As Pablo Picasso may have said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” But, in the digital age, that old adage doesn’t hold water.
Nowadays, shady online companies will reprint and reproduce an independent artist’s work as if it’s their own. They aren’t taking inspiration and creating their own work based on it, they’re just stealing the piece of art completely and mass producing it.
Star Trek is in the midst of a cultural resurgence with both Discovery and Picard currently airing on CBS All Access. It makes sense that these companies would try to target this audience with merchandise.
Jenny R. Johnson is the artist behind the painting, “And the skies the limit…” If you’re a Star Trek fan like me, you may have seen this painting advertised to you online recently. Unfortunately, chances are that the advertisement was from one of these unscrupulous companies and not the artist herself.
I follow #StarTrek on Instagram, and that’s where I stumbled across a post Jenny had made about her experience. “I knew that this kind of thing happened,” she wrote, “but until it happened to me I didn’t understand just how awful it feels, or what a nightmare it is to deal with, and I can’t overstate what it has meant to me to see so many people jumping to my defense.”
In my experience, Star Trek fans are an extremely supportive group of people, but I was still surprised to see how many people had commented and helped her track down these dishonest companies.
So, I wanted to interview Jenny, and learn more about her work, her inspirations, and what this wild experience was like to live through.
You publish your paintings under the title Scenes from the Multiverse. How did you land on that name? Was there a specific pop culture reference that drove you to pick that?
I was trying to bring two ideas together—that these images were primarily snapshot “moments,” and that they are drawn from a wide variety of pop culture references. I was thinking, as a geek myself, and a fan of all these properties, that I wanted a unifying idea that tied all these different universes together—so it didn’t take me long to hit on the catch-all of the “multiverse.” I tried a few variations, but in the end Scenes from the Multiverse just gave me a kind of pulp sci-fi feeling, with lots of room to move. I wanted the name to fit whatever random film or show I was inspired to paint.
In your bio it says that the underlying theme of your work is an ongoing exploration of light and color, but you paint moments from a diverse array of franchises, like Supernatural and Doctor Who for instance. Tonally and visually those shows are very different. How much does light and color influence the moments that you choose to paint from these franchises?
I love this question, because I’m delighted that you actually read the artist statement I’ve been tweaking for years!
I actually used to teach color theory, and I’ve always been fascinated by the science of color. One of the challenges for me in recreating these iconic scenes and spaces is how to make the paintings evoke the experience of watching the film or the show, and I’ve found that color plays a hugely important role.
I look for images that not only depict the characters in a way that I find interesting or iconic, but I also look for lighting and color palettes that FEEL authentic to those characters or spaces. I try to recreate the subtle color changes, especially in the skin of the characters I paint, so that, for example, the color of the light reflecting up at Han Solo’s face feels like it’s coming from the console of the Millennium Falcon. Human skin is incredibly reflective, so the closer attention I pay to the way light and color hits a face, the more I can suggest the rest of scene that is outside of the boundary of the painting. For this reason, I’m often drawn to painting moments with more dramatic lighting, like in my Ellen Ripley or Indiana Jones pieces.
How did you start your career in painting? Is it something you’ve always loved to do?
I have always been an artist; I grew up drawing and sketching. I always wanted to paint, but I never picked up a paintbrush until my second semester at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), when I was 23. Once I started, there was no other medium I wanted to work in, and I really gravitated to oil painting in particular.
I live on the East Coast of Canada, and so when I set out to be a commercial artist after university, it made sense to start painting seascapes . . . so I worked on mostly commissions for years, occasionally doing portrait work as well. Lots of sunsets and sailboats. I started out doing work for family friends; I sold work through a couple of local galleries and generally got commissions through word of mouth.
When did you begin painting moments from genre films and TV shows?
There came a point in 2015 where I realized I’d been out of art school for nearly ten years, I was doing pretty well doing a few painting commissions every year, but I had never actually painted anything just for myself. It actually started with wanting something awesome and huge to hang above my couch. I started working on a 4’x 3’ painting of the interior of the Eleventh Doctor’s TARDIS. In the midst of that project, my partner, Bryant, got on the bandwagon and asked me to paint him a scene from Stand by Me for over his couch. I had so much fun doing those two paintings and got so much exciting feedback from people (and my geek friends in particular), that it wasn’t long before the idea of making more genre art was bouncing around in my head. But I was still bartending full time in those days and still had some more traditional commissioned work on the go, so it wasn’t until the winter of 2018 that I really got started on Scenes from the Multiverse.
I absolutely love the time-lapse videos that you share on Instagram of your work in progress. Why did you start doing those?
I’m so glad you like them! They’re awfully fun for me. They condense everything down and let me see the piece come together without all the moments of doubt, like where I make a wrong move and I’m convinced for an hour or so that I’ll never be able to fix the earth-shattering mistake that I just made, or the parts where I’m just staring at the painting, knowing I need to do something with that cheekbone, but WHAT? It’s very cool to get to see the process without all of that.
I started doing them because I was experimenting with how to expand my reach on Instagram (part of the hustle these days for working artists!), and Instagram stories were just getting to be more popular. I’d gotten great feedback on the work-in-progress still shots that I’d posted, and I was trying to come up with a way to show myself working that didn’t involve people having to listen to me rapping along to Hamilton. So I posted a couple when I was working on the first batch of Multiverse paintings, and I was blown away by how positively people reacted. So now I’m trying to do a new time-lapse for each new painting.
How long does a typical painting take to complete from start to finish?
