BY JOHN HENRY, FORT WORTH MAGAZINE, JANUARY 28, 2022
Jana Renée’s gift as a muralist is a blessing in full view for all of Fort Worth to see.
Jana Renée’s plan was to move through Fort Worth like a cowboy on the Chisholm Trail. Her itinerary was a good night’s sleep or two, a refill on nourishment, and perhaps throw a few provisions in a knapsack.
“My plans were to say ‘sayonara’ to my family and head to Europe,” she says of those best-laid plans that went, at least temporarily, awry. “I was going to go to London and continue studying sculpture at some of the universities there.
“I wound up getting ensconced here instead. I was here and had a place to stay. I immediately began bartending and getting involved in the arts scene, like, literally right away.”
She isn’t complaining about it. Renée is happy about her detour, and we’re all definitely quite delighted she has put down roots and made Fort Worth a home. Her impact — more an imprint — is all around us.
She doesn’t remember the details of when or where, but it was in all probability finishing up an art show in town. Katie Murray, a notable artistic talent in town, pulled Renée aside for a chat.
As Renée recalls: “She said something like, ‘Hey, do you do murals? We’re working on this project, and I think you would be interested.’” The project was in Inspiration Alley in The Foundry District, where industrial buildings have been transformed into a cultural experience with eye-popping pieces of art intersecting life.
Murray encouraged Renée to apply.
“I said, ‘Yes!’” Renée remembers with an enthusiasm that’s difficult to translate in print.
Renée had no formal training as a muralist, the discipline, if you will, she calls a combination of illustration and painting.
She has been a muralist ever since and currently working on a piece in downtown, soon to be another of her large-scale depictions that bring once-ordinary walls in homes, businesses, and communities into the realm of architectural and social masterpieces for all the world to see.
Renée laughs now thinking about how she got to this time and space.
Her family moved to the area in the late 1990s. Renée, 32, spent her high school years at Boswell in Saginaw, where she graduated. She had always wanted to be an illustrator and, sure enough, was contracted to do a children’s book at age 19.
That turned out to be a very valuable learning experience.
“I kind of got screwed by the person I was working with because I didn’t know how to write contracts,” she says. “After spending months and not getting paid, I took my illustrations and went to school. I thought, ‘Oh, crap, I’m 19 years old and not this smart. I need someone to give me advice.’ I had jumped in immediately after high school and realized I needed more training.”
And experience. Who among us hasn’t sat in that seat?
Her roving odyssey took her to Boston and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, one of the nation’s oldest art schools (founded in 1873) and with a list of notable graduates about as long as its 1,600-plus enrollment. The school emerged out of the Massachusetts Drawing Act, which required all cities in the Commonwealth with more than 10,000 people to include “drawing” in their public-school curriculum. These were the days of the Industrial Revolution, and many Bostonians believed that booming industry wasn’t the only way to evolve a nation. Art was as essential to a great nation, a vital economy, and the well-being of the citizenry. Look no further than London and Paris, they argued.
Something about the more things change, the more they stay the same comes to mind.
When Renée had completed her studies there in 2015, she came down to Fort Worth to see her family one last time before darting across the pond.
Only she didn’t. Chalk that one up to circumstances, often as annoying as mosquitoes on a summer cookout, except that a spray can of toxins won’t ward them off.
That first mural in The Foundry turned out to be a collaboration with Hillary Dohoney, the result an extraordinary piece and spiritual experience. The mural tells the story of a Syrian woman trying to escape with her children the grisly battlefields of the Syrian Civil War. Many tried by way across the Mediterranean Sea. Those who made it arrived to European shores scarred by the trip and the life they had escaped.
Renée calls this work a favorite of hers.
“I love collaborating with other artists,” she says. “There’s always a part of the idea that’s not yours. Hillary educated me on what was going on in Syria. I shield myself from the news if it’s affecting my art. She’s not like that. She dives right in. It was a very beautiful experience because I had never done it before. And I didn’t know I could do that. She’s a dear friend and an extremely talented artist. I was honored to work with her. We put our ideas together. My end of it was feminism and the pain some women go through and how they grin and bear it. And her end was Syria, what was going on with people being turned away and nowhere to go.”
Renée, who calls oil painting another “medium that is important to me,” has completed at least 26 murals in all since Murray asked her to apply for The Foundry project, including the Hotel Drover, one in the Fairmount neighborhood, a few at McFly’s Pub, and at Trinity Coffee Shop.
She has painted Western cowgirls, which she finds kind of funny considering her time spent in the Northeast. On the other hand, her mother is a horse person from California.
“When working with Jana on her first mural in Inspiration Alley, I instantly knew she was going to become a success story,” Murray says. “Watching her discuss and execute her artistic process from idea inception to finished product is both intentional and whimsical. She truly has an illustrator’s eye and a soul full of light.”
Renée’s latest work — a work in progress that is expected to be complete sometime this month — is under a railroad bridge on East Third Street in downtown. It’s a project undertaken by Downtown Fort Worth Inc. and BNSF Railway. Both are funding.
The mural is Henri Matisse-inspired interiors of people in their homes, Renée says. It is an homage to the community that has been there in the past and is there now. Colorful bold patterns will be prominent in its makeup.
“The underpass itself is kind of a gateway between the neighborhoods where people who work in the city live and the city itself,” Renee says. “It’s meant to bring together all walks of life into one spot, similar to how you would do in a neighborhood.”
Renée believes one reason she was selected for the contract is because she had designed a gutter to filter the dirt-and-grime runoff from the bridge and railroad tracks.
The catch on all this, of course, is if she had taken that fork in the road to London. We would not have this unique voice contributing to Fort Worth being such a unique conglomerate.
“I just want people to feel good when they see art, especially these past couple of years,” she says. “So much going on that’s not pleasant. A nice restful moment for the brain.
“Fort Worth has been a really lovely place to make art. I never expected to become a muralist. It’s like crazy doing these projects. Lately, I’m just happy to be here, which is nice because I’m not much of a Texan at times. Now they have me painting these cowgirls, and I think it’s very funny.”