feeling in middle school like I couldn’t like pink or bright colors. I remember being told by my family members and people around me, “Jenna, you’re so loud,” and being seen as someone who’s too much. Being able to represent that in my art is celebrating that I’m too much.
Being in a body that was bigger than some people thought it should be, wearing a bright color could feel like attracting unwanted attention. It feels like an act of rebellion to reclaim that through my art.
How and when did your love of bugs develop?
It started in elementary school when we had to do a bug collection. If they were alive, you’d put them in the freezer so they’d die and then you’d pin them on a board. I didn’t like that part so much, but it got my mind going about how beautiful these creatures are that are not generally understood by the general population. There are TONS of insects on the planet. It’s the animal kingdom with the most members.
Just being a really curious person in general, I always valued beauty in nature — growing up on a farm, going on walks down the road by my house, seeing the changing seasons. I felt really in tune with all the creatures around me, and especially the ones that are tiny that people think are gross — the ones that are misunderstood.
I have roaches as pets and also a tarantula, and I’ve been in different work environments or friend groups where people think it’s a little weird. But I love that as an educator it’s been viewed as a gift. Being able to engage students with insects also teaches them compassion and respect for the natural world. We need to respect their homes. They’re just livin’ their lives!
What is the fascination with Jell-O molds? This feels like maybe a sort of Southern thing to me?
[Laughs.] It came from being around some Jell-O type items as a kid. My grandma would serve a leaf of lettuce with a pineapple ring and cottage cheese on top. It was always really gross to me.
But with my art, I enjoy leaning into the abnormal, the disgusting. Those Jell-O molds are also so beautifully put together and so shiny. And I love the idea that you can fit so many miscellaneous things into one solid shape.
I’ve also been really inspired by artists across the U.S. who are making old recipes from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s come to life, or making resin molds. Mexakitsch is one, and Ashley-Pauline Moore, who is local.
How did you start bringing SLUGKNIVES to the local community?
My first pop-up was with [Argenta-based jewelry designer Stacey Bowers] Bang Up Betty for Valentine’s Day this year. She was really encouraging and getting that little push from another woman artist meant a lot. I really love doing pop-ups across the city. It’s been a great way to connect with people.
I think the first big market I did was the Sunshine Market at Dunbar Garden this spring, and it was really successful. That was when I first debuted the woodcut slugs that I painted. I gave them their own personalities and astrological signs and people really liked them.
At that time, I thought, “I wanna start doing more with power tools.” So now I’ve been using a jigsaw to cut fiberboard into shapes and I also use a scroll saw. In addition to the slugs, there are snails I’m working on.
I’ve been a patron of South Main Creative for the longest time. It’s right down the street from my house and I’ll go walk through if I need a little burst of creativity or a break. It’s kind of a dream come true because I get to be a part of that in a different way now that they are carrying some of my stuff — and I sell things online through Instagram and DMs.
I’ve also been fortunate to do some commissions recently. I would have never gotten them if I hadn’t put myself out there.
Is it challenging to balance teaching and being a working artist?
Absolutely. I’ll come home from school after doing some planning or having meetings and have dinner and then sit down and start painting. It’s like I have to keep two different planners now.
I’ve realized that teaching and interacting with the kids fuels me on an extrovert level and the art fuels me internally and allows me to process things that are going on inside my head. It’s a way of making sense of my world.
I used to have this barrier artistically where I felt if I can’t do it perfectly the first time, it’s not worth doing, which is the opposite of what I tell my kids. I tell them, “Everything is a process and you learn along the way.” So, it’s been a learning experience of trying new things and accepting that if they don’t work out, that’s fine.
Follow SLUGKNIVES on Instagram at @SLUGKNIVES, or catch her art in person at the Dunbar Sunshine Market and Plant Sale, 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 1.