Jana Brike is an intriguing communicator. For her upcoming solo exhibition “After the End of Time”, opening September 6 at FB69 Gallery in Munster, Germany, the artist produced a fascinating array of works created while staying in a cabin on a manor-house park by the Baltic Sea. These new paintings, she tells us in the following exclusive feature, are akin to a group of personal icons that relate more to a deep satori state of insight into one’s true nature.
Growing up in the shadow of Soviet Russia, the Latvian artist’s paintings often pull from narratives inherent to the Latvian language, which carries a long history of encrypting the ancient wisdom of life into stories focused on the beauty of nature. Her works seek to depict what Brike sees as the spirit of femininity. She aims to produce works that capture that wild beauty in a way that is in tune with her way of living, thinking and creating. In her works, Brike explores the internal feminine animus through both small and large points of interest that will affect the viewer long after spending time with her rich narrative works.
Tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up?
I was born in 1980 in Latvia — a small country in the North of Europe, but at that time it was part of the Soviet Union. My ethnicity and first language is Latvian, which is now native to just a little more than a million people in the world. Latvia is an independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which is a little miracle, because the indigenous people of this territory have been slaves to one power or another since the coming of armed Christian missionaries 800 years ago, so it is a little like an idea of returning the US back to Native Americans.
What influences did your background or homeland have as you became an artist full-time?
Much of our heathen-ish world outlook has been passed on as little oral poems, stories and as a tradition from generation to generation for all those hundreds of years, and is quite alive and blossoming nowadays. In some indirect ways it influences me a lot.
This influence goes deeper than my Soviet childhood. My childhood is hard to describe because it was like living on another planet. Visual images were scarce, and those few were mostly rough, huge, persuasive and obtrusive. Even the children’s toys were much like that. So I loved to play with flower blossoms. You know, you cut off a rose with an inch of stem, you turn it upside down and pin a sweet pea blossom on top of it, and you’ve got a real princess toy that lasts for the whole day. I longed for subtleties and soft beauty. My best memories are actually from the summers in the countryside with my granny, where I was taught things like healing properties of plants, or how to gather food in the wild, or just left to wander alone in woods. I guess these were just the basic tough survival lessons the children here would get from survivors of both world wars and genocides in this region, but I found it quite magical.
When did you start showing that you were a budding artist?
I was always sure I would do something creative in some field of culture when I grow up. I loved to watch ballet, fantasy movies and animations. But what impressed me most of all was the rare visual images, like, old Russian traditional painters, especially symbolism and romanticism, also reproductions of Renaissance paintings of the saints in my Catholic granny’s bible, fairy tale illustrations and things like that.
At what point in life did you dedicate yourself to being a painter?
I wrote in my kindergarten finishing papers at age of 5 that I will be a painter when I grow up. That was decided then. I started to undergo a really professional training at age of 11 in an art school where I had to paint like 5 hours a day every day.
That dedication is truly present in your current works. Speaking of those, how did you approach this body of work for your latest show, “At the End of Time?” Was there a lot of preliminary thought or research, or did you simply allow the images to appear on their own?
It was both, as always. In general I like to keep my process more intuitive, less intellectual, not to overthink it. The research is not systematic and thought-out in advance. If I have one and the same image or detail or character appearing in my mind and sketchbooks, I often investigate what it means in various cultural references, but it is quite random. I love to read different types of usually non-fiction books about themes that interest me, and that ends up being part of my creative process as well, although I cannot say I investigate specially for the purpose of art.
There was of course some personal symbolism for this body of work. I’ve had these exceptionally vivid dreams of hurricanes, tsunamis and tidal waves for all my life. Water is a strong symbol and in its archetypal meaning provides life as well as harbors danger and mystery, and symbolically stands for emotion. And these seemingly frail beautiful little calm wistful creatures of mine, standing amidst a storm as if not really noticing – it is similar to how I have often felt in my life.
So I can truthfully say much greater influence is the themes I “research” as a human being in my personal life. It is always all about love and freedom, about life and death, about growing up and healing wounds, about relationship with your own body image.
Another personal indirect reference is a children’s book that is very dear to my heart — Michael Ende’s Momo where Time plays a great role. His Neverending Story is better known but Momo is brilliant, too.
What is it about working with oils that you prefer versus other media?
I like to work in different mediums and even fields of art, not just oil painting. But oils are indeed most common for me. I just like the natural material, the feel of the surface, the slow meditative process.
