Los Angeles Muralist Heart Art: Jennifer Korsen’s signature heart art can be found in cities across America. The image represents community, collaboration, and resilience.
The Dalai Lama said that “tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.” Sometimes the people who have been through the worst of circumstances can offer the greatest stories of hope. Jennifer Korsen’s life has been marked by heartbreak and deprivation. At just six years old, Jennifer lost her mother and grandfather. By the age of twelve, she had mourned several more unexpected deaths in her small community.
Throughout adolescence, she moved from one residential placement to the next. Conditions at home were sometimes so bad that Jennifer would commit herself to the hospital to avoid going back. “I didn’t have the very basic life experiences of even having my mom tuck me in at night,” Jennifer said. Yet today Jennifer’s heart tells a story not of brokenness, but of resilience, perseverance, and hope.
It wasn’t until she found art therapy in one of her residential placements that Jennifer’s story began to pivot. She says that art therapy gave her permission to do “whatever she wanted.” That allowance fulfilled a deep longing in her for identity. Therapy became a passion, passion produced talent, and the three blended together into a beautiful purpose. Art therapy was so transformative for Jennifer that she considered pursuing it as a career. In the end, she couldn’t see herself on the clinical side of things. “I just wanted a more authentic connection,” Jennifer said; a connection she knew she would not personally be able to experience as a therapist.
Jennifer chose instead to continue her trajectory as a budding artist and use her pieces to form connections. The public art with which Jennifer has made a career is a huge testament to the utility of art therapy. Her bright and colorful murals can be found on buildings all over Los Angeles, bringing color and life to otherwise sad and neglected urban spaces. They most commonly feature an anatomical human heart. It is unashamedly not anatomically correct, perhaps a shout out to our own human imperfections and uniqueness. The organ seems to possess unending symbolism—the fragility of human life, authenticity, love, identity. Its image transcends language, culture, race and religion.
Recently, Jennifer has been working on a massive collaborative art piece she calls the “What’s in Your Heart Project.” She provides groups with an outline of her signature heart and invites them to fill it in however they want. The What’s in Your Heart Project is being introduced in schools, psychiatric treatment facilities, cancer treatment centers, community centers, and the list goes on. Community and collaboration are the lifeblood of Jennifer’s work. She recalled a school-wide art project where she and her peers gathered to paint a map of the United States on pavement. “I’d always jump the fence to cut back through there and go see it,” she said. It was a source of pride for her—she was part of something. She loves to see others experience that same sense of belonging and pride through her project.
Jennifer’s resilience seems to have prepared her well for the life of an artist. Muralists especially face unique challenges. They do not have typical visiting hours and a storefront gallery, which means they do not usually have the opportunity to stand proudly next to their art and put a face to the name in the corner of the frame. They must endure seeing their pieces covered over or torn down as neighborhoods change, and they must also adapt with viewers’ understanding of public art. Not least of all, there is the challenge of attribution. “Public domain” and “public art” are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. Muralists produce their art in public places for the masses to enjoy, but just because their art is not matted and framed doesn’t mean they lack the rights to the product.
Graffiti was not always appreciated as art and in the past was only associated with rebellion and criminal activity. These days, it is recognized an integral part of a city’s cultural expression, and at the very least, the more tasteful works are widely appreciated for adding vibrancy and color to urban neighborhoods. While a lot of graffiti is still done illegally, “all original art affixed in a permanent way is copyright protected,” according to the U.S. Copyright Act. Jennifer is fighting to change the understanding of public art attribution with regard to display, reproduction and commercialization. So next time you tag your outfit in an Instagram picture, take a look at the backdrop and tag the artist, too!
Art is constantly evolving, and as a muralist, Jennifer is at the forefront of that evolution. Moreover, her redemptive story of persevering through childhood tragedy and a severely flawed upbringing and rising to become an inspirational artist adds a world of meaning to her art. The narrative she paints is visible to millions of people in one of the world’s largest cities. Her work is positive, deeply personal, inclusive and collaborative. The Dalai Lama’s quote concludes with, “no matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.” For Jennifer, that hope was discovered in the creative expression provided by art therapy, and today she is using her story as a launchpad to pay it forward and provide hopeful opportunities to countless others.