Interview with sculptor Jessica Straus

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A few days ago I got to sit down and talk with Jessica Straus, a former colleague of mine and a sculptor from the Boston area. Jessica and I met at my very first job out of graduate school, when I did a sabbatical replacement position at Concord Academy. I was teaching painting and drawing, while Jessica taught sculpture and drawing. I have great memories of seeing and being inspired by the projects her students worked on and walking downstairs to her studio any time I needed good, sound advice about teaching and art. To this day, she’s been a source of continued artistic inspiration for me in my artwork.

Jessica has a solo exhibition opening at the Boston Sculptor’s Gallery opening on October 9, with an artist’s opening reception on Saturday, Oct. 19 from 4-6pm. You can read more about her and see more of her work on her website.

CL: In your sculpture, you work with everything from found objects, hand carved and/or painted pieces, machine cut pieces, etc. What fascinates me about your work is this diversity of materials that you work with and how you balance them together. How do you manage to merge contrasting materials into a cohesive whole? What kinds of connections do you make in between the materials?

JS: Well, I think the way I work with the wood is consistent from one piece to the next, and one body of work to the next. I always show the workmanship of my hands in my pieces. One can see the chip by chip carving, or in the case of the current work, one can see that each piece is cut very individually, definitely not precision cut, even though the whole appearance is neat and well crafted, there’s the mark of the maker on everything I do. Andin the case of these silk screened panels (the facsimiles of labels) I made a point of shifting the ink color many times to emphasize that they are NOT mass produced.

CL: Those slight idiosyncrasies, minor flaws, and “imperfections” can be so revealing and wonderful to look at. They really demonstrate the hand of the artist in every work. How do you find your found objects? How do you know they’re worth holding on to?

JS: I always keep my eye out for interesting forms in antique stores & yard sales. I guess I have several criteria for what I select. Pretty much everything I put together there’s an emphasis on friction fitting when I join my wood parts the metal (and I usually use metal) objects. So I look for things with good orifices through which wood pieces can be attached.

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CL: I love that in many cases in your work we have no idea what the original purpose of the object was. I find myself thinking about what the object was before it came to be a part of your work and what its history was.

JS: I also look for forms which suggest several possibilities for function–things that look vaguely familiar, but you can’t quite place them–that’s the overall feeling I’m going for in my finished work. I also enjoy taking a familiar, ordinary form and taking it so out of context that it is no longer recognizable, but seems like it serves some new “believable” purpose.

CL: How did you learn to work with wood? For those of us who don’t have experience with it, wood seems like such an unfriendly material at first.

JS: Ah! I am totally self-taught with wood. I got two degrees in ceramics and then totally abandoned the material that I was trained up in and started working with wood. I think the fact that my skills are limited has forced me to be more inventive. I have become a good problem solver and that has served me well.

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CL: There is something to be said about learning about a material from scratch on your own, it provides a very different kind of path.

JS: The fact is I always loved wood–even as a very little kid I started to whittle. (My mother was very indulgent of this–and unafraid of knives), probably because her father (who I never knew) was a superb amateur wood carver–so she grew up with this. I’ve even been told that I had a great, great grandfather who was the last wooden shoe maker in his village in France–so I like to think it’s in my genes! Yes, sometimes I rue the fact that I didn’t have real training and that there’s so many more skills that I could have, but I think my old-fashioned skills give my work a certain look.

And apropos of that, I am very attracted to objects and modes of working that are just passing out of current usage. I am interested in forms and working methods that are at a transition point, the point where they are about to become or have recently become obsolete. Thus the silk screened wooden clementine crate labels; just last winter, as I was beginning this work, my favorite Clementine producer switched their packaging to digitally produced labels printed on paper. It was like it was too good to be true that you could get these beautiful little wooden crates every time you bought clementines!

CL: Let’s talk content, how do you come up with the ideas for your pieces?

JS: All different ways. A lot times the object gives me the idea right of the bat, like it’s asking to have a new life. But other times I have sort of a story line I’m pursuing. With the large floor installation (floor covered with a tiled pattern of crate labels with large sculptures sitting on top) I have a really whacky story line. In a nut shell the idea comes from an ongoing conversation I’ve had with my son about preparing for an apocalypse. We do this family game of analyzing our friends or dinner guests in terms of whether they’d be a useful person to have holed up with us in our post apocalyptic bunker. So I was thinking of what skills I had to offer my bunker mates–all I can ever come up with is vegetable gardening and DIY skills–so these pieces are what I’m cranking out in my basement workshop with very little raw material on hand, trying desperately to make useful things. It’s how we can tell if our son really likes one of our friends–after they leave he’ll say, “we should totally have so and so in our bunker” He got a huge kick out of my artist statement/ press release for this show.

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CL: That sounds like a great game to play! We are so dependent on so much technology nowadays; it would be interesting to see how differently each of us would function without it. In terms of the people in your life, who has been the most influential in terms of shaping your artistic thinking?

JS: Well, to start with–my mother was very artistic. She was a very traditional “Sunday painter”, so her style was very different than what I have gravitated to, but as a kid she always had art material around and encouraged me to draw and paint side by side with her.

And then I had some terrific teachers in art school–most notably, Ken Ferguson, at Kansas City Art Institute, who was a very renowned ceramic artist.he had a great eye and was a very blunt critic. He also turned me onto what was then called “folk art” back in the early 70’s before anyone else was paying attention to it. And then I got to know sculptor Michael Hall, at the Cranbrook Academy who was also an early discoverer, collector, and scholar of folk /visionary/ outsider art. This was a huge influence.

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CL: That early exposure to those genres must have been key to your artistic development.

JS: Hugely! I am obsessively passionate about outsider art and have gone traipsing all over the place in this country and abroad seeking it out, and meeting as many of these untrained artists as I can.

CL: What are the major differences and similarities that you see between the untrained artist and the trained artist?

JS: Similarities: Being unafraid to work in idiosyncratic ways–outside of what is currently fashionable.

And working, working, working single-mindedly on a particular idea. Let’s see–the differences–well for many trained artists I guess they are conscious of cultivating a certain audience, and aware of what the current trends are.

CL: You retired from teaching a few years ago. Aside from the obvious advantages of having more time in the studio, how has this changed your approach to your work?

JS: I now sometimes work on a few different pieces at the same time. And I can try ideas on a whim even if I’m not sure they’ll pan out. I’ve also been traveling quite a bit. Wherever I go I seek out makers and look at how things are constructed and presented.

CL: Do you think you take more risks and are more ambitious in a way? The luxury of time can completely transform our approach to our work.

JS: I am definitely playing around with quirkier approaches. And with this new body of work that I will be showing I’m doing a large floor installation for the first time–I have the time to work larger for sure.

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