Assuming the stars are aligned correctly, and my inner critic (I call her Helen) is keeping her mouth shut, a painting the size of the Picard piece (18”x24”) might take four or five days of work (working four to six hours a day). If things go sideways and some part of the painting and I aren’t seeing eye to eye, that can stretch out to a week or two. And it definitely depends on the size. The Millennium Falcon piece is quite large (4’x2’), with tons of detail—that piece took upwards of 80 hours.
Do you have any advice for younger artists who are thinking about pursuing a similar path?
If you’re going to art school, soak up all the skills and knowledge you can, but don’t let your classmates or your teachers talk you out of doing what you’re passionate about. Art schools are notorious for discouraging students from making work they consider “commercial.” If you are excited about making art, and people want to buy that art, that’s kind of the best-case scenario. And it doesn’t matter what kind of art you want to make. There is a very important space in society for art that says something, that makes a statement, that is provocative or political. But there is also an important space (and I think we’re seeing evidence of that importance now in the current pandemic as people are finding comfort in isolation through films, and television, and video games, and books), for art that makes people happy. So no matter what kind of art you are excited about, make it.
I can tell by your work and posts on social media that you’re a huge fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Your painting “And the skies the limit…” captures the final moments from the series finale “All Good Things…” beautifully. But with 178 episodes and four movies, there’s a ton of great TNG moments to choose from; why did you pick that moment from the series to paint and what does it mean to you?
I discovered Star Trek: The Next Generation when I was about twelve years old, in seventh grade, spending my lunch hours hiding in the library . . . and the crew of the Enterprise became my friends and gave me hope at a time that I pretty desperately needed some. I watched and recorded each episode after school every day and lived for the new episode each week. I wrote TNG stories, I plastered my walls with pictures from the show, and I collected the novels. And later on, my love of the Star Trek led to making connections with other kids who ended up being the best friends I had ever had. So all that said, yes, I am definitely a huge fan!
When the show ended, I was DEVASTATED. That final episode is SO good—such an amazing send-off to an incredible show—and I have never forgotten exactly how it felt to watch that final scene with the poker game. My heart was broken. I felt like I was losing part of my family, but it also gave me so much hope to see them all together, and think of them still aboard the Enterprise, even if I couldn’t be a part of it.
Revisiting it over the years has only deepened my feelings about it. So when I decided to make a TNG painting, that was honestly the only choice for me. It was important for me to have an image of the whole crew together, and that moment just encapsulates everything I feel about the show. Of all the genre paintings I’ve made, that one is the closest to my heart.
This painting was recently stolen online by a few companies looking to make a quick buck off of your work. How did you find out that it had been stolen? Did you see it first-hand or did someone tell you?
Someone in a Star Trek fan group on Facebook posted a screen grab of it in a post, saying how he was using the image as the desktop on his phone and how much he liked it—and because there was no watermark or anything linking it to me, I commented, thanking him for sharing it and just mentioning that I was the original artist (and also taking the opportunity to drop a link to where he could buy a copy of the print). It was then that a few other people commented that they’d seen it featured in ads in their newsfeeds, and someone shared a link to one of those ads with me. I knew it was something that happened to artists online, but I wasn’t really prepared for what a punch in the guts it would be to see it happen to my own work.
Has it been a struggle to get it taken down?
It’s been staggeringly difficult to get it taken down completely.
Initially, I was able to put links to my shop in the comments of the ads, but then they started blocking me from being able to see them or comment. Once I figured out how to file copyright infringement reports against ads on Facebook, it became easier to handle each ad. But it’s like a game of whack-a-mole. These—pirates, I guess you could call them?—make multiple Facebook pages under different names with the sole purpose of running several identical versions of the same ad selling my art. And every time you get those ads pulled, within a day or two, new pages and a new crop of ads pop up again. And the ads link to several different anonymous commerce websites. It’s overwhelming, and exhausting, by design.
It seems like people online have stepped up to support you in the wake of this theft. Was there a big response? Did they help you get your work removed from these other sites?
I’ve honestly been blown away—so much support has come from friends and family, but so much has also come from people I don’t know or people who have found me through social media. They have helped me by sharing links to my actual work on the scam ads [and] reporting stolen work on the commerce sites. And many people have supported me by purchasing a print!
It is so gratifying to see how many people jump to the defense of the artist in a situation like this, or have contacted me to tell me they’d seen the ad but are so happy to have found the actual artist. It’s been a really unpleasant experience, but there’s been a lot of good that has come out of it!
What would you tell someone else to do if this happened to them?
I think the main thing is that beyond doing your due diligence and reporting where you can, due to the nature of the internet, there is a point where, to some degree, you have to let it go: (to quote Gary Busey in Point Break), “Forget about it, kid. They are ghosts.”
It’s very easy to become obsessed with trying to get to the bottom of it, but once they have the image, the damage is done. You’ve got to whack the mole when it pops up, try not to let it get under your skin, and then get back to making more art. Oh, and for god’s sake, watermark your work.
What’s the next big project you’re working on and when can people expect to see it?
My next painting is a commissioned piece—a shot of the climactic standoff between Admiral Janeway and the Borg Queen from “Endgame,” the finale of Star Trek: Voyager! It’s a great example of that dramatic lighting I was talking about earlier, and I’m very excited to tackle another Star Trek painting. I’m planning to have it finished by the end of April, and I’ll definitely be posting a time-lapse of the process! After that I’ll be diving into more Scenes from the Multiverse for 2020, including an X-Files piece, classic Avengers, and four very brave Hobbits. The summer and fall comic convention season is still very much up in the air, but I’ll be hard at work in the studio no matter the outcome.