Featured Artist | Jessica Keiser

An educated painter and recent PhD in Philosophy, Jessica Keiser is a returning exhibitor at Sager Braudis Gallery this summer. Whether in dry media on paper or oil on canvas, Keiser draws on traditional technique and an intuitive understanding of anatomy to convey the human form with stunning accuracy. Keiser discusses her life and work in this interview with Gallery Director Hannah Reeves. Her work will be on view in the Summer Exhibit through July 29th. 

REEVES: First of all, you’re finishing your PhD, and the admirers of your work who learn this almost always ask, “How does she have time to make art?” So, I know that’s a common question, but what does your studio schedule look like? How do drawing and painting fit into your life right now?

Figure Study No. 2
Figure Study 2, Charcoal on paper, 16 x 30″, $500

KEISER: The honest answer is that the lack of time and space is a huge problem, and I only manage to fit drawing and painting into my life with a lot of violent pushing and shoving. My studio schedule has been very erratic for the past few years; I work in panicky fits and starts, doing as much as I can before I feel that I need to focus exclusively on my writing again in order to briefly gain control of my life. And then I start it up again until I get stressed out, then take another breather, etc. I can’t simultaneously give them both the attention needed to produce my best work, and that causes me a lot of guilt and anxiety.

Also, my “studio” is currently the living space/bedroom of a small studio apartment which I share with my partner. When I am working on a project, it degenerates into an unmanageable state, with a layer of charcoal dust on the furniture, gummy erasers squashed into the carpet, easels, drawing boards and other large obstacles blocking the doorway, etc. It’s one reason why I have been doing more drawings than paintings lately.

REEVES: For you, what is it about the human figure that keeps you returning to it as subject matter?

KEISER: That’s a good question, and I’m not sure I have an answer that won’t sound trite. I guess there is a subtle pathos in an image of a solitary figure that I find irresistible. I think there’s also an indirectness in the process which fascinates me: I feel like I am trying to capture something I see on the surface—both physically and emotionally—which is caused by something underneath that I don’t understand or have access to. For instance, I’ll want to capture a look on someone’s face that has a certain emotional tenor, but I don’t know precisely what it is or what caused it or when it will change. Or I’ll want to capture the interaction of warm and cool colors on the surface of the skin, which is an effect of the blood in their veins, the quality of the afternoon light, and other things that I don’t see directly. Or the landscape of the skin which is produced by the underlying structure of sharp bones, soft tissue, and whatever else goes on under there. (I was a bad anatomy student.)

REEVES: Is your artwork related to your writing? Does one medium influence the other?

KEISER: My artwork is related to my writing in that it keeps me from doing it, hehe. I work in philosophy of language, and I wouldn’t say that it has changed the way I paint and draw, but it has helped me to understand what I am doing a little bit better. I think and write a lot about communication broadly speaking, and that has helped me tease apart differences between the mechanics and goals I use in ordinary linguistic communication vs. the audience-directed intentions I have when making a painting.

My artwork hasn’t seriously impacted my writing yet, but I think that will change after my dissertation is over and I have more freedom to pursue other projects. I have a good friend who studies the way biases and beliefs influence perceptual experience, and we are toying around with writing a paper together about how this relates to the experience of making and viewing artwork. So I can see doing more work at the interface of philosophy of art/language or philosophy of art/mind, and my experience as an artist would definitely be relevant there.

Pencil Study #2
Pencil Study 2, Pencil on paper, 7 x 10″, $80

REEVES: Do you have an art-world hero?

KEISER: It’s funny, I think I have more literature-world heroes than art-world heroes. Maybe it’s because I approach art differently as a practitioner than I otherwise would. I cast a broader net; what I learn from, what moves me, comes from such a scattered range of sources, without one being particularly encompassing.

But I guess I have a lot of heroes here and there. They tend to be people whose work exhibits skill that is borne from struggle. Work that seems to be driven more by an unrelenting internal drive than an external one. By that I definitely don’t mean that they aren’t deeply influenced by others, but that ultimately their work is a manifestation of chasing their own demons, rather than a struggle to earn social capital. Two heroes that come to mind are my former schoolmates Jordan Sokol and Roald Sivertsen.

REEVES: I always like to ask: What is your studio quirk?

KEISER: I’m not sure if this qualifies as a quirk, but I visually take in information far away from my easel, and so the process of drawing tends to involve a lot of walking backward and bumping into or tripping over things.  I also look at my subject through a hand-held mirror (in order to change the way I perceive it by making it less familiar), and this probably seems a little bizarre to the outside observer.