A personal reflection on art and living
Interview with interdisciplinary artist Jes Gamble
HIWP: What is a garment to you, in terms of having to do with your work as wearable?
JG: In relating with my artwork, a garment is a piece of your exterior that might serve to protect you. So in using nylons, I suggest a “second skin,” something that people cocoon themselves in for protection, so as not to reveal everything to other people. They put forth this alter-ego, a physical manifestation of their identity that encapsulates their emotions and experiences. Like a scar, the physicality of an experience or an emotion that someone is going through. This becomes like a garment they wear on themselves so that people would actually be able to see this physical manifestation of some of their experience.
HIWP: So not just the shape of the external body, but then also the shape of emotions or internal life…?
JG: There’s this aging process that this second skin goes through. I take that and bring this into my concepts concerning the human psyche and the human vessel. Just being a human, you get scars, scratches and scabs. Living life is hard so you get physical scars as well as emotional scars like battle wounds of going through something and coming out triumphant. Pantyhose are vulnerable to time. When you have a pair of pantyhose you wear them, they get scars and they start to rip, tear and run. You mend them by using nail polish or stitching them back together to try to keep them around. Eventually people discard of these pantyhose. There are fragments of them that are dispersed throughout the world. They deteriorate and ultimately disappear. Just as our physical selves don’t last forever.
HIWP: How do you begin a work?
JG: I begin with a connection and I proceed intuitively. It’s one of those things where you initiate with a somewhat formed goal in mind, but you also allow yourself to listen to the artwork itself. A lot of my ideas come from personal experiences and then I expound off of that. A lot of art work starts when I’m in my studio in my head or in my bed in my head. When you’re working with different materials, there’s all these different ways of pushing media and pushing concepts.
There’s the matter of allowing yourself enough time to experiment and develop your ideas and I think a lot of times people expect you to be like a machine, where if you’re not uploading an image every day, you’re not producing artwork. But as with my life, my art is organic and imperfect. There’s also a lot of work that goes into surviving and then making art work.
I have wanted to compile my experiences into a book. So a lot of my sketch books don’t contain exclusively drawings, but sometimes also writing, my processing experiences. It has really helped put a greater perspective on things and it is really a big part of the art process, for example finding words for titles.HIWP: When did you introduce photography into your practice?
JG: When I was in high school. Art is usually something people start out on very early in their lives. Art was always a past time that I enjoyed and I started getting a lot of attention for it early on. I really started with drawing from magazines, especially Vogue magazine. I was inspired by the compositions of photography as those in paintings. But making your own artwork instead of copying someone else, was always really important to me. I know a lot of people are of the opposite belief system and they say you really need to copy other artists if you want to be good, you really have to learn from the masters and I guess that is true…but I wanted to make my own content and be original and I wanted to create something that no one else had ever created before, which I know is really hard to do!!!!!! I knew as early as high school that I was really captivated by the body. I am a figurative artist and I love the body. I was lucky enough to go to a high school where they had really good art programs. They had photography classes with darkrooms and graphic design classes with all the equipment. Mr. Robert Baumbach was a fantastic teacher and a really fantastic person and the dark room was one of my – where art can be that place where you go and meditate and forget your troubles and focus on something – the dark room was that place for me. I meditated, developing the film and the prints and seeing these images emerge from the paper, and I loved it. So I decided I would go all out in a personal way, and I started taking nude photographs of myself. They were not always completely nude but there was a lot of skin. I think because at the age where you’re developing and trying to understand what your body is going through, and you are being introduced to your sexuality, this process was very formative. And I often used the photographic compositions in my paintings and drawings I was making in my other classes.
HIWP: And that was before you were stitching and using fabric?
JG: I had been taught to sew when I was very little, and I had taken home economics, so I had been exposed to it. When I started working with pantyhose and hand stitching, I was in Undergraduate school, maybe second or third year. A friend of mine who I met in school, her mom would go to estate sales and she had bought many boxes of pantyhose. My friend was inspired by BDSM. She and I both wore a lot of pantyhose. I was was inspired by the history of things like garter belts and stockings. She asked me to please take a box of these pantyhose. Once home with the giant box of panty hose I was looking at them, touching them and feeling how soft and supple and stretchy they were. When you feel them you start to think on these other levels, associating with flesh and skin. I started cutting them apart and thinking about skin and cutting into it, stitching and mending. Making these big giant mosaics of different ones that are different colors of flesh. I made this giant mosaic that I strung up in a tree and I watched this thing moving back and forth in the wind. I made a wooden box and I attached some pantyhose legs which I kept intact and people could push their own limbs through the box, out inside of these intertwined pantyhose. It reminded me of how people are always trying to break out of this box of imposed or perceived containment, and trying to understand their physical and psychological realm.
I also started doing oil paintings, figurative with the person’s flesh ripping off and blowing away in the wind. These were some of my path of investigation. My mom has a really bad back which she’s been through 4 back operations. My sisters and myself were witnessing her physical body breaking down in different ways. My thesis for Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts spoke of the skin as a barrier. Like scratching your skin and digging deeper and deeper. The concept of digging into your own body and your own mind and seeing what you find there.HIWP: Do you know the final form before the work is finished? How do you know if the final form will be an object, a performance, or photograph?
