Last week I visited sculptor Jessica Straus' studio in the Brickbottom Artist's Association, where she has worked for over twenty years. Her studio is a feast of objects, and it was incredible to get to see her various collections of objects, tools, machines and works that have accumulated over the years.
Her newest body of work deals with the idea of using every piece of a clementine crate. She's been collecting clementine crates in her basement for years, and it was only when she decided to throw them out that she decided to do something artistic with them.
I was struck by how tedious many of her works were to build and assemble. Jessica is a master of fitting objects and materials together. What's fascinating about her work too is how it is precise but not precise at the same time. Analyzing her sculptures up close you can see the mark of her hand, and yet simultaneously the works are so immaculately crafted that they appear to be flawless.
CL: In your sculpture, you work with everything from found objects, hand carved and/or painted pieces, machine cut pieces, etc. What intrigues me about your work is this diversity of materials that you work with. How do you balance them together?
JS: Well, I think the way I work with the wood is consistent from one piece to the next, and one body of work to the next. I always show the workmanship of my hands in my pieces. One can see the chip by chip carving, or in the case of the current work, one can see that each piece is cut very individually, definitely not precision cut, even though the whole appearance is neat and well crafted, there's the mark of the maker on everything I do. And is the case of these screen panels (the facsimiles of labels) I made a point of shifting the ink color many times to emphasize that they are NOT mass produced.
CL: How do you find your found objects? How do you know they're worth holding on to?
JS: I always keep my eye out for interesting forms in antique stores & yard sales. I guess I have several criteria for what I select. Pretty much everything I put together there's an emphasis on friction fitting when I join my wood parts the the metal (and I usually use metal) objects. So I look for things with good orifices through which wood pieces can be attached. I also look for forms which suggest several possibilites for function -- things that look vaguely familiar, but you can't quite place them -- that's the overall feeling I'm going for in my finished work. Or I also enjoy taking a familiar, ordinarily form and taking it so out of context that it is no longer recognizable, but seems like it serves some new "believable" purpose.
CL: How did you learn to work with wood? For those of us who don't have experience with it, wood seems like such an unfriendly material at first.
JS: Ah! I am totally self-taught with wood. I got two degrees in ceramics and then totally abandoned that material that I was trained up in and started working with wood. I think the fact that my skills are limited has forced me to be more inventive. The fact is I also loved wood -- even as a very little kid I started to whittle. (My mother was very indulgent of this -- and unafraid of knives), probably because her father (who I never knew) was a superb amateur wood carver -- so she grew up with this. I've even been told that I had a great, great grandfather who was the last wooden shoe maker in his village in France -- so I like to think it's in my genes! Yes, sometimes I rue the fact that I didn't have real training and that there's so many more skills that I could have, but I think my old-fashioned skills give my work a certain look.
And apropos of that, I am very attracted to modes of working that are just passing out of current usage. Not old, old, ways, just recently discarded -- this is another way that I choose the objects that I collect. Thus the clementine crates -- which just last season for the most part have ceased to be made from wood and are now pretty much all digitally printed on cardboard of paper label.
CL: How do you come up with the ideas for your pieces?
JS: All different ways. A lot of times the object gives me the idea right of the bat, like it's asking to have a new life. But other times I have sort of a story line I'm pursuing. With the large floor installation (floor covered with a tiled pattern of labels and large pieces sitting on top) I have a really whacky story line. In a nut shell the idea comes from an ongoing conversation I've had with my son about preparing for an apocalypse. We do this family game of analyzing our friends or dinner guests in terms of whether they'd be a useful person to have holed up with us in our post apocalyptic bunker. So I was thinking of what skills I had to offer -- all I can ever come up with is vegetable gardening and DIY skills -- so these pieces are what I'm cranking out in my basement workshop with very little raw material on hand, trying desperately to make useful things. It's how we can tell if our son really likes one of our friends -- after they leave he'll say, "we should totally have so-and-so in our bunker."
Jessica has a solo exhibition, "Scrap!" at the Boston Sculptor's Gallery at 486 Harrison Avenue in Boston from October 9-November 10, 2013, with an artist's reception on October 19, 4-6pm. Find out more about her work on her website.