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Dreaming Away

I can't believe I had forgotten about this post, but I feel like it is still worth posting. One of the Jenni Dogs sold to a great collector in Las Cruces. Well, at the time he was in Las Cruces—I believe he has since moved and taken the Jenni Dog along with him! Who knows where she will go in the future?

Anyway, here she is in his old office. I love seeing photos of where my work ends up. While I would personally feel a little bit rude just passing out in someone's office, this Jenni Dog doesn't seem to have too many reservations about it. Awkward!

"In a world full of war, violence, and extreme hatred, it's easy to forget that humanity is innocent beneath it all (at least at a cosmic level) because ultimately vulnerability is driving fear which is driving hatred.  Jenni Dog lifts the veil by showing humanity as a vulnerable house dog, which allows our normally masked innocence to shine through."
—Mark Gladden

A Conversation with Debra Franses-Bean

Debra Frances Bean’s “Art Bags” are frozen moments of consumption, of eating your cake and having it, too.  A series of identical, crystal-clear handbags contain a plethora of desirable objects—often the kind whose appeal is short-lived. Take Yum for example: an Art Bag full of colorful Gummy Bears. The Gummy Bears are suspended in the clear resin, preserved forever in the belly of the handbag. They are consumed, but not digested. Mummified in their chic resin coffin, they are satisfying in a way that the actual experience of eating a handful of gummy bears cannot be. Other Art Bags contain wads of cash, slick handguns, designer lipstick tubes—and all manner of objects denoting a level of comfort, prestige, and style. In my conversation with Bean, she sheds some light upon her artistic process, her often-humorous relationships with collectors, and some of the autobiographical content of her work. In addition, she discusses her position as an artist working in both the commercial and fine art realms.

JENNI HIGGINBOTHAM: The first thing I’d like to talk about is your basic process of making the Art Bags. How do you make them? How do you try to perfect them?

DEBRA FRANCES BEAN: I’ve been making the Art Bags for over 10 years. Same thing, same signs, same bag, different contents. I stumbled upon the handbag motif when I was at St. Martin’s, and we were asked to bring in an object to class. I suppose, like most artists, that I an interested in the psychological side—that sense of self-discovery. A very big part of my life is my father, and he’s been in the handbag industry. So all my life I’ve been given handbags, these receptacles for my dolls and toys. They were like my grownup toy. They were just so intrinsic to the basic idea of carrying things, whether it’s actual stuff or the “mental bits that you hang onto,” and they are a rather obsessive object. I’ve been making the same bag shape this whole time. 

The very first handbag I made was created with plaster, and the handle is covered in sharp pins. It’s called To Have and To Hold, and obviously if you do hold it, it will be extremely painful, and your hand will get pricked. When I made this I had just gotten married, and in some ways this was a psychological comment on marriage. These bags have followed me through my every move and path of life. They’re very intimate and autobiographical.
JH: That’s interesting because I was thinking of them in a really conceptual mode. You clearly work conceptually as well, but I really like the autobiographical aspects of the handbags. It’s also interesting to think about artwork commodity-wise, creating a perfect product for your intended audience or clientele.

DFB: The kind of people who respond to the work are generally people with quite a lot of money, and by “respond to the work” I mean “buy the work.” They just tend to be a certain type of person. It’s difficult in some ways because I’m partly catering to them, and I’m partly just bobbing along in the world being myself. It’s tricky because it’s become quite commercial. These people want something that’s finessed and polished. The direction I’ve taken the work in is very much that striving for perfection. You don’t ever really achieve that, and it’s that constant failure to perfection that keeps me going. It’s almost what the work is about.

My latest bag (not featured in the exhibition) is actually a 3D printout. It’s the same shape but a lot bigger. I scanned the handbag shape and printed it, and it’s coming along, but I’m struggling with it at the moment. With some other resin bags, I have been working with Chanel #5 bottles, and every time I put the new pieces full of Chanel #5 perfume bottles they keep exploding and turning into piles of goo. Making a mistake with these bags is very expensive. I’m working through it now.

JH: So you have your mold, and you pour a little bit of resin in. Then you place the objects into the mold and fill it up the rest of the way?

DFB: Yes. Often there can be up to 6 layers with different depths of objects in it. Then you seal it up, pour the last bit of resin in, and there you have it.

JH: So at what point do the bottles explode? Is it the heat?

DFB: I’ve figured out that modern Chanel #5 bottles are not the same quality as the vintage ones. Buying vintage ones, which I usually buy on eBay, are so expensive that I started buying the modern ones. I’ve now gotten to the point where I’m casting the Chanel bottle. I’m basically extracting now, and they’re now even more removed from the real. They are becoming more complex and ambitious.

JH: So instead of just plunking objects into the resin, you are creating these entirely new objects based on the “real” ones to place in the bags? That is definitely more complicated.

DFB: It is a labor of love, the way I see it. I look at the Art Bags as a life project. They’re about my life, and they follow me. They go to places that I’d like to be right now—like Palm Beach. They hang out with the rich and famous.

JH: Yes, and as a woman, handbags have often defined my different life stages.

Reading your artist statement, you partly describe your work as a sort of mish-mash of immediate gratification and guilt. When you want something you say,  “Oh, I really want this.” Then you have whatever it is, and suddenly it isn’t quite as good as you thought it would be. For example, the Art Bag Yum is filled with gummy bears. They’re so pretty and sweet, and you can’t help but want them. But after you stuff yourself with them, you feel guilty. These grown up handbags contain almost childish contents.  There are a lot of complex ideas and emotions wrapped up in these Art Bags. Could you elaborate on that?

