Jessica Williams Interview - The Hopper Prize

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams on being involved in art from a young age, influential teachers, focusing on themes of memory, romance, & transformation, & thinking about architectures of solitude.

How did you get into making art?

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley by LA and I loved art from a young age. I honestly don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t draw. Early on, I took art class after school in Encino near where my family lived. I loved it, we would paint and do ceramics, and my parents encouraged me. In middle school I had a memorable art teacher— I remember thinking she had such great style and bravado. She decorated the art studio with Frida Kahlo posters and talked with me often about my artwork. Both of my grandmothers are artistic- I remember going to a rock quarry when I was 7 or 8 years old with my grandma to find marble for her sculptures and it felt special to be part of that process. Later on, I went to LACHSA – LA County High School for the Arts— you had to apply for a major and mine was visual art. Half the school day was dedicated specifically to art class: painting, figure drawing, and printmaking. At that time I would go to see music and art shows at The Smell in downtown LA. Senior year I won a painting prize and they gave me one of those giant checks like in the lottery; my influential teacher Joe Gatto had encouraged me to apply. By that point I was becoming more confident in myself as an artist. I went on to study painting and art history at RISD for BFA and then Columbia for MFA.

What are you currently working on?

Right now I’m focusing on themes of memory, romance, and transformation. This past year was transformational in so many ways and I feel like I’ve been interested in this idea of being lost and then found again. I am excited about experimenting with essentially monochromatic palettes for the larger scale works, to heighten the atmospheric, immersive affect of the paintings. I’m working simultaneously on intimate scale watercolors and very large scale oil paintings— I have a watercolor sketchbook that I carry around with me and have been painting studies for larger canvases. Another project I have been working on is a series of portraits, and the subject is longtime fascination of mine—women activists from the Jewish underground in Europe—there were significant numbers, which is an unusual phenomenon within the context of a pre-feminist era and WWII. These women have a mythic and very personal resonance for me, and I’m painting them in imaginary landscapes.

Right now I’m focusing on themes of memory, romance, and transformation.

Jessica Williams

What inspired you to get started on this body of work?

For the last few months, I had been working on paintings for my show Tunnel of Love with Montréal-based gallery Projet Pangée. The paintings in the show are exhibited within a virtual space and explore the subject of a transformational voyage. I’d been thinking a lot about architectures of solitude and isolation throughout the pandemic, because I experienced a kind of magical thinking during this last year and I wanted to explore this psychology in my paintings. I worked in collaboration with Montréal based 3D designer Katerine Dennie-Marcaux to create a virtual space that is an otherworldly, dreamlike environment—the exhibition design is a closed loop, with no entrance or exit, and the viewer can ride through to view the artworks exhibited within. The exhibition design is based on the famous Tunnel of Love rides from the 50s and 60s, originally called river caves, that disappeared from the physical world and exist now in the collective consciousness. The rides gave lovers time to spend alone, isolated from the world. I wanted to heighten the feeling of time stretching out indefinitely, which has been a pervasive feeling this past year of Covid.

Do you work on distinct projects or do you take a broader approach to your practice?

Everything kind of cross pollinates. I’ll collect and record ideas and references in my sketchbooks and will allow for connections to happen intuitively, so I would say a broader approach. Notes and sketches become larger scale paintings, and sometimes the reverse will also happen, where I isolate an idea from a larger painting to become a work of its own.

What’s a typical day like in your studio?

I like to arrive in the afternoon and work into the evening. My studio is in an industrial city called Vernon, near downtown LA. It is full of factories and warehouses, and feels desolate and faraway. I really enjoy the quiet. I’ll go up on the roof and can see a clear view of the downtown cityscape. The sunsets are diffused through layers of smog and smoke rising from some of the buildings nearby. There are some days where I’m preparing canvases with gesso, making sketches, or listening to a podcast. Other days I feel like I’m stepping into the ring, ready to make moves. On these type of days I’m deep in a trance, the music is playing loud and I can paint for hours on end.

Who are your favorite artists?

Lately I’m obsessed with Maria Lassnig, Varda Caivano, and Charlotte Salomon… also: Milton Avery, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Karen Kilimnik, Miriam Cahn, Gustave Moreau, Édouard Vuillard, El Greco, Charles Burchfield, Odilon Redon, Kerry James Marshall, Edvard Munch, Sophie Von Hellerman, Chantal Joffe, Jutta Koether, Marie Laurencin, Marc Chagall, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Chaim Soutine, J.M.W. Turner, Alice Neel… and so many more

Where do you go to discover new artists?

I’m looking forward to venturing out to openings again soon! I discover lots of new artists scrolling on Instagram and have an amazing community of artists here in LA

Jessica Williams is an artist based in Los Angeles who was recently shortlisted for The Hopper Prize. To learn more about the artist:

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