JG: I will have a vision that I set out to follow. Speaking in terms of my material process, I love sculpture, fashion, textiles and fabrics. Ever since I was little I was looking at Vogue magazine. I love fashion and design but also the more traditional fine art mediums of photography and painting. I love all these different art forms, so it makes sense that I am making things in both fine art and practical everyday materials. They all help to manifest my concepts. When I am working with pantyhose and nylons and hand stitching this talks about the act of mending and orchestrating your own protective device. Kind of like automatic writing and allowing your subconscious to become exposed on paper. A lot of the surrealists focused on tapping into your subconscious, so the stitching allows me to create things using both conscious and subconscious guidance. A push and pull. And then there is adornment in which I am going to wear a work as a performative element. And I’m also making a record of this using photography. And then I am engaging with the audience in an interactive element.
But then each way you display it has a concept as well. How do you allow someone who experiences your art in a performative space, to take something home with them? A big part of making art work is so that people can connect to it and not feel so alone. When you feel alone, you start to push people away, and you feel like it’s you against the world, until you start to communicate openly with people, realizing you are actually not alone. A big part of being an artist is breaking down barriers in subtle or not so subtle ways, allowing people to feel things that they weren’t able to express in the way you as an artist are able to express yourself.
HIWP: Do you feel like then those forms that are easier to take away, like editions of photography, are more important than the actual art object in the installation? Do you feel like those help you connect with your audience more?
JG: I’ve been receiving emails recently from someone who’s been following my work for a while. And he sent me back some of the images of my self-portraits with the hand stitched head adornments. He told me that when he is feeling alone he looks at my artwork and it helps him.
HIWP: When does movement come into play in a work?
JG: The pose within a photograph is going to communicate a lot and frame the feeling of the art product. Because I am a figurative artist, this is so important to my work. But it still translates across different art forms, like for an abstract painter, movement of the paint across the canvas is going to communicate very particularly. Our minds are constantly moving, our emotions are constantly moving. Moving can be all kinds of things, the way someone subtly arranges their body in ordinary movements, or choreographed within a dance. Movement helps to explain emotions, and it is another favored medium that helps me extend my concepts. Dancing and movement have saved my life in a lot of ways. Being a human is just really psychologically heavy at times.
With the photograph of Ariel where she has her foot in the air and the fabric is sweeping and flowing, the movement of wind is very important. That piece is a very triumphant piece of a person progressing and getting past negative things. At first in the performance she was cocooned inside this protective interior space she had created for herself and making small, restricted movements, and she eventually emerges and is free and triumphant is making big, open movements.
HIWP: I like how you refer to disease in terms of describing the concepts in your artwork. A lot of times diseases are manifest on your skin. Diseases have a physical form, they are often microscopic, but they do have physical form even though you don’t always see that. That is definitely another aspect in your work in terms of the shapes and the forms.
JG: Seeing what my mom has gone through and my sister, I mean psychologically, from the abuse we have all undergone, trying to figure all that out and to understand it, is a huge endeavor. My sister was very angry as a child. And my mom went into this great depression. She was somewhere inside the shell of herself. I would just see this shell of my mother sitting in her rocking chair. And after all the abuse that she had gone through and her daughters went through, she didn’t know what to do and she just checked out mentally. I have had these first-hand experiences, and I want to tap into these bigger concepts across being a human. I want to communicate how humans go through some of these experiences. And also specifically, trials as a woman.
HIWP: Can you talk more about the shape of things of emotions, the things that don’t really have physical shape? Your work proposes a very loose shape…
JG: If you can’t physically see something, you cannot understand it. So if someone says “I’m sad”, how can you see this and understand what they are going through? Or even for physical pain, someone can say “my hand hurts so bad” but from an outside perspective, just looking at it, you cannot see the manifestation of this necessarily. You question how intense something is or how truthful something is. The mind is an interesting place but it’s also very powerful and also very scary. The solo exhibition is very much going down the path of someone else’s mind and what you find once you’re there.
HIWP: When you are stitching things together, is that a meditative process for you?
JG: Yes, it is definitely meditative. I sometimes plan it. Sometimes it is kind of like an automatic writing thing where I allow my subconscious to come out and go where it may. I look at images of veins, and I look at my own veins through my skin and the patterns that they make. In looking at the exterior world, these patterns keep being repeated over and over again in trees, roots, rocks, mountains and streams. Right now, the hand stitching I am doing is more vein-like. I have also made the stitching more close together and bumpy where it starts to look tissuey or fatty — I’m trying to communicate with these shapes, understand them and make connections with them. I am using my methods to explore thought patterns and the shapes that they create. An unseen physical language that presents itself in forms other than letters.
It has been my privilege to work with Jes and to see her art in its various stages of progress. Jes will be exhibiting a solo show at Kitchen Table Gallery in the Fall of 2016.
Special thanks to Yamna Matin Afridi, Jes’s assistant, for her help with the photoshoot.
Header Image: Jes Gamble, detail [Work in progress], nylon and mixed media on paper.