DFB: You think about being able to discreetly hide things in your purse, but these bags are open to scrutiny from the viewer. They let you into the secret psyche of this “person” who is really quite normal. But we don’t show all aspects of ourselves. These bags are stripped back to show our basic instincts—like the desire to have a gummy bear or a lollipop.  And there’s that funny feeling that you have when you’re a mother, and your son or daughter sticks their unwrapped lollipop in your handbag.  So you reach into your bag in some smart store, and there’s this sticky lollipop in your bag. There’s definitely a humorous aspect to the work. Also, the gummy bears are a very iconic shape, and I was playing with iconic shapes. I decided the handbag was an iconic shape, and being the artist, I wanted it to be my own iconic shape.

There’s a bit of a double entendre with the lollipop bag, Sucker, as well. There is a sexual innuendo to this title for a woman or for a man who may be buying a purse for his wife or lover. It plays with the notion of spending a lot on a designer bag that will be out of fashion next season. It begs the question, “Who’s the sucker here?”  He’s the sucker, and she’s the sucker. Even though it’s an innocent, little, childlike lollipop, it contains a whole world of meanings. I don’t know if that comes across in the work because I think people often take them at face value. “Oh, that’s pretty. That’s a cool object.” But there’s quite dark subject matter being explored with them as well.

JH: Absolutely—like with the one titled Apothecary that contains chemo supplies. The other bags have gummy bears, lollipops and My Little Ponies, but the chemo supplies are this grim reminder that a lot of the products of our culture are poisonous. It’s such a personal piece with the contents of your chemo cabinet. It hit me like a punch in the stomach.

DFB: Let me tell you, it does. Literally. We are all held together, whether we like it or not, by our medical system and our dependence upon pills for our survival. Apothecary 
pays homage to that.

JH: It’s an incredibly moving piece. Then I look at the bag called Gun with the Derringer. The point of putting a gun in a handbag is to keep it hidden and secret. Here it’s exposed.  I feel like women in particular are often the targets of our culture, both commercially and violently. There’s the idea of being protected by the gun, but there it is just out there for everyone to see.

DFB: You know, you usually find mace in the handbag. The gun is a little bit more extreme.

JH: Fair enough.

DFB: Gun is also a meta-narrative about our fears of terrorism.

JH: They look a lot like bags as they go through the x-ray machines at the airport. That is the very first thing I thought of when I saw these pieces.

DFB: Yes. In fact, I just had a client who bought a gun bag, a dollar bag, and the Flirt bag for his wife. That’s the one with the perfume and the pretty, little, pink hearts. It’s quite a sinister trio that he bought. The message is almost, “I love you, but don’t fuck with me.” People often buy the bags in sets, and they create their own narrative. I sold a piece with a watch, one with money, and the Apothecary piece. Those bags went together well, because if you can afford the private help you can keep yourself going with medical treatment and buy yourself some time. The combination of the three becomes a comment on time and our longevity. I suppose I deal with our mortality—my own mortality—quite predominantly in my work.

JH: Right, and all of these little objects in the bags—which aren’t necessarily meant to last for very long—are preserved forever in this resin.

DFB: Yes, and it elevates those objects’ status into “artwork.” Especially in that Duchampian Urinal way. I love Duchamp’s audacity to make people accept the everyday as high art.

JH: Do you view him as a kind of father of Pop Art?

DFB: Yes, and I most definitely love Pop Art. I lived in New York for a time, and I couldn’t get enough of it.  Living in New York was something that I’d wanted to do for a long time, and I would like to get back there someday—or way out West. I love America, and I suppose that is something that came to me as a child when I would visit the States with my father. He is one of my references for the gun piece, and that is something people would not know just by looking at the work.

As a child my father was obsessed with John Wayne and his movies, so he took my sister and I on these fly/drive trips to America. He would drag us around the O.K.  Corral. Two girls—we didn’t have too much interest in cowboys at the time, but we would go to the Grand Canyon or learn about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Now this will tell you something about how much the world has changed. He bought a holster with a load of bullets and some replica guns, and we carried them back to the U.K. in our normal luggage. You just couldn’t do that now.

JH: I really like NY-LON, the bag with the watches, which are both stopped at the same time in London and New York? Why did you stop them at the same time, and how did you pull that off? Did you go through the trouble of having someone in New York and someone in London with separate watches?

DFB: Oh, no. It’s about the tension and compression of time as well as the simultaneous lives being lived in different time zones. I actually made one that was stopped at 8:53 New York time, and it was a tribute to 9/11.  It was a moment like when John F. Kennedy was killed—everyone knows exactly where they were when they received that news. It became a marker in time.  For me this was a big marker in time, and though I didn’t lose anyone directly connected to myself, I felt a seismic shift in my life at that point. It was a very scary time, and I wanted to mark that moment when time stopped.

JH: So you were in New York at that time?

DFB: No, I was in a quarry on the Isle of Portland, and I was smashing away at this rock when my father called saying that this had happened. There was a moment where my father actually said, “It’s Armageddon. I don’t know what’s going to happen to us.” He said that because it was so traumatic being in England and receiving that news. Everyone was glued to the TV for hours. It was at that point where I decided to not go back to my office job again ever. I was going to go on to art school. That was the turning point where I said, “Who knows how long we’re here for?” It was then that I really understood the brevity of our lives, and I just wanted to commemorate that in a piece.

JH: That’s incredibly moving. I didn’t necessarily get that from the piece. I feel silly saying it now, but I was still thinking about it in terms of globalization and how our cultures are blending more and more as technology advances. Getting to hear your story makes this piece far more interesting and poignant than just that.

