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An interview with Jen van Kaam: photographer, makeup artist, and shape-shifter

Written by Heidi Keyes

I wear a lot of hats at Cannabis Cactus, and writing my monthly interview column is one of my absolute favorites. Many people don’t know that my primary creative medium is painting, and as an artist, I’ve always been drawn to those doing fantastic and creative things. I love when people are willing to express themselves not only with their work, but with the way they dress, live, and interact with the world around them, and Jen van Kaam is the absolute epitome of someone who breathes creativity… I knew that from the second I met her, and fell in love with both her work and her friendship. There is not an outfit, a color, or an opportunity that is too bold for Jen to incorporate into her life or her photography. As we head into a season of makeup, costumes, and the willingness to turn ourselves into someone else— even just for a night— her work seemed PERFECT to feature for this Halloween issue. Let me introduce you to photographer, makeup artist, comedian, and creative genius Jen van Kaam.

First of all Jen, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me! I know that you’re incredibly busy creating your own artwork and doing commercial photography work, both of which are incredible. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing you and your artwork for years, but can you please introduce yourself and what you do to our readers?

Hi readers!!! 👋🏻 I’m Jen van Kaam. I’m a photographer and self-portrait artist based in Minneapolis, MN. I work with costumes and craft supplies to take photos of creatures and characters that don’t actually exist. I’m also a full-time product photographer and a comedian in the Minneapolis improv scene.

So much of your work is transforming yourself for self-portraits, to the point where you are almost unrecognizable much of the time. How did you

develop this extremely unique style,

and what does it mean to you?

I’ve always been really interested in the idea of beauty and identity. I’ve never really had a traditional look; I've rocked rainbow hair, big colourful glittery makeup and eclectic fashion since I was 15 (I’m 42 now), so playing dress-up is kinda part of my every day. I think I’ve been unrecognizable most of my life by accident.

I was never blonde or thin or sexy, but I was colourful and weird and interesting. Less of a swan, more of a peacock. I really dug my feet into being different. My first self-portraits were of me in my usual makeup and evolved into more conceptualized pieces over time, some with even more artsy embellishments, and others transforming me into completely different people altogether.

My art always carries a quiet narrative of fighting against what society says is beautiful. I appreciate scars, moles, wrinkles, bumps, bruises, birthmarks and deformities because they’re truthful and special and can tell a story. There’s so much beauty in ugliness, and so much ugliness in beauty. My goal is not to make the audience like my art, it’s to make them react with feeling—curiosity, humour, discomfort, whatever might cause a discussion.

I also like playing with makeup and masks and prosthetics. There’s something really fascinating about the small changes you can make to your face that completely alter what you look like. Drawing lip liner a little too large or shoving cotton in your cheeks or making your brows a different shape or adding braces or fake teeth can really make you look like someone else. Sometimes I start small like that and see who emerges.

What are your favorite props, backgrounds, and outfits… and where on earth do you find them?

Oh man, anything in the world can be useful in a photo so I’ve become a bit of a hoarder. Thrift stores are a goldmine because you never know what you’ll find. (That’s where I scored an awesome old pipe which inspired one of my favourite portraits.) I use a lot of cheap thrift store bed sheets and fabric as backdrops. I don’t like using the same costume or set pieces more than once, so I try not to spend too much money on stuff. If I see a box of free shit on the side of the road, I’m stopping.

The best pieces tell a story on their own and I just need to hold it or wear it or stand in front of it to bring it to life. It could be a mundane item like a shopping bag or a pizza box, or something more special like a bright gold 80’s jumpsuit with huge shoulder pads. Everything has potential.

Sometimes a location is inspiring. The pool at my mom’s senior housing community looked pretty fun so I invented a lady to tan in front of it. I’ve started renting Airbnbs to use as locations because they’re private and I can get a handful of characters shot in different scenes without building sets.

Who or what influences your work?

I owe a lot of my inspiration to my comedy and theater background. As a kid, I was really inspired by Tracey Ullman because she was so funny and could transform into so many different kinds of people. As I got older, I fell in love with Amy Sedaris who does such a beautiful job of playing really wacky characters with honesty. SNL, Kids in the Hall, and Christopher Guest movies also shaped a lot of what I do, both in photography and in improv.There’s definitely an element of improv in my portraits. Most of the time, I’m really making it up as I go along. Sometimes I have a really clear picture of who I’m designing, but when the costume is finished and the makeup goes on, it’s a totally different person. And that can be a really fun discovery because out of nowhere, it’s like “Oh hey, stranger. What’s your story?”

Improv also offers “a moment in time” where the audience only sees the scene, but doesn’t see what happened before or after it. I use this same concept in my Human Being series that highlights a random moment in a character’s life. There are photographers that do this really well like Gregory Crewdson and Alex Prager who work with full cinematic production teams to take over towns or build sets on a soundstage to depict one curiously haunting moment. Their dedication and detail is something I’m always working toward.

David LaChapelle has been the most influential force in my photography career. His bold use of colour and cartoon-like sets are what inspired me to pick up a camera back in college. His work made me want to create art that seemed otherworldly and impossible. I’m in awe of what he’s able to create.

I get compared to Cindy Sherman a lot which is a huge compliment. I first saw Cindy when I wandered into her exhibit at The Walker and realized the weird art I was making for myself in my basement was being made by someone else and shown in a museum. It was like I suddenly had permission to make the art I was making. Gillian Wearing is a big influence who merges self portraits with mask-making, another obsession of mine.

Now I follow hundreds of talented artists on Instagram that inspire me daily. Self-portrait photographers like Maris Jones and Cristina Rizzi Guelfi and Nadia Cohen. Costumers and mask-makers like Gerwyn Davies and Daniel Ramirez and Lyle Reimer. Character portrait artists like Parker Day and Patty Carroll and Jason Ward. And so many more.

What does Cannabis mean to you, and how does it inspire your photography?

When I was 17, my dad had a sudden heart attack and died literally in my arms (sorry to be morbid but let’s get right to the point). As a result, I started experiencing things like extreme emotional outbursts, obsessive thoughts that wouldn’t shut the fuck up, severe panic attacks nearly every day for years (sorry to every coworker and roommate I’ve ever had)… it was rough. I never had a discussion about mental health until I was smacked in the face with tragedy, so it was a wild ride trying to get help for something I didn’t understand. I bounced around different doctors and diagnoses and pharmaceuticals for over a decade which is absolutely the worst because that whole process is so exhausting and changing brain meds is the least fun thing ever (zap barf blarg). I had kinda given up on the idea that I might find a real solution when a friend asked if I’d tried cannabis. Holy smokes (ha!), what a game changer. Everything just… slowed down. I was able to focus and breathe and relax. It’s so cliche, but I just finally chilled the fuck out. I was very grateful for this natural, holistic answer to something that I’d struggled with for so long.

I will always have periods of anxiety that are so bad that I can’t sleep, and I will always have periods of depression that are so bad I can’t get up. But cannabis helps level out those highs and lows.

In regards to my art, it gives me space to breathe and think and get lost in something other than my brain. I use cannabis to quiet the noise. Also it’s super fun to just get high and play with art supplies so that’s part of it too. :)

How can our readers find and follow you? (Website, social media, etc.)

Instagram/TikTok: @jenvankaam

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Always credit artists and photographers. Always.

Be honest about your mental health with the people that support you.


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