The Sketch Girl: Local Artist Jennifer Kennedy Documents the RVA Music Scene Through Live Drawings 

click to enlarge Jennifer Kennedy sits at home among her sketches of local musicians, including Dave Watkins in her hand.

Scott Elmquist

Jennifer Kennedy sits at home among her sketches of local musicians, including Dave Watkins in her hand.

Jennifer Kennedy stands a few feet away from the stage, watching.

“How long is your set?” she asks the band on deck. “I just want to pace myself.” While the band plays, her heels lift with every downbeat. Her head nods in time.

Her sketchbook is nestled in the crook of her left arm while her right hand feverishly scribbles wild, red lines across a blank page. The bag around her shoulder is full of half-dried-up markers. She checks her phone for the time and works faster until the set ends and the portrait is complete. 

Back at home later, Kennedy pulls out 12 heavy books filled with illustrations of Richmond musicians and sets them on her coffee table, as her black cat approaches with curiosity. Her portraits have a kind of superhero quality to them. The women are strong and muscular and the men are amped up in action stances. The lines are definitive and sweeping and the bright watercolor look is accomplished with a set of seemingly well-worn markers.

“I have about a million sketchbooks,” she says. The first time she drew a performer, her brother — a musician and graphic designer — had asked her to go to a show with him in Vienna. “Since I’m a horribly shy person, I thought, ‘when I go to the show, I should have something to do’,” she says. “And that was drawing because that’s how I understand the world.”

Before that show, she had been drawing lecturers and people on public transportation, she says, so it felt natural to draw musicians while they were performing.

Kennedy studied drawing and printmaking at Carnegie Mellon University, but says she had been drawing “since she could hold something to draw” and loved cartoons and comics.

“There’s something about live movement,” she continues. “I want to capture not only what it looks like, but how it feels, especially with music. It’s much more about the energy of the performances and capturing some of the movement and rhythm.”

After college, Kennedy took a job on a sheep farm for six months. “The owner was not only a shepherd, but a lawyer and regular farmer,” she says. “So he had a farm patch and his law office and the wool mill and the gift shop on the same site.”

She helped as an assistant, living on the farm and spending her free time drawing the animals. “It was a pretty wild experience,” she says.

Kennedy’s brother lived in Richmond at the time, so when her work program on the farm ended, she decided to move to the area to be closer to him. An advisor at Virginia Commonwealth University suggested she take a course in Geographic Information Systems, which turned into a summer internship, which led to a job at Timmons Group, where she currently works mapping data. The company works with local governments for their various mapping needs.

“I like being both an artist and a person who is working in a technical field because it’s another window into another type of world and another type of person,” she says. “Being an artist has really helped me because I approach problems in a different way.”

After work, Kennedy often hits various music venues with and without her brother, filling her sketchpads with portraits of artists performing.

She has been talking with WRIR about sitting in on interviews with musicians and has been featured on James River Punch podcast. But she also fantasizes about someday taking vacation time to tour with a local band, documenting members’ lives on the road with her drawings and sharing the story on social media. “I think that could push me towards a new level and another way of drawing.” The local band she would most like to tour with is Avers.

Although Kennedy is not a musician herself, she feels she is a part of the scene.

“I love our local musicians, so it’s about being where I am. If I’m going to spend a lot of time by myself drawing, then I can also be with other people, drawing out in public,” she says. “I need some way to get me out of my house because otherwise I’ll just be a hermit.”

Adrian Olsen of her favorite band Avers throws some love right back to her.

“It’s been awesome to see her start doing her thing somewhat nervously and progress into this kind of landmark of the scene,” he says. “And it’s inspiring to see her create on the spot as you perform. We want to take her on tour!” S


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