I was trained as a painter very traditionally and professionally from a very early age. Part of it was also an extended class about very technical things, like chemical compositions of various natural pigments, properties of cohesive substances, etc. So oil painting is just a thing I know best as a craftsman.
Your work appears to quite personally-oriented. Are there a lot of autobiographical influences within your paintings, or do you employ a personal perspective for setting the scene of a work?
It is always very, very personal! Autobiographical references are not straightforward, though, I don’t use facts of my life. It is more like a mythological autobiography maybe.
Everybody has those moments in life that change you in a way that you can never ever go back to being the person you were before. Sometimes these are some important personal or even historic events but sometimes just some small detail, like a few sentences in a book you read or an overheard conversation, sometimes people who come and stay in your life, or those who come and turn everything upside down and then just leave. I treasure these little and big turning points highly, and put them in my work in symbolic ways – sometimes as a big bad wolf, or a flock of little birds, with this hidden personal reference which is energetically present. And it ends up being a very intimate emotional process for me.
Like this painting I could just name “You.” It is about a particular person, very close one, about a touch that has been soul-binding. But at the same time it is also about the internal feminine animus part.
Do you see many recurring themes appearing in your work at present?
Actually, my work has featured not so much life events as the overall themes (which are personally substantial to my life), even though those themes have been part of my art process for the last few years. Most of all, I have been preoccupied with understanding what is life and what is reality. I used to have these really strong out-of-body experiences when I was a young child, and then after many years now, again they are happening. Even now I don’t even have command of the linguistic concepts to describe these events.
The closest thing I have come up with to describe the phenomena is through people I have met who have told me of their near-death experiences or deep satori states. It is like when you actually find out that you are not the person you have trusted yourself to be, and not even a “being” at all, but more like a space through which images are born and flow through – including the self-image that is constantly changing. This is not even a thought but more like an act of pure seeing, because even the panic-struck mind which thinks the death of it has come at that moment, is being seen as if from outside. It differs from the real waking life as much as the real waking life differs from a night’s dream, so it is outside of all concepts. I haven’t actually told of these experiences to anyone except a few close people, as it is so culturally freakish and off-putting in some ways. But maybe it helps some kid going through something similar in an entirely material thinking based world.
In many hidden ways, my “After the End of Time” is grounded in these experiences, and I feel these paintings as peculiar kind of personal icons.
Let’s talk inspirations – what things in your life or thoughts enrich your idea bank the most and produce the most rich results?
Well, I personally look at it the other way around. Inspiration is not a reaction to outer things, – it is the cause. You just live your life from an inspired place, and it produces the richest results.
Of course, I also fill my life with emotional and mental stimuli to expand myself. There are people in my life, with which I have a very special congeniality, and talks with them are always enriching and inspiring, and I am so grateful to have them. My 8 year old son is luckily one of those. He would always have some strong-grounded perspectives as well as this wild child’s fantasy, and the talks about just life with him are so delightful. For example, we would sit in a café and eat lunch and he would say very seriously: “Have you ever thought that maybe I don’t even exist at all, maybe you have imagined me from the very beginning? I think you shouldn’t talk to me right now, we are in a public place, and people might think you are a crazy person who talks to herself!” I would of course get creeps from such words, but also cannot help but feel inspired!
That’s hilarious! So what about your surroundings, or traveling – does a change in place ever affect you or your work in any way?
I travel to faraway places with very different traditions and perspectives on life pretty often, and that alone is greatly mind-bending and life-changing. The very thing that you are outside of your daily automatic activities zone, breathing in everything, with childlike eyes full of wonder. This summer I have had a few weeks in India. I was amazed and beyond. Like visiting a different planet.
Besides that, just going somewhere in the nature is a must for me. Latvia in summer is simply plain magic: Baltic Sea beaches, lakes, lush and green meadows and forests to wonder through. A large part of this body of work was created in a cabin in an old manor-house park. It has been inspiring in the true sense of the word, which actually means “breathe in” from Latin, and it is exactly what I’ve been doing. In the city the collective thinking is so overwhelming that it is sometimes hard to own one single thought. And then outside, in the woods where there is no radio to turn on louder and the cell phone doesn’t work, you are just forced to tolerate your own self, as if in the middle of an overpowering void. And it sometimes is the hardest thing. The time seems to stop.
Of more specific type of inspirations for my work is the previously mentioned old Baltic (Latvian) world outlook. It is very close to the nature cycles, where you feel yourself very united with the world – not like dust in the wind, but in a very rooted, centered way. It is more like being the central sun in your own universe, which is an integral part of an immense multiverse. It is the idea that everything is alive; everything is aware and conscious.