DFB: I think people underestimate the personal aspect of art, but it doesn’t matter what my thought process is. We’re free to read what we want into a piece. It matters in an interview because you have the opportunity to find out where a particular thought came from. But once the image goes out into the world, it becomes its own thing. That’s what I love about these pieces. They’re very much my own personal histories, and they are incredibly important things to me. I cherish making each piece about a particular thing, and after that it doesn’t matter. Of course, I would like for people to really understand everything about the work, but you can’t have that kind of control unless you’re really famous.

JH: It’s interesting what people will come up to you and say about your work.  What is the most surprising thing anyone has said about one of your pieces?

DFB: That’s a difficult question. One time somebody asked me to make a bag with a Chihuahua’s castrated balls in it.

JH: How did that go?

DFB: Well, we didn’t end up doing it. There was a discrepancy between what the husband wanted and what the wife wanted. It was quite funny, the thought of having this Chihuahua’s castrated balls in the Art Bag.

JH: Didn’t work out so well for the Chihuahua, either, I take it?

DFB: He lives a good life, the Chihuahua.

JH: You worked with Peter Gee. His work that I’ve seen is primarily these beautiful, simple, screen prints of abstract geometric shapes. What did you take away from working with him?

DFB: Color. He was amazing. It was an exceptionally fantastic point in my artistic discovery. It was a summer in between going to St. Martins, and I had just gotten married. I said to my husband, “Look, I want to go and intern for this master.” He was part of the Factory. He was there with Andy Warhol, and he was a phenomenal colorist. I mixed colors for hours and hours and hours with him. He loved Matisse, and he did these beautiful Matisse-like paintings. That’s where I was coming from, too. I actually stayed in Provincetown for a couple of months that summer. It was a very Bohemian time. He was extremely Bohemian, and he taught me what it was to be an artist and live an artist’s life. I got together with him and this group of Bohemians while I was down there. We even met Arthur Miller.  It was quite the time. There were about 4 of us, and we would go off at 4 a.m. and paint sunrises and sunsets. We would bike out with easels strapped to our backs. We thought we were the new Impressionists. I was totally about the color and paint, and I still do paint.

JH: Yes, I looked at your paintings on your website. They are reminiscent of Matisse, especially that first one on your site with the armchair and that little girl. It is called Peekaboo. I really like that piece.

DFB: Yes. That’s actually my favorite, too. I said to my web designer, I really want to take the rest off the site because that’s the direction my work is going in now.  I have another one. It’s a bikini girl. It’s like a combination of Matisse and Pop painting.

JH: It’s interesting. The aesthetic seems a bit different than your Art Bags. No pun intended, but the bags are so crystal clear, perfect, clean, and bright. The paintings are so brushy, gushy and lush in a very expressive way.

DFB: Yes, and I am in them, literally. Peekaboo—that’s me behind the sofa. Splash—that’s me behind the pool. That’s where I’m going with the paintings now. I’m stepping out from behind the handbag a little bit, and I’m featuring in my own paintings. But it’s me and it’s not me. I’d like to be that skinny, for one thing. It’s vain. It’s an “if I could, I would” sort of thing.

Speaking a little bit about vanity, there’s another handbag that’s full of these designer lipsticks. It’s about consumerism, and also so much of it is about moodiness and the subtle differences that we only notice as individuals. “I just have to have the latest shade of red. I just have to!”

JH: I’m a little bit of a lipstick fiend myself. A sort of bright, retro, glam red. That’s the one.

DFB: What kind of brands do you buy?

JH: I have a great Lancome lipstick, and then my other favorite is this cheap L’oreal or Revlon lipstick called British Red.

DFB: How cheeky—British Red. Many people send their empty lipstick containers to me. That’s another thing about the work. There is often such a personal connection to where some of the objects came from. I feel in terms of art and life that art is what marks moments of time in my life. With a painting or an Art Bag I can see where my time has gone. There’s some evidence that I’ve been here. I think it is very important to make work. I’m happiest when I’m making work.

JH: Going back to the people who purchase your work, you’ve mentioned that men are often buying these bags for their wives. There seems to be this masculine/feminine conflict with the people who are buying your work. I wouldn’t be surprised if men and women take away very different meanings.

DFB: Yes, the men feel comfortable with the bag with the gun in it. They’ll humor the wife, “You can have the handbag, and I’ll have the gun.”

JH: Yes, the “badass” one.

DFB: Or the bags with money. Occasionally they will buy one with the watch. These bags are very much items that couples will buy together as a sort of compromise. That is what relationships and marriage are about as well: compromise.

JH: I imagine that most of the purchasers of your work are fairly well-to-do married couples.

DFB: Absolutely, and a lot of times because it is so expensive to make some of these pieces, I used to mock them up beforehand and sell them as proposals. That’s how conceptual the whole thing was. They were a proposal for an Art Bag, which would get made when I ran into somebody who wanted to buy it. It started with a fantasy or phantom object. I sold the concept to clients and then I would have enough money to actually make it. The funny thing about the whole process is that everything that I make from the sale of an Art Bag goes straight back into making more Art Bags. There’s absolutely nothing that comes back to me, personally. It’s purely its own little universe.

A lot of it is a critique on commercialization and globalization. In the show, there will be big prints, like adverts, on acrylic panels. They’re literally like Prada adverts you would see at a high-end store. I call them my “Billboards.”

JH: So you show them together, the Art Bags and the Billboards?

DFB: Yes. The Billboards are big plexi-glass frames. They are about A1 sized, and they’ve got ten thousand LED lights behind them. These illuminated panels scream, “Hello, I’m here!”

JH: “Think about me! Buy me! Fantasize about me if you can’t afford me!”

DFB: Exactly. Another Art Bag I really like is the one with the butterflies called Duet. I was making those before butterflies were sort of everywhere. It was about, again, the brevity of life. To catch a moment of beauty and preserve it.  

