Other Investigations: Jessica Bell

Vancouver-based artist Jessica Bell gives us some insight into her practice. Jessica was previously featured on Make Space last September (here).

On collecting and process:

I am a big information collector. I would say, apart from the collection of material, deliberately collecting information is the most significant aspect of my creative practice. When my work isn’t going well, or has become anemic, it is always because I have neglected to spend time on information gathering. Over the past three years the main way I have done this is through self-initiated photo projects. The first was a 365-day daily photo blog called ‘onesee project’. At the moment I keep a secondary blog site called ‘what it is to be in it’. These photo projects are completely self-serving; I don’t think of myself as a photographer in the least; rather, these photos are notetaking techniques for me, research projects where I find out what it is I am actually interested in. The decision to put these notes in the public sphere is an accountability thing for me. If I did it in secret, I suspect I would be less committed to it. Even the possibility that someone might be looking at them makes me more consistent and more committed to the process.

Cloud Study
Cloud Study

The importance of these photo notes for me is less conceptual than it is compositional. I have a strong design bent; colour, shape, form and balance are like my bread and water. The chance to turn my camera on what is around me and to edit into a rectangular frame what is good and pleasing and makes aesthetic sense to me feeds directly into the aesthetic decisions I make in my work.

When I am ‘in production’ which is how I think of my dedicated work times, I am extremely conscious of producing a ‘body of work’. I work in clumps; there is a clear progression between the time I spend collecting information and the time I spend responding to it. A former school mate told me that I look at my work like an art historian. (I have a BA in Art History). I think she meant that I see works in conversation chronologically and am very conscious of it.

Likewise, within a body of work, I see pieces as being very related to one another. I always work on multiple pieces at at time and usually in several different mediums. While I am doing paintings on wood, I am almost always simultaneously producing works on paper. This keeps my material sensitivity very limber. I also almost always work in series. Within any given idea, it is difficult for me to attain clarity in one shot so I build in the potential for several shots at it by working in a series, which will often become a new thought in and of itself. The biggest series I have worked on thus far is 21 pieces at once of the same size, (Vessels 1-21) and while I produced these I simultaneously worked on over 10 oversized works on wood and on paper. The fluctuation between large and small prevents me from being committed to just one way of doing things which is really important to me.

On medium and materials:

When I went to university I had intended on majoring in painting but I just couldn’t commit to painting 100%. This is not a surprise to me now because I flip back and forth between several different mediums at any given time. I didn’t intend to do this, it just kind of happened. Three years ago I would have said that the strongest subject in my work is landscape but now I would say it is material curiosity.

In addition to the information collecting I do through my photo projects, I am always on the hunt for materials with information built in. I want to be able to exploit what is innately part of a material by its very design. Rather than manipulate that, I want to be responsive to it. This what characterizes my collage work on paper, in paint, and in textile. Materials have a language; I would prefer to be in unison with that, as opposed to shouting over it.


On research process:

I spend a lot of time looking at work by other artists, designers and architects online, in books, and in actuality. I am most curious about people whose work bridges the hard-to-define-line between art and craft which is something I feel like my work does. I am also very interested in work that is similar to my own in execution, subject, etc. It is funny to consider how one arrive at a given idea and process and how two disparate people can come to similar decisions with respect to a creative projects while still remaining fundamentally distinct.

I actually spend the majority of my time reading about architecture and the issues that surround it. I like the polarity that architects must possess in terms of being able to consider the very public and the very private. This is something I try to consider in the context of my work as well.

On space and site:

I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia in late 2006 and that change in geographical place significantly changed the way I see. I actually don’t think that I started my creative practice until I moved here. The landscape resonates with me a lot. There is something very powerful to me about knowing where your edges are in space; being on the edge of land, sandwiched against a mountain range takes care of that pretty well. I didn’t ever work in collage until coming to Vancouver but the environment just makes sense that way–all of the elements of place are just stuck one on top of another. Perspective is odd, it’s hard to find a horizon line with so much in the way and atmospheric elements to skew it. I unknowingly absorbed a lot of Vancouver’s properties into my visual rhetoric.

Suburb Install (Vessel1-21)
Suburb Install (Vessel1-21)

Increasingly my work has become a conversation with this place, both my love and misgivings toward it. I feel like I am in a relationship with Vancouver; I have a husband and a dog and then I have Vancouver which is my best friend and also the thorn in my flesh. When I am not spending time with it properly, it gets on my nerves, but if I invest in it, we have a lot to give to one another. Right now I am trying to be honest about the push-pull of my relationship to this place in my work instead of pretending it isn’t there.

I live and work in the same place. It hasn’t always been that way but it just became financially necessary about 8 months ago. I had resisted it for a long time but on the other side of it, I’m really thankful for it now. I live in a special place–it is a live/work building originally designed for artists although I may be the only artist here now. The most special part of it though is that it is almost all windows and I can see forever. I can see just as much of the natural environment as I can of the built environment. I can see movement and exchange between the two; it’s better than television. When I moved out of my old studio and set up shop at home, I realized how much of my work was about what I saw from my window. Now I have less reason to fight it.