Jacqui Fehl’s mixed-media creations on wood, paper, and canvas — exuberantly colorful and creatively elusive — are the result of a freewheeling attitude that more academic painters would find disorienting. “I’m not interested in perfection,” she points out. “I like flawed.”
It’s much the same approach an actor might take in exploring a new role, which is understandable, since Fehl’s professional résumé, while lacking any formal art training, incorporates film and television, along with her current work as a voiceover actor for commercial and corporate clients. “If you call any of MGM’s Las Vegas hotels to make a reservation, that’s me you hear when you get put on hold,” Fehl reveals. Working from her home recording studio, she also supplied voice work for Disney, Verizon, and IBM.
But it’s her visual artwork that allows Fehl to express herself in her own voice. Although she never picked up a paintbrush during her student days at the University of Iowa, where she graduated with a degree in film production, she went frequently, as a child, to the Art Institute in her native Chicago. Fehl’s stepfather took her on expeditions there, sketchbook in hand, leading her to Picasso, Chagall, Manet. Today, she nods to the pop-art-inspired Jean-Michel Basquiat and the abstract expressionist Cy Twombly, among other modernist influences.
Her own work encompasses an eclectic mix of material — acrylics, crayon, house paint, pastel, graphite for under-layering and basic structure — to which she adds collaged paper, photographs, silhouettes, even hair from the family dogs. Windows and doors frequently appear. “Windows take you both inside and outside,” Fehl remarks, “and doors can be shut, making them more mysterious to me. They make you wonder what’s on the other side.”
The figurative elements are often arranged, grid-like, in blocks of pure color, inserted among freeform shapes or human and animal figures. While the effect may read abstract, individual fragments are taken from real life. “I like using realistic images in my work,” she notes. “I just play with color combinations, add interesting materials to the piece. It’s totally unplanned.” She favors heavy layering, scraping it and sanding it down to build texture.
If there’s anything deliberate about the process, it’s the selection of a title for each canvas, an element almost as important for Fehl as anything on the work’s surface. It gives the viewer a starting point for entering into each framed world.
The titles prompt participation. “I provide the end of the story and the viewer has to provide the beginning,” she says. Some of the more inventive ones read like Zen koans: She Couldn’t Remember The Last Time She Cleaned Out Her Purse is one example, attached to an early painting with blocks and blobs of bright red, a bottom half of linen white (a folded handkerchief? a tissue?), and randomly deployed, oddly colored shapes pushing against the top of the frame. These works were often populated with whimsical animals (there’s one of a purplish bear named Larry) or Chagall-like floating humans.
Fehl’s recent pieces, however, tend more toward formalism, with a muted palette. “I think my work has gotten more sophisticated and less whimsical,” she says.
Her husband Alec builds the boards for her larger pieces, as well as the distressed wooden frames that contain them, some made from the couple’s old deck furniture. The pair met in Los Angeles, where Fehl headed after graduating from college with dreams of an acting career, and where she eventually found representation to launch her voiceover business. In the late 1990s, when digital technology had advanced enough for Fehl to work from home, she and Alec looked east.
“Both our families are concentrated on the East Coast, and we wanted to be close to them, but not necessarily in the same town,” Fehl says. “When we saw Asheville, we knew this was it.”
Jacqui Fehl, Mark Bettis Studio & Gallery at the Wedge (123 Roberts St. in the River Arts District ) and at Woolworth Walk (25 Haywood St.) in downtown Asheville. Fehl’s and Bettis’ group show, “Haus of Blues,” runs October and November at the District Wine Bar at the Wedge (37 Paynes Way, #009). For more information, see jacquifehl.com.