Sunday, December 30, 2007

Art Space Talk: Jessica Joslin

Jessica Joslin was born in 1971 in Boston, MA and grew up collecting flies off the windowsill to look at under her microscope. Ever since, she has been enchanted with collecting a magpie's array of remnants from the natural world. The collection gradually grew to include obsolete bits of antique mechanical mechanisms, hardware and other oddball artifacts. In 1992, she began building the first beasts of this menagerie, using objects sent in a care package from her father, the same pieces that she'd collected as a child. Jessica studied at
Parsons School of Design and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Brian Sherwin: Jessica, I've read that as a child you collected flies in order to study them under a microscope. Would you say that you've always had an interest in observing the details of nature? You collected other items from nature as a child-- how did your youthful curiosity set you on the path toward creating art?

Jessica Joslin: Yes, it all started with getting a microscope for my birthday…from that moment on, I was utterly incorrigible! Ha. I definitely think that my interests were defined early on. When I was little, I wanted to be a zoologist. My father is a commercial sculptor, but he started off in the sciences, in neurophysiology. He always encouraged our curiosity and answered our questions thoroughly- even beyond what one would expect a child to understand. When we went to the beach and collected seashells, we would bring them home and look them up in Audubon reference books, to learn more about our new treasures and their origin. We also collected seedpods, wild flowers, egg cases, bones- whatever we came upon in our travels. I didn’t have any sense that bones were considered macabre…I simply saw them as a beautiful clue to some mysterious animal that had once been there, the same as a seashell. From an objective standpoint, both are skeletons, yet they do have very different associations in our culture.

BS: In time you started to collect obsolete pieces of antique mechanical devices, hardware and other peculiar artifacts-- when you were a young adult your father sent these relics of your past to you in a care package. I understand that these pieces were the first pieces you utilized within the context of the work you focus on today. Is that so?

JJ: The machine parts were objects that I collected on my own, after I’d left for college. I used them, integrated with objects sent from our family "nature collection" for a series of photographs of constructions, which integrated natural and man made artifacts. Those same parts were later recycled for the earliest of the beasts.

BS: Can you go into detail about the creation of those early pieces? In regards to the mechanics involved in your work, did you have a lot of failures at first? How has your work matured since that time?

JJ: Over the years, I’ve had quite a few technical issues to surmount, especially since my work involves so many materials and techniques. I felt that art school wasn’t great at encouraging craftsmanship. At the time, it seemed that acquiring technical skills was overly associated with the trades and the decorative arts, so it was subtly discouraged. Overall, there was a pretty heavy-handed conceptual slant, often coupled with the arrogant assumption that one could just "hire someone" to build things for you (as was the habit of current blue chip artists like Koons, Hirst, et al.) That way of working never appealed to me. I always felt that, for me, the craft and concept needed to be integrated. Also, why would you want someone else to do the fun part?

Ultimately, I ended up learning many of my techniques through trial and error and through a sort of self-devised apprenticeship system in various trades. My earliest creatures incorporated parts from antique adding machines and turn of the century millinery taxidermy. The mechanical elements were made of hardened steel, which can’t be drilled with conventional hand tools, so in my first pieces, I (cringe) used hot glue. Of course, that’s about the worst possible choice that I could’ve made. It looks ridiculously shoddy and it doesn’t last. Those first pieces fell apart within a few years. I’ve come quite a way since then…

BS: Jessica, you work as a commercial model maker building prototypes of toys-- you have also worked as a carpenter, mold-maker, machinist, and sculptor --how have these experiences enhanced your personal work?

JJ: It’s through my professional work that I’ve acquired the many skills needed to build my pieces. I suppose it’s like anything, the better that you get at something, the easier it looks. From a structural standpoint, many people don't realize the complexity and precision of my work. For example, just one foot on Ludwig (the monkey on the ball) is comprised of 30 separate parts, all of them tapped and threaded. Any painters out there will recognize how tricky it can be to achieve a specific expression in the eyes. That obviously holds true for sculptural work as well. There is a lot of engineering (and finesse) that goes into making them seem natural and effortless, as if they were meant to be.

BS: Do you ever have trouble balancing the time spent doing commercial work and the time you need to create your art?

JJ: Yes, I’d imagine that it’s difficult for anyone to balance two careers. Some years I’ve been able to support myself from art sales, but not always. Professionally, I work freelance, which gives me some flexibility regarding schedule. I do enjoy the challenge of working in commercial shops. Still, contract work tends to come in bursts, so the hours can be intense. Most shops start at 6 or 7am, which can mean getting up as early as 4:30am. I can’t really say to the shop foreman that I don’t feel comfortable working on the metal lathe at 6am because I was uploading images for an Icelandic art magazine all night. I have to find a balance point, where I can do both things and not risk my digits.

BS: Where did you learn the skills that you utilize within the context of your work? Many of us can barely change a flat tire...

JJ: Trial by fire, many times over many years. Sometimes I’ll decide to learn a new skill by just jumping in. This summer, for example, I decided to learn carpentry, so I pretended to be a carpenter and applied for a job. (Seriously, don’t try this one at home kiddies!) I thought that I could probably figure out how to do the job, by the time the fellas got over the fact that there was (gasp) a girl in the shop, so I (hopefully) wouldn’t be booted out. My first day on the job, they gave me a pile of plans and said, "Build these." It was rough at first, but somehow I did the work. I also saw how I could improve my technique, and my next pieces were much tighter. Within a month or so, they were ready to make me a project manager. Anyway, that’s an extreme example, but it all comes down to creativity, initiative and lots of hard work. In some ways, I think that a lot of artists would benefit from doing some good old-fashioned manual labor. It’s a good test of your mettle. I want to learn as many skills as are relevant to my personal work. To me, honing my skills through my job is perfect, since I get paid for my experiments.

