A lot of your work functions on multiple levels: visually and symbolically. Could you talk a little bit about how you come up with the concepts for your work? Do you get an idea first, then seek out materials to execute it, or do you let the materials at hand “speak” to you?
It is somewhat of a mysterious process because—and I don’t say this to overly romanticize the process because my studio practice involves a lot of very hard, meticulous work—but honestly the ideas often come to me unbidden; I try to steep myself in other artists’ creative work: reading, watching films, going to galleries. So I’m surrounded by things that are challenging to me and things that are provocative and things that upset me and so often there’ll be something in my life or something that’s going on in the country or the world that I’ll start to get really fixated on, and often the ideas just come to me and they’re fully-formed.
I’m not classically trained—I don’t have fine art training; I’ve taken a few sculpture classes at PSU (Portland State University) and that’s it—so my practice is strange in that when I get these ideas for conceptual pieces, I have an idea of the materials I want to use, and more often than not I’ve never worked with those materials before and I’ve never done any of the processes that are required and I have no idea how to accomplish what I want to make. I can see the piece fully-formed, and I just have to get from where I am to there. And that often involves taking a class, or often it involves finding a fellow artist or a mentor who can teach me how to do something. For example when I had a welding project, I found a friend who knew how to weld and he taught me how to do what I needed to do for the piece. When I wanted to do a piece with mold-making and casting, I went to my friends who are mold-makers. For me, it’s a great way to acquire skill; that’s how I learn how to do something. So it’s been a really great way for me to learn because I do better that way as opposed to just learning a skill and not knowing what to do with it.
Your Rescue Series in particular really spoke to me. I love that idea of self-rescue through art. Could you talk a little bit about that series, and how art is a means of self-rescue for you?
Honestly I feel like my whole life and everything I do is part of that Rescue Series. Years ago, I was walking with someone in the woods and he was learning about safety rescue as he was going through medical training, so while we were on this hike we were getting deeper and deeper into the woods and I was quizzing him with questions like, “What would you do if I fell on this branch and I broke my femur in two places?” in order to test his skills. And it was this interesting thing because he was triaging what he would do, the steps he would take to rescue me and get me out of the woods safely. And after about an hour of this I had a realization and I said to him, “Oh my gosh, what would I do if any of those things happened and I was alone in the woods?” And he thought about it for a minute, really considered it, and he looked at me and I’ll never forget what he said: “I guess you’d just have to rescue yourself.” And I had never thought of rescue as something you could do for yourself. It seemed like something that another person had to do for you—someone rescues you. And without being hyperbolic, that changed my life; it changed my relationship with myself, I think, because I realized that I’m capable of rescuing myself. Literally and figuratively. So that made me think about the ways in which I rescue myself in my life. Because we all do that for ourselves. So I realized that it was my writing practice and my studio practice—those were the ways that I got myself out of my darkest times. And those were the ways that I felt connected to the world; they’ve always been a lifeline for me. It made me think about how everybody has something, right? For some people it’s their social work, or community organizing, or raising children—it’s different for every person. And for me, because making art and writing is my entire life, that is the way that I continue to rescue myself.
Could you speak a little bit to whether there’s an overarching theme in your work? Is there a concept in particular that you just keep coming back to for some reason?
I think it is this theme of rescue. Sometimes I’ve made certain series to get myself out of a really difficult personal time, a period of grief. Other times I become so incensed about what’s happening in our culture that I want to make something as a way to rescue myself from that; I can very easily get myself into this paralyzed state where I just feel like I want to lie on the floor in the fetal position until everything gets better. And so I think the overarching theme is that I make work that helps me feel like I’m putting meaning into the world so that I don’t become defeated by what’s happening either in my personal life or in the world. And there’s a lot of talk about the personal being political—especially with female artists. And I firmly believe that, but I also believe that the political is personal, and so that’s something that I keep in mind. For me, my practice is extraordinarily personal. It’s not a coincidence that I only write non-fiction and most of it is memoirs and essays. Some might think of it as navel-gazing, but I think of it as really looking at our own lives and using that micro lens to reveal truths about the macro world. So right now I’m starting to work on a series about violence against women. And even though I have not been physically or sexually abused, it’s about the gross violence against women and also about subtle violence against women. And so with that I’m responding to a cultural phenomenon and I’m responding to things that are going on in the news, but it feels very personal to me and doesn’t feel any less personal than work I’m making about something that’s happening in my own life.
