"At home with homes: Artist Hannah Jennings works at home painting other people’s homes."

Wednesday Journal Photo by Frank Pinc

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Oak Park River Forest
July 17, 2018

Not your average gift shop

Wright's Heurtley house

By Michelle Dybal
Contributing Reporter

Touristy gift shops are often filled with shot glasses and useless trinkets – places to buy souvenirs that seem like a good idea at the time. The mementoes hold the memories of a good time while vacationing and may get some shelf space or be a treasure to a child for a while. Visit Oak Park, on the other hand, is a different type of tourism destination and is working to change that image with Urban Local Made, displaying hand-crafted items by local artists in portions of their Lake Street gift shop.

According to Kevin Kilbride, Visit Oak Park's Marketing and Social Media manager, the idea for Urban Local Made came from seeing travelers looking for something different.

"We had been selling wares from a handful of local artists, and since our area's artistic community is so dynamic, widening our selection of these locally-made items made perfect sense," Kilbride said. "Showcasing the work of Chicagoland makers allows us to support small and independent artists who contribute to the distinct character of our community while offering a unique, authentic and hands-on experience for visitors."

Those offerings include affordable hand-thrown pottery, jewelry, cards and wall art made from original paintings, sustainably-sourced wooden kitchen ware, and high-end fine art and objets d'art. Artists come from Chicago, Riverside, St. Charles, Downers Grove, Monee, Berwyn, and Forest Park, with many from Oak Park.

One artist, who has been exhibiting her work at Visit Oak Park for 10 years but is also an Urban Local Made Spring 2018 featured artist, is Hannah Jennings. She paints watercolors of Oak Park landmarks and has been a resident of the community since 1982. Her architecturally accurate renditions include Pleasant Home, the Lake Theater, The Nineteenth Century Club, the Farmers Market, and a variety of Frank Lloyd Wright prairie-style masterpieces. The images are softened by flowers and greenery painted more loosely to balance the lines of the accompanying structures. Her works are available on coasters and as digital prints at the store. To date, 400 prints have sold. 

"I love the world you get into when you're doing watercolor — there's pigment and paper and water and it's about the process as much as the product," Jennings said. "I really love every time someone takes one of these that I so enjoyed making and puts it up on their wall."

A designer/illustrator by trade, Jennings' watercolors came later in her career. She started painting the Wright buildings in 2005 when she launched her own business, Hannah Jennings Design, doing book and website design, other design projects and teaching design at Dominican University. Prior to that, Jennings was manager of Design at Brookfield Zoo, creating signage, interpretive graphics and messaging regarding the environment.

Another Oak Parker, John Putnam, features finely crafted ceramic vases and bowls as part of the Urban Local Made project. He adds brush paintings to some pieces, an art form he started before his wife turned his interests to pottery after taking a class at Terra Incognito, according to Putnam's website.

Jewelry from repurposed materials is made by Oak Parker Alix Mikesell. She turns items such as laminate countertop material into lightweight, often reversible discs that dangle from earrings or from a bracelet or combines to create a necklace. Some, she said, "softly rustle as you move."

Other Oak Park-based artist offerings include cards and prints of acrylic floral paintings by Marion Sirefman, large-scale original montage mosaics of Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright by Jen McNulty, metal "neckties" by Doug Freerksen, and Kristi Sloniger's Ikebana pottery vases.

Greeting cards and prints of Chicago scenes originally painted in watercolor by Forest Park's Heather Shack, a stroke survivor, are also available. (Forest Park Review ran an article on Shack earlier this year)

"We hope the program inspires anyone who sets foot in the visitors center, whether a resident or out-of-towner, to seek out products and experiences you won't find anywhere but in and around Oak Park," Kilbride said.

Visit Oak Park is open Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. More: visitoakpark.com/Urban-Local-Made, 708-848-1500. 1010 Lake St.

, a Sun-Times News Group Member
July 23, 2009

Be of Good Cheer through watercolor
July 23, 2009

Jennings at workHannah Jennings makes a living through her company, Hannah Jennings Design, but her watercolor work through her other company, Be of Good Cheer, is her labor of love.

"That's something I do to feed my soul," Jennings said.

Hannah Jennings is a webpage, sign and book designer who works her business Hannah Jennings Design out of her Oak Park apartment. She also does prints, watercolors and personalized greeting cards through another company she runs from home, Be of Good Cheer.

The professional Web designer also does watercolor house portraits, illustrations and cards. Jennings has more than 30 years' experience in design.