JH: Are they actually found butterflies? Where did you get them?

DFB: There is a Butterfly World kind of place near where I live. At the end of the season they would give me a call, and they had all these dead butterflies for me in petri dishes. They were so beautiful, and I wanted to preserve them.

JH: I can imagine how beautiful they are to see from all different angles.

DFB: They are incredible. I also used to design wallpaper and fabric, so getting back to the Billboards, that’s how I got into that world. I won a Pop Art award at St. Martins, and this printing company named me Student of the Year. They loved my handbags, and they wanted to make a wallpaper out of the handbag design. So I was always in this commercial mindset. Then I was approached by Harvey Nichols. They asked to have this wallpaper and an installation of all the bags in the reception area of the store. My show was a kind of critique of consumerism, and it did beautifully. There was a lovely bit of text up on the wall about wanting to buy the same item over and over again. It’s like the Pringle factor, you can eat an entire can of Pringles, and yet you’re never satisfied. It’s the same desire to shop, buy, and keep consuming more and more. At the opening of my installation show, the head of the store came down and removed my text.

JH: That sounds typical.

DFB: We were both playing the same game. They wanted my work to make them look nice, and I wanted to place my artwork right in the heart of the emporium of consumerism. It just had to be a little bit subtler. That’s when I realized that I didn’t want to go down that route, and the only place to show my work was in the gallery context. It’s the only place where I could say what I really wanted to say. JH: Exactly—and without having to please the corporate sponsor. These places like to look really smart while remaining somewhat shallow.

DFB: Yes, sprinkle a little bit of art in there to make them look good. I had to send a few bags up to New York for Vogue Italian, who was doing a cover story with Steven Meisel.  They wanted to use them in a story. They have quite a jet-set lifestyle, these bags. 

This interview was originally posted at Unframed, an online artist-lead gallery dedicated to the celebration of art and creativity. Find out more about Debra Franses-Bean on her website.

Art Biz Blog OR How I Learned to Love the Mailing List

Recently I was invited by Jean R. Wilkey to a meet-and-greet in Albuquerque, which was hosted by Art Biz Blog's fabulous Alyson Stanfield. Everyone brought a piece and gave a brief description of it in front of the group. What a pleasant surprise to see a photo of myself in Alyson's e-newsletter! I look like I'm talking about an enormous hamburger that I just ate (or like a python who hasn't finished digesting a baby elephant), but I learned a valuable lesson: skinny jeans and poofy blouses are a no-no. The red shoes, however...are a yes-yes. I also learned that I should have a mailing list and remind people that I am alive and still making artwork. So there you go. Take a look at the bottom of the blog to subscribe to my new mailing list. I'll use it to let you know what is happening in the art section of Jenni Land.

Some more work for sale!

There are new pieces up in the shop this week! Check them out!
Contact me at if you want to find out poster prices.

The Estranged Store

I have opened an online store! I will switch out the items every week, so check the store every week for the rest of your life, okay?

Up for Adoption.
End her life of crime.

Jean Reece Wilkey's Painting Studio

As promised, here is the studio of painter Jean Reece Wilkey. She is a true collector of objects, and every piece is significant to her and her process.

Both "Pig Boy" and "Bunny Mask" here have made it into some of Jean Wilkey's paintings. Her work explores the proliferation of animal imagery in our culture, yet our experience of actual animals is often extremely removed.

If you got to see our exhibition "Out of Place" at Unsettled Gallery, then you will recognize some of the objects from these still life setups. The photos below show one these paintings in progress!

To see some more of what Jean is up to, check out her blog! Or look at her small works gallery here!

My Studio is Trying to Kill Me!

Photograph by Jenni Higginbotham
It looks about like this.  Okay, I am joking about my studio trying to kill me, but the kitchen technically is in the back half of my studio. So maybe I'm eating chemicals every time we cook. Anyway, since I can't move the kitchen out of my studio, I need to do something to spruce things up. Every time I finish a project or exhibition, I clean the studio and "reset" for the next project.  I need some inspiration! What kinds of things do you use in your creative spaces? You don't have to be a painter. Do you sew? Do you...I don't hammers? Show me where you work—I'll post your images on the blog if you so desire. Email pics to me at

A Hint...a Peek!

The installation of Indra's Net is going well! We finished the grid on Saturday, and the paintings are all ready to hang.

Photograph by Jean Wilkey.

 In this photo I am pretending that I am unaware of Jean Wilkey taking my picture. I am finishing up a section of the grid with a gold paint pen. While this photo might appear to contradict the following information, my dirty jeans actually aren't that dirty according to this article.

Photograph by Jean Wilkey.

Here are all of my little 4 x 4 inch drawings and paintings! They will be for sale, so come by and look at them in person at the show at the Las Cruces Museum of Art on Friday, August 3rd from. The opening is from 5-7 pm.

More about the show!

As you possibly can tell, I am getting very excited about this upcoming Praxis Collective show at the Las Cruces Museum of Art.   Here is a link to the Praxis Collective's blog! Jean Reece Wilkey wrote this last post, and I really like what she said about everyone's work.

The show opens next Friday, August 3rd. If you are in or near Las Cruces, I hope to see you there! As soon as the show is up, there will be many images to post. Now run! Run! Run!

