(This Interview by J.L. Schnabel first appeared on our site on April 21, 2011). Jessica Joslin is the creatrix of a curious menagerie of hybird creatures, composed of a varied anatomy of bone, glass, leather and metal, meticulously assembled to look like real specimens. Her work recalls a sense of the Victorian era’s obsession with detail and death and yet retains a playfulness attributed to circus shows of trained animals performing gravity defying feats. Hi-Fructose was recently able to interview the artist, take a look at her intriguing responses below.
Can you pinpoint the moment you decided you wanted to become an artist? What was your childhood like?
I’m not sure when I decided to become an artist, but when I was a little girl, I wanted to be a sailor. I didn’t actually know any sailors, so my idea of what that might actually entail was pretty skewed. I pictured it as somewhere in-between deep sea diving with Jacques Cousteau and observing epic battles between giant squids and sperm whales from the crow’s nest of a clipper. I grew up in Boston, where everything has a patina and encourages fantasies about the past, especially maritime fantasies. When I finally discovered that to realize my sailor dream, I’d have to be a man 300 years ago, I decided that I would be a biologist instead. The desire to make sculptures didn’t come until much later, science was my first great love.I was a nerdy kid, always content with my nose buried in a book and always wanting to learn obscure details about what I saw around me. That tendency dovetailed perfectly with the sensibility of the grand old museums in the area, which were Wunderkammers and havens of taxonomy. At the natural history museums at Harvard, with their Victorian-era passion for collecting and labeling, I discovered the animal kingdom…magnificent, inscrutable, magical and…dead. The taxidermy animals that I saw were far more fascinating than any animals that I could see in “real life.” In fact, I couldn’t see wild animals at all. I was extremely near-sighted, but didn’t realize it for years. I assumed that everyone saw like I did- and as long as I could read my books, there was no problem. Anyway, my early passion for collecting was spurred by those museums, and in part, my fascination with taxidermy specimens was because I could actually see them. I didn’t understand the excitement of seeing a bird flying through the sky, not until many years later. At home, we started our own cabinet of curiosities, beginning with exotic seedpods from the Arnold Arboretum, and shells, bones and crab claws found at the beach. It grew to include a huge variety of natural objects, and it turned our family vacations into one big treasure hunt. To this day, when I’m walking through the woods, my eyes are always on the ground, searching for treasures and from time to time, I still flitch treasures from the family nature collection to use in my sculptures…
What is it about the circus, particularly circus freaks that attracts you? Your work echoes highly sophisticated gaffs for a modern circus and I feel that if you had been born in an earlier era, you would have been highly sought after in the circus set.
Making gaffs for a gilded-age circus sideshow? Oh, I’d love to have that job! ;) My piece Phineas was actually named after good ‘ol P.T. Barnum. It’s a riff on Barnum’s infamous humbug, the Fiji Mermaid, one of his most popular attractions. At the time, it was promoted as a “real mermaid” but was actually a monkey torso spliced onto a fish’s tail by some clever taxidermist. My version is also a monkey with a fish tail, but the tail is made from the ornate spout of a teapot. He has tiny shell ears, silver wings, an intricate silver ribcage/corset and deep brown eyes.I think the lure of the circus is that it’s a world that exists solely to ignite dreams. It’s ornate and wonderful and ridiculous and full of mystery and whimsy, designed to surprise and delight. I should note that I’m not thinking of the tawdry spectacles of today, but of the past. I’d give almost anything to have been able to visit Barnum’s American Museum, which was in NYC from 1841-65. For me, that was when the real magic was happening, the true golden age of the circus. It was a delicious cocktail of sensationalist attractions like the Fiji mermaid, General Tom Thumb and Chang & Eng, alongside a live menagerie and aquarium, displays of natural curiosities, dioramas, taxidermy and wax figures…there was even a theater and lecture hall! For me, that sounds like a combination that can’t be beat, especially when you figure in the fringe-trimmed velvet curtains, dark hardwood fixtures, jaunty brass bands and vivid sideshow banners.
I’ve read that you have an education on anatomy and biology. When working with bone and skin, it is with the eye of the scientist or the artist ?
