Jessica Jackson Hutchins
I knew I had to seek out the artist for Mom Culture. Little did I know she would turn out to be Jessica Jackson Hutchins, a visual artist/sculptor whose provocative work has been praised by the art world.
Jessica’s work is part of this year’s Whitney Biennial (you might remember that video artist Kate Gilmore, a Mom Culture featured artist in January, had her work selected for the Biennial, too.) The Whitney Biennial represents the state of contemporary art today, so Jessica’s work is particularly important. In the q&a, you’ll see her art piece that’s part of the Whitney Biennial (which runs through May 30.) The piece, “Couch for a Long Time” – which the artist refers to as the “Obama couch” in her answer below – was anointed “one of the best” in the Biennial by New York Magazine’s art critic.
Working and living in both Portland, Oregon and New York, Jessica is a mother of two. When I asked her how being a mom has informed her work, she said it has “given me access to so much more joy than I was ever capable of before, and that joy has come charging into my work.” Beautifully stated. She also has some pearls of wisdom in the q&a about how she approaches creativity with her kids.
Her work and words are thoughtful and earnest in their mission to impart that all things around us – even the mundane – have meaning and beauty.
From the Art Closet: News You Can Use. See it here.
When did you start creating art and how has it evolved?
By high school, I think I had started to adopt the identity of an artist. I did a lot of photography, made a really abstract video. But mostly I was just self-destructive until I went to graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996. Those years, and ever since then – I suppose until I had kids – I was utterly singular in my focus.
In college I did a little painting, but was more moved by sculpture. I remember a piece from my senior year made out of wire and cellophane that I melted to it. I still occasionally like to find forms by twisting wire; it is like drawing in space. When I first started graduate school, I made really mixed media drawings with oil, nail polish and cheap art supplies I found at thrift stores, and also started making forms out of papier-mache.
The first real group of sculptures I made were papier-mache roughly abstracted body parts as aids to people who were suffering: I made arms for junkies I knew with collapsed veins; a tongue for Syd Barrett (once of Pink Floyd), whose alienation, I prescribed, stemmed from his garbled speech; a heart for Brian Wilson. I did my first Darryl Strawberry piece – I made a big toe, when he broke his toe right before the world series. My work really hasn’t changed that much in content or materials. I’ve added some materials – ceramic was a big one for me. I continue to make work about Darryl Strawberry and other troubled athletes. And, for over a decade, I have occasionally made work about recluses and religious mystics like the Stylites (a type of Christian Ascetic who in the early days of the Byzantine Empire stood on pillars preaching, fasting and praying.)
Can you describe your creative process? Do you take an idea from your head and start executing or do you sketch it out first, e.g.? Also, are you willing to scrap a piece or do you always try to make it work?
There are all different ways – I could find contradictions to anything I said – but most often it just comes out of the stuff around me: the furniture, the newspaper, the clothes. Sometimes it’s from my past work – ideas that I want to push around a little. A lot of times I just look at my stuff and walk around it a lot. I don’t sketch things out very often, I don’t think it ever tells me very much. Sometimes I do have a clear idea of what I want and it ends up that way, but more often it changes along the way.
I always try to make it work. Sometimes it takes years, but I really enjoy and believe in those long fights.
I’ve read that you’ve said that some of your art strives to find what makes everyday things meaningful, important and beautiful – can you describe a particular piece or two that make this point?
I have always made my work out of the stuff in the room, like I described above. When I was a little younger, it was a lot of beer packaging and newspaper. Later, it became my kids’ clothes and family furniture. By this process alone I wish to suggest that people inevitably look for, and thereby create, meaning and understanding in the things around us. Whether they become contemplative art objects or not, we imbue them with a kind of existential significance that gives us hope, compassion, self-recognition, what we need.
I made this chair called “Oh My God” in 1999. It is a simple broken wooden chair that is easily read as a figure on her knees. A drawing is tacked to the back which has three heart stickers each one followed by the words oh my god. I think it can be read as funny (I don’t think art is really successful if it does not have some humor) and vaguely sexual, or as poignant and desperate or pious.
Making all those prints from my kitchen table and then turning it into a sculpture bestows dignity onto those quotidien objects and memorializes their daily use into something, if not sacred, a least worthy of contemplation. The same with the chairs. When they become like pedestals, I want to also imply that our bodies which we put on those chairs are in some way elevated.
But the work has always been about a kind of redemption through mutual recognition and compassion. The ineluctable process of reading ourselves into the space and things around us. I almost always start from everyday objects, like furniture or news.
What do you hope people think about or feel after viewing your work?
“Huh? Ha ha. Wow!” And “me too”
It’s such a high honor to be selected for the Whitney Biennial. What did it feel like to find out that your art would be part of a group representing the state of contemporary art today?
Yeah, it’s great. It is nice that the dialogue is opening up to value my perspective – I’m happy to be a part of it. Also, I was glad that I had no hesitation about which piece should be in the show. I was confident that the Obama couch would be a good stand alone piece. It is really current, but already historical too. I thought it could stand up to the challenges that that show presents to art objects. (*after the Proust Questionnaire, see the Whitney Museum’s explanation of this fascinating piece)
How long ago did you become a mother and how has being a mother informed your work?
I became a mother 5 years ago. It has informed my work in so many ways. But the most significant way is that it has given me access to so much more joy than I was ever capable of before, and that joy has come charging into my work.
As a mom and an artist, do you try to encourage art with your child? What kind of art do you do together?
Oh yes. They do whatever they want really, and they call it all sculpture. It’s a mess. I keep everything around – glitter, beads, feathers, magazines…and I always buy all the weird craft supplies at garage sales. We have fun. Lottie makes ceramic pots a lot. They come to the studio sometimes, but they never stop moving so it is sort of hard to keep track of them in here. My older is super into clothes and fashion – she makes unbelievable outfits and shoes out of ribbons and scarves and everything. She never stops. The two year old seems to hold herself back a little bit more so I’m trying to encourage her to let herself go.
Where do you stand on the nature versus nurture concept? Were you artistic as a child? Did your parents, or other influences, instill in you a love of art?
My kids came into the world who they are. And it seems to me that all kids love art. Mine love to make art – they are really not into going to museums or places where they can’t touch or be themselves. Art is the best kind of play. I try to give them their space and freedom, and value their weird imaginings over some kind of training or enrichment.
My mother was an African Art historian and she had a good little collection of gorgeous magical things. But she died when I was a kid and I don’t think there was too much encouragement or art after that. I think I always had the inclinations of an artist. I was propelled by a kind of searching and feeling into things from the time I can remember. And then it takes whatever it takes to really figure out the work.
Proust Questionnaire for Jessica Jackson Hutchins:
My favorite snack is : Barbara’s cheese puffs
Don’t ask me to: throw things away
I would put in a time capsule my: children’s voices
My favorite place is: the woods or my studio
When I have a creative block I: walk around the studio
My favorite mantra is: peace and love
*About “Couch for a Long Time,” from the Whitney Museum website:
Jessica Jackson Hutchins explores the relationships between people and objects and how they both form and inform each other. To create this work, Hutchins glued newspaper articles about Barack Obama on the surface of a sofa repurposed from her childhood living room. Ceramic pieces, grouped haphazardly on the couch, can be viewed as surrogates for the people who once sat on its cushions. Couch For a Long Time fuses public and private moments, creating a sense that monumental world events can pervade everyday life.