Out of the Woodwork: Interviews with Emerging Artists
Hey art lovers! My name is Alexander Coco and I have been lucky enough to work as an intern at Fresh Arts for the last year.
I am grateful to be able to start a new arts blog called Out of the Woodwork which gives exposure and a voice for some unknown and "underknown" Houston artists.
There exists a vast sea of hidden creative talent in Houston, just below the surface. Through my work with the creative community and Fresh Arts, I’ve come to realize how many gems are woven in the fabric of our town that, for too many reasons to list, do not get the exposure their work merits. I grew up in Houston and have been lucky enough to know some local artists that simply create, without expecting public recognition or income from their work (though many could really use the income as support.) Success (financially) in the art world requires sophisticated networking and savvy navigation of local politics that many creatives do not care for, or do not know how to pursue.
Many local artists simply make work for their own sanity, just to see something beautiful or for no reason at all. The format of Out of the Woodwork is to interview those Houston artists about their work and provide an online space to exhibit and provide exposure to these amazing people!
An Interview with Print Artist Jessica Griffin
I met the talented Jessica Griffin at a fundraiser event at a warehouse I own in Eastwood called The Summit Houston. The event was a fundraiser for the 86-Cannonballers, a local nonprofit made up of scooter enthusiasts that raise money for service industry workers suffering through cancer. As we shouted our conversation over the music, I discovered that she was a print artist. Lately, I have been really interested in print work and want to put together an exhibition of local print artists. She was kind enough to show me photos of her work on her phone and quite frankly I was blown away. Immediately, I found her work to be bold and brutal, natural and beautiful. She’s clearly obsessive with her line work, in the best way possible, clean and pristine!
Jessica fits squarely within the mission for this blog featuring emerging artists. She's a dedicated and talented artist that has not quite broken into Houston’s art scene. Jessica Griffin moved to Houston in October 2012 and has spent a lot of her art career and schooling at North Texas in Denton. I wanted to start this blog for artists just like Jessica. There is so much hidden talent in Houston. I’m happy to have Jessica be the first entry for Out of the Woodwork.
I sat down with Jessica over the course of two interviews, once at her home and once at the Heights oasis, Big Star Bar. She lives in a seventies farm style house replete with wood paneling, cacti, animal skulls, and the occasional crystal. Throughout the interview her fluffy cat named Nefrikitty would threaten to sit on Jessica’s prints and she would have to stop and chase her away. Jessica is gregarious and outgoing, well articulated, and always smiling. She works part-time (as most artists do) at Brasil, a coffee shop in the heart of Montrose.
What kind of medium do you like working with and why?
I originally went to school for printmaking and that moved me in the direction I am for imagery. It helped a lot with line work and the understanding of how to achieve something black and white, without gradation. I like relief prints the most out of printmaking, just because it's really tactile and the method itself really affects your image. So, in transitioning out of printmaking without a studio, I think moving to pen and ink was just natural. It was really kind of nice because with pen and ink you can get all the meticulous detail that whenever you're carving you don't necessarily get. It's kind of nice to be obsessive with pen and ink. Mostly, that's pretty much what I like to work in. I try to do some pencil work sometimes, but then I just got so focused on shading that I felt like the line work was disappearing. I prefer the quality of the line. Occasionally, I'll work with color: marker, watercolor, or anything that doesn't take away from the line work too much. I'm kind of muted on color. I'm not really big on it.
Did you start with drawing and digital and then move into printmaking? What was your path?
Yeah, when I was a kid I took a bunch of art classes. When I was thirteen I got a drawing tablet and worked digitally for a really long time until I went to college. In college, you're so focused on traditional media that it made me focus. I started with Art History and appreciation and I began finding artists that really appealed to me. Whenever I was doing that I got really obsessive with more archaic art styles. Then I began to hate drawing digitally. The idea of drawing digitally lost any appeal to me basically, because it's not tactile. I need that response from the paper. Especially going into printmaking you do so much work to get an image. If you were to do it digitally you could get it produced more quickly, but there is something about the process in it.
Tell me more about the process of printmaking.
It depends on which part of printmaking you're looking at, but relief print I like because I find it instantly gratifying to carve into a block, roll it up, and print it. Whereas lithography or etching or other medias are a little more laborious to get the line you want, but with relief it was really instant. You can feel it and you can see it and it changes, even the paper molds to it. Whenever you print digitally you could do a really good print off of a printer, but it doesn't have the same depth. It's not what I want because I want my line quality to be apparent.
In your artist statement you say, "With themes concerning the influences that nature and nurture have on our lives, I pull from my experiences in the world around me to express an intimate existence." Do you think one has more sway than the other, nature or nurture?