Praxis Collective

I am part of an artist group called the Praxis Collective. Our second group show, Indra's Net, will open at the Las Cruces Museum of Art on August 3rd. This installation has taken a lot of effort to organize, and will take even more effort to install! Track the development of this ambitious project at our blog,

Jean Reece Wilkey | Kiwi on Cork | Oil on Panel | 4 x 4 inches

The Wall Breakers

The Wall Breakers is a new art, culture and literature website designed to give inspiration to other artists. If you've gotten lost for an hour or two on, then you will enjoy as well. They even have a detective noir serial that they post to every week! Brilliant. So brilliant that my work is featured on their site today! The Wall Breakers: Jenni Higginbotham

My Interview with Joan Watts for New American Paintings

A Conversation with Joan Watts about “Poems and More” at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art by New American Paintings

This June, Charlotte Jackson Fine Art exhibited a new body of work by painter Joan Watts. Watts has been painting since the 1960s, and she has managed to successfully forge a singular path throughout the waxing and waning of art market trends and historical movements. Charlotte Jackson has represented Watts for several years now, and she is the rare kind of art dealer who supports the essential changes and developments of her artists.

This particular exhibition featured over twenty new paintings. The progression from previous work to this group of paintings shows a distinct progression towards a more dynamic aesthetic. For the last several years, fields of light and color have comprised her paintings, allowing subtle gradations of tonal values to create a transient light-filled space on the surface of the canvas. Similarly, these paintings are explorations of light and space, but there are some marked differences that move the work into new territory.

Joan Watts | Installation shot of Diamond 1 and Diamond 2, each oil on canvas, 51 x 51 inches

JH: How does this body of work differ from previous shows?

JW: It was in the last show two years ago in which I began to work with the partial circles. And that has been evolving ever since. The first series of paintings were 24 inches square. In the last two years, I’ve decided that I am still very fond of the square because of the neutrality and the equilibrium of it. On the other hand, I also decided to turn the square on a point and make it a diamond.

JH: What made you decide to do that?

JW: Well, it was a spontaneous thing. I did that in the studio, then I lived with one of them turned that way for a while. It took me a long time to decide that I would deliberately do a few that were diamonds because that is a very dynamic shape. The moment that you take a square and turn it on a point, it becomes very dynamic—a shaped canvas. I spent a long time living with the diamond on my studio wall to try and decide if I wanted to carry on with this shape, and eventually I did, of course. So, this show not only has the squares, but some of the diamonds. The show carries on with the partial circle concept, which I am very engaged with. I love the way in which the partial circle extends beyond the confines of the canvas—the way the viewer completes the form of the circle in their mind.

JH: You really get a sense that it is a space you are visually going into. There is something in the shadow, which presumably continues beyond the edges of the canvas as well, and then the light. It is your imagination that fills it all in. With your take on Minimalism, how do you feel about this imaginative aspect of your work?

JW: Well, I think that it’s interesting that you bring up the Minimalist concept. I would call myself more of—if I have to come up with a label—a Reductionist as opposed to a Minimalist. You know I was living in New York at the time of real Minimalism, and my work has a whole lot going on by comparison. At the same time, I am very attracted to reducing the means by which I create.

Sometimes this word “Minimalism” is just thrown around, but as you know from art history, it really does refer to a particular movement in time. Also that work is more conceptual as opposed to perceptual. I feel my work has references, and the intent of my work is to engage the viewer and to draw them into the space. There are lots of ways in which I am attempting to engage the viewer. I don’t think that was really one of the goals of Minimalism. It is important to distinguish.

On the other hand, I have reduced the elements with which I work greatly, and that has been a process I have been going through ever since I moved to New Mexico in 1986 and began working with the landscape. You can see this work in my book with Radius Books. You can also see in the book that my work with the landscape became more and more reduced until eventually it was land and sky, then eventually the land disappeared, and it became all sky.

JH: We started to talk about how you have limited or reduced your methods. When did you start really enforcing these limitations?

JW: Well I think “enforce” is not a good word. In no way do I enforce anything upon myself when I am in the studio. My studio practice relates very much to my Buddhist practice, so it is very much a form of meditation when I am in the studio. One has to make certain initial decisions such as, “is it going to be a square? What size do I want it to be?” You have to start somewhere. If I am working on a piece with a partial circle, I actually use a blackboard ruler to precisely draw the circle.

JH: Right on the surface of the painting?

JW: Right on the painting. And once those technical decisions are made, I try to just let it fly. I just pick up certain colors to which I am attracted. My palette is a big table with lots of tubes of paint.

JH: I really like that you call those smaller paintings “Poems.”  Could you talk about that a little bit?

JW: I would never have done those small 12-inch square paintings (a few of those are diamonds, too) had I not seriously injured my back about a year and a half ago. I was doing way too much hiking in the mountains. I was sometimes hiking all day long because it was such a beautiful Fall, and one day I sprained the ligaments in my lower back. It was very painful, and it has taken a very long time to heal. It really affected everything. I had to stop painting for a couple of months because I have concrete floors. I do a lot of walking around when I’m working. I paint both on sawhorses, horizontally, and up on the wall, vertically. So if I’m painting on the sawhorses, I am leaning over. I found that I just couldn’t work at all, and I was getting crazy with that. So, I asked myself, “What if I start working really small, so there’s not any real problem lifting it up and putting it on the wall or taking it off of the sawhorses?” I needed something I could manage and spend less time walking around on the concrete floor. So, I began these small pieces and became quite engaged with them. At first it was very frustrating because I had never worked on board before. These are masonite with gesso.

JH: The larger paintings are all canvas?

JW: Yes, I have always worked on canvas—sometimes on paper. I’ve never worked on board. There’s no give to it. There’s no texture to it. I didn’t know what to do with it. I messed around a long time trying to figure out what I could do with this surface. Then at a certain point one of them worked. It’s actually the one in the show that’s called Poem I. That was the first piece I knew I had a breakthrough with, and I knew I could work with this.

