Amidst the steady work Jessica Hess has been putting in for her solo show at White Walls, she still found the time to answer our questions about the body of work she’ll be presenting in It Finds You, opening Saturday, September 3rd, 7-11pm. From the age of 11 Hess has been painting with oils, beginning from the start with the set intention of becoming an artist. Such clarity on one’s future at a young age is rare. Maintaining unswerving dedication to a career that demands so much from a person is even more rare; Hess not only has done both, but has excelled at each. Her artistry is evident in a look at any of her paintings, all of which feature urban landscapes rendered in a way that seems almost loving in it’s attention to detail and light. Graffiti-adorned alleyways, underpasses, and hollowed out buildings become the aesthetic focus in Hess’ painting, rather than just being the type of scenes many of us most commonly ignore. Through her personal exploration and documentation of places that have been left to fall apart and be forgotten, Hess creates paintings that bring out the beauty of structures in disrepair, highlighting just how street art and graffiti breathe a new life into them.
Read Jessica Hess’ Full Interview After the Jump!
1. You grew up in the South, spent five years in Providence, R.I., attended the Rhode Island School of Design in 2003, and then moved around a bit. How and why did your travels lead you to San Francisco?
I had a crisis of “home” until I was thirty years old. My crisis ended when I arrived permanently in San Francisco. I said for years that while I may be renting an apartment in Providence or Boston or wherever, I am “homeless”. You see, if home is where the heart is, then I left my heart in San Francisco in 2001, the first time I visited the city. I lived in so many places and was just sick of not fitting in and being uninspired. I always loved San Francisco. My best friend from college moved here right after graduation and it took me seven years after that to get up the courage to make the cross-country move myself. I am glad I did. I finally feel at home here.
2. At what age did you first get interested in art? Do you remember what your first paintings were of?
I have always been interested in art. I was drawing and painting as a young child, making silly pictures of what kids do. My first serious works were when I began to take oil painting classes at age eleven. It is funny to think of an eleven year old making serious works but oil is a serious medium and I was not your average child. I studied the old masters techniques with a private instructor painting portraits and landscapes. I always knew I wanted to be an artist, this I never gave a second thought to. When high school graduation drew near I remember friends of mine worrying about what they wanted to do with their lives and where to go to college. I knew without a doubt I would be an artist. It was so clear to me that I only applied to one school, The Rhode Island School of Design.
3. Do you think that spending so much time looking at places that have been abandoned, forgotten or unattended, has given you a new way to look at the world? Do you notice these places more in your everyday life?
Making art is one of the loneliest things a person can do. I spend a crazy amount of time alone in my studio making work. Every inch of every canvas is evidence of time passing and recorded, my life in inches. It is fitting that my subjects are also lonely. But it is not so sad as my street art laden subjects show all the marks left by other artists. Even on an empty street at night I find the graffiti comforting. I am participating in what I see as the greatest public art collaboration ever by making paintings of street art covered locations. You have the architect who designed the building, the street artists that alter its surface, Mother Nature tearing it all down, and me, taking it all in. These locations are really all I notice in a city. I am not your typical tourist. I go right to the worst neighborhoods and industrial wastelands on the outskirts of town.
4. Your paintings often make me think of the return of nature to man-made constructions, weeds pushing through crumbling concrete or rust spreading down steel, but the focus on the street art at these locations also shows the clear presence of society. What first drew your interest into the areas you choose to paint?
Decay, disuse, and disrepair all lead to abstractions of architecture. I am increasingly interested in demolition as a means of physical abstraction of architecture. Graffiti is just one more layer altering the surface these buildings. Eventually my art will explore this even more. I am very attracted to the idea of nature reclaiming structures. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen was a snow filled room in the top floor of a warehouse where the skylights had been smashed. It was the perfect combination of nature and manmade structure.
As far as how I find my subjects, they find me. Hence the title of my show at White Walls “It Finds You”.
5. What determines how faithful you stay to portraying a specific place? Do you consciously decide to add in or remove any certain elements?
I am not often faithful to the original architecture. It is rare that I find a subject that is just perfect the way it actually exists. I alter the buildings and the lighting. I remove trash, cars, and people from my works but I am respectful in regards to the representation of graffiti and street art in my paintings. I am very aware that I am using another artist’s work in my own and do with fidelity and admiration.
6. How has street art informed your personal artistic aesthetic? Have you ever used spray paint in any pieces?
Nope. I am a classical painter. I love spray paint but I am terrible with a can. My strength lies in recreating spray painted elements in oil, acrylic, and gouache. I love street art and collect it when I can. Usually this means photographing it all over the city but sometimes I actually get work from artists and it overfills my apartment.
7. The widespread and generalized economic decline that has created a lot of worry for many Americans. How do you think your work is affected, if at all, by the surrounding issues of this?
Starving artists are not just clichés or myths. Just look in my refrigerator. In a bad economy where people are clutching their purse strings luxury items are the first to go. Art is the ultimate luxury both the creation of it and collecting of it.
I have sacrificed a lot of things that people take for granted just to keep making art in these past few years. It is not glamorous or romantic; it is just the way it is. But I am stubborn and determined to not let this horrible economy keep me from being who I am or doing what I love.
8. What do you think comprises the beauty of the sites that inspire your art? How does it differ from traditional notions of beauty?
I do not have traditional notions of beauty in my art or otherwise. My subjects appeal to me because they are imperfect. The things that contribute to a building’s appeal are the same things that city planners and upright citizens try to snuff out of their communities. I have to find my locations before they get to them. I have lost count of how many of my subjects have undergone renovation or demolition and redevelopment after I paint them. It is sad. In this way I am a documentarian of a disappearing America.
9. Looking at your work often allows people to see parts of a city that are seldom seen, or are on the peripheral of most residents’ view. Have you always been drawn to exploring? Has this off-the-beaten-trail approach ever landed you in any precarious spots?
I do love exploring but let’s put it this way… It is rare that I paint night scenes. I have taken to bringing a “bodyguard” with me so to speak when exploring bad parts of town. I am aware of my physical limitations as a girl. I am also cautious when carrying my camera around these questionable parts of town. I have had run-ins with crack heads and crazies. I have been chased and harassed. Even the police are often less than understanding of my intentions. It is difficult to explain to an officer how the beauty of the sunset caught your eye on the white storage containers at the oil refinery. All he sees is a trespassing terrorist, though I don’t exactly fit the bill, I have been interrogated just the same. Cops are not often the most creative people.
10. You always seem to be keeping busy, to put it lightly. Any projects coming up? Specific goals for the upcoming year?
So much to do, so little time. I have projects planned well into the new year. I have hundreds of photos and subjects that I have not had time to work with before my big solo show at White Walls. I plan to keep on painting right after my show in September and already have my next dozen works planned out in my mind. I will take the month of October off to make a killer Halloween costume however. I will enjoy a little break from the painting to do some sewing for my favorite holiday of the year.
It Finds You opens Saturday, September 3rd at White Walls from 7-11pm.