Four-year-old Violet won’t eat her waffle. She’s sitting at the kitchen table staring at it like it’s going to bite her first.
She escapes to the living room, searching for the remote, which as it turns out, was right next to that dreaded waffle all the time.
Sixteen-month-old Ezra, who has finished his breakfast, thank you very much, is blowing big-boy kisses from his highchair. A baby-second later, his face crumples, and he’s crying like a crocodile.
Jake Genen, their father, steps out of the shower and into another Saturday morning. He trades places with his wife, Tara, as she gets dressed.
He entices Violet back to the table – nope, she absolutely, positively won’t eat that waffle – and gets Ezra to giggle – yup, that was easy.
Jake, who is big, bearded and barefoot, pads around the apartment, which also serves as his art studio.
His works, posed photographic portraits that replace human bodies with animals’, are produced on his computer, which is virtually hidden in a corner of the living room.
He searches through a pile of images. Ah, here’s what he’s looking for – a pig posing in a police officer’s uniform, a buffalo outfitted in a headdress for a Wild West hunt and a cat clad in a blue gown and a Mona Lisa smile.
“It all started as a joke 16 years ago,” he says, as he walks to his unruly rustic-city backyard and makes himself comfortable in a patio chair. “I began taking Victorian images from the web and putting animal faces on them.”
The first in the series was a photo of President Abraham Lincoln (with a bird’s body) meeting Southern Gen. Robert E. Lee (with a crawfish’s body) during the Civil War.
Soon, Jake was buying Victorian tintypes and 19th-century cabinet cards, scanning them and altering them with Photoshop.
“I try to match the patina of the old photo,” he says. “I morph in the animal image to match the tintype head-on in everything, even roughness and scratches. I’m a glorified digital collage artist.”
As he’s speaking, a cat, white with orange patches, streaks by the silver chain-link fence. A couple of birds chirp.
Jake, who is from the small upstate village of Washingtonville that’s an hour and a half north of the city, started drawing practically before he could say that word.
His mother, an artist and art teacher, encouraged and required him to create.
“She was an arts and crafts counselor in the summers, which meant that I got to go to camp for free,” Jake says. “But she also made me make all the demo projects to show as examples to the other kids.”
After earning an associate’s degree in advertising and design and a bachelor’s degree in animation from FIT, Jake worked as an animator for several companies, freelancing between jobs. He produced his anthropomorphic art in his spare time.
In 2010, he took a full-time job as an animator with ABC News; the next year, he married Tara Klurman, who’s a freelance graphic designer.
“We met on an online dating site,” he says, almost apologetically.
He commemorated their wedding with a photo of the bride and groom as a mouse and a frog based on the Scottish nursery rhyme and song “Froggy Went A-Courtin.’”
Which begs the question: Does he see himself as a frog?
“I’m a sea otter,” he answers immediately. “I like wearing shorts and sitting in the sun.”
If he’s a sea otter, what does that make Tara?
He thinks about this a long time, probably too long, before carefully replying.
“I think she’s a bird,” he says slowly. “Yes, a bird. Tropical.”
He may be right – her diaphanous peacock blue and white over-blouse matches the sapphire-color rhinestones on her silver moccasins.
Violet, who likes to chatter, reminds Jake of a little squirrel. No, make that a chipmunk; she’s definitely a chipmunk.
And Ezra, well, it’s too early to tell which animal spirit he is.
Working full time and parenting full time keep Jake busy, but “I always make time for my art.”
Right now, though, he’s making time for Tara, Violet and Ezra.
“If I could figure out how to parlay my art into a full-time job, I would do that in a heartbeat,” he says. “But I’m happy to be creating for the sake of creating for my own enjoyment.”
Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019.
Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhing@gmail.com; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling