Artist Q&A with Jessie Donovan

Artist Jessie Donovan presented her Alethia series last month, in her debut exhibit with Sager Reeves Gallery. That work is now on view in the Hall Gallery and can still be found under the October Exhibit at sagerreevesgallery.com/october-exhibit. Hannah Reeves recently got to ask a few questions of the artist, and we’re happy to share a bit more on the thoughtful preparation and work behind Donovan’s lovely series.

HR: Since your work has been on view through this month and last, we’ve been in the position to get to hear folks’ praise of it and to get in on the questions that come up. We’ve found that your viewers often ask about medium in some manner. Many are not familiar with serigraphy, and even less with the intersection of charcoal and this form of printmaking. Could you describe and explain your process and media a bit?

JD: Serigraphy is just the technical term for screen printing, which involves using a mesh screen to print an image. In this case, I created a half-tone image of a self portrait, then used photo-sensitive emulsion to block the ink from passing through the screen to the paper. For the printing medium, I used a homemade “ink” consisting of gel hand sanitizer and charcoal powder – a process that I learned from a friend and fellow artist, Simon Tatum. After printing, the alcohol evaporates leaving only charcoal on the paper. Charcoal is such an impermanent and easily manipulated medium, so for obvious reasons it’s not the usual medium for a print.

HR: What do these media choices do for your message and imagery that, say, an inkjet print of a digital photo, or a painting, would not?

JD: My college professor, Chris Daniggelis, taught me that medium and materiality is as important as imagery. When I’m using any printmaking process, I consider the ways in which the history of printmaking and the idea of creating multiples relates to the piece. Typically prints are used to create multiples and exact replications, but in this series I wanted to create unique prints from a single image. As a mixed race person, I can never predict how someone will perceive me, and although my existence remains constant, I show up differently based on an individual’s background and experiences. For this concept, I wanted to use a medium that produced various outcomes from a single original image.

HR: The balance of repetition and variation in this series feels so important – I’m wondering how you arrived at the size, format, and number of pieces in the series. Related: Do you feel someone would need to own/display more than one in order to do the work justice, or could a single piece stand alone?

JD: It took me a couple attempts to come to this size and format. The first version of this print was larger, but I decided that a smaller size felt more appropriate. I also contemplated framing these prints together as one piece, but I felt that their singularity is equally as important as their relationship to one another. It’s a series of 6 because 6 is traditionally a symbol of completeness. and in number theory 6 is the smallest perfect number, meaning that it’s equal to the sum of its divisors. I think the pieces work wonderfully as a series because seeing and comparing the images together is important, but viewing them separately also makes sense conceptually. They are part of a series either way but seeing only one portrait at a time could represent the individual instances in which I am being viewed through someone’s perception.

HR: Where do you find inspiration for work like this series?

JD: Adrian Piper has motivated my art practice significantly. She is also a mixed race woman who made work about her experiences for decades starting in the 1960’s. I saw her retrospective, A Synthesis of Intuitions, in Los Angeles a few years ago, and I had never felt so emotionally moved by an art exhibition. Her work made me realize that my experiences and thoughts are important to portray. Seeing the representation of someone like me has been a vital part in finding my confidence and purpose as an artist and an individual. I also find inspiration in conversations that I have with other people who relate to me, and people who are purley just interested in learning about the history of mixed race individuals. Another body of work that I have called, Letter’s Home, is a collection of letters written by other mixed race people. Through building that project I found an online community of people who also help motivate and inspire me.

HR: Could you give us a verbal “snapshot” of your studio? What does it look like for you to be a working artist carving out space and time to create?

JD: I have a dedicated workspace in the basement of my house, but my studio isn’t just a physical space. So much of art making for me is the ideation and research process, sometimes a notebook or a notes app on my phone is the place where I grow my art practice the most. I often feel like I spend the most amount of time planning things out and contemplating ideas, and it’s important for me to have a part-time career outside of creating art because I’m greatly influenced by the experiences I have outside of the studio.