The lush forests of artist Julie Jilek’s Wisconsin hometown have a second home in the oil paintings, charcoal and pastel drawings she’s been producing for over a decade.
And, just as nature won’t stay out of her work, Jilek won’t stay out of nature. The plein air artist has even painted from her car’s backseat to shelter herself from 25 below zero wind chills.
She earned her BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design before venturing into abstract painting full time in 2008. In 2011, she started working on the crowd-funded Wisconsin State Park Plein Air Painting Project, documenting all 57 state parks and forests in her home state through plein air painting.
But she was no stranger to the outdoors. A 25-year resident of Wisconsin, she grew up vacationing with her family in a cottage in the Northern Highland State Forest. Those summers instilled in her a sense of responsibility for the environment, which comes through in her artwork.
“[As an adult with] access to skills like painting,” Jilek said, “I want to help people respect the land around them.”
Professional Artist recently spoke with Jilek about her journey to becoming a professional artist and an advocate for the environment. Here’s what she had to say:
Professional Artist: What’s life like in Wisconsin?
Julie Jilek: It’s definitely a more quiet living, [with a] mid-western mentality. It’s a beautiful state, and we spend a lot of time outdoors camping, hiking, fishing. … I help out at a gallery part-time; there’s a network of people you’re exposed to, and in the last few months, I’ve sold a few pieces. It’s also nice [having] a reliable paycheck!
PA: What led you to your en plein air project of Wisconsin state parks?
JJ: A painter friend [took me] plein airing one summer. I got really into it — a weekly habit. Flipping through the state park book I felt like, ‘I should go to all these parks!’ It’s a very cool way to see the state. You find a quiet spot with great solitude, and when you see people wandering, you wonder how they feel. A couple [nearby] asked me about my painting in the park. They were documenting all the best hiking trails, so it was great talking to them. They gave me contacts [for making] a book. The book hasn’t happened yet, but I intend to [get it done]. I’m really excited to see it all come together.
PA: What led you to work as a full-time artist?
JJ: Around 2008, I was working at a gallery and decided to take the plunge; I had a good year selling paintings. It definitely took some getting used to. I couldn’t travel or spend money the way I did. Sometimes I still want to be my own boss at all times with that freedom to paint and travel when I’d like — that flexibility is almost priceless.
PA: How did your style/technique develop?
JJ: The abstract work lends itself more to what I practiced in school. When I started working with a gallery, they’d bring in more contemporary artists. Being around that art culture, I [was] influenced by people doing more realistic work. I started to investigate that. With charcoal there’s not a lot of surprises. When I paint, there’s always something new I’m learning or relearning.
PA: How do you make your color choices?
JJ: It’s definitely like [having] two different personalities I tap into. On one side: I’m still trying to identify values and the basics of drawing, painting and color. I try hard to be true to that when doing portrait work. With abstracts it’s more playful — I get to be very expressive with color and start making a big chaotic mess, then try to resolve it into something organic, but still not an identifiable scene.
PA: What are your future art plans?
JJ: I just finished a project, lucky enough, [drawing] portraits of graduating University of Wisconsin med students. It’s nice to have a recurring gig every year. Once I finished this, my first thought was to paint the national parks, but that’d be a 15-year endeavor.
Visit juliejilek.com to learn more about Jilek.
Samantha Henry is a staff writer for Professional Artist. Originally from Miami, she’s an amateur painter striving to be a professional writer. Samantha is currently a creative writing and journalism student in her final semester at the University of Central Florida.