Thursday Spotlight: Jessica Straus

Tell us about your background.

I grew up on the seacoast of New Hampshire. I pursued Liberal Arts at Brown University, got my BFA from Kansas City Art Institute and my MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art. Both of these degrees were in Ceramics, but towards the end of my time at Cranbrook I shifted to working with wood and have continued with that as my primary medium throughout my career. While I have art school training that informs my aesthetics, I rely on self taught wood working techniques in my sculpture. I come from a lineage of carvers. My great great grandfather was the last wooden shoe maker in his village in France and my grandfather was a superb amateur woodcarver who created utilitarian, ingenious, and artistic marvels for his family. Perhaps that was why my mother was casual about letting me wield a knife at an early age when I started to teach myself how to whittle. In all of my work I opt to hand carve each element, no matter how repetitive and labor intensive the work and no matter whether I could buy similar manufactured forms. I am often asked why I don’t simply avail myself of the perfect little wooden spheres one can readily purchase in a store for use in my pieces since this is a form I have been known to use in great quantity. If I were to simply go out and buy machine milled forms I would lose the very heart and soul of my work . It is the almost imperceptible differences among these repetitive forms that give visual richness to my work and significance to even the smallest components in my sculptures. That fact that the forms are brought into existence chip by chip is at the essence of the meaning of the work.

Name some people, artists, artistic genres, etc. that have been influential in your work.

I am passionate about outsider art and indigenous arts. I have traveled extensively to visit Outsider Art environments in France, Romania, Wisconsin, Washington, Appalachia. I also pay close attention to the contemporary art scene with a particular focus on sculpture. There are so many fantastic sculptors out there, it’s hard to name just a few influential folks–but here’s some artists to whom I owe a debt: Ursula Von Rydingsvaard, Martin Puryear, Richard Deacon, Chris Drury, Eva Hesse, Jackie Winsor, El Anatsui, Willie Cole, Louise Bourgeois, Los Carpinteros, and oh, so many outsider, folk, and visionary artists that I could not begin to name them here!

Where and how do you get your ideas?

I tromp around to meet with artists. I go to museums and galleries. I obsessively buy art books and I subscribe to Sculpture Magazine and Raw Vision. I thumb through these books and periodicals throughout the day in my studio. I frequent the aisles of hardware stores and brake for flea markets, always on the look out for odd forms and handy gadgets. I keep a keen eye out for how things are constructed and attached. I’ve got my antenna up for humble objects beckoning to be noticed. I store all this visual info willy-nilly in my brain, and one day it pops back out in a new, unexpected context. If I try too hard to be efficient I usually don’t get anywhere with new ideas. If someone could be a fly on the wall, observing me in my studio, it would look like I’m wasting a lot of time, and then wham, I jump up and get to work.

What materials do you work with? Describe your technical processes.

I work primarily with wood. I cut and rough out shapes with a bandsaw and other power tools, whittle with a small knife, paint and assemble these wooden parts, often integrating them with found forms. It’s slow, labor-intensive work.

What do you find to be the most challenging part of being creative?

Finding the fine line between being serious and being funny.

What is the best part of being creative?

Infinite possibilities! Making my own rules! Never being bored!

What advice would you give to someone seeking advice about being an artist?

Work, work, work. Stick with an idea long enough to really plumb its depths. Your ideas don’t have to be complicated.

Jessica’s Website
Jessica’s Facebook Page

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