"Rad Talk" is a new column running on The Emma Edition, for 2013. In this column I interview creative people who make my life all the more rad and whose work I think deserves a wider audience. I’ll be giving them a forum to speak on things they may never been asked in a typical interview. Today I am featuring Sam Jaffe, a very cool artist who I dream of thrifting with. A new interview is posted on Fridays.
Q: Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
A: “I’m originally from a town called Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, which is located on the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan, just north of Milwaukee. I currently live in Chicago where I make sculptures and teach a variety of art courses. I’ve been making things since I could pick up a crayon and I always knew that I wanted a creative career. I attended The Rhode Island School of Design for my BFA (’05) and The School of The Art Institute of Chicago for my MFA (’09). I studied painting and drawing for both of my degrees, which may come as a surprise considering my recent sculptural work, but I try to be opportunistic and indiscriminate in terms of media. I absolutely love animals, but I’m allergic to almost all of them so I have to unfortunately admire from afar. I’m a fantastic vegetarian cook and I like to shop (my favorite store is Claire’s), hang out with my friends, travel, and dance the night away for fun.”
Q: What is the process of finding your materials for your art? Is it important that your work is comprised of found, serendipitous materials?
A: “Thrift and antique stores are some of my favorite places because one can just get lost in the disposable and often antiquated material culture of a place. I love to rummage through bins of old photos, postcards, costume jewelry, wooden toys, moth-eaten clothing, and bits of ribbon and thread in search of hidden treasures. These cultural materials are never meaningless. They speak for themselves and provide extensive narratives about the person who owned or made them, about history and conquest, or about me as the voluntary excavator. All material, all objects contain millions of latent artistic possibilities. This includes the most common remnants and detritus of human life. I love that.”
Q: Your sculptures take on a life of their own—some of your bigger pieces even resemble these alien-like creatures. Is giving life/movement to your art something your conscious of?
A: “I think so. I love to make work that seems to have the possibility of function - like things that you could imagine interacting with, but that ultimately undermine this expectation and just sit there. Jim Henson is a huge influence for me. In his film, The Dark Crystal, many of the sets contain these fantastical alien organisms that wiggle and bob, scurry around and make goofy noises. When I’m playing around in the studio, I often imagine what types of movements my pieces might make or the types of gurgling sounds that would come out of them if they were to hobble away. I also take a lot of inspiration from the otherworldly forest scenes and characters in other fantasy films and shows that I grew up with like The Neverending Story, Peewee’s Playhouse, The Last Unicorn, Willow, Edward Scissorhands, and Beetlejuice. Over the last few years, I have also really getting into psychedelic and experimental films like Holy Mountain. Humor and comedy are also important to me and I think that through personification, I try to incorporate a sort of zany backstory to my pieces.”
Q: You also seem to reference domesticity and crafting a lot in your work. What first got you interested in this?
A: “I try not to over-analyze the craft vs. fine art discussion because I’m always afraid that it will make me doubt my use of some of the processes and materials that I love most. I don’t spend much energy interpreting the socially constructed hierarchies that may exist between different types of objects and processes or even between different types of makers. Maybe I’m contradicting myself here because I think there is a conceptual thread throughout my work that makes a comparison between handmade items and items created as a result of mass production, but I think that all objects made by hand at least are equally authentic art forms and of interest to me.”
Q: Would you consider yourself a feminist? Do you think your work addresses feminist ideas in anyway?
A: “Absolutely I do! I think that it is impossible to employ the materials and processes that I’m interested in without thinking about the inspiring women who first pioneered them. It certainly means something different for a woman to knit a sculpture in a fine arts context in 2013 than it did for a woman to knit clothing or quilt a blanket for her family at the turn of the last century, but I would like to think there are considerable parallels in terms of experiencing the finished products. I want the pieces that I make to appear to communicate with the body in personal, emotional, or interactive ways much like a handmade garment or quilt. I make things you would want to cuddle with, sit on, lick, wear, or that might somehow respond to touch. I feel that it is my duty as a female artist to keep these dying craft practices alive as we slowly lose them to more and more dehumanizing, mechanized, and commodity based processes. I’m not sure that my work necessarily always furthers a specific feminist ideology, but certainly I feel fulfillment in the fact that my work is often described as feminine. This also relates back to your question about domesticity and craft practices. Domesticity interests me as a generally gentle and cozy feeling or state of being or experiencing. I try to recreate this feeling in my work, but I’m also interested in the ways in which domesticity can represent something historically problematic and especially for women. It can conjure visions of suburban housewives in the 1950’s, overdosing on pain killers because they were so busy and yet unfulfilled. I know it’s maybe a cliché concept at this point, but I think Betty Friedan called it “the problem that has no name.” I love domesticity (cooking, housework, being a part of a family), but I also love that I can choose the role that these pursuits play in my life. I think for many female artists and artisans today, employing techniques originally associated with “women’s work” is a way of taking back the joy that one can find in domesticity rather than experiencing it as a sort of quicksand.”