Actually, when it comes to animal anatomy, I’m purely an autodidact. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t done my homework, so to speak! ;) In terms of the work that I do, it’s a finely calibrated trinity of considerations: aesthetic, engineering and anatomical. In terms of the anatomical, yes, with each piece I am referencing specific structures, and usually from the species that I am depicting (although there are exceptions.) However, those bodily structures are often tweaked to compensate for other considerations. Most people don’t notice that, because the overall feel is right. For example, almost all of my creatures have only 3 toes, not 4 or 5. I figure that since it’s my world, I get to make the rules, and I don’t want to spend too much time doing repetitive work. If 3 toes can get the idea of a foot across, and it looks right, then why include more? 3 toes is also better from an engineering standpoint. Since the contact/balance points are along the edges of the feet, more toes wouldn’t necessarily mean more stability. Also, more generally speaking, in my work, I’m always representing interior and exterior anatomy simultaneously. One line of a form might delineate the belly and another, the ribcage. Of course, you wouldn’t typically see both at the same time, so it creates a sort of double vision between the skeletal anatomy and the structure of the living animal. That’s one of the reasons that my work might seem “alive” although it’s mainly based on skeletal forms. It’s not just a skeleton with eyeballs. The lines of the metalwork also suggest the volume of the flesh. I think that mostly seeps in on a subconscious level, but there’s an instinctive response. I don’t think that people would feel such an emotional pull if it was only a skeleton.
Can you describe what an average working day for you is like? Do you work on many creatures at once or one at a time?
No two days are the same- that’s one of the things that I love best about this job! Yes, I usually switch off between several pieces. Since I work with found objects, I’ll sometimes need to set a piece aside until I can find the right size of, say, antique Model-T car horn. That can sometimes take awhile! Also, Jared’s easel is just a few feet away from where I work, so some things need to happen while he’s away. For example, you would not believe the racket when I cut apart musical instruments. They conduct sound so well that you can literally hear it from blocks away. I try to time these things well. I don’t do metal grinding at 3am anymore. I’m lucky that none of the neighbors have called the cops on me…yet. I usually try to spend time each day alternating between planning, working, ordering materials, and doing various other stuff, like shooting and retouching pictures, interviews, etc. I’m a night owl, so during the day, I might do engineering drawings of leg configurations, order eyeballs for upcoming projects, or visit the charmingly grumpy old men at my favorite hardware, lamp, or antique shops. At night is usually when I settle down at my workbench and play with my toys, that’s when the real magic happens.
Your work seems to be steeped in both the modern ‘steam-punk’ movement/aesthetic and the antiquity and obsessions of the Victorian era. Can you discuss how these two thematic movements/time periods may inform your work?
I absolutely love the Victorian tendency to put filigree on everything, their predilection for miniturization, and the integrity of the craftsmanship. There was a sense of honor in honing one’s craft to a fine point, over the course of many years, and in constructing things with intense precision. When I see the tools that things were built with, I am even more flabbergasted at what was achieved. There was also a fascinating sense of adventurousness when it came to engineering, a desire to create things that had never been done before and to make them bigger, better, MORE… Of course, we still have that, but on a different level. Making a bigger Big Mac isn’t the same sensibility as the one that created the Crystal Palace at the World’s Fair of 1851.
Most aesthetic aspects of the “modern Steampunk movement” don’t seem to capture what I feel is at its heart. The worlds dreamt up by literary figures like HG Wells and Jules Verne are articulated with the extravagant exactitude of the Victorian era, but Steampunk brings us a world that uses spray-painted plastic in lieu of hand engraved brass. At first glance, it can be enticing, but once you scratch the surface, it’s disappointingly flimsy. As applied to my work, it sometimes makes me wonder if people can tell the difference between metalwork and mylar…
It seems that there has been a surge of interest in taxidermy, antique collecting, and art made with bones. Why do you think now is the time these oddities are surfacing in our culture? How do you see your work fitting into this?
When I began making this sort of work, it was certainly a different landscape in terms of interest in such things. At the time, I was very much the oddball for working with bones and antique parts. Unless you were a conceptual artist, assemblage sculpture and taxidermy art (with the exception of Surrealist-era artists) was mostly seen as the domain of hillbilly hobbyists. (Then again, that was back in the dark ages before civilians had computers, so it was much harder to gauge what was happening outside of the mainstream.) In some ways, I don’t think that there has been a surge of interest. It’s just that whatever you might fancy, it’s much easier to find it nowadays.I think that assemblage art often appeals to young artists because it seems like neat shortcut around the hard work of actually learning how to make things. That’s especially the case with bones. They’re inherently beautiful as sculptural objects, and loaded with symbolism, so it’s easy to take a skull and some pretty antique gee-gaws, stick them in an old wood box, and call it art. It looks interesting and requires minimal effort. It’s a similar scenario with a lot of taxidermy art nowadays. It’s (almost) a ready-made art piece. Just buy some old taxidermy and cut it up or hot-glue stuff onto it…and voilà! Not to say that there isn’t great work being done nowadays in those categories, quite the contrary! There is some truly brilliant work being done by my contemporaries. It’s an exciting time to be an artist because it’s that much easier to discover and connect with people who are out there making wonderful things. In terms of contemporary sculptors working specifically with taxidermy, bones, and/or assemblage, some of my favorites are: Lee Bontecou, Tessa Farmer, Les Deux Garcons, This Must be Designed by Idiots (aka. Afke Golsteijn & Floris Bakker), Polly Morgan, Jan Fabre, Kris Kuksi, Sarina Brewer, Andy Paiko, Ron Pippin and Maurizio Cattelan. I don’t know whether I could pinpoint exactly where I fit into the big picture, but I feel that these artists are kindred spirits in one way or another.