Have you ever written any fiction?
Never. Not once. I don’t have the chip! And I know that there are writers that do both fiction and nonfiction and they’re able to go between, but I literally couldn’t write a novel if I wanted to; I couldn’t write a short story if I wanted to. And it’s interesting because I don’t even read very much fiction. I keep trying—every once in awhile I’ll say, "Jen, just pick up a novel! There are so many beautiful, amazing novels, just try it!" And every time I get into it I just think, "Well this is no more beautifully written than a lot of the nonfiction books that I read, and if I’m going to read something beautiful and engrossing, I want to also know that it happened to someone." I was always a terrible student in history; I couldn’t get a handle on history no matter how hard I tried. It always just felt like I was memorizing the dates of when white dudes died, came into power, or waged war. And it also didn’t feel like it gave me any insight into how people were actually living. So I think I rail against my education and history, since I would say 90% of what I read are memoirs by female authors. I feel like I’m reading personal history, and that feels more true than anything I can read about in a novel. There’s a sort of communion when I’m reading these intimate stories of other women. I feel connected to them in a way that I don’t with a novelist who is writing about something that didn’t happen to them personally. It feels like a fellowship.
You have the ability to articulate human emotions in a way that a lot of people don’t. Have you found that’s always the case? What’s the importance of acknowledging those emotions for you?
I think that comes from having a writing practice for 20 years. I only started making visual art 5 years ago—I’m very much an emerging visual artist, whereas I’ve been writing all of my adult life. And because I work in memoir, and always have, my entire creative practice has been about allowing myself to be as vulnerable as I possibly could, and trying to articulate experiences, emotions, and vulnerability as best as I could in order to make them feel universal. So it feels like very much an extension of my writing practice, which, if I’m honest with myself and allow myself to be vulnerable, it just comes out that way. And the importance of doing that is that it’s what connects us to our own humanity and to the humanity of our fellow citizens. I believe so much in the transformational powers of art. I believe in the power of story to change people’s hearts and minds and belief systems about things. I know that certain beliefs of mine have been changed by certain works of art that I’ve seen. And so all we can ever do, I think as artists, is just to be as honest and vulnerable as we can. And that invites connection with other people, and that’s what I’m aiming for. And a lot of that is just me laying myself bare.
Can you think of a work of art that changed you/impacted you like you mentioned?
I can think of a few. The first one is a film by Tim Robbins called Dead Man Walking. Granted, I was fairly young when I saw it, but I believed in the death penalty until I saw that film. And it was not a slow progression of change in terms of my ideology— I went into that film believing in the death penalty and I walked out thinking it’s completely wrong. I just had a complete epiphany about it.
More recently, there was a show at the Portland Art Museum called Constructing Identity, and it was essentially a survey of black American artists from the last century. I saw the show as an arts writer because I was writing a review of it, so I spent a lot of the time with the curator talking to him and having him walk me through it and in a very real way, that show caused me to challenge and confront a lot of my aesthetic prejudice. There were works that I saw that I completely dismissed as having a lack of craftsmanship, as not being sophisticated, etc., and what I realized was that that was my indoctrination from the dominant culture about what is good, and what is sophisticated—basically what is being produced by mostly white male artists. And I really got an education with that show and it caused me to confront a lot of my own aesthetic preferences, which I thought were just singular to me. But I realized that they’re actually part of how the dominant culture sees certain types of art as being naive or unsophisticated. So that got me to think about a lot of things, because it carries out into your life too. It made me realize how I’ve been indoctrinated by dominant culture to see these things aesthetically, so how else have I been indoctrinated? So many ways! And the thing is when you’re open to challenging yourself or sometimes feeling uncomfortable, those things just keep revealing themselves. I’m a fairly thoughtful person, in as much as I give these sorts of things quite a lot of thought, but that show made me realize there were so many other things that it hadn’t occurred to me to look at. So those are just the first two that come to mind.
Is there an age when you can remember getting involved with art? When did you first start creating? Can you elaborate on the impact of that initial contact with creativity?
