Janet McKenzie is a native New Yorker, born in Brooklyn and raised in and around New York City. She now lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
Ms McKenzie studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology (NYC) and the Art Students League (NYC), on scholarship (Merit, Arnold Blanch). She was the recipient of the Edward McDowell Traveling Scholarship, which sent her to Europe for a year to study and travel. At the time she was one of the youngest recipients of the McDowell, which is the Art Students League’s most prestigious award. After returning to New York the League gave Ms McKenzie her first solo show. Since that time she has focused her life’s work primarily on the subject of women.
The artist’s devotion and commitment to imagery of women has in many ways to do with the loss of her mother and grandmother at an early point in her life. She realized that their journey – all women’s really – was interwoven and linked together. She grew to believe that her work would serve as a symbolic voice for women who were not able to speak for themselves.
In the mid nineties Janet McKenzie began to incorporate diversity, children, and symbolic imagery into her work with women. At the same time the need to explore a sacred voice within her work surfaced, partly influenced by time spent in New Mexico.
Artist Janet McKenzie is known for her controversial painting “Jesus of the People” - First Place Winner of the National Catholic Reporter’s global competition, “Jesus 2000”. Dark and modeled by a woman, this inclusive image pays homage to people of color and women – two groups traditionally under - represented or left out of iconic imagery of Christ. Revealed for the first time on the “Today Show” in New York the reactions to the painting were swift and viciously negative. The artist received death threats, her mail was separated for fear of letter bombs and she was told if she painted Mohammed the same thing that happened to Sallman Rhusdie would happen to her. Westboro Baptist Church wrote a hate-infused letter about the painting to Sen. Patrick Leahy, Bernie Sanders and then-Governor Howard Dean, threatening to picket in front of her studio in Vermont. People called telling her to read the Bible. Angry emails were constant and, to a lesser degree, continue. Over time however people the world over stood up for the work – now far out numbering those who reject it. “Jesus of the People”, almost 20 years later, is now embraced as a true icon of this era.
‘This was a Jesus for the dark continents, the dark spaces in society, the darkness in our lives. This Jesus was definitely one with the poor, the outcasts, the marginalized and women.’
Valerie Maysie D’Souza (India) “Jesus of the People” – The Role of Art in Theological Reflection, “In God’s Image, Asian Women Doing Theology” (2002-12, Vol. 21, No. 4)
Orbis Books published “Holiness and the Feminine Spirit – The Art of Janet McKenzie” (2009) with reflections written by 27 leading writers and theologians – all women. The book won the 2010 First Place Award for Spirituality from the Catholic Press Association. In 2013 Orbis Books also published “The Way of the Cross – The Path to New Life”, a collaboration with Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, which features McKenzie’s 15 Stations with reflections written on each by Sr. Joan.
Janet McKenzie was invited to be the 2013 William Belden Noble Lecturer at Harvard University’s Memorial Church. In 2017 Memorial Church commissioned, “The Divine Journey – Companions of Love and Hope”, a new painting which honors diversity and Radcliffe/Harvard women past and present. Memorial Church created “The Divine Journey – A Painter’s Mission”, a documentary on the commission.
Collections include, The State of Vermont, Archdiocese of Chicago, The Cathedral Church of St. Paul (Burlington, VT) and the Daughters of the Heart of Mary (Holyoke, MA). She has received commissions from The University of Dayton, Carlow University (Pittsburgh, PA), St. Mary’s University of MN (Winona), Loyola University. (Chicago), Mepkin Abbey (Moncks Corner, SC) and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, (Carnegie, PA).
Janet McKenzie’s art is regularly carried in protest demonstrations across the United States in support of racial equality and the rights of immigrants, women and the LGBTQ community.
‘McKenzie reflects our time’s deep awareness of suffering and injustice. In just those depths she celebrates courage, spiritual vision and our common humanity.’
Lois Eby, commentary, Vermont Public Radio