Miami's Jen Stark on Her Cosmo Cover, Miley Cyrus, and the VMAs

Cosmic Shift (2015), hand-cut acid-free colored paper.
Cosmic Shift (2015), hand-cut acid-free colored paper.
Photo courtesy of Jen Stark

Beneath Cosmopolitan's special tear-away July cover, featuring an image of a heart-shaped paper sculpture created by artist Jen Stark, Nicki Minaj's ample bosom and the headline "Wild Summer Sex" pop out. This is how the women's glossy typically handles its "Love Issue."

Stark, who typically shies away from commercial work, laughs lightly while reading the words hidden beneath her artwork. But don't get her wrong — she's truly happy with the attention this project has received. The heart-shaped piece is a prime example of what Stark is known for: layered sculptures using geometric shapes carefully cut from colorful paper to create depth and form.

"I go into this like meditative trance," she explains of the time-consuming creation process. "My work is really intricate and sequence-based, and usually it's a lot of doing one process over and over and changing it little by little. I guess that's good for my brain in a way."

Stark's psychedelic animations and murals leave a mental mark on anyone who's seen them, and they're hard to miss. Her melting rainbow puddles appear on the side of the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale(where her current gallerist, Eric Firestone, first noticed her work), grace the walls of Miami International Airport, and are featured inside the new Frank Gehry-designed Facebook building in Menlo Park, California.

Stark, a third-generation Miamian, moved to Los Angeles in 2012 as part of a mass exodus of successful artists. It included her now-husband Alvaro Ilizarbe (AKA designer Freegums), as well as Sam Borkson and Arturo Sandoval, together known as the art collective FriendsWithYou. The group met with some criticism from Miami diehards, but Stark says it was the right decision: "We're meeting a whole new group of people and opening many new doors to people who didn't know our work, and now they do. There's just so much more in L.A.; Miami is still growing."

Since moving to California, the former Miamians have landed major national projects. FriendsWithYou recently announced they're working on a show for Netflix, and Stark was thrilled to learn that one of her very famous fans,pop-music enfant terrible Miley Cyrus, will host the MTV Video Music Awards. Stark is creating original animations and artwork for the stage of this highly viewed and publicized show, which will air Sunday, August 30.

The road that brought Stark to the attention of the pop-princess-gone-psychedelic was paved with the keen insight of the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne.Stark met the man who penned the story of Yoshimi at her 2011City Arts Centersolo show in his hometown of Oklahoma City. They kept in touch, reuniting last year at the Montauk motel/gallery/music venue the Surf Lodge, where a Flaming Lips show took place about a month after Stark painted a colorful mural on the white structure. (Firestone says the bright public artwork"started a bit of a stir"in the conservative seaside town.)

Coyne and Stark made plans to hang out back in Cali, where he introduced her to Cyrus. "She really likes my work and has lots of say in the visual side of the [VMA] show, so she's really pushing my work — which is amazing. It's going to be trippy and colorful and awesome!" Stark explains humbly. "Weird things happen in L.A."

Miami's Jen Stark on Her Cosmo Cover, Miley Cyrus, and the VMAs
Photo by Peter Vahan

The fingers of Instagram users will likely become calloused from "liking" once the VMA show airs, especially considering Stark alone has 47,500 followers on the photo-sharing app. It's a forum that she says is essential for self-promotion. "I feel like I curate everything I post on there now," she explains. "It's almost like a gallery show on the internet."

Though Stark left Miami for the bright lights of Los Angeles, she got her start like many other local kids — by showing at the Dade County Youth Fair. Her paternal grandfather taught her to paint watercolor at a young age. "I was interested in doing it since I was able to hold a pencil," Stark reminisces.

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Her parents noticed her passion and placed her in magnet programs. After attending theMaryland Institute College of Art inBaltimore, she returned home to Miami for five years, because, she says, "It was a place where I could get started with my art and not be completely unknown. I still had roots there." Stark's roots in Miami are deeply and tightly woven. In 1952, the government took the land on which her great-grandparents owned dairy farms to build the airport whose walls she would later grace with her brushstrokes.

Being a third-generation Miamian makes her a unicorn of sorts and brings with it some pressure. "I feel like I have an obligation to carry on the legacy," Stark admits, but she's not thinking about that right now. "We're just so focused on our careers." However, Ilizarbe and Stark are carrying on some kind of 305 legacy on the West Coast by raising a puppy born to a stray mutt at the Little River Yacht Club, their former workspace in Little Haiti.

They take the dog, Zelda, with them each morning to their new Chinatown studio. After working out of their garage and basement for years, they now have their own creative space outside their home in the hills. Stark even has two assistants. She creates templates for them, and they do some of the most time-consuming work. "It's enabled me to make more work and keep thinking of new ideas," she says.

Stark is represented byEric Firestone Galleryin East Hampton, New York, and is associated with Carol Jazzar in Miami and Cooper Cole in Toronto. Firestone is actually a Miami native who says heleft when the beach bar the Clevelander "was just starting to get hot." He first showed Stark's work in early 2014 at a group show titled "Dazed and Confused." "Which is great, because I think that sums up what she's about," he proudly says of the artist, "just this incredible op-art abstraction that manipulates color and perception."

Firestone and Stark have become close friends, and he plans to continue showing her work at his soon-to-open NoHo gallery loft — an homage to artist workspaces of the '60s and '70s. Firestone adds thoughtfully, "Jen's voice is uniquely her own — her style and the different mediums she works with... She's still a relatively young artist, and I think everyone is excited to see where it goes."


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