Yeah, actually I do. I definitely think nature is really important because it's what's ingrained in you naturally. The idea of animals that are born knowing where they are supposed to migrate. Or being able to assess the situation you're in without prior knowledge. I think that’s all instinct and nature. Obviously they both play off of each other and you can't exist without one or the other, but a lot of my pieces go into the idea of natural instinct. I had kind of a hectic childhood and my brother and I experienced the same childhood, but we were very different and we reacted to it very differently and I do believe that some of it is just naturally inside you. I guess they have been studying that in science with genes and realizing some people have different things going on. A lot can be affected by that. You can be so affected by your environment that your physical abilities and qualities can change as well. It's not that nurture doesn't have a big part of it, but I do believe that a lot of what we have is natural instinct and it's just us trying to pull back on it. We trade instinct for technology all the time, which I find really interesting. So we would lose sometimes what we would naturally be able to do or think through our problem solving. That stuff is all naturally built in us. Animals are born and they know exactly where to go and that's natural instinct that they were born with, ingrained. So I think with nature and nurture, a lot of things boil down to natural concepts. Even in our daily lives, a lot of human interactions or world interactions are things that we do because we are human. If you look at it closely, you could break it down to this animalistic natural reasoning. If it's that way then its nature, you're ingrained with it.
Tell me about the process of making a print.
So the technical side of it is that in order to make a print you have to have a matrix. A matrix is like your block or a piece of metal or stone. It's whatever you're turning into the key image. For screen printing you have the screen as the matrix. Lithography, you have the stone. Relief, you have wood or linoleum and you have metal and wood for engraving or etching. It's just a way of manipulating the surface to get your image and then applying to it in the many ways that you can. Lithography is the relationship between water and oil. For relief, there’s more of a depth than that. In relief, you carve out the negative space with a gouge. It's the same thing with engraving, you are carving out the space. In etching, you are using acid to etch your image into the block. And then there are two different processes: relief and intaglio. Relief is like you're rolling up the surface, so you're carving out the negative space and rolling up the positive. In intaglio, you create wells through carving, engraving, or etching with acid. Then, as you etch your image or your block, you're pushing the ink into the wells and then smoothing out the surface. So, whatever is raised is not printed, and whatever is engraved is printed and you basically use a press for almost all the systems. Which, is what makes it so hard to do on your own. At least, without a studio, or a lot of money, or going to school. And that's why I've gotten so interested in paper and ink and different mediums, because you're just dealing with paper and ink all day long. The quality of the paper is something I really enjoy. I like process based things. I like learning all these different techniques though. You're learning things with acid, that's different, or that it's going to be a mirror image, so there are many things to think about. Also your actions just really manipulate the image. That's why I liked relief so much, I wasn't trying to get a pen drawing with relief, I was trying to get a relief. I would just carve into it and that block would become something entirely different. It's like Michelangelo, that you are releasing these things from the block. That they are already in there and you are just carving the block away from it. So, he was exposing what was within and that's how I feel about relief. You might have an idea of what might happen, but when you get into it, the block becomes it's own and you're just there in third person, trying to make it happen. It's like out of body almost. It's like automatic, automatic drawing, in which, you're just carving away. It's just so physical. Whenever I was in school, I was very interested in large carvings and that's one of the reasons I can't print right now, because I want to work really big again. It's more fun that way. It's so tactile and physical, like sculpture. It's just another medium and I want to learn all of the mediums.
Can you tell me a little about your development as an artist when you were younger?
Yeah sure. I always drew when I was a kid, even a young kid. My mom would tell this story to me when I was a kid that I drew this huge rabbit on the wall with a sharpie or something. I was so excited about it and so excited to show it to her that she couldn't be mad at me. I felt really proud of it. All growing up most of the gifts I asked for were all art supplies, it was just fun to me to sit down and draw. Always, it's just something I've always wanted to do.
Some of the figures in your prints remind me of Egon Schiele's brutal portraits, but then they are framed in this stylized art nouveau symmetry. Have either influenced your work aesthetically? Is the juxtaposition of the brutal and the stylized intentional?