Joan Watts | Poem 1, 2010, oil on board, 12 x 12 inches
The other challenging aspect of the small ones is—they’re small! Small is cute. As soon as you put something small up on the wall—it can have nothing on it, it can be blank—it looks cute. I don’t want to do cute work. It is quite a challenge to do very small work, which I didn’t realize. I’ve never been engaged with small work before, and I thought, “Wow. I don’t know if I can do this.” But because I had the back issue, I pursued it because that is what I could physically do at the time. Then I realized I could make something strong on a small scale.

The reason I go into length about this is because these pieces never would have happened if I hadn’t seriously injured my back. Though I don’t wish that on anybody, I can see something positive came out of it. At a certain point, I reached a stage at which I could continue with the larger pieces. I saved about 20 of the small ones that I decided were okay, but I stopped doing them when my back had recovered. I have no idea whether or not I’ll ever make small pieces again.

Joan Watts | Installation shot of Poems, photo courtesy of Charlotte Jackson Fine Art
That is also a part of my process— not knowing. Not knowing is part of my Buddhist practice as well. I begin a series. I have no idea where it’s going. I have no idea how many will be in that series. If I’m lucky I get engaged. Then at a certain point it seems finished and I’ll move on to something else.

Now this show [at Charlotte Jackson’s] was not intended to be as diverse as it is. We’re talking about very small 12 inch canvases, and larger pieces that are 36 inches square, and also the diamonds. So there is a diversity which makes the work interesting, I think. And I didn’t know that would happen. It was not planned. Nothing that happens in my studio is planned. There is a point in the studio in which I am ready to take a pause. It is at this point that I call Charlotte Jackson to come down to my studio because I enjoy her feedback. She has a marvelous eye, and we have a great relationship. We have great discussions when she comes to the studio. Most of the time I am working very much alone, and I am not interested in showing the work to other people while working. This is really important for me. I live alone. I’m solitary. I’m sure that is one reason why I settled on painting as opposed to a performance art, let’s say. For instance, my mother wanted me to be a pianist like she was.

JH: How long do you think it took you before you got into a rhythm of knowing yourself and your process—knowing how you work?

JW: That’s an interesting question because that, in and of itself, was a process. There was the student work, which was not included in the book. When I talked with David Chickey [Radius Books publisher] about the book, we chose one particular piece from 1965 to start. That was the first piece that started me working in a series. I was at the University of Hawaii for my graduate work, and I have been working in a series ever since.

JH: I was wondering about whether or not you had always worked in a series.

JW: No. I had eight years of experimenting with my work. I went to the Art Institute at the time. Abstract Expressionism was really the big deal. And then, as you know, there was a backlash in the art world against the gestural aspect of Abstract Expressionism. Then we have the introduction of the minimal and the suppression of gesture. That’s an interesting point for me because, as you saw in the book, there are some early pieces that are hard edge. Now I am allowing myself to use gesture a little bit.

Jh: Yes, I noticed that there is a softness to the pieces. They undulate—they are diffused.

JW: My background was first in gestural abstraction, then in a rejection of it and moving onto hard edge abstraction in which gesture is completely suppressed. Now much later in life, I’m allowing gesture to return in a quiet way. It’s a big deal for me since I suppressed this for such a long time.

Joan Watts | Poem 13 (detail), 2011, oil on board, 17 x 17 inches
JH: Was it mostly because of the stigma of painterly work not being taken seriously?

JW: I do think that was happening, and I think that goes back to your question of the evolution of a younger artist to a mid career artist—and now I’m an older artist. As a younger artist I experimented a lot, and I think that was very important. Then I was teaching for a while, and I wanted the students to do what they wanted. However the student wanted to evolve was the way in which I tried to encourage them as a teacher. That was the challenge, finding out together with the student what they would be doing. Not what I am doing—what they are doing. Then came a period when I was living on the east coast, and I began doing more and more paintings in a series. I gained more focus. It has been that way ever since.

JH: Why did you call the small paintings poems? Do you think of them in a literary way?

JW: Well, no. I choose a title for a series once I’ve begun a series. I don’t know how many it’s going to be before I finish a series. I’m really not into the literary in regard to the visualization of the work. Choosing a title is very difficult for me because I don’t want to suggest too much. I want the viewer to be engaged from the perceptual and visual point of view. My work is not at all conceptual, although we can’t turn off our brains. I mean, we’re conceptualizing the work right now!

JH: Oh, yes. I go into a show like yours and my mind goes all over the place. I like that you say that your work is perceptual instead of conceptual. Anything in art that evokes an imaginative response, or gives us a sense of imaginative gratification, spins off of that first physical perception of the work. You mentioned that you were hiking too much and that your work is based in some way on the landscape. Do you just go outside and sit and observe? Soak it all in? Do you make sketches?

JW: People often ask if I do drawings. I don’t do any drawings anymore. I used to, but now I just absorb the experience. For example, in January I went with a friend to Mexico. We got a cottage right on the ocean. There was a shelf where the waves were breaking. Unfortunately, you couldn’t swim, but you could hear the waves crashing all day and all night. I listened to that for two weeks, and I watched—just watched. As you know, there’s a wavy action in the work, now. I view waves as everything—particles and waves. I think waves are the essence of everything. It is wonderful that we can sometimes be by the ocean and see, feel, listen, smell and take in the actual, constantly changing waves. On the other hand, I can also look at the sky and watch the clouds that also have these wavy gestures to them. Waves remind me of light, sound and our inner beings. However, I am not trying to paint oceanscapes, wavy gesture or not.

JH: [laughs] Well, I don’t think of them as being oceanscapey in the least.

JW: Well, good! I’m glad to hear that because I am a little afraid that when I allow these waves to appear in the work that people are going to say, “Oh, these are all about the ocean.” I view the wave gesture much more broadly and much more deeply.

