Zoe Pawlak interviews artist Jessica Bell:
I had the recent pleasure of being visited by Jessica Bell in my studio last month. If you have ever met Jessica, or seen her work recently at The 2010 Cheaper Show, you know that she is not only incredibly skilled at painting and drawing, but an absolute joy to be around. Rare are the times when you can connect with another artist and come away feeling closer to yourself, your own values and set of purposeful directions. I left our conversation wanting to share just how much grey there is in this business of ours and just how much we can act as a compass for one another in these unique and equally exciting times.
Jessica, When we spoke in my studio last month, you were at the end of taking a month off. Tell me about taking a month off last year, why you did it and what it meant to you.
Last July, (2009) was the first time I ever deliberately prohibited myself from making anything. When I did it, I actually felt like it was my only viable option at the time. I had been working through a pretty anemic phase in my painting; I felt like all the juice had been squished out of my brain. I had begun four very large paintings but could not finish them. Ian (my husband) will often ask me when I hit a wall, if I need to step away. This is not in my nature; more than anything I hate to leave something partially finished. It annoys me even to think about it, but at a visceral level, at that point I needed to take a big step back or else I was going to keep on making the same paintings I had already made. Making that decision and following through on it for the entire month of July 2009 was possibly the best decision I have made with respect to my working practice since I began painting full time in 2007. What I did allow myself to do in that month was seek out other artists whose work and practice I admire to gather little nuggets of information and advice about how they are doing all of this. It was during that time that I met another female artist from Vancouver who said something to me that really changed the way I practice; she told me that she hesitated to call herself an artist at all but instead saw herself as one who lived a visual life. Living a visual life is watching, waiting, gathering information and giving thoughts room to breathe; for me this is as essential to the work as the act of making. The time off without the making is really time solely devoted to these other aspects of the visual life.
Having committed to another month off this year, you mentioned that you spent quite a bit of time doing administrative work. What does that look like for you?
Administrative work this time around pretty much meant being chained to my laptop. This year was a steep learning curve for me. First, I spent a small lifetime on Photoshop, editing images for print and web and eventually learned that while I know how to use Photoshop quite well, I really need to learn how to better use my camera so I don’t need to spend so much time on Photoshop! Secondly, I came to terms with the realization that the Internet, blogs and Twitter are here to stay, and that I needed to get on board. I have resisted these things in the past, but after The Cheaper Show in June I benefited from a tiny explosion of favourable press on the web, and most of it was not from here in Vancouver, or even in Canada for that matter. I came to the realization that they way I presented myself and my work online was really, really important, and deciding what that was going to look like became a priority for me. One significant thing I did was create a site that all of my other projects and work feed into. I am working on a lot of different things at the moment and I felt like they were rather fragmented when you looked at my portfolio, when in essence they are all intricately connected. I decided to create a blog-based site calledwww.jessicabellmadethis.com that funnels all of the things I make into a stream, even those things that I don’t always feel are the strongest and that I would likely refrain from including in my portfolio. One of the qualities inherent in presenting work in this sort of manner is that process becomes very evident and I like seeing that, even for my own benefit.
What did it mean to you to be in the 2010 Cheaper Show?
I can say with conviction that it was the single most important show I have participated in thus far. I am still surprised that I got in and still delighted with the entire experience of it all, beginning to end. After it was over, a friend asked me what it felt like to have been a part of it and I said that I felt suddenly visible. When I went to pick up my cheque for my sold pieces from Graeme (Berglund) I had this moment of feeling like I really should have been paying him for the service that I received through he and the Cheaper Crew in being asked to participate. At the very least I should have baked him a pie or something. Graeme, if you read this, I owe you one pie.
Our last meet up was special to me because we share a lot of similar trepidations about getting ‘too commercial’. If the end result is to live off our work, increase the prices each year and eventually have it hanging in people’s homes, why does it matter so much how it gets sold? Why are we taking the way the work is being sold so seriously?
I’m still trying to figure out why this matters so much and why I have so much apprehension in how I am perceived. I’m trying to trust my gut more and care less. If I were to articulate the fear of over commercialization, I would say that it does come down for me to a reluctance of the things I make as being treated and viewed as merely objects. With the focus being more on ‘selling’ instead of ‘showing’ it feels like that treatment is imminent; I am delighted when people want my work for their homes but I always silently hope and pray that they want it in a different way than they want a really nice set of coasters, for example. While both are important, I want the response to the work I make to be more than just to the aesthetic or the utilitarian.
The conversation you and I had about ‘the end result’ really stuck with me. I had to ask myself what my end results or end goals in doing this are. Right now I have three: making really good work, making it publicly accessible, and sustaining my practice. There is a lot of room for movement in there for how that happens if one can avoid getting tangled up in the hesitancies and fears.
Do you find that your studio practice is your favorite place to be? What does it mean to you to be in the studio full time?
My studio practice is deeply good; it is the one place I know in my life when I can be completely undivided, and my time so purposely spent. I love that. I hate having to multi-task; I only ever want to do one thing at a time. My studio practice is where I can have that. I am so grateful to be able to be there full time, even with all of the conflicts on how to make a life from it.