Yeah, I like Egon Scheile, maybe he was a reference, I'm not sure. Art Nouveau has definitely influenced me drastically. When I was 16 I went up to Chicago and looked at a lot of Alfonz Mucha's artwork. I wanted to draw like that, it's full of such beauty and detail. I even have a pretty good book on him lying around here somewhere. The thing I really like about Art Nouveau that influenced me is that it just makes everything so beautiful and fruitful, like plants and women. The organic line quality is really nice and I like drawing women, but there is also a lot of problem solving I do for myself in my pieces. They cannot just be really pretty women and flowers. I want to add this brutal quality to it., but I think that's kind of beautiful. To me, that's my idea of beauty. Alfonz Mucha would draw these beautiful women and flowers and I'm like, ok well I'll just throw a dead animal in there and the result is pretty awesome! I'm trying to tell how I experience things and how I envision things. A lot of that goes back to a lot of influence of more brutal subjects. I really like old religious art and pre-Raphaelite art, definitely in printmaking looking at people like Durer. His details show form through line, but it's also kind of harsh. There's symbology in there too. I try to focus on symbology a lot. I brought down this scrap of paper for you to see that I wrote in college. It has kind of the language of flowers.
Tell me more about what you mean by harsh.
You can make a form beautiful, but I feel like the line work adds… its kinda like wrinkles, like when you get old and your hands look very different, but it just shows your life and how you've experienced it. With pen work whenever I'm drawing a figure, it's kind of like it's beautiful, but its also just on that edge. The beauty of life is like that, it's all good and bad all at once. And the indifference of it. It's beautiful.
Is there a mysticism or shamanism in your work?
Yes and no. Definitely not any sort of doctrine or religion. There's not some religious point I'm trying to get across. However, when you start taking a look at nature and the different ways to represent it, I definitely think of a priestess. I like drawing a bunch of stones or crystals and bones, that kind of thing. It definitely has a certain connotation. That connotation is also interesting because it reaches back to the barbaric. Since you are going back to the fact that we are born with all of this instinct. We try to overlay it with pretty stucco and buildings and computers and technology and we just act like we are above it all. And we're not at all. It all comes down to the same thing. We all come back to this very primal state and a lot of our actions are very primal. And so that kind of paganism, closeness to nature, definitely comes through because that's where it is anyway. We can be inside, but we are still really controlled by a primal state.
Do you find that primal nature beautiful?
Yeah, but it wouldn't even matter if I found it beautiful because it's always there. You might as well be realistic about it. And if you want to find life beautiful, you have to break it down to that I think.
Let me ask you about your motifs. I noticed you have a lot of snakes, wolves, rope, and rabbits. Tell me about those.
It's definitely about symbolism. I use all these things as actors for people or experiences, and emotions. They act as vessels or characters. I really like to use wolves and foxes as this idea of the pack animal. It's really interesting since a lot of the dynamics are very similar to how humans interact, just in a more primal state. I really like using the rabbit and the wolf or fox and the interplay between them because it's this predator/prey, masculine/feminine. The idea of the rabbit being prey, but also being so agile and adaptable. It's a very good way to draw out a story. Other symbolism like rope or certain plants or bones just adds to the story. The rope is like a problem that needs solving. Different plants represent different things. Whether the symbols are regeneration and death or friendship and loss. It's a way to draw a whole image and give off this feeling that's ingrained, because these are symbols that have been around for a really, really long time. When you see a wolf and a rabbit, you know that relationship without it being explained, it's immediate. Everything I make I'm creating from an experience I've had, people I know, or past situations… I'm just trying to explain how I feel about that. But… The whole thing is that as soon as you put a piece out for someone else to look at, it's no longer yours, it's the viewer's now. The viewer can look at it and they can feel something that's nostalgic or reminds them of a feeling they once had. All these different elements are going on, but at the same time it's their experience and their history they are viewing and not yours. So, somebody could look at my work and say, that's aesthetically pleasing, but also there is something inside them that draws them to it ,because its their experience that they are seeing. Or at least that's my hope. (Laughs) Like the goal. Make it just vague enough that it's not just mine.
Your use of feminine archetypes is very beautiful, but also real in a certain way. Can you talk about that?
I try to use a very real… well, what I find beautiful. It's beautiful AND realistic. Even with different figures I use a very womanly figure most of the time. It goes back to nature or fruitfulness, the fertility goddess type stuff. At the same time, because nature and the world around us is so different, it's not always a way to use different masks. A lot of the times they are very solemn, not joyous I would say, but it's kind of the experiences of life are on them you know. Even if it's fruitful, its also the only thing that happens after, that is the cycle of life and death. I don't want to make it, just a pin up. (laughs) I want to add more to it than that. Not that I wouldn't say that some of it is kind of like a pin up. It's like the beauty of life, but also the hardness of it. So it can't be completely soft.
I like that juxtaposition.
It's beautiful, that knowledge that you can't have one without the other. They just exist together. And that's why life is interesting. That's why we continue on, if it was too easy it would just be empty.
Check out Jessica Griffin's website for more beautiful prints! Give her lot's of love H-town, we need to take care of our own!