I met Jessica in the summer of 2009 at a show and concert in a beautiful old church in Indianapolis. I had gone to see a friend (pianist/composer) perform, and was surprised to find visual work as part of the show. There’s something really special about seeing art in an historic church, but the icing on the cake was that the show was created by the artists in collaboration with the church. I love seeing the fruits of artist’s collaborations more than anything, so of course, I was immediately smitten with this group. I was especially drawn to Jessica’s self portraits with titles like “Vessel”. I’ve never really liked artist’s self portraits. I avoid making them because I don’t think I have the humility to do it right. Jessica does it right.
For the following several months I witnessed (via web) Jessica and her husband, Duncan, create work to music performed by our mutual friend in live performances. This was right about the time that Chandi and I were building the project, so her collaborative spirit and style were the perfect addition. I’ve loved watching Jessica work over the years, and especially so these last few years as she has studied to be a conservator.
S0, without further ado, Project Dispatch presents the art of…
I imagine you as a kid that preferred the company of bugs to people. Am I right? Or did your love of bugs come later in life?
I was definitely a quiet kid and a lot critters shared my attic bedroom, but I didn’t really appreciate bugs until later. There is a tiny section of Yukio Mishima’s book Spring Snow that describes a window looking out across beautiful gardens towards the distant mountains… and with that magnificent backdrop, a little beetle is focused on crawling from one side of the sill to the other. It probably wouldn’t have the same impact now, but at the time I read it I was pretty overwhelmed with choices and purpose and meaning and truth, and that passage helped give me direction — just set a goal and work with what’s in reach; the larger world isn’t hung up on me, so I shouldn’t get hung up on it. Ironically, that focus opened up both my reach and my world massively.
You have recently become a Conservation Fellow at Brooklyn Museum. What is your favorite area of study? What are you working on now? What do you dream of working on? You are living one of my dreams right now, so I could probably use a reality check. Do you have any complaints?
I love learning about the chemical make up of art materials, and how that’s affected by historic and geographic context. Like how a lot of avant-garde, 20th c. artists’ work was only possible due to technological developments driven by the world wars, and how the paint manufacturers were experimenting with additives that affect the paintings’ condition today. The research and analysis is endless and fascinating, but I’m still mostly infatuated with the artwork itself. Right now I have treatments underway for a huge Islamic coffeehouse painting The Battle of Karbala, a never-before-displayed Renoir, and Stuart Davis’s The Mellow Pad, which I also applied for a grant to conduct analysis on, just to name a few. It’s almost to busy to appreciate what’s happening, and not as glamorous as that list may sound, but I seriously love my job and the range of amazing art I get to see, study, preserve, make available to others, and touch (!) — only professionally, of course. Someday I’d like to put to use my interests in public art, road trips, and climbing on scaffolding by preserving historic murals across the country, but my current situation is pretty satisfying. Complaints? Grad school and this profession pose some challenges I didn’t expect. For example, home is something I’ve missed dearly, because practically speaking it’s hard to establish a new one or return to the old one.
You have studied and practice art, but your current work is so much more science, right? Other than the obvious about the nature of the materials and how the work would best be preserved, how has this had an effect on the way you think about art making?
The science is pretty heavy and a wonderful guide. Understanding materials and optical effects on a molecular level was really profound to me. Everything makes more sense, from art to the environment to humans. But in conservation practice there is so much problem solving and responsiveness to the materials at hand that it actually starts to feel like another art form. Add to that the fun of ethics: the beauty and value of decay, the balance of preservation vs. artifice, loss vs. memory, original intention vs. current truth — these ideas come up all the time, and it’s pretty good fodder for composing still lifes and portraits. On a more practical note, finally acknowledging the toxicity of some of Duncan’s and my favorite art-making materials (something we blissfully ignored for too long) before moving into our recent string of tiny, poorly ventilated apartments has probably kept a few years on our lifespans.
You use oil pastels a lot in your work. Does this material stand the test of time? Is that even a concern of yours? What is it about the material that you love so much?
The way oil pastels feel is what gets me: the difference in their effects when warm or cool, and the ability to stack layers, mix layers, scrape layers. I didn’t pick them for their longevity, but they do hold up pretty well thanks to the oil component and the fact that the colorants by and large are pigments rather than dyes. The dry-but-not-chalky look is a visual goal that I used to achieve in my oil paintings by adding wax. Now I probably wouldn’t ever add wax to oils because their differences in solubility make them a horror for conservators to clean down the line. But I try not to think about longevity too much — it’s too intimidating to consider whether my own artwork will be capable of lasting, because it quickly follows to consider whether it should last, which ends up in an argument between two arrogant thoughts: “someone will want to preserve my art” vs. “it’s not about them.” I just have to focus on the making or I fall back into that black hole quandary over meaning and purpose.
If you could do one thing that you don’t have the time or resources to do now, what would it be?
I would buy an RV, establish my mobile conservation lab, and take Duncan and Lottie (our cat) on a tour of the Americas, preserving historic murals and painting new murals with locals along the way, with plenty of money left over for spur-of-the-moment flights back to the Midwest.
Have you made any discoveries in your practice as a result of becoming a member of Project Dispatch and making work for subscriptions?
Project Displatch has kept art-making in my life over the last four crazy years! Grad school took away my ability to plan and execute larger projects, so making smaller artworks for subscriptions and shows was my way to stay in practice and learn how to use materials like colored pencil and acrylic paint. Seeing how the other artists involved work in small scale has been helpful, too. It’s always nice to look over the shoulders of other artists.
If you could pick three artists from the Project to subscribe to, who would they be?
I’ve thought about this many times and hope to actually make it happen in the near future. Rachel England, because of the occasional religious themes and the contradictions posed in her collages; Chandi Kelley, because she has a lot of cool pieces about tiny worlds; and Frank Adams, because his colors, composition, and humor are great. Then Dana Maier, Arianna Valle, and Jerome Skiscim, because their art contains stories that intrigue me.