Artist Jenna Morello created a poignant Pride-themed mural for the WorldPride Mural Project featured in the windows of Macy's Herald Square.
My name is Jenna Morello. I’ve lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn for the last 12 years, but grew up in New Jersey.
It’s always a tricky question when people ask how long I’ve been an artist. It’s been forever. I grew up in a woodsy part of New Jersey and I come from an art family—my dad’s a graphic artist. I think the combination of being outside, being around such an accepting family and always having the need to create things just made this second nature.
I didn’t think having my mother say ‘Go outside. You can’t watch TV!’ was really doing anything at the time, but now looking back on it I see that it fueled my being able to paint and climb and create all that I do now. It’s funny.
The nature of street art
Being a street artist in New York is different from being a street artist in other parts of the country. I feel like you’re chucking the work into a really fast-moving river ‘cause once it’s out there it’s out there. You create this thing and then—BOOM! It goes where it goes, and it takes on a life of its own. Other people come paint over it or mix it with other things. Some of my most beautiful murals are the ones that have broken down and the wall’s coming back through.
Making street art is a good way to force yourself to let go. You have to know that you could show up tomorrow and the piece could be gone. Demolition and taggers and time and weather can force collaborations with the work and turn it into something else. Sometimes people totally rock the wall with stickers and tags and it really adds character. And I’ve had work on a wall that was later knocked down, but one tiny little graffiti piece was left standing—I couldn’t have made it that cool if I’d tried.
I’ve created stickers that were too dark, and I hated them. But I put them all over and the sun actually faded them out to the perfect hue and they’re now my favorite long-lasting stickers. Others have bled out completely and have held.
I’ll get people who will see the spray can in my hand and immediately go to a negative space—like, ‘you’re doing graffiti and you’re vandalizing.’ I literally could have a 100-foot wall behind me, and they just seem to focus in on the can in my hand. Sometimes though, they’ll go, “wait, I didn’t realize that could be done with a spray can.” They just assume spray can means graffiti letters. And not that there’s anything wrong with that; it just rubs some people the wrong way.
I work in so many different mediums. I’ve made sets or groups of things and, as my art has evolved, I’ve tried to intertwine those things. I work a lot of with anatomy and a lot with flowers because you can put them anywhere and express messages. Done different ways, flowers play nice and can live in a lot of places where graffiti wouldn’t be allowed and still get the point across. It's a loophole that lets me continue earning an income and paint in places that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to. I mix the flowers in with other mediums.
Working on a large scale
I work at a pretty large scale, creating pieces that are six or seven stories high or that cross a really long span. I like it that way. I’ve always said that what the gym does for your body, large-scale works do for the brain. When I paint, I go on autopilot and just spend the day painting. It satisfies my constant itch to create.
I put it out there, do what I do and then just move on. I process that chapter, close it and move on to the next thing. One of the added benefits is people then come along and see it or interact with it and it takes on a life of its own.
People are your collaborators as well as time and weather. All of it. It just depends on which way the mural is facing. It depends on the neighborhood, the people that walk by it, the season you’re in, what paint you use. It all comes together. Your put something outside and it’s then the property of outside.
I like large-scale things. It’s totally different from working inside because it’s a full collaboration. When someone gives me these beautiful old walls or whatever else, it gives me a whole set of obstacles. I get to navigate how the wall is going to absorb paint and have to deal with parts of the walls that are chipping, parts that need to be power washed or painted over and parts that have brick or windows or water running down from an AC. I have murals where that water never stopped so it’s like a little stream in a corner.
It’s like a video game—each project presents different obstacles so when you’re done you feel mentally exhausted, for a while anyway. Then, tomorrow you move on to something else.
The Macy’s window project
My Macy’s project was a fusion of a couple of elements. I used an anatomical heart and roses and I put them together with the Pride colors. Because it’s the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and WorldPride was in New York City, I wanted my piece to show the current beauty of what’s happening—the acceptance. But since a lot of my work deconstructs or melts or breaks apart, I also wanted there to be a part of that in the piece to show that there has been pain. There has had to be healing and, hopefully, we’ve gone forward but it's not at the point that we can completely forget the pain of what has happened. There were dark parts to this history that still should be acknowledged.
It feels pretty great to be in a Macy’s window. I didn’t understand the scale of it until I got off the subway the day it was installed. I had four days to create the mural so I didn’t know where it would be or what side of the building it would be on. And so to get out and see it at that scale in this area—it was definitely a career highlight.
It means a lot to participate in the Pride message, too—for myself and my friends and because I feel like there’s still a lot of dark stuff going on in this world of ours. Seeing all of 34th Street flooded with Pride and the flags and knowing that it was a very big deal not all that long ago and that now we’re more able to be accepting of whatever one wants to be—well, I’m all for that message.
Reactions to the work
People will call me standing in front of the windows and they’ll ask me why I didn’t tell them about my piece. It’s one thing to post a picture of the work you created; it’s another thing to go there and take in where it is in Macy’s and where it is relative to 34th Street. We all have murals in some popular places, but to have it there—it’s insane!
Macy’s Herald Square is like what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. I live in New York and I still get taken aback by Herald Square and 34th Street—I think about Macy’s and The Miracle on 34th Street, the Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Pride Parade. If you’re traveling and you’re into history and monumental areas, Macy’s Herald Square is one place I would definitely stop. It’s the largest department store in the world and has a long history—the R.H. Macy sign is still there.
And the window displays have always been important. Those windows are people’s go-to destination around Christmastime. That’s another reason the Pride windows were a really big deal for me—the Macy’s Herald Square windows are a go-to destination.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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