I can. My maternal grandfather was an artist. He was a painter, and he was also an art restorer and art conservator. He was extraordinarily successful; he restored the fresco in the dome of the capitol building, he worked for Jacqueline Kennedy and he restored the Water Lilies for MOMA, just everything you can imagine. And he also was a painter, and had a studio. His father, my great grandfather, was also a commercial artist and very successful. So I grew up in a family in which art was incredibly revered and seen as a viable way to make a living. There was no notion of the starving artist. And I didn’t even realize what a difference that made in my life at the time—I didn’t even realize I was going to go into visual art, but art was always just there, and I grew up in a house that was filled with art. Every surface had art on it; sculptures and paintings and such. So I was surrounded by art all the time, and since I was a little girl my grandfather brought me into his studio and he would have little tasks for me to do, and when he was restoring one of the frescoes in the congressional dining room in the capitol building he invited me to come for a day or two and I got to help him. So I think that really planted a seed for me. But it didn’t come up for many many years because I don’t have an aptitude for visual art insofar as I can not draw. And that was my grandfather’s way to help me become an artist—he gave me individual drawing lessons from the time I was really small and I was absolutely just rubbish at it! I remember the first lesson was drawing an apple and I just flat-out sucked. There’s nothing more to say—I just had no aptitude for it. And so I told myself that I can’t be an artist because I can’t draw.
So I became a writer, at first for the love of it and then professionally as a freelance writer. And it’s interesting because the literary world is very different from the visual arts world. And I think this is changing, but when I started out as a writer the literary world did not respect people who are writers “slash” something else, because they think that means you’re not a serious writer. A writer needs to be someone who is just a writer and they bleed onto their paper 14 hours a day while drinking scotch and smoking cigarettes and dying for their art. And so I bought into that for a long time. I am a serious writer, it’s very important to me and core to my identity, so I thought, "Well you can’t be anything else if you’re a writer." But something broke open in me five years ago where I just really wanted to try visual art. I found myself being attracted to visual artists and wanting to hang out with them and I would go to residencies and there would be writers and visual artists and I never wanted to hang out with the writers I only wanted to talk to the visual artists, and so something was roiling inside of me for a long time. But I think that having that early exposure to art and that permission and that understanding that it is in fact a way to make a life, that my whole life just opened up when I started taking classes and making work. And it’s so interesting when you realize all of the cultural influences that cause us to keep those things down—I’m too this, I’m too young, I’m too old—it doesn’t even matter! I’ve heard someone say, “I’m too young to write a great book,” and then I hear people say, “I’m too old to write a great book!” No one is ever the right age, no one ever has the right amount of money, and so ultimately you have to just listen to those whispers which eventually become screaming shouts, and follow them.
Could you talk a little bit about your history as a writer? You write beautifully. Could you go into detail regarding your relationship with words?
I’ll give you the quick rundown. I wanted to be an advertising copywriter from the time I was 12 years old. I was obsessed with advertising. I wanted to be a writer, ultimately, and this is another example of those preconceived notions—I figured that the only way to do that successfully and make a living was to be a copywriter, because who makes a living as an actual writer? So I set my sights on copywriting from the time I was 12, and did everything I could to achieve it. I got into a college that had one of the best advertising programs, I majored in advertising, and graduated and got an amazing job as a junior copywriter right out of school in Manhattan. And I absolutely hated it. With an abiding passion. The office environment was toxic, and it was choked with ego and masculinity and everyone in charge was an old white dude and I realized that copywriting was just about making very wealthy companies wealthier at the expense of the consumer, and all of my hopes and dreams were dashed about how this was going to be a wonderful creative outlet for me and I retired at the ripe old age of 21. I was just out.
So I went back to school for something completely unrelated, thinking I was going to have a complete career change, and then came to my senses, and started writing freelance. This was in the early 2000s. So I wrote for everyone from Seventeen Magazine to YM. Then I moved to Portland and I wrote for The Mercury when I first got here, and I had the life of a typical freelancer. I wrote for local places as well as national magazines, and then I started to bump up against my own ability because, like my visual art, I was never classically trained in writing—I had never taken a writing class before. So I decided to go back to school for an MFA in 2006. And I’m so glad I did that; it made a huge difference. And I’m not necessarily pro-MFA for other disciplines, and I’m not even pro-MFA for all writers—it’s so personal according to who you are. But the MFA really helped me and I had a wonderful advisor and for my master’s thesis you had to write a book-length manuscript. And it’s so funny because my advisor had told all of us from the beginning, "Your first book is like your first pancake: you usually just have to throw it out.” And it’s so true! So I was working on this thing just thinking that I was going to be done with it for the program and that would be it. And when the program wrapped up my professor told me she wanted me to finish the manuscript and submit it—she really believed in me. So since then I’ve just been freelance writing but mostly arts-writing—that was another very serendipitous thing that I did that I never planned to do. But it makes sense for me. It’s a marriage of two things that I care more about than anything. And I’m also working on a book now.