The ancient Latvian poems are a beautiful example of how to use symbolism. The language is much encrypted. On the first look it may seem like a rapturous muse on the subject of beauty of nature, but if you are familiar with the symbolism then you can understand the story is not about the beauty of nature at all but passes on some ancient wisdom of life.
Your work has a dreamlike quality to it, a soft and delicate femininity that is human yet otherworldly. Is this a way to produce your own symbols to speak more eloquently through images as a visual language?
Yes, I seem to paint a lot about the ecology of the feminine soul space. But it is not just to create a symbol language. I’m in search to catch this spirit of a real pure wild woman in her girlhood body, her path, trial, catharsis, symbolic death and revival, all of this in an archetypal way and throughout all my work, not just this last set of paintings. A lot of contemporary visual images depicting a young female body seem to show women in a much objectified way, like fetishized fashion world simpleminded Lolitas that the popular culture seems to adore and be comfortable with – safely asexual within themselves but sexualized for the sake of the viewer’s fantasy. This approach is not appealing to me. My interest is the subjective, the inherent feminine sexuality as a part of the inborn soul space and initiation into adulthood, not an objectified body.
So I seem to be obsessed with an idea to find a way to depict innocence in a way that wouldn’t feel trite to me. There is a difference between simplemindedness and innocence. Simplemindedness is ignorance about ways of life, while striving for the good. Innocence on the other hand is wisdom and all-knowing, but still striving for the good, against the strong gravity of the disillusioned mind pulling in the other direction. Sort of a heart-path. I actually like to use grownup wonderful wise women to pose for the faces of my girls and boys, and then distort them in proportion to seem childlike, but actually be sages.
I am not implying that I manage to successfully capture that all. Of course not, it is a mission impossible. It is all a constant endeavor and play.
Tell us a bit about your time in the studio. What time of day or night do you find yourself most productive?
I work full working days and more. It used to be 12 hours a day 7 days a week. But lately I try to find more breathing space somewhere in between. My paintings are very very time consuming. I just love to paint big best of all. The main piece in the exhibition is this 6.5 foot painting where I used zero size brushes for the detail. I just don’t have time to wait for “most productive” time, I just paint all the time I have.
Do you spend time doing many sketches or preliminary studies before you embark on a journey towards a major painting?
I do have sketchbooks I always carry around, and if I don’t have those near, I sketch on random paper sheets. But these are not really studies for a major painting, they depict something of the parallel thought process I am going through, they are way more fantastic and surreal.
Paintings usually start with an image I have purely on my mind. Then I do photos for reference material. Usually it is up to 20 images for a bigger painting. It is not just one photo I would re-paint, never like that. And then in the actual painting process many things change, too. Some of my paintings would be fun to see for a historian with an x-ray later on. There sometimes may be layers upon layers with different faces and characters under the final image.
How important do you feel that history or researching the background of art is to you as an artist? Is it valuable to you or for other artists to feel a connection to a lineage, history, or a creative flow?
I feel history is something like part of the riverbanks for your individual creative flow as a professional. It makes the flow more focused and purposeful, maybe directs in some ways. But if it becomes too binding and restricting, there is not much of a flow left anymore, just a stinky little pond. So it is always a question of a good balance.
What obstacles have you found as an artist, and what were you able to do to overcome or navigate those to become stronger or more effective as a creative person?
I’ve had all of them, starting with survival problems of the need to earn enough with art to feed my child, legal issues with a gallery about my sold works, times of doubt and uncertainty, scathing criticism, fear to be in the spotlight, fear not to be liked. But all in all I have found that the main obstacle is just you to yourself: to pay too much heed to all the obstacles in your path, to give up too fast, to lose faith in yourself. Of course there will be some hardships from time to time, and there will be some resistance pain when you expand into something bigger. But I think I have come to a place where I can keep in mind my goal but otherwise relax and see what life brings, trusting the overall direction is right for me, and be just calm and joyful, and enjoy my solitary daily creative debauchery in my studio.
Do you have any advice or insight to pass on to other artists or young artists-in-training out there?
I don’t really believe one can pass on their mastered life lessons by just talking – if it was so easy, we would all be sage-like experts.
Just value the place where you stand, value your own insights. Don’t try to walk another person’s path. Always keep an eye on the stars you are out to reach, but keep your feet grounded and steps strong at the same time.