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Bridging the art divide

by: Tyler Graf IN THE LIMELIGHT – Rainier artist Jenee Epping's works include versions of paintings by the masters, like Johannes Vermeer's “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

Jenee Epping is like many artists who aspire for public acceptance of her work: She frets about what people might think of her creations, and about reaching outside of her comfort zone.

She's burdened by the conflict between pleasing the public and listening to her inner voice.

But the wracked nerves and fleeting moments of self doubt haven't stopped Epping from pursuing her dreams.

After several years in Florida, where she attended college, the Rainier native moved back to the Pacific Northwest in 2009. Now Epping, 25, hopes to bring her burgeoning art career to a county that has become home to dozens of artists of all ages, despite her fraught nerves.

'The part that gets me nervous is if I have to put my ideas out there,' Epping says. 'I'm nervous people might say something bad.'

Epping specializes in murals and realistic paintings but hopes to branch out into sculptures and more unconventional art, she says. She learned in high school that the best way for an artist to make a name for herself is to stray from the conventional path.

As a student at a Christian high school, Epping entered a school-sponsored art contest on a whim. While other students were drawing or painting pictures of angels or Jesus, Epping instead painted a detailed picture of King Tutankhamun.

'I didn't want to do what everybody else was doing,' Epping said. 'I thought they were just sucking up to the judges.'

She won the contest and, even more important, she gained a little bit of self confidence.

But confidence alone is not enough to make it as a successful artist in Columbia County, says Meona Urban, a long-time Scappoose-based artist.

The reason for that lies in how Oregon artists find work. The state is divided into the over-arching Oregon Arts Commission and a number of regional arts councils. The role of the commission and the regional councils is to provide resources - such as job notices, grants and gallery showings - to working artists.

Columbia County does not belong to a regional arts council, however. Because galleries typically receive some form of subsidization from the regional councils, there has been little incentive for gallery owners to open in Columbia County.

'There's no money to subsidize galleries here,' Urban says, which means artists are forced to sell their work elsewhere, in places like Longview, Hillsboro and Portland.

That creates a vicious cycle, Urban says: Local artists like Epping have to hawk their art at galleries out of the area, and those galleries receive a commission that helps keep them afloat, at the expense of local galleries. And so on.

For her part, Urban tries to bridge the divide between artists and their resources through her work with the Columbia Arts Guild, which provides support to local artists.

Epping remains undeterred by the challenges and wants to make art her profession, she says.

She's painted a number of murals both in Oregon and in Florida. She plans to show some of her work across the river in Longview, Wash. And she's garnered interest from Rainier-based businesses for her mural talent, which can be seen on the walls of her family's business, Birdbaths and Fountains Unlimited.

Her willingness to push past her own nerves, along with the challenges facing local artists, is due to qualities instilled in her by a professor, Whitney Wolf, who convinced her to change her major from business to art.

And to hopeful artists, she gives the same advice he did: 'Just keep doing it, no matter what anyone says,' Epping says.

Epping's art can be viewed on her website, www.jeneeepping.com, or at her family's Rainier business, Birdbaths and Fountains Unlimited.