BS: Jessica, you use animal bones within the context of your work. You only use specimens from licensed distributors-- the same suppliers that a natural history museum would use when putting together an exhibit. Can you tell us about the laws regarding the use of animals bone in the manner that you do? Perhaps you have some advice for other artists who are interested in using animal bones as a medium-- can they use bones that they find in their work? What do they need to know?

JJ: Honestly, I find animal protection laws to be a bit Byzantine. I wish that they were more accessible, but legal jargon is just not my thing. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve increasingly been using osteological suppliers- because origin of the specimen is clearly documented. With found parts, it’s very important for artists to be aware of their state and Federal laws. Just because you didn’t kill it, doesn’t mean that it’s okay to have it. Often, the laws don’t differentiate between whether you have found or killed an animal. For example, I could legally hire a licensed hunter to kill me a deer and bring me it’s head, yet if I find a deer skull while walking in the woods, technically, it’s not legally obtained. I could be fined. In particular, artists should be careful to stay away from protected and endangered species. Migratory birds, for example, are often found littering the sidewalk below mirrored high-rise buildings. They are often very beautiful, but also strongly protected. Again, just because you found it, doesn’t mean that it’s okay to use it.

BS: Jessica, some of the bones that you use are actually replicas. I've read that you enjoy making it difficult for viewers to tell which is real and which is not. Can you discuss the meaning behind that choice? Or is it just a challenge that you set for yourself?

JJ: I prefer the translucency and tactile qualities of real bone, yet I don’t feel that the intent or meaning of my work is different when I use replicas. I use replicas in instances where a particular species is protected. It gives me more aesthetic options in the variety of species that I can work with. I make all of my molds and casts myself, since I’ve found that often "museum quality" replicas don’t use uv-stable resins, so they tend to yellow with time. I strive to make all of my casts as indistinguishable as possible from the real bone specimens. Why wouldn’t I? I don’t want them to look fake and cheesy...

BS: Jessica, by meshing bones with various mechanics are you making a statement about how industrialization has harmed the environment-- forced animals out of their natural habitats? That is what I interpret when I view your work-- am I correct in what I'm sensing?

JJ: Well, that’s one aspect of my work, though frankly, I'd rather not simplify it to a single note. That is indeed an important issue, but I’m not pursuing a didactic agenda with my work. As David Lynch once said, "If you want to send a message, go to Western Union."

In the visual arts, there is the potential to communicate ideas and to make layered associations, which language cannot tidily convey. My work encompasses a broad range of my interests, spanning the many years that I've been making these sculptures. Those layers are there to be excavated, but that is not strictly necessary for appreciation of my work.

I make my beasts because they are what I dreamed of discovering, but they didn't exist anywhere, so I had to make them myself.

BS: Has your work-- the pieces containing real bones --ever angered viewers? Have you ever had to explain to viewers how you obtained the bones or do you make it clear at exhibits that the bones were obtained legally and ethically?

JJ: Occasionally I’ll get a rant, but usually it’s when someone has made assumptions. They don’t take the time to read about where I get my parts, or even which parts are real and which are not. If they don’t grant me that courtesy, I don’t take the time to correct them.

Perhaps surprisingly, I have generally received interested, supportive responses from the people who I’ve spoken with…including those who are involved in animal rights organizations. I have a very strong affinity for animals, and I think that comes across in my work.

BS: Jessica, many of your creations have hidden movements-- jointed legs, spring-loaded beaks, and movable tails --some are free standing, but have mechanisms that allow movement or multiple positions. In many ways they convey the craftsmanship of an artisan watchmaker. Do you ever have to repair your pieces after an exhibition?

JJ: Rarely. I did recently get one piece back for repairs. It had been dropped by the collector’s housekeeper, which broke the bone legs. Still, that’s very unusual. I usually design my work with the knowledge that it will need to be shipped to my gallery (in Arizona). The larger pieces are all engineered to disassemble easily. My work is much stronger than it appears in the images. They are intricate, delicate to a certain extent, yet are as strong as they can possibly be, given the materials that I work with.

BS: Do you have a favorite? Is there one 'beast' that you have enjoyed creating the most?

JJ: I’m always the most besotted by the creature that is on my workbench at that moment.

BS: Jessica, do you keep any form of documentation while working? I assume that these pieces involve a great deal of planning. Do you keep a journal?

JJ: They do indeed take a lot of time to plan. I don’t like to draw, so the only sketches that I do are more like technical illustrations, used mostly for determining angles and thread & coupling sizes. I only draw on post-its, so that they can’t be confused with "real" drawings. I’m more of a list-maker, though I doubt that my notations would make sense to anyone but me. I don’t keep them for posterity.

BS: Finally, you mentioned that you have a book in the works when I first contacted you. Is this book a collection of your work? Will it contain any of your writings? When will it be published? Will people be able to purchase the book from your site? Tell us about the book.

JJ: Thank you. I’m very excited about this project! Menagerie will be out this spring and it will contain images of my creatures, spanning the last 7 years. It is being sponsored by my gallery, Lisa Sette The book will be available through the gallery, as well as selected bookstores around the world. Once the book is available, my website will have information and links to vendors. Thanks for asking me to participate Brian. Your site is wonderful!
You can learn more about Jessica Joslin by visiting her website-- Jessica is a member of the community (jessio). She is involved with the Beinart International Surreal Art Collective-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was a wonderful interview that gave a wonderful insight into the creative mind and how we are all responsible for upholding the spark of the imagination in our children.
I myself grew up looking down at the streets of New York as I walked to find discarded objects and "things" which, eventually, when I got older, I ended up using in my work.
I enjoyed this very much, along with your magical work.