Arts Walk Cover Artist Jennifer Kuhns Has Come a Long Way

by Molly Gilmore

Cover JK by Jennifer Kuhns

Spring Arts Walk cover artist Jennifer Kuhns has been there before — and she’s come a long way. Kuhns, well known for her glass mosaics, first had her work on the cover of the Arts Walk map back in spring 2007. This fall, she’s done it again with Olympia Reflections, an intricately detailed glass mosaic lake that uses tiny pieces to create the effect of a realistic landscape painting.

“This Arts Walk, it will have been 35 years since I moved to Olympia,” she said. “Being selected to do the cover art feels significant. It feels big. It feels like an opportunity to show what has happened between the time I did the first cover and now.” During the event, happening Oct. 6 and 7, Kuhns will be showing both the cover image and a retrospective of her work at Hot Toddy.

She’ll also be celebrating the completion of the mosaic mural Metamorphosis, on a wall of Lloyd’s Automotive that faces Fourth Avenue. The small butterflies that surround the mural’s central winged figure were made by people in the community and beyond. The mural will be dedicated Oct. 7.

While the artist was excited to be chosen to do a second cover at what felt like an auspicious time, the opportunity also came at a particularly hectic one. “I was working on a big mural in a photorealistic style,” she said. “The contract says I can’t say who I was doing the project for, but it’s the most ubiquitous company. It’s an e-commerce company, and I was doing a mural for the offices in Redmond. That was a high-pressure job, and I was working on that during the day and working on the Arts Walk piece in the evenings. … All winter and through spring, I was working every day till 11:00 at night.”

Kuhns decided to use the same realistic style for the Arts Walk piece. “I was in that zone,” she said. “I wanted it to be an autumn scene, and I wanted it to be an iconic Olympia autumn scene.” She found a bunch of photos she’d taken on a beautiful fall day and picked her favorite. “It seemed like an interesting proposition to try to rend in mosaic,” she said. “In the moment, it was like, ‘Oh, that would be fun to do.’ It turned out it was really challenging.”

The piece for the company that shall not be named is simply one of the latest on an ever-lengthening list. In October, she’ll start a new project, one she calls “the biggest and most ambitious of my career”: the entire interior of a public restroom for West Central Park, the nonprofit community park on the west side.

She and park founder Alicia Elliott have a grand vision. “We want the restroom to feel like a sanctuary, with imagery celebrating the beauty of the Cascadia region,” Kuhns said. “Alicia has expressed that she wants it to feel like a chapel inside, to give people from every circumstance access to beautiful artwork without barriers. … I want to make this an iconic, outstanding space that people will seek out when they are traveling in the area.”

In the years since she started taking commercial projects, Kuhns has done pieces all over the state and across the country. Among her Olympia projects are sidewalk inlays outside The Washington Center for the Performing Arts and at the entrance to Childhood’s End Gallery and a multi-faceted project at Swing Wine Bar & Cafe including the sign in front of the restaurant, a bar surround and inlays for a high-top table.

The mosaics in the bar-height table at Swing were tests that Kuhns made during the project, and Swing owners Nicole and Jim Butigan liked them so much they changed their plans for the space. “She inspired the design of the restaurant,” Nicole Butigan said. “We built a big table that lights up from below because we had those extra panels. … Obviously, we really love her work. It’s a very noticeable thing you see when you walk through the front door. It has a bright, whimsical quality.”

Harvest Shimmer Spring Arts Walk cover by Jennifer Kuhns

The Swing project — Kuhns’ first commercial commission — came in summer 2007, just a few months after her Arts Walk success. She’d decided to get serious about her business and worked with Enterprise for Equity at the same time she was creating Harvest, a stained-glass style image of a woman holding a bowl of produce, face turned up to the sun.

“I had no idea that it was going to be such a big hit,” she said. “The cover art really seemed to speak to people and I got a lot of attention. I remember describing that Arts Walk as the most exciting moment for me since getting married, and it was the same kind of feeling, where all the ppl are coming to you and you’re getting congratulated.”

The enthusiasm confirmed her decision to make real money from her art and to focus on mosaic, something she stumbled across in her 30s after working with a variety of media in her 20s. At first, she would smash tiles and use the broken bits to create frames for other pieces. These days, she teaches others the techniques that she has continued to develop and refine.

The jury for this year’s Arts Walk covers was impressed by what Kuhns’ skill, said event organizer Angel Nava.  “Jennifer’s portfolio ranked highly in the jury process for her mastery of the mosaic medium and compelling use of the material to bring her images to life,” Nava said. “Jennifer’s current style and techniques are very different than the type of work she was creating in 2007.”

Retrospective, work by Jennifer Kuhns

Hot Toddy, 410 Capitol Way S., Olympia

6-10 p.m. Oct. 6, noon-6 p.m. Oct. 7


Dedication of Kuhns’ Metamorphosis mural

Lloyd’s Automotive, 425 State Ave. NE, Olympia

Noon Oct. 7

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