Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 21, 2021

Artist Spotlight: senior Grace Ren, a proponent of messy art

By KATY OH | February 20, 2020

b3-artist-spotlight
COURTESY OF JANAYA BROWN Ren is a multifaceted artist experienced with collages and Adobe Illustrator.

Grace Ren is a senior majoring in Public Health and minoring in Visual Arts. With a rather conspicuous Instagram handle, @graceren.art, it is quite impossible to dissociate Ren from her amalgamation of creative mediums, which she calls a “multimedia brain barf” in her single-line biography. 

In what has now evolved into a free-flowing hobby, Ren’s artistic journey began when she was around five or six, when her mom signed her up for an art class. 

She described her first experience with art as having taken place in one of the quintessential, one-on-one “private art classes which are at some random lady’s house in her basement.” Though she did not necessarily love these art lessons, such early exposure allowed her to rekindle a curiosity for creativity after coming to Hopkins, where she enrolled in Studio Drawing. 

One class led to the next, and before she knew it, she found herself pursuing the Visual Arts minor. 

“The fact that I got back into it is so circumstantial and kind of by chance. I feel if I hadn’t taken that one art class I would have just been like, ‘No more of that for me,’” she said. 

The Visual Arts minor track introduced her to other mediums, such as figure drawing, life drawing, printmaking, oil painting and sculpture. She has also taken a number of Asian and Asian American art history courses, which, in reflecting on her own identity, have allowed her to “see how other people have interpreted that or kind of ignored that through making their art.” 

Outside of art classes, Ren draws inspiration from the artists she finds on social media. In particular, she draws inspiration from cartoonists such as Suerynn Lee (@suerynns), Will McPhail (@willmcphail4) and Christine Mi (@christinexmi). 

“I think I’m inspired a lot by the artists I follow on Instagram. I think for me, anyway, social media has become a really interesting route for me to discover artists because I feel like with galleries and museums, those aren’t super accessible to necessarily everyone,” she said. 

At the same time, Ren often finds herself venturing into local museums and galleries around Baltimore. A few of her favorite spots include the C. Grimaldis Gallery in Mount Vernon, which is the oldest continuously running contemporary art gallery in Baltimore, as well as School 33 Art Center in Federal Hill, which offers an artist-in-residence program. 

While Ren believes it would be nice to claim her own unique, distinct art style, she explained that she also finds beauty in allowing her adventurous, creative juices to flow however they want. 

When Ren first began to develop her online art platform, she was deeply invested in collage making, using clippings from magazines like The New Yorker, which were lying around the house. 

On one hand, magazines offered a unique way to integrate different images into one story. But Ren also emphasized that, simply put, the reuse of home magazines was also the most cost-efficient alternative to purchasing overpriced Blick art supplies. 

“Now, there’s just so many different mediums that I want to explore and more are becoming available with different technologies and methods that people are coming up with,” she said. 

Recently, Ren decided to learn how to use Illustrator as another way of digitizing her content. Practicing with face shapes, she noticed that her outlines were developing into more complex figures. Her friends encouraged her to make them into stickers, and it wasn’t long before they all sold out. 

If there’s one thing she definitely does prefer with art, however, it is that art be “messy.” While some art forms call for strict precision and technique-driven expertise, Ren’s fondness for “messy art” stems from the way it challenges standardized boundaries. 

“I think the standard of ‘beauty’ in art has been evolving, like always, and now is a very interesting time where there is not really a set standard like there has been in previous periods,” she said. 

While social media has provided a unique platform for Ren to showcase her work and engage with followers, she also expressed frustrations about the art scene at Hopkins. 

“I know so many individuals who are doing maybe not your traditional sense of art but who are doing really creative things on their own. But the problem is there’s no space to showcase that or really encourage people to come together,” she said. “There’s no gallery space for students to show their work, and there’s just nothing really connecting all these individuals who are doing really cool things. Because there’s no infrastructure for it, it seems like nobody cares and nobody’s being involved... There’s just no visibility.” 

While, to a certain extent, originality undeniably comes from individualized experiences, Ren acknowledges the equally important potential that art holds in community building. It is through the sharing of visually and viscerally potent messages that she hopes to piece together different stories, one collage, canvas or illustration at a time. 

For samples of Ren’s work, see the Multimedia section.

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