I know you’re working on a memoir right now. would you mind going into a little detail there as well?
My 10-year marriage ended very suddenly in 2013 and I entered into a very protracted period of grief that I didn’t think I would survive. And the grief turned into depression—I have no history of depression before or since; it was very circumstantial—but I became profoundly depressed, and I became suicidal. And it was the first time in my adult life that I physically couldn’t write—my grief and depression were so paralyzing that I couldn’t keep two thoughts in my head at the same time. I couldn’t even watch a 30-minute sitcom because I couldn’t follow the plot. That’s how depressed I was. So this thing, my writing, which had always been my self-rescue, was no longer available to me. Not only did I feel like the sky was falling and my life was over, but the one self-rescue tool I had was also gone. What do you do then? As an artist and a writer, where do you go from there? There’s no way out. So these ideas for a sculpture series started to come to me. I found out I could still work with my hands. I wasn’t able to write, but I could work with my hands. And making that work was a huge part of what saved me and what brought me out of that depression.
So the manuscript I’m writing is about that period of grief, and it is also about the power of a creative practice to help shepherd you through those kinds of time in your life, and what you do when your primary mode of expression abandons you. And the answer is you find another one. So the book is about grief, and it’s about art, but it’s also about ritual and reverence for things and about all of the reasons why a creative life is meaningful. I’m really used to writing as I go, which is not the best practice—like the last book I wrote I didn’t know how it would end because I didn’t know where my life would go—I’ve always just written as things have happened and I wrote a lot of the book before I became too depressed to write but was still very depressed. And now, four years out, it’s quite difficult to revisit that. For one thing, I actually think that there is an emotional experience that you have when you’re grieving—not only negative, I think it actually opens up both ends of the emotional spectrum—that you cannot physically or emotionally access if you’re not in grief. I read certain things that I wrote while I was in grief that I couldn’t possibly write if I wanted to now because I don’t have access to those places. So it’s really interesting now to go back. It’s sad. I feel like my heart aches for myself four years ago, and it’s been a bit of a challenge, but a worthwhile one for me.
Art Passport PDX, Artists Resist... you’re so busy! What’s on the horizon for you? Any big plans/projects coming up that you’re particularly excited about?
You know, Artists Resist has not been successful, if I’m being honest. I collaborated with a designer in New York who designed the site and everything, and we wanted to give artists a platform for resistance and specifically to talk about why the NEA and the NEH need to stay funded. I do a lot of projects and am quite comfortable with failure because it’s just part of life if you’re trying to put things into the world, so I’m ok with it. I can’t identify what the mechanism is for why it didn’t take off—we were asking people to make a short video, and this was right after Trump was inaugurated. I feel like I (and others) have less to give because I’m so exhausted from everything that’s happening and so I think that for most people, the idea of having to think of what they wanted to say, and sit down, and make a video, I think—and I could be wrong, it’s just conjecture—I think it was just too much for people to be able to do. And so it hasn’t taken off as I had hoped.
So what’s on the horizon now is I want to finish this memoir of mine that I had to table for a while, and I actually have two other books—one that I’m a little bit of the way into and one that I haven’t even started—that will follow that. So much of my life is up in the air and I don’t know if it will happen because it’s dependent on grant funding. I have a sculpture series about violence against women that I hope gets funded. I’ll make it either way, but it will just happen faster if I get funding. I won’t find out about that until later this year. I also have a yearlong arts writing project that I’ve also applied for a grant for that I really hope comes through because I’m very excited about it. There’s a lot of talk about the male gaze and the female gaze in art, in filmmaking, in photography. So I’m interested in exploring the difference between the male and the female gaze in criticism, and I haven’t heard a lot of people talking about that. So I’ve proposed to do a yearlong, in-depth series where I would be interviewing and doing an article on one artist per month. I would be focusing on underrepresented artists. Not exclusively, but the project would be weighted in that direction. We live in a very white place (Portland, Oregon), which is to say that very few artists of color actually get solo shows here. It’s pretty rare.