Q: Does your personal style influence the way you make art?
A: “My personal style is always changing in terms of what I’m looking at, what I wear, what music I’m listening to, what group of friends/artists I’m spending time with etc. and I think this type of input always activates the work in different and sometimes unexpected ways. I tend to personify my work and I love the idea that a sculpture could in some way follow a fashion trend. I’m not sure there’s too much of a difference between the way I would put together an outfit and the way I would put together an installation or sculpture and I’m intrigued by the overlap.”
Q: What interests you about working with such tactile, soft installations?
A: “It’s all about being really lusty and overdone about the materials that I use. I try to appeal to all of the senses by using familiar materials so that viewers can imagine what it might be like to cozy up to one of these things. I like to play with the taboo of touching artwork by making things that beg to be caressed. I have seen so many people sneaking in a quick touch or poke during an art show and then looking around to make sure nobody saw them. I love that visceral reaction. Hilarious.”
Q: I love the way you install your art just as much as I love the individual pieces themselves. I would love to be consumed by a room of granny squares. What is the decision process like when doing a show?
A: “The installation process is actually my favorite part of my job because you really get to see your work come to life. Typically, when I’m working on pieces for a show, I make sure to visit the installation space often. I’m always thinking spatially about how things are going to fit together and interact with the architecture of the space. I enjoy working with curators because they tend to reign in my ‘more-more-more’ obsessive aesthetic. I try to create physical relationships between the different works first and foremost. I’m often thinking pretty formally (about color, shape, etc), but it’s also important to draw conceptual comparisons between the disparate works through good curation. The process is almost like moving furniture around a room until everything just fits. With that being said, the mind works in mysterious ways and I think that I have a very active subconscious. I often sit on the bus and allow visions of different exhibition scenarios, different pieces, and different ‘worlds‘ just come over me. I’m thinking, ‘What if I pour glitter on the floor of the space, what if I paint one wall orange, what if there’s a goat wandering around, can these two pieces get along the same show - they hate each other...etc etc?’ I also love the idea of being ‘consumed by a room of granny squares!’ Great idea!”
Q: This is more of a personal interest question, since I started a website called The Do Not Enter Diaries devoted to filming the stories of teenagers through their bedrooms. So, I am curious to know what your teenage bedroom was like. Did you have knitting projects all over the room?
A: “Ha ha! Well, I actually didn’t knit much as a teen, but I used to love to paint and draw either in bed or at this awesome drafting table that I got for my birthday one year. I have always put a great deal of energy into decorating and organizing my room - even now and I’m almost 30! I think it’s a great way to appreciate my possessions and collections and also to create a safe and comfortable space for myself. Some of the things I collect are matroyshka dolls, vintage clothing and hats, cowboy boots, strange plants, hello kitty and lisa frank everything, and anything pink and sparkly. I also have a lot of interesting art that I have gotten over the years by trading with fellow artists and friends. As a teenager, I liked to cut out images from magazines and wallpaper my room with them - my mom hated that. At the time, I was really into stockpiling mix tapes, CDs, and books and always had a pretty good section of my room dedicated to displaying them. I went through a lot of phases in terms of my personal style, so my room was always changing! I even went through a phase in my early 20’s where I got rid of my bed completely and slept on a yoga mat because I was reading all about yogis in India who renounced possessions!”
All photos in this post courtesy of Sam Jaffe
Q: Anything else you want to add? What next can we look forward to from you?
A: “I’m super excited to get back into the studio and start on some new projects since I just de-installed my solo show at 65Grand in Chicago. I have plans to work on some wearable pieces and to collaborate with some really cool, creative folks in the next year. I also want to make something moving or animatronic. I think that if I had any advice for your young readers that are interested in seriously pursuing a creative life, it would be to not wait for inspiration. Action always generates inspiration.”
You can keep up with all things Sam Jaffe by checking out her website or by following her on Twitter @TheSamJaffe.
Follow me on Twitter @emmaedition