An Yves Saint Laurent cocktail dress, coffee grounds and cat litter don't have much in common for most of us. But Silver Spring artist Jean Henschel uses all of them in her work.
Henschel brings coffee grounds home from the Department of Energy, where she works as a program analyst, and dries them for hours in the oven before using them to create her three-dimensional paintings. "I get great results from pouring the drip-grind grounds into the percolator-grind grounds," Henschel says. "The differing coarseness of the grounds gives a unique look to my three-dimensional works."
Henschel has used sand from local beaches and oyster shells from Maryland's Eastern Shore. In one work, entitled "Eastern Shore and Shell," she embedded shells in modeling paste, then covered them with oils. Many of her works have cat litter molded into them for added texture.
As for the cocktail dress: "I work with all kinds of paint, up to my elbows in them, while wearing a designer dress. I enjoy beautiful clothing and work better when I can relax," says Henschel, who is 54.
She also uses varnish and enamel, pouring or brushing the substance onto a 2-by-4-foot ceiling panel. Ordinary canvases will not work for her paintings because they often buckle or are slow to dry. "I can't always use acrylics with them because it will dry and the coffee grounds will brush off to the touch," she says. By edging the coffee grounds and varnish with India ink, she gives her designs a floating appearance.
"I get as much enjoyment out of observing people react to my fantasy paintings as I do in painting them," said Henschel, whose work is highly abstract. "It's like a mini-Rorschach test, bringing out personalities and the insights of those who view them."
She would like to see her abstract designs some day on placemats, coffee table tops, napkins or even dresses. "It's time for my art to publicly resurface after all this artistic immersion," Henschel says.
Besides abstract paintings, Henschel has done more conventional work upon request. One of her murals, behind a baptismal font in a Lawton, Okla., church, depicts the biblical Jordan River. She relied on photographs in painting another of her murals, which recaptured the site in New Orleans where a couple had stayed during their honeymoon. She produced a full-wall mural for the Hudson Bay Fur Co. in Salt Lake City, and received a mink stole as payment.
While at the University of Utah, where she earned a PhD in education administration, Henschel studied with sculptor Avard T. Fairbanks, whose work is represented locally by three sizable statues in the Capitol. His sculpture of the angel Moroni sits on one of the spires of the Mormon Temple in Kensington.
Although Henschel dreams of one day being a successful artist by profession, she now spends her days analyzing energy legislation at the DOE. Her background, however, is filled with accomplishments in the arts. She has lectured on fine art, conducted art workshops, taught art on the college level, judged art shows and produced television shows on the arts.
Henschel has shown her work locally at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, the Capital Yacht Club and the Guatemalan Embassy. She has painted logos for several businesses. Yolanda Drake, editor-in-chief of Woman's Life magazine, called Henschel's talent "fresh with a new but beautifully harmonious approach to the field of art."
Henschel's home, which is set up like a gallery, displays dozens of works, which fill almost all available wall space. Some of them were done by one of her four children, all of whom dabble in the arts as a hobby.
Henschel believes art permeates many aspects of daily life. "Art is in the very clothing you select, with the colors coordinating your suits, shoes," she says. "Even the car you drive is a work of art. Art engulfs us."