An artist’s life altered, but not derailed

by Mick Rhodes |

I was intimidated from the moment I saw her, which was probably around 1981. Her sophistication was something I’d only seen in glossy British music magazines. She was 17, smart, and knew how to put together a look that was both a stick in the eye to the mainstream and elegant. It was the small things — distinctive, often homemade necklaces, bracelets, and one-of-a-kind modified T-shirts — that set her apart. She had style and an artist’s sensibility long before I understood what that meant.

And she was beautiful to boot.

That girl, Jennifer Wilkins, née Dobbin, whom most everyone calls “Jen,” has been an artist, “From the day I could put a crayon to a piece of paper,” she told me this week. “I come from a very creative family. Especially my mom.”

But the best thing about Jen then, and now, was her kindness. To have all that talent, be that cool, and still be so kind and considerate, well that set her apart from the rest of us fledgling, flailing “adults.”

Today, at 59, Jen has a new show of small paintings, “The Covid Years,” up at Some Crust Bakery in the Village through November 1. The exhibit is much more than a local artist’s latest: it’s the by-product of a steady perseverance over decades to remain true to herself despite the many obstacles in her path, nearly all of them not of her doing, the creative manifestation of a young life permanently altered by fate and folly.

And it’s lovely to see for me and her many friends.

Claremont resident Jennifer Wilkins, née Dobbin, mounts a painting from her new show, “The Covid Years,” up now through November 1 at Some Crust Bakery. Courier photo/Peter Weinberger

When we met, Jen and I were enmeshed in the same small punk rock scene percolating in Claremont and the surrounding communities, when I was still going by “Mike” and the world seemed wide open. Like me, she’d graduated from high school that year, her from Pomona High, me from Glendora.

We hung out quite a bit back then. She made flyers and designed logos for friends’ bands. She knew what to wear, and what was worth saving and celebrating. She furnished her place in midcentury modern furniture, and filled it with carefully curated art, antiques, and trinkets.

She was always the coolest one in the room, and we were in some pretty cool rooms.

We saw less of each other as we got older and hanging out at punk shows became just part of our lives, not the whole thing. In the summer of 1985 I got a job at Tower Records in West Covina. Shortly after I left, Jen was hired as an artist.

“I did art and display there for 12 years until one Labor Day, some 20 years ago, I had to call in sick,” Jen said. “The rest is history.”

I moved to Pasadena in 1988, then to Lake Tahoe, back to Pasadena, then on to Venice. It’d been several years since I’d seen Jen when I ran into her at a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion show at the El Rey Theatre in LA in March 1997. We spoke only briefly, but it was sure nice to see my old friend.

Months later I got the shocking news that she had been diagnosed with brain cancer. She was 33.

What followed that diagnosis dramatically reshaped the rest of her life. Though she’s never pursued legal action, a local surgeon botched her first brain surgery, removing some malignant mass but leaving behind more, which necessitated a second procedure at UCLA. The accompanying radiation treatments from both surgeries was severe and left her deeply fatigued. The combined trauma is with her to this day.

“Most people know that I had brain cancer and radiation and that it has made me hearing impaired and ‘hairing’ impaired,” she joked this week, referencing her thinning hair, “and my eyesight and my equilibrium are pretty bad. Those are some of the reasons I couldn’t go back to work at Tower.

“I guess they didn’t see the second tumor at the first surgery. The second surgery at UCLA made for a sad Halloween, but you know Mike, I am just happy to be alive. I feel fortunate and I’m not about revenge.”

The intervening years presented all manner of challenges, including the loss of her marriage. Through it all she continued to make her smart, intricate brand of pop art. The four shrines I have that she was creating in the early 2000s are among my prized possessions.

As the years have gone on Jen’s mobility and equilibrium issues have become acute, and her deteriorating eyesight and hearing have made it difficult for her to be in loud environments — like punk rock shows.

Still, she creates. “The Covid Years,” is made of up several small paintings that she had been amassing without a venue in which to share them.

“I’ve always had an affinity for vintage memorabilia, so I’ve been painting my photos of signs,” she said. “This has been my own attempt at preserving them. I know that someday they will be gone.”

I wondered how the progression of her maladies had influenced her art.

“I learned to not be so critical about myself and others,” she said. “My work is much simpler now. It’s not perfect but it’s what I like to do.”

That gratitude — appreciating what remains, not what’s lost — is steadfast. I asked her if there was anyone she wanted to single out for recognition as her new show was opening.

“I thank my mother and [partner] James Swinea and [friend] Robin Young and [Some Crust manager] Scott Feemster and you!”

Of the many artists I know and have known, Jen is the one for which I root the hardest. It’s not because I had a crush on her 40 years ago, and it’s not because she’s my friend: it’s because she’s fought the hardest. That kind of determination to do what she was put here to do despite the roadblocks life has thrown down in her path is more than enough reason to get behind her every time.

“The Covid Years” is up through November 1 at Some Crust Bakery, 119 N. Yale Ave., Claremont 91711. Purchase inquires can be made via email to


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