Now she works on Web design out of her Oak Park apartment. She's been busy with design work this year, she said, not so much the watercolors.

When she paints, most of her images are Oak Park-related, Jennings said. She's lived in the village since 1982, and her work has appeared at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio and the Oak Park Visitors Center.

"There are a lot of beautiful things here," she said.

Oak Park resident Roz Byrne hired Jennings to do a watercolor of a house she sold. A local Realtor, Byrne said she helped a River Forest couple close on their home and got the watercolor as a gift for them.

Byrne also gave a Jennings watercolor as a Christmas gift to a member of her family. She has since included Jennings in her referral directory, which she gives to all her clients.

"She's just a really neat lady," Byrne said. "She has a really good spirit about her. That's why I chose her."

A fine arts major, Jennings didn't start out in art. She spent a year working in a mailroom in Chicago, eventually moving up to assistant editor with her company. She spent some time working for a newspaper in Hawaii.

She then moved to Idaho City, painting watercolors, before coming back to Chicago and getting a job in design. She went to the School of the Art Institute and got her graduate degree, later landing a job managing the design department at Brookfield Zoo.

She spent 22 years with the zoo before leaving and starting her own business.

Regardless of whether she's doing computer design or painting, Jennings said she enjoys what she does. She likes working on computers, working out details. When she paints, she likes putting pigment to paper, loves using the brushes.

But the two are very different. On the computer, the lines are clean and fine. In watercolor, the pigments mix and spread on the paper.

"Maybe they're feeding two sides of me," Jennings said. "With the watercolor, it's much more of an organic thing. You get the drawing down and you build up, gradually, layers of soft washes. Gradually, you make it less soft and there's more detail."

WEDNESDAY JOURNAL of Oak Park River Forest
July 19, 2006

State-of-the-art house painter
Local artist specializes in portraits of local homes


"My work is kind of like gardening," explains Hannah Jennings. "There’s weeding, pruning, planting—there are edibles, flowering plants." Jennings is enjoying an artistic career based on creativity and problem-solving—and currently runs two separate businesses. Hannah Jennings Design offers professional services, including website creation and maintenance, logo design, exhibit illustration and signage, and more. "Be of Good Cheer" offers house portraits and artwork geared more to individuals. "No one wants to work for a boss, right?" she asks, explaining her entrepreneurial impulse. "I love where my career has taken me and the freedom of my lifestyle."

Jennings received her bachelor’s degree in art from Ohio Wesleyan in her home state. Her father was a musician and her family was very artistic. "I had an aunt who died young who was an artist I was very inspired by," she says. "Like everyone from a smaller town, I wanted to come to the big city, Chicago, and I did. She received her Master of Fine Art degree from The School Of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Ignoring the old stage maxim of "never work with kids or animals" Jennings did both. Her award-winning design work can be seen in a wide range of places—from the Brookfield Zoo and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio in the Chicago area to the Brevard Zoo in Florida, Sunbums newspaper in Honolulu and the Ontario Science Center in Canada.

"I was manager of design for more than 20 years at Brookfield Zoo," she notes. Some of the most well-known artwork associated with Brookfield Zoo was created by her, including the beloved Brookfield Zoo Holiday Magic featuring the polar bears in a woodblock print motif, the ethereal creatures and eerie atmosphere of The Swamp, and the stark nomadic look of The Fragile Desert.

Her extensive experience with professional exhibits and their design led to her contributing to a book on the subject. "Some things are better learned through books or the Internet but collections are best for museums—just seeing lots and lots of stuff." She also points out that museums "compete for precious leisure time."

Jennings worked from the concept stage to final signage and illustrations. "For the Swamp project at Brookfield Zoo, I was brought in at the very idea stage," she recalls. "The purpose was to show people how they affect their environment, which led to wetlands and the selection of the Cypress swamp in America as the vehicle to experience the education—pretty interesting process." Jennings often has traveled in the past, as with the Swamp, to learn firsthand about her subject. "The concept was to immerse visitors in the full experience by creating a reality." Among her conceptual designs is "The Adventures of Duncan the Dragonfly" scrolling storybook where children learn about biodiversity at Dragonfly Marsh, the Brookfield Zoo wetland exhibition.

This portrait of the Isabel Roberts House was painted at the Wright Plus weekend, and was donated to a raffle to support the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.

