Name: Jessica Wohl
Current Location: Sewanee, TN
Education: BFA: Kansas City Art Institute MFA: University of Georgia
Preferred Medium(s): Collage, Quilting, Painting, Drawing
Children (ages and genders): 20-month old boy
Website address(es): jessicawohl.com, @jessicawohlstudio (Instagram)
What is your background (where are you from, education, important details, where are you now, etc.)?
I’m originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I spent 8 years in Kansas City, then moved to the South. I lived in Athens, GA for 3 years and then have been in Sewanee ever since. I got my BFA in Illustration and Art History, but consider myself more of a fine artist. Even though I got my MFA in drawing and painting, most of my work now uses those fields as groundwork for collage and fabric based media. Currently, I’m an Associate Professor at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
Was there any part of your formal or non-formal training that prepared you for being a creative maker and mother simultaneously?
Oh, I’m sure it all has in one way or another. I think multitasking, problem solving and being efficient were all things that my education in art school prepared for me for as a mother. Time management is the one thing that really allows me to balance my academic career with my personal career in the studio, and finding creative ways to produce, while I can’t physically get into the studio because of my jobs as a mother and professor can all be attributed to the things I learned in art school.
Are there any women that you find to be an inspiration for you as an artist/mother?
Janine Antoni is right up there at the top of my list. Her work is so perfectly poetic and tender, and she can so succinctly get to the absolute essence of what is such an intertwined relationship between mother and child.
Also, any mother out there who has found a way to maintain a consistent and productive studio practice while in the process of teaching full time in academia and earning tenure. My hat goes off to you.
Can you talk about how you balance your role of artist and the role of mother? Did you take time off after the birth of your children? How did that work? What about childcare? How did you navigate making artwork?
To be honest, I have to add into the mix the roles of being a wife and a professor as well because it’s really all four roles that I continually try to balance. The logistics are that I was fortunate enough to go on a sabbatical that coincidentally coincided with my entire pregnancy. Knowing that I would become a mother just after my sabbatical concluded kept me extraordinarily focused, and allowed me to produce an insane amount of work, while pregnant, that I’m still benefiting from and showing two years later. Following the sabbatical, I took a 4-month maternity leave, and when I went back to work full time, we had our son in daycare Monday–Friday, 8 a.m–5 p.m.
Balancing these roles is the essential challenge for me. Since having a baby, my studio work suffers greatly during the academic year; I’m lucky if I get one full studio day in a week. But I find that there are other ways for me to be productive. Sometimes I’ll happen to wake up before my family, and I just lay in bed and focus on idea generation. It’s quiet, my mind is clear and I do some of my best conceptualization in these in-between times. I’ll make lots of notes, so when I do get in the studio, I can hit the ground running and produce work immediately.
The thing that is perhaps hardest for me to balance, or overcome, that I still am challenged by day after day, is the notion that in order for me to get committed, focused time in the studio, it’s my husband who often bears this load. My time in the studio equates to his parenting duty. When I think of all the times I’ve traveled to exhibitions and artist talks, conferences and visiting artist gigs, it’s my husband’s carrying out of the parenting in my absence that allows me to take advantage of these opportunities. I think about my male colleagues with children who have extraordinary careers as artists and academics, and I find that they often have spouses that frequently take on the childcare duties so they can be in the studio and travel for their studio practice. I constantly wonder about this with my fellow artists in academia: who bears the responsibility of parenting while we’re in the studio? I just don’t know how to come to terms with the notion that my need to produce work is very frequently done so on the back of my husband.
I believe that Lenka Clayton broke ground for mother artist and offered us the opportunity to reclaim our time with kids and studio back for ourselves. I know you participated in your version of her project, The Artist Residency in Motherhood. Could you talk about being part of this project in your own space? How did it shift your making and thinking? What was your take away from the residency experiment?
The ARIM was a game-changer for me, and technically my residency concludes this August, so I’m still participating. This residency gave me permission to think and work differently about my practice. It made me feel okay for not working in the studio as much as I did before becoming a parent, and gave me a sense of validation for my work to take forms that I wouldn’t have considered substantial enough in other circumstances. The digital collage series Compositions has allowed me to use my iphone to make work, so that the completion of a piece takes minutes, not hours, weeks or months. These digital collages became my way of reassuring and convincing myself that my time spent outside of the studio was just as important as the time I would otherwise have spent within it.
