Studio Check-In: MFA Jess Self on her Masked, Wearable Art Works
In the last two months, students have been away from their campus studios and equipment, yet they have continued to work; sculpture students in particular have had an obstacle to overcome, left without access to the foundry, wood shop, laser cutters, or metal shop. Sculpture M.F.A. Jess Self has since leaned into her felted mask series, making wearable pieces that reflect the current need for safety and the new normal of our time, using her signature, detailed sculptural felting.
This week, she took time out from distance learning, distance teaching, and art making to answer some of our and College of the Arts’s questions via email. This is the first in a series of studio check in’s we will be doing with our M.F.A.s and B.F.A.s, to see how they have been resilient during this unique time.
COTA: How have you adjusted to creating art at a distance, now that you don’t have a formal studio?
JS: It has been a slow transition. I am fortunate enough to have a space set up at my partners house where I am quarantined. I am lucky he is a photographer and willing to help me document this time with my art. I think like many of us, I had a hard time during the first couple of weeks. I think that keeping art making in my daily routine has helped me tremendously. I am still able to make work and I appreciate it so much.
COTA: The masks are an interesting project. What prompted you to take on masks as a subject? And did this series begin before COVID?
I Started this project on accident. I had actually made masks like this in 2014. The photographs taken then were actually for my senior undergrad exhibition. When I first heard of the virus I was reminded of these masks. I have a lot of conflicting feelings toward these masks and the virus in general. It has disrupted our lives and has affected us from many angles.
JS: They are available custom and made to order however. They are not rated or helpful during this mask shortage. I feel if I am going to be making masks right now they should be usable and functional. Again, conflicting feelings. There is another series I plan to make that goes back on this as well. Perhaps I will feel less guilty if I work on it when the pandemic passes.
My medium of choice is wool, and my work combines the traditional craft of needle felting and figurative sculpture. Needle felting is a process in which I roll up wool and then by stabbing it with a barbed needle I force the fibers to lock together. The denser the wool gets with each poke of the needle, the more detail I get. I think of wool as being similar to clay in that I can add and subtract freely as well as bend and mold with a felting needle. Wools ability to appear hard can trick the viewer into questioning the medium. At first glance, a piece may appear to be made of stone or even paper. Using wool allows me to create a strong, soft structure while providing a warm and neutral surface onto which a viewer can project a narrative or emotional response.
My creating process tends to begin intuitively. Like many artists, observing humanity and reflecting on my own life influences me; the subject and voice tends to come later. My previous work has been a way for me to process my own personal growth, trauma I experienced as a child, and self-image. In my past work I took a more abstract approach to cultivate concepts in transition to a sculptural practice. For example the repetitive craters in two of the works illustrate the impact of trauma that compromises the integrity of a “thick skin”. Craters and folded patterns in the surface of the works illustrate the chaos caused by traumatic experiences that influence self-image. The majority of the figures and forms have proportions based on my own measurements and function as self-portraits.