What do you think is causing that?
It is such a multifaceted answer. Some of it is the pool - especially for galleries that have a local focus—statistically there are fewer artists of color here because there are fewer people of color here than in other places. But it’s also very much part of the system. There’s not a lot of outreach from the art world into other communities to see what other artists are doing, and it’s this issue looping back to what we talked about before, which is that there are a lot of artists from different traditions making work that because of our aesthetic biases and prejudices we see as not being of quality and not being sophisticated. In order to change that, people within the arts community actually have to start retraining their eye. So that’s part of it. But there are a lot of galleries that want to show people who are making all different types of work from all different types of backgrounds. But that doesn’t happen overnight.
As an arts writer, one of the biggest bummers is that you can only write about artists who are showing work because most publications will only pay you for a review of an exhibition. But I take issue with that because first of all, an exhibition is just 2% of an artist’s life, and also, a lot of the artists that I’m interested in aren’t given the opportunity to show because of their background and the way the system is rigged to their disadvantage. Part of the male gaze in criticism is that we’re very result-and-goal-oriented: we’re only going to look at your finished work, we only want to see your exhibition. But that’s not the case for me. I want to go to an artist’s studio and ask them to tell me about all their failures! Tell me about how you use art as a lens through which to navigate and see the world! I really believe that artists are special in that they create meaning out of everyday life. And that’s something worth exploring to me far beyond just what the 22 pieces are that they decided to show in an exhibit.
What do you see as the most pressing issue in the art world right now? How do you see that issue developing in the future?
I think the most pressing issue is that the arts are no longer a commonly held value that we have as a country. In the past, I think the arts were embraced more collectively as something of merit and importance and value. For example, today the entire budget of the NEA is 45 cents per person. And people think that it’s out of control, and over the top, and how could we possibly be pouring that much money into the arts? But that’s less than a pack of gum! That is a very very strong indication of how little we value the arts. People are not even willing to pay the amount of a pack of gum in order for the arts to, not even thrive, but just in order for them to barely limp along. I mean if it was $5.00 a person instead, the entire landscape of the arts and culture would shift in this country. $5.00—that’s less than a pack of cigarettes! For the whole year! So I find that very disturbing. It’s what fuels my activism, and I think that part of that culture shift is that people believe that the arts do not include them. I think that most people believe that “the arts” are just these white-box galleries and museums for wealthy white people, and that they’re intimidating—which they are, they can be intimidating—but that culture needs to shift to be more welcoming to everyone. And furthermore, those galleries are a tiny tiny fraction of what’s actually funded in terms of a body like the NEA. So I think we need to shift the focus and the narrative around the arts in this country. I’m not exactly sure how to do it—I started on the local level with Art Passport PDX which was a way to see if we could completely erase the obstacles that caused people to feel too intimidated to even walk in the door; that’s the start. Just get people in the door! And then not just in the door, but feeling like they can express their feelings about art—whatever they want to say.
The reason that the arts are so important is because I see this trend of xenophobia that’s happening not only in our country but all over the world. And I know the experiences I’ve had as one human being with art, which is that it has not only caused me to look at my own shortcomings and flaws, it has also caused me to be more open to the experiences of other people who are not like me. That’s what art does for us. It helps other people’s stories become our own. Because when you’re emotionally moved by a film, a book, a photograph, a play, a dance performance—and it’s about something that you don’t have experience with and is new to you but you feel it inside your body—that is now a part of you, and it’s harder to reject as being separate or “other.” And so I honestly think that the arts and humanities are a way to combat bigotry and xenophobia and violence and hate. I just believe that in my heart and soul. They really bring us together. And in order to do that, we need to get to a place where everyone feels included in art, which we’re not even close to, and we need to have a government supported by all of our citizens that recognizes that these things are worthy of being funded. That’s the biggest thing that I see. And then we need to change the types of artists that are represented. That is of equal importance. But these things have to happen in concert—because if no one cares about the arts and they’re not funded, then helping to provide platforms to people isn’t as successful because you can’t offer them the money that they would need. So this all has to happen simultaneously.
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