JH: I feel like these spotlight paintings don’t have the sort of slowness that the vertical pieces do—the ones that fade from dark to light slowly to the top. I imagine the light could move in a different direction at any moment. There is a quickness of movement to them that is not present in the vertical pieces.

JW: They are more active.

Joan Watts | Installation shot of Poem 20, 2011, oil on board, 12 x 12 inches & Untitled 11, 2010, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches
JH: In other words, my perception of these pieces is that time has sped up a little bit.

JW: Yes. It has a lot to do with the wave gesture that we’re talking about here, and my allowing that wave action to appear. I mentioned earlier that I suppressed that for a long time. In the earlier vertical pieces that you’re talking about, I worked very hard to not allow the gestural aspect of applying paint to come into the work. These new pieces are prepared with gesso in a different way. The earlier work was applied with rather thick gesso with the human hand that allowed a very subtle shake to the surface. A little pulse—not a wave, really. But on the other hand, the long vertical ones are six feet tall. I thought of them more in relationship to the human body, and I like them to be placed maybe three or four inches off the ground. They are like a door or something. Charlotte calls them portraits, and it’s not a bad word because it’s the relationship of an upright, vertical being in relation to something that’s approximately the same size. Now I am more interested in the square now because it is so neutral.

Joan Watts | Installation shot
JH: It’s very harmonious and peaceful, and I think it balances the dynamic light shapes.  When did you start thinking about your paintings exclusively in terms of light, shadow and shape?

JW: Very interesting question. When I think back to that piece, the first one in the book from 1965, White Circle, it is hard edge. It’s a white circle, and its edges are black. Within that piece is that hard edge symbolism. You saw there was a whole period in which I was just working with circles. I would say the circle and the color white have always been a part of my work.

JH: Were you Buddhist then around 1965?

JW: No. That didn’t begin happening for me until 1989.

JH: I think your work has always had a very spiritual aspect to it. Did you think of your work that way, then?

JW: I think I was looking for the spiritual. I didn’t necessarily know that, but I was always wandering around in the painting surface looking for it. I’m still looking that way, but in regard to a practice, eventually I came to Buddhism. But you’re right, and I’m glad you see that and feel that aspect of my work. From a very early age I was looking for something, and that could be related to the spiritual realm.

JH: Do you feel like being in New Mexico has been a part of that journey?

JW: Yes, very much so.

JH: What do you think it is about New Mexico? I love asking that question, because people gravitate to this state and this climate.

JW: I am originally from Florida.

JH: It really is so different here, and there is something about the sort of starkness that effects people, especially if you don’t come from the desert.

JW: Well, as I said I was born and raised in Florida a long time ago when there wasn’t any air conditioning, and there was something called “polio.”  So my parents used to send my brothers away to camp in summer, and take off with a trailer. And I was quite a bit younger than my brothers, so I was hauled around since I was a baby every single summer. I saw a lot of the country. One of the places they liked to visit was Santa Fe. I never forgot that. Other places were Colorado, California, etcetera, but they came through Santa Fe often. As I got older, I began to take vacations out here. Then I had this idea that I’d retire out here, but I thought that would be later in life. Then I was in New York, and I had a loft in SoHo. I had a wonderful time in the ‘70s and ‘80s when things were just so. I moved here in 1986. Things had started to fall apart in New York. SoHo was becoming full of boutiques, Chelsea was becoming the place where contemporary art was. The art marketplace was taking over. In other words, there were lots of changes that didn’t appeal to me. Rather suddenly, I decided that I’d had enough of that. Done. “I’m going to move to New Mexico.”

It utterly changed my life. What I didn’t know was that I was going to be so impacted by the landscape and the light. That’s why I stopped doing the circular canvases entirely when I moved out here. I actually have a lot of them sitting in my garage. I brought a lot of the circular frames with me, and I’ve never done one since. I moved here and it was all about the landscape and the light. I just had to deal somehow with this landscape, which as you know has a tremendous impact.

The light is so clear at this altitude, and in New York I couldn’t even see the moon. So much that you can’t see in New York was revealed to me here. It became about the sense of spaciousness and not being in canyons of buildings any longer. I guess I started off with the landscape, but it just gradually became—now I don’t want to say minimal—“reduced” to certain elements. People sometimes ask me if I would make these paintings in New York, and I say absolutely not.

JH: Do you think it matters that you came from somewhere totally different from New Mexico?

JW: Maybe if I was born here I wouldn’t understand the contrast as much, but that also means when I first came here that I had several years of frustration with my work. I knew I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing in New York. It didn’t have any relationship to where I had put down my new roots. I went through quite a few years of once again experimenting with this, experimenting with that, and figuring out where I was going to go in terms of my work. It has been a very gradual evolution. It eventually came down to the most important elements: light and spaciousness.

 JH: I have one question about the Channel Pieces. I know these aren’t in the show, but are these reminiscent of channels of water, electronics or wavelengths?

JW: There you are again with the wavelengths—I like that you introduced that. After a period of time of doing the verticals, I thought, “Okay, well why don’t I just turn it horizontally. The moment you do that, it relates to the landscape just the way the vertical shape relates to the human body. So I’m back into landscape again just because of the shape. At that point I was involved in my spiritual practice, so I began to see that there’s a channel of energy in all of us and in everything. That channel can go up and down in a vertical, but it also be represented horizontally.

JH: Technologically, the way we have come to think about wavelengths is by our visual representations of them, which seem to always be horizontal and from side to side.