I still don’t know that I’ve mastered the marriage of actual parenting duties with my studio practice. In many ways, my work in this residency is inspired by my role as a parent, and when I’m working on the Compositions series, I can make that work while I’m pretty much anywhere, doing anything. But I still haven’t found a way to fully incorporate the time spent with my son into my actual studio practice. I’m going to keep trying though.
My take away, thus far, is that perhaps with a shorter amount of time (my residency was 15 months) I would be able to stay a bit more focused. I think with this much time, I allowed myself to stray off my commitment a bit from time to time. But I am so moved and inspired by what Clayton has done for working mothers. Once I can get my head above water again, when my son gets just a bit older and more self sufficient, I can only hope that I continue to use my work as a way to discuss the issues that so many artist mothers encounter.
As an artist you use the idea of home and neighborhood in your work. Has your perception of this concept shifted since becoming a mother? How do these spaces feel when they are shared? In our present American context where do you see this notion taking your work in the future?
Since becoming a mother, my interest in the home and neighborhoods has indeed continued, and will continue to do so. Now I think about these spaces not so much as how they are shared within our family, but what the impact is on our children when their exposure is limited to their neighborhood or immediate community. I think about how the separation of people and communities along racial and class lines nurtures the mindsets of our youth, and what kinds of choices families will make about the spaces they live in based on the well being of their children.
Really though, my work has shifted dramatically since becoming a mother in that for the first time, I’m making work about the body. I’ve never been interested in this concept in my own work, but after growing a person, and experiencing the degree to which my body was needed to sustain my son, an entire new body of work was born. I’ve only made three paintings about it so far, but there is more to come.
Through the work you make I really enjoy seeing a commitment to handwork. Why is working this way important? Is it still relevant today? What can hand skills teach makers and viewers of your work?
Besides my inherent gravitation toward it, the embroidery and hand-cut components are evidence of a slow kind of work that implies care. Not just care in my own craftsmanship, but care as a concept in general. When we take our precious time to slowly create what could otherwise be made quickly through a technological device, we are saying that this object, this message that is sewn– this blanket that is made– is worth my time. Is worth caring about. Matters.
In addition, handiwork allows for small tweaks, flaws and errors to be not only visible, but valued. It’s important that we acknowledge that we are not perfect individuals; we are flawed and make mistakes. These errors should be embraced, not reviled. If I err, or leave evidence of a mistake I made, a problem I encountered that I solved, the work is revealing, rather than deceiving. It’s honest. It’s important that my work address that reality; life isn’t glossy and picture-perfect. It’s lovely and messy and quirky, and handiwork leaves room for those associations.
Are there any projects, hobbies, or activities (ex. Running, knitting, tea connoisseur, arts organizations, volunteering, etc.) outside of your artistic practice that you feel passionately about? What are they? Do you find that they feed your practice? If so how?
Oh, I wish I had a hobby besides my studio work, but the truth is, it’s been an entire academic year since I’ve even read a book for pleasure. Exercise was the first thing to be cut out of my life once I became a parent, and with that came any amount of time spent doing pleasurable things for myself besides spending time in the studio and getting my hair cut and colored twice a year.
I am passionate, however, about initiatives on campus that promote inclusion, diverse thinking, equity and cultural competency. Two years ago I was trained in dialogue facilitation, with the hopes of both teaching and leading dialogues on divisive issues such as race, class, politics, religion, etc. I have devoted a good bit of time to events that center around these practices.
I also really love to eat. I live on a plateau in rural Tennessee, and quality restaurants are sparse. So I do try to indulge in good food by driving to larger cities on the weekends. Can you call that hobby?
Anything else we should know or be on the lookout for in the near future?
I’ve got a number of exhibitions coming up in the coming months: Thoughts and Prayers, a two-person show with Linda Lighton at Weinberger Fine Arts’ Drawing Room in Kansas City, Missouri opens this Friday, May 11 and runs through the middle of July, I’ll have a piece in the show Making Change: The Art and Act of Craftivism at the Museum of Design Atlanta, two works in the exhibition Home Tour at the Albany Museum of Art in Albany, Georgia, and a solo exhibition at the Hillel at UCLA in the fall.
Finally just for fun. If you were to make a playlist today what would be your top 5 favorite songs?
- Off to the Races, Lana Del Ray
- Cranes in the Sky, Solange
- Hey Mr. DJ, Zhane
- King Kunta, Kendrick Lamar
- Better Be Good to Me, Tina Turner
In that order.