Where does the inspiration for mixing metal with bone come from?
Bones are beautiful objects and from an engineering perspective, it doesn't get much better than skeletal structures. The longer I work with them, the more I come to appreciate the spectacular precision of their design and the magnitude of subtle variations on the theme. Before I even considered being an artist, I wanted to be a biologist. When I first started collecting bones and other natural objects, it was with the eye of a naturalist.
When I made my first assemblage pieces, I started with simple configurations like wooden boxes and frames. However, I soon grew impatient with their rigidity. I was drawn to natural forms and objects, and to the fluidity of structures found in nature. The first of my creatures came about after discovering a treasure trove of Victorian millinery taxidermy, the head, wings and tail of an egret mounted to delicate wires. From the moment I saw those, I knew that I had to build a body for them. At the time, I'd been collecting parts from antique clocks, adding machines and musical instruments. From these parts, I fashioned a metal birdlike form. I added the taxidermy wings, stripped the feathers from the skull to reveal the bone and added sapphire eyes made from pocket watch knobs. Right away, I knew that I was onto something special. That was back in 1992, and I haven't stopped since.
What do you like people to feel when they look at your work? What are your intentions behind it?
I'm not pursuing a specific agenda with my work. I've always thought that David Lynch summed it up nicely when he said "If you want to send a message, go to Western Union". I'm hoping to charm, delight, surprise and intrigue. To make people smile and to reward those who look closely and then come back to look some more. My reason and intent is as simple as the fact that they didn't exist anywhere in the world, but I needed them to, so I made them myself.
Do the creatures you create, have stories or characters attached to them?
They don't always have stories, but to me they all have very strong characters. From the moment I set the eyes, they too sparkle to life. I’m probably one of the very few people for whom being bitten by dead animals is an occupational hazard. Since I often rig the jaws so that they are hinged and spring-loaded, that happens more than you'd imagine! Also, the way that I build them in the early stages, they are fully articulated. I'll be holding a tiny monkey in the palm of my hand, and as I work on it, the limbs move in a way that feels as if it's clutching onto my fingers. As I turn it over, the head flops to the side and the legs splay. It feels like I am holding a real animal, instead of a hybrid mechanical pet. When possible, I like to incorporate details of movement that are usually only known to myself and the collector who eventually adopts the piece. The head might turn, or the legs are jointed so that it can stand in various configurations. Someday when I find the right co-conspirator, I would love to make stop-motion animations of my work; to actually show them frolic and play in a world of my making.
Would you ever consider using human bones? And if so, any artistic plans for your own remains?
I’ve never been particularly drawn to the idea of working with human bones, they seem to be too familiar visually, and too loaded in terms of symbolism and presumed intent. I have done quite a few primates though, so maybe someday I will work my way on up the family tree to humans. If that does happen, I do rather enjoy the idea of creating a series of metal armatures and adornments for my own skeleton, which could be assembled after I'm gone. With the amount of time that I spend manipulating bones, I certainly feel more comfortable with the idea of gussying up my mortal remains than most would.
Your work has an antique and Victorian feel to it, it this something you’re interested in separate from your work?
I absolutely love the Victorian tendency to put filigree on everything, their predilection for miniaturization, and the integrity of the craftsmanship. In that time, there was a sense of honour in honing one's craft to a fine point, over the course of many years, and in constructing things with intense precision. There was also a fascinating sense of adventurousness when it came to engineering, a desire to create things that had never been done before and to make them bigger, better and more. Of course, we still have that, but on a different level. Making a bigger Big Mac isn't the same sensibility as the one that created the Crystal Palace at the World's Fair of 1851.
Are there other artists that inspire you?
The artists who inspire me are often ones whose work is very different than mine. Lately, I've been naming some of my beasts after artists whose work I love. The connection between the piece and the artist isn't direct, and the gesture is for myself, rather than as an element that is an integral part of the intent. After a trip to Vienna to see the works of Klimt and Schiele, I named a monkey Egon, because of his long, attenuated arms. Then I made a chihuahua riding on a tricycle and named him Gustav, because the ornate floral embroidery on his little leather vest reminded me of some of Klimt's decorative backgrounds.
Have you got any upcoming projects, what are you working on at the moment?
Always! I just put the finishing touches on a coyote that appears to be leaping out of the wall. It’s the front half of the body, mounted at the midpoint, like a ship’s figurehead. He’s for the 25th anniversary show at La Luz de Jesus gallery in LA this autumn. I also have upcoming shows this year at Lisa Sette Gallery (Arizona), Roq la Rue Gallery (Washington) and the FSU Art Museum (Florida).
At the moment, I’m working on a pair of small lovebirds perched on tiny circus balls. I recently did a show with David Lynch to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Twin Peaks. For this, I made a Great Horned Owl named Cooper (first image) with giant silver wings spread wide, finely cast feet with sharp talons, and a filigree cutwork ribcage and headpiece. After it was completed, I thought that it would be an interesting challenge to re-create a similar body structure, but in miniature. Hence the two songbirds. After those two, I plan to start in on my first collaboration, a Trojan horse sculpture that I am working on with the artist Kris Kuksi. After that I have about a dozen projects that I’m really, really excited about.
To see more of Jessica's work go here