Interview: Jen Dwyer
I grew up in Northern California. After high school, I attended University of Washington, where I studied science and art. After graduating, I moved to Brooklyn New York to pursue art. I am a practicing artist working primarily in ceramic art.
Our current political and social climate is arguably the most divisive or turbulent period that anyone of my generation or younger has ever experienced in this country. With the past election, it was and continues to be hard to listen to the news, open a social media app, or even listen to a podcast without hearing strong discourse. My making comes from reflecting on this polarized time.
My most recent works, Current Mood and Nasty Woman Tiles, were created in response to President Elect bragging about grabbing women by the genitalia in an Access Hollywood tape recorded in 2005. He responded to this video by calling it “locker room banter”. It's important not to let our new president’s hate speech become normalized. I added subtle individualization of each tile by showcasing each person's unique handwriting and installing each tile at the specific pelvic height that person.
Now more than ever, people are open to dialogue on issues thought to be subjects once left unspoken. My porcelain boxing gloves and knuckles are a part of a series Objects of Mass Production. The works were created earlier this year in response to our current administration and the unknown decisions they will make.
Lastly, my two porcelains of Venus of Willendorf holding a pager, cell phone, and edible objects were created as good luck charms in this time of so much uncertainty. Now more than ever, people are open to dialogue on issues thought to be subjects once left unspoken, my work is created in response to these conversations or feelings.
Were you always interested in ceramics? Tell us about your journey as an artist.
Early on I fell in love with clay, I had a really incredible high school art teacher that gave me a lot of freedom to play and explore. In college I proceeded to explore ceramics as well as environmental science. I’ve always been interested in a multitude of things, I think that’s why I love art, because I can investigate, research and explore all of my interests through my practice. I was also always a creative kid but once I began college I started applying concepts to my making. The history of ceramics is so broad and from a technical standpoint, there is always more to learn. The material is also full of contradictions. Porcelain in particular has a very interesting history in regards to Imperial Europe. It was once seen as the highest taste of the royal court and then later pushed aside for being overly decorative, or rather feminine. I also love the tactileness of clay, in the postdigital age avoiding my computer and playing with clay is really all I want to do.
What inspired your pieces that explore the female figure?
A Jill Soloway quote that really resonates with my and speaks to why I love the femme figure so much is “art is propaganda for the self”. My work has always expressed my lived experiences, complemented with research of contemporary and historical issues, so inevitability the femme figure, or parts of the body play a role in my work. I also think it’s so interesting that one of the first art objects know to us is a ceramic fertility goddess. Although no one knows for sure what/ why Venus of Willendorf or any of the other ancient figurines were created, one of theories is that they were thought to be self portraits, which I just love. Perhaps the Venus of Willendorf was the original depiction of the female gaze.
There is a beautiful element of play in your work. How important is this to your practice?
There is this age old trope that I want to resist in my work that ‘the artist’ has to be this serious cowboy that can only create in an altered state of agony. That being said I do have a pretty dedicated studio practice that isn’t always fun, it can be a challenging to get into the studio everyday and it’s definitely hard work. But it’s work that I really enjoy. Plus if I wasn't creating I’m not sure what else I would do. Not to say I don’t love it, but I don’t know really know what I would be without art. Even as a young kid my mom created a small art studio for my sibling and I, who is also an artist. It’s kind of all I know. However most of my work tries to deconstruct value structures, and I do think playful, colorful, femme artwork is taken less seriously. I am interested in challenging those preconceived notions.
What is your studio time like? What do you think about when working? Describe a typical day.
I’m currently pursing my MFA at University of Notre Dame so my day is structured around academia but I still retain a solid studio practice. I wake up teach an undergraduate ceramic class for two hours in the morning or go to my art history class, work in my studio for 5 hours, go for a run, work in my studio for another 5-7 hours go home read/ research and repeat. I’ve noticed this past year I’ve become a bit of a recluse in the studio, I’m definitely trying to be more self aware of that thinking ahead to twenty eighteen. I want to carve out more time for self care and friends are definitely going to be more of a priority next year.
How do you overcome creative blocks and recharge?
There are many things I’m not good at, but I don’t really know how to not create. If I’m ever feeling overwhelmed with a body of work and find I need a break from it, I will usually work on another series that is less heavy on research. For example right now I am working on two different bodies of work, Constructed Paradise, that is a compilation of imaginary plants and ancient venus figurines. This work doesn’t take much planning and I work rather intuitively to create it. However the other body of work I’m in the middle of is Blind Spot, is about reclaiming the female gaze and decentering the divide between self and other. This work was inspired by contemporary and historical issues related to the objectification and value of femme bodies. It’s nice to have a more light hearted series of work to dip my toe in and out of while creating work about something I’m really passionate about.
What advice would you give artists that are starting out for finding their voice but not being afraid to take risks?
I would say take all the risks at first. I’m really introverted and can be really self conscious about putting myself out there, I find it’s really helpful to pretend like no one is watching and try everything. I’ve also found listening to your intuition to be one of the most important parts of art (despite what they teach you in academia ;). I’ve also found everything comes in time. So my advice would be work really hard, try everything and be really patient. For example I’ve always been a feminist and a ceramicist but now it seems they are both rather trendy. It’s nice to have recognition but I think if you only create for recognition it will be very disheartening and probably not very fulfilling. I’ve had the most success with my work as soon as I started creating art about things I really care about. It’s hard to not want to make work that you think people will like, but if you’re able to make work that feels most true to your interests, I think that will benefit you in the long run. Otherwise I would image it would feel like you’re always chasing something unattainable.
What are you currently working on?
Oh too many things, I have three pots in the fire right now. My main focus is a body of work I started this fall, Blind Spot . This series of work explores the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies. I’m currently reading Staying with the Troubl e by Donna J. Haraway, and she really highlights the ways everything can be turned into a product, women’s bodies, nature, etc. Similar to women’s bodies, porcelain has a long history of being exoticized, for example in Imperial Europe it used to be called white gold because it was more valuable than gold. This work is inspired by Rococo porcelain objects that once were more valuable than gold however now are seen as decorative, kitsch, and feminine. Food is also beginning to play a large role in my work. I find it’s also tied to femininity and consumption. For example a model holding or sitting next to an edible product begs the question which one is the object for consumption. Over all this body of work is in response to the depressing treatment of women and girls in the world, but particularly now at this moment in time in the US.
I’m also working on another body of work Constructed Paradise that is a little bit more playful. This work is a reflection of a time of so much uncertainty and how we deal with that fear. These wonky imaginary plants and ancient venus amulets are meant to be a fictitious refuge or mirage for escape, and/ or a good luck charm to carry around during the day. This body of work is kind of my go to when I’m feeling a little overwhelmed with the state of everything. Although art is certainly a refuge to express frustrations and I do think it can help lead to social change, it can be depressing to spend all my time researching and reflecting on these issues, therefore my constructed paradise series is a fun repreve.
I also have a little functional art side project, JED Ceramics . It’s helpful it make and sell functional art objects to help offset the costs of larger sculptures ;)