The Art of Community
Artist Jessica Fontenot finds inspiration in home sweet home
by Haley Celeste
Illustrations by Jessica Fontenot
Jessica Fontenot, Austin artist and resident, is well-versed in using her craft to connect to her community. And while you may not know it, in some way or another, she’s probably connected with you.
You may have caught Fontenot’s show, “One Year of Buildings,” last summer at Lewis Carnegie on the Eastside. Attendees were invited to sip kegged beer and wander the eclectic gallery space in which the walls were adorned with colorful ink and watercolor renditions of Austinites’ favorite hangouts from the readily recognizable to niche neighborhood spots that would strike a chord with only a local few. Or, you may have come across her illustration of the iconic Austin Motel. As part of the hotel’s rebranding effort, Fontenot created a vintage-style drawing that can be found on paraphernalia such as matchbooks, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and stationary. Or maybe you’ve used her hand-drawn map to guide you to some of Austin’s most beloved restaurants when McGuire Moorman Hospitality released their annual guide last year featuring good eats and tiki cocktails.
When Fontenot first arrived in Austin six years ago, she had no idea that the city would become her muse. A nearly native Texan (her family moved to Houston before she started second grade) and fresh graduate of the graphic design program at Texas Tech University, Fontenot crammed her whole life into a Toyota Corolla and rolled into Austin’s city limits to start her first job as a designer at Third Rail Creative, a branding, design, and advertising agency. It was there that Fontenot found ways to explore her creative pursuits outside of her workday hours. Her first love was lettering and some of Fontenot’s earliest commissions were to compose the chalkboards for a local hair salon in exchange for products and services. Following Third Rail, Fontenot signed on with a start-up where she spent a few years as a UI/UX designer before taking on a managerial role where she oversaw a group of young designers. “It’s super rewarding,” she said, “but pulled me away from the actual design work. It’s more about people and helping guide design strategy for clients.” It was then, with less of her own design work taking place from nine to five, that Fontenot began to dabble in new mediums like ink and watercolor, discovering in the process that the city was her true inspiration.
To Fontenot, connecting with the community through her art is important and it was a persistent theme in her gallery show last summer. “I’m always inspired by what I see,” says the 30-year-old artist. “Wherever I go, I find things that I want to turn into drawings and paintings. So much of our modern world shapes the environment and it’s what I think about while observing new places. In Austin, there’s so much natural beauty with a mix of old-school architecture, this encroaching tech industry, and huge new developments. With many of the buildings I drew for OYOB [One Year of Buildings] I wanted to preserve the image of how that place looked at this moment in time, before it’s replaced. I chose buildings that, when put together, would tell a story of a place that’s in a giant transition.”
Fontenot’s creative stimulus isn’t limited specifically to the capital of Texas; it’s the idea of community in general, wherever she finds it, that inspires. In March of 2017, Fontenot was accepted to the Rockland Residency in Seattle and spent two weeks discovering the communal heartbeat of a brand new city. The residency, designed for dedicated artists to generate ideas and discover new muses in an urban space, is prestigious, accepting about six artists a year from thousands of applicants. “Rockland was a big moment for me,” says Fontenot . “It showed me that I can produce work wherever I am. That mostly, what I want is to make art about stories that affect the community of whatever place I’m in.”
The illustrator’s latest creation, Art for Charity, was spurred into being by a letter about her community that tugged at her heartstrings. “I’ve given to Meals on Wheels in the past …The most recent letter I got was about the ever-growing waitlist of Austin seniors in need due to the rising costs of living in Austin, a fast-growing aging population, and rising prices of food, utilities, and medical care. Scary stuff,” says Fontenot. Through the creation and sale of limited edition watercolor prints, she is now raising money for Meals on Wheels of Central Texas. “The empathy swells and all I can think is, What can I do, what can I offer? Drawing is one thing I can do that others enjoy. It gives me the ability to sell something, pool that money, and make sure it goes to good use.”
The prints will feature glossy fruits, nourishing veggies, and some comfort food, with one-hundred percent of profits benefitting the nonprofit organization. “I believe that as a member of any society, your duty is to give back. When we invest in our communities, we help improve life in a larger way that we can all benefit from,” notes Fontenot. “I’ve been very fortunate and privileged in my life and when I see others struggling, I want to share my good fortune—and what I’ve got to give is what I draw.”
You can follow along on Instagram (@jcfonte) as Fontenot unveils a new limited edition image weekly, starting on November 1st.