Art and Story: Podcast Interview with Filmmaker Jesse Brass
Jesse Brass is an artist and storyteller whose two passions have come together in the film series Making Art. The series, launched in 2012 in collaboration with his brother, Matt, has reached an audience of millions and been featured by leading art publications and blogs around the world. His work has also been featured by National Geographic, Huffington Post, and American Express. The films have real impact on the careers of the artists they represent and serve as a compelling platform for the artist to express his or her motivations, passions, and influences. In addition to art and story, Jesse has a passion for art advocacy and continues to pursue new stories and opportunities for the artists he showcases.
Tell us about your background and training. When did you first get interested in filmmaking?
I grew up in a family of artists and was always encouraged in my art. I didn’t pursue it as a career however, because I didn’t like art talk, which seems ironic now. I thought artists should be able to just make their art without explanation. It seemed like, at least at that time, success was less about your work and more about who you knew and how you talked about your work. Recently however, either my perception has changed or the art world has, but I think good work is being noticed and rewarded. It’s an exciting time to be an artist!
As far as film, I never had training. Bought my first video camera to film my kids.
How did Making Art come about and what inspired you to start documenting artists and their process?
In 2012, my brother, Matt—who was also filming his kids—suggested we profile my artist mother for a Vimeo weekend competition. We won, and we were hooked. So we started reaching out to local artist friends and friends of friends to profile. It just continued to grow from there.
There is something magical that happens when you just listen. There are so many things that get in the way of us really hearing each other, and I wanted these films to be an opportunity for artists to be heard. In normal conversation, we feel the need to interject, share like experiences to avoid awkward silence. But there’s an opportunity to get more out of a conversation.
When interviewing, often the first answer I hear is buttoned up, thought through. But if I pause afterward, allow the awkward silence, the artist continues. That answer, a lot of times, is in the moment, less perfect, more personal. That’s when the audience gets a feeling for the artist. It’s an unposed moment. That’s the magic, and that's what inspired me to continue.
My favorite line from the series came from Mario A. Robinson: "People don't want an idea of what you think they like, they want you. And there's only one you." For me, that sums up the Making Art series. I’m not trying to share what the artist thinks; I’m trying to share the essence of the artist.
Initially Making Art just featured local artists we knew in Knoxville and Asheville, N.C. (Our film of Melanie Norris got Making Art its first Vimeo Staff Pick) but I wanted to expand it. As an avid blog follower, I came across an artist from Toronto and reached out. She was interested, and in effort to make it worth my time, I also reached out to six more artists and ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund Making Art Toronto.
The Toronto series received another Vimeo Staff Pick. I was hooked, and within a couple of days I was already planning a trip to New York.
What do you love most about your project?
Like many artists I am shy and reserved. Sitting behind a camera allows me access to diverse and fascinating worlds. In addition, the series has brought me friendships and connections with so many inspirational people. It's been personally enriching.
I also love the permanence of what I'm making. The films follow the artists year after year, to blog posts, shows. They introduce artists to new opportunities, potential buyers, and in two cases, TED Talks. They are continuous representation, allowing a large audience intimate access. Enabling genuine encounters with the artists.
A funny side note is that artists I reach out to are nervous about the project for that reason. A bad film is a stain that doesn't go away quickly. And there are many bad artist profiles out there.
What do you hope to communicate to the viewers of your films?
My films are simple, not flashy. I don’t go into a shoot with any preconceived ideas about them or message. I let the artists speak.
I think good art is clear communication of someone’s point of view. I love realism, but that’s not what I’m talking about. There’s so much to be seen beyond what a camera captures. Mario A. Robinson (can you tell I’m a fan of his?) says, “The power of art is the ability to galvanize and organize all those different pigments and materials and pour a soul into it.” And the soul is more than what you see. Art allows that expression. But artists have to be honest.
I think so much art over the years has been phony, and people know that. And over the years, the majority of people lost interest. But art is changing. Social media (I know this is a big debate) is pushing art that communicates and connects. It’s giving people direct access to the art. This whole new world of media is letting people enjoy art without the lectures and explanations from museum and gallery curators. That's honesty, and I’d like to think Making Art is playing a role in that.
What are you currently working on or excited about?
Helga, a collaboration with Bo Bartlett and Betsy Eby.
Helga was Andrew Wyeth's (who I'm named after, Jesse Wyeth Brass) muse and most frequent subject. It's my most extensive project yet and involved nine hours of interview. Very exciting!
Also I'm working on new relationships, partnerships, and I have one more Making Art edit to finish up.
The films are my passion; I don’t see that changing. Much more to come!
What are you most proud of with Making Art so far?
I’ve explored art in several forms over my life. This project has involved more of me than any other. That is satisfying.
As an artist, I think the goal is to leave yourself behind. What you witnessed, what you thought was valuable, beautiful. I am leaving that behind. Although my voice isn’t heard, it‘s responded to. There’s a reflection of me in these films.
"Artists have a powerful need to be heard; I'm no different. But I found a way to fulfill that need while allowing others to be heard."
How can we learn more and support what you do?
Production is expensive. I need all the support I can get. You can become a Patreon of my work at https://www.patreon.com/makingart
Also, watch and share my films and reach out to me for any reason. I welcome any conversation.