JW: That’s a very good point. The longer this evolves on some unconscious level for me, it takes someone like you to see it and discuss it with me to help me see, because it’s not conceptual while I am working on it

JH: I think you solved the challenge of the horizontal landscape in an interesting way because the light fades in towards the center. I think it definitely creates more of a light continuum than a horizon line. In fact, it’s not a horizon line at all to me.

JW: You’re right, it is more of a continuum of light. But we can’t escape the fact that there’s an implicit kind of endless horizon. Just as the circles now go off the edge of the canvas, so I felt that these channels of light would appear to go out past the canvas. By collapsing the light channel to the middle, it creates quite a different perception, which was the challenge.

With each of these series, it is very important that I become engaged with whatever I am doing. I think, “Oh, I could try this for a while.” Whatever “this” is, if it begins to engage me and make me feel passionate enough to go into the studio each day, then it is successful. I am so grateful that after all these years I am still passionate about my work. I’m not tired of doing it.

JH: A lot of people burn out.

JW: Or they start repeating themselves. There has been a lot of variation in my work over the years, so I’m not making recipes, which is often what artists do after a while!

JH: A little dash of this element, a little dash of this element, and you have a genuine “me” work of art. There, that was easy.

JW: We see a lot of that!

JH: I think a lot of times some schools force people to work that way. You have to have a body of work right now, and you have to defend it with a few words as opposed to the work being able to speak for itself in a more complex way.

JW: I don’t even bother reading about art anymore. The “artspeak” doesn’t appeal to me. I’m very fortunate to be represented by Charlotte Jackson, who has been very supportive of all the changes that have occurred in my work over the years. I think in some cases, a gallery can get hung up on something you’re selling, and they want that artist to repeat that because they can sell it. There’s a lot of pressure on the artist to repeat the recipe because it’s selling. I’ve known quite a few artists who have had to drop certain galleries because they had to make a body of new work that was no longer acceptable to that gallery. So I feel very grateful that I have a gallerist that is supportive of the changes that happen in my work over the last several years.

Joan Watts | Installation Shot of main gallery, photo courtesy of Charlotte Jackson Fine Art

Joan Watts has been painting since the 1960s, and has had numerous solo exhibitions around the country since her first show in 1968. She has lived in New York City and Hawaii, and has made her home in the Santa Fe, New Mexico, area for over twenty years. Her work is held in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, among other institutions.


It's new. It's at Volo Gallery in Santa Fe. The grand opening is this Friday, June 22nd from 5-7pm. Come see it if you can!

As promised...

Slight pause in the story of the Jenni Dogs, here. I finally photographed the piece that I showed in the After Hours Alliance Progressive Arts Fair. It is now proudly hanging on a gallery wall in downtown Santa Fe. When the gallery opens I'll post a link to their website!

Advent | Charcoal on paper | 72 x 88 inches


The vessel was swept about for days and days, the kelp forest tugging and pulling the boat along with the currents.  The crew had the worst case of sea sickness you could imagine. They had given up trying to maintain control of the boat and they drifted haplessly at the whim of the sea. The Jenni Dog captain was gacking over the side of the boat (yes they are both breathing under water and sailing on top of the water at the same time—IT'S JUST A STORY) when she was thrown overboard by a violent crash.

The captain awoke to find herself and the boat crumpled on a rocky shore. She shook the water from her fur and trotted over to the boat. Most of the crew survived, but there was another Jenni Dog she didn't recognize. A stowaway? On her ship? Well, she couldn't worry about that at the moment. "Surviving this situation is tantamount!"

She assembled a reconnaissance party while the other Jenni Dogs worked to repair the tears in the ship with lots of Scotch tape. The pack climbed over rocks and enormous slabs of broken concrete. It quickly became apparent that they were not the first dogs to set foot on this land. As they climbed the rubble, evidence of the island's previous inhabitants emerged. Rusty pieces of electronics mingled with broken bits of sculpture and pottery. It seemed oddly familiar, though they had never been here before. At the crest of a mound of rocks they were stopped by an awe inspiring and frightening sight—the largest dog they had ever seen. The beast towered over them like a sphinx, neither moving nor making a sound.

Classic humor

Oh, dear. It looks as if someone sent themselves to the brig, after all. This is the loyal first mate. She and the captain have been the best of friends for ages. Oh, the pranks! One time she put fake dog poop by the captain's desk. Bad captain! What a laugh they had over that one. Stealing the sea charts and throwing them overboard, while hilarious at the time, didn't have the lasting humor she'd hoped for. Now look at their situation. Doomed! I wonder what happened to that scout...

I'm my toughest critic. Wait, no I'm not.

Well, no one volunteered to walk the plank. Darn! Why won't this crew cooperate?! Just as the captain is devising some other form of voluntary self-punishment for the mutinous crew, the ship gets sucked into a massive tangle of sea weed.

Mutinous Mondays!

Uh-oh! The captain found the cache of missing biscuits, overheard the grumbling and noticed the poisonous sideways glances. "Enough! There will be no mutiny on my shipeven if it does happen to be Mutiny Monday! Who wants to walk the plank?" 

Tribute to Maurice Sendak

Sheila Newbery, I/Eye: On Photography, introduced me to Maurice Sendak's book Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must be More to Life early this week. Like everyone else, I knew him for Where the Wild Things Are. Very strangely, Maurice passed away just a few hours after Sheila told me about this particular book. Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must be More to Life is about a discontented little dog named Jennie who believes that there is more to life than what she already has. She eats everything in her path, and she wants to be the leading lady in a play. However, she must gain experience before she can become the leading lady. After all, there must be more to life than having everything.

Jennie stuffing a baby in a bag. You have to read the book yourself to know why.

It's all true, folks.

Look what the Jenni Dog dragged in!

Here's something the Jenni Dogs dregged from the sea floor today. What could it possibly be?