Jennings also has a separate business called "Be Of Good Cheer." The name came from the way she signs off on her letters to friends. BOGC represents the more personal side of her career—instead of working with people on business-related websites or projects, she lends her unique creative vision and artistic talent to bring their world to life—either for themselves or as gifts for loved ones. From handmade books commemorating personal journeys to custom holiday cards to house portraits, Jennings prides herself on her ability to capture and interpret a person’s essence.

"I especially love houses and how people create their own nest," she says enthusiastically. "I really seem to have a special affinity for being attuned to people and their homes." Jennings does custom illustrations of people’s personal environments—from historical mansions to beloved family homes. She also creates custom greeting cards of the home illustrations and of her own interpretation of Christmas in Oak Park and Chicago. Capturing Chicago landmarks such as the lions of the Art Institute and the Picasso sculpture, she puts them in dreamy Midwest winterlands with holiday wreaths and bows.

She also enjoyed the distinction this past May of being a "featured artist" for the 2006 Wright Plus tour of homes. "I have always been drawn to Frank Lloyd Wright," she says. "As a child, my family went to see one of his houses we didn’t know anything about." Jennings currently maintains a successful working relationship with the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, illustrating well-known Frank Lloyd Wright houses. An avid gardener, her home was featured on an Oak Park Garden Tour as well.

"It’s really interesting how my relationships feed into other areas. For example, I designed a logo and website for a Chicago jeweler—Hedda Lubin—and now we are sharing a booth together at the upcoming Oak Park art show," she says. Jennings can be reached through the websites of her own creation at www.hannahjenningsdesign.com and at www.bogoodcheer.com.

Hannah Jennings Q & A

What is the process you go through to make illustrations of people's houses?

When I'm painting someone's house I talk with them first to find out how they see their house. Home-making is so fundamental to being human: my goal is to produce an image that resonates with the people who made a home.

Then I take photographs from different angles, at a time of day when light and shadows, colors, and surrounding foliage are most evocative. Sometimes I modify the photographs on the computer to fix lens distortion or to fill in a detail hidden by an obstruction. In other cases, distortion or framing shrubs add expression and I keep them in. Working from these photographs, I transfer the outlines, the bare bones of the house, to watercolor paper. Then I gradually build up layers of wash and add details until the image sings to me.

In a couple cases people supplied me with photographs. This saves me time so I give them a discount, but they get less of my personal vision in the final portrait. It all depends what people want. 

How did you start that business?

I just started by painting Frank Lloyd Wright houses and printing the images on cards. I asked Edwin Wald of the Frank Lloyd Preservation Trust Gift Shop if he would be interested in carrying the cards, and it grew from there. They've been very good to me: they carry prints, cards, and original watercolors.

There's a famous quote about some artist who was asked how long a painting took him, and he said, "Two weeks and 40 years." If I really describe how I started this business, I have to provide a biography. I couldn't have done this without a lot of experiences that came before.

About how many homes have you "captured?"

Including the Wright houses, about 20. Lately I've been painting other sites beloved of Oak Park/River Forest residents.

What are the challenges of making illustrations of  Wright homes?
I guess I'd say it's more a matter of opportunity than challenge. His buildings are so striking. You can find amazing shapes and details if you really look at them. I suppose painting an image that's been photographed over and over could make you feel superfluous. But some of Wright's most famous buildings seem fresh and new when looked at from a different angle or when light strikes them in an unusual way. Besides, watercolors and photographs express entirely different aesthetics.

How do you decide on what images to capture for your holiday cards?  Where do you sell your cards? Are you finding them to be popular?

Well, most of the holiday cards I've done have been for my personal use: one a year since 1973, with widely different subjects and techniques. I've just started making holiday cards available for sale through my BOGoodCheer.com website and at a few select art fairs.

(The website is another story: I got the software because I knew I needed an on-line portfolio. To my surprise, I fell in love with making websites. So I made a second one, for my watercolors. Then I started making them for clients.)

I thought about selling Christmas cards last year, so in December I took some pictures in the city and in Oak Park. I just walked around until a subject hit me as a watercolor waiting to happen. I did the paintings this summer. We'll see if anyone wants to buy them.

The Frank Lloyd Wright cards are also available from the gift shop at his home and studio, the Robie House gift shop in Hyde Park, and the Archicenter gift shop on Michigan Avenue.

July 20, 2006

Galena Overlook to be renamed for Churches

This is a watercolor of the scene from the Galena Overlook that appears on the cover of the dedication invitation. It was done by Hannah Jennings Design. Bethine and Frank Church often stood at the overlook and admired the beauty of the Sawtooth Mountains.

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