Where do you imagine is the ideal home for your creatures while you are making each piece?
One where it will be well-loved, appreciated, and always kept out of the reach of curious house pets.
How important is the ritual act of collecting the objects you use in each piece to your work? Do special, rare finds imbue a private sentimentality to the piece? When you set out seeking, are there certain things you look for or is it more spontaneous?
Everything is better when it has a great back-story! If a bird’s toes are made from knife rests that I found in an odd little shop owned by a lady with an electronic voice synthesizer, I think it it adds a bit of charm. I don’t have any official way of conveying that information, although it seems to come up a lot when I’m talking to people at openings. I’m always on the lookout for materials, wherever I am, whatever I’m doing. In that way, my sculptures are sort of like a semi-secret scrapbook, with trinkets from all sorts of places, people and time peroids…a grab bag of memories.There is a strange intimacy in working with bones, and there are often tangible tales about the animal’s life embedded within. I know whether it died young or old, if it had arthritis or parasites, if it had broken a bone and if so, how long ago and whether it would limped. It might have bits of schrapnel embedded, with the bone grown up around it like a pearl- that tells me that it had a run-in with a hunter and survived. Fellini once said “The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” If you know how to read them, bones are an animal’s autobiography.There are a LOT of things that I look for when I’m collecting materials. Some of the things that draw me to a particular part are probably obvious, like a beautiful patina. Other aspects, like the need for objects to be bilaterally symmetrical, might not. At this point, I’ve been adding to my bag of tricks (ie. specific techniques and/or ways of making things) for quite awhile, so at any given moment, there are literally hundreds of specific objects that I’m always on the lookout for. However, what I find at any given moment definitely influences what I’ll make next. For example, I just found a lovely Victorian silver cutwork bon-bon tray. From the moment I saw it, I knew that it was destined to become a fanciful ruff for a pufferfish, and that the pattern would lend itself to an intricate configuration of fins. What can I say? My work has re-wired my brain so that I can’t help looking at antiques like the artist/engineer/mad scientist that I am.
What objects are in your personal collection that you can’t part with in your sculptures?
I used to think there was a line, but then I cut apart my favorite antique silver vase because Otis needed a fancy headpiece. Now all bets are off…
How does sharing a studio with your painter husband (Jared Joslin) affect your working landscape? Do you feel that you each inspire the other?
Absolutely! It’s sort of like playing psychic ping pong, there’s a constant back and forth of ideas, suggestions and general goofiness that goes on. He knows my work better than anyone, and he’s the one who I always turn to for a second opinion. It’s easy to get locked into a particular way of thinking about what you’re making, and it’s a wonderful luxury to have someone to bounce ideas around with and make suggestions. It’s also a major bonus that he’s very knowledgeable about animals and anatomy, having painted an impressive array of species over the years. Sometimes he’ll peek over my shoulder and misinterpret what I’m doing in a way that shifts my vision. For example, I’ll be holding a piece upside down while I’m working, and he’ll see that the curve of it’s spine might be more interesting if it was reversed. He might suggest a change in pose, like shifting the weight onto one hip so that the stance looks more naturalistic, or maybe putting it into a crouch, rather than just standing there. I even ask for advice on “simple” things like whether a femur looks proportionately too long or too short. It saves a lot of time, having a second pair of eyes on things now and then. I also find that creatures occasionally migrate from one of us to the other. If he’s painting a whippet in a fringed collar, or a falcon in a fancy hood, I have those at the front of my mind and sometimes I’ll need to do my own version of them. Fortunately, what we do is very different, so that may not even be evident to most people…
What do you consider to be the true heart of your work?
By using bone paired so closely with metal, do you imagine that if these creatures were to be imbued with life, that their instincts would be more primal or more robotic?
I imagine that their demeanor would be somewhere in-between that of a real animal and an automaton. I enjoy picturing them scampering around, exploring and frolicing, just as soon as the humans go to sleep. That sense of play is important. I’m also fascinated with the idea of an exquisite artificial creature: the nightingale in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, or the clockwork concubine who dances in Fellini’s Casanova. In a lot of ways, I’m like Geppetto, making creatures that may dream of becoming real animals.
What’s on the horizon for you?
I’m in a show this month at Lisa Sette Gallery in Arizona. I have a show this May, at Wexler Gallery in Philly and Roq la Rue Gallery in Seattle in December, and this fall at La Luz de Jesus and the FSU Art Museum. I also have a brand spankin’ new website, which I’m thrilled to bits about and YOU are the VERY FIRST ONES to know about it!! To see more of my creatures, visit http://www.jessicajoslin.com.