From the powerful and powerless to the beautiful and absurd, artist Jessica Calderwood creates symbolic sculptures and jewelry that humorously and ironically address the very complex narratives of human life. At first glance, her works are handsomely seductive and I am compulsively drawn in by the voluminous and bulbous forms and her bold confident use of color. Upon closer examination, I find delicately cropped feminine features meticulously crafted and strategically placed amid lush flowers and decadent, unexpected surfaces. It’s all a bit intoxicating, and I knew I wanted to know more. Read on for an in-depth conversation with the artist about her gorgeous and intriguing works; and more importantly, about pigeon toes, plant demons, and what it really means and takes to have it all.
Q: If you had to describe your work in three words what would they be and why?
A: Seductively crafty representations
Q: When categorizing your work conceptually, its been noted that you are making statements about contemporary life – is that how you would phrase it?
A: I’m making work that is inspired by my life and personal experiences, which I hope resonates with a larger audience and doesn’t come off as complete narcissism!
Q: And more specifically, in a desire to understand your own place in society (through the lenses of wife, mother, artist and educator) would you agree that you are explicitly exploring women’s roles in society? Can you describe these pursuits and how they’ve come to be your focus?
A: I don’t know if my work does a great job at exploring women’s roles in their entirety. I feel like I’m tapping into a zeitgeist or an overall feeling where women feel simultaneously empowered and completely frustrated. That argument about whether ‘women can or cannot have it all’ swims around my head on a daily basis and I needed to make work that addressed it. I took the phrase ‘as delicate as a flower’ as a springboard to talk about these issues. I know that using flora as a symbol for the feminine is a bit passé; but I enjoy working within older conventions, to use it in a funny manner to address issues of gender politics.
Q: The dandelion seems a recurring image for you, as seen in your sculptures Barren and The Seedy Type (pictured here), as well as your jewelry pieces such as Asexual. Can you talk about what this particular flower represents for you?
A: I have been really fascinated by the beauty of a dandelion seed, they are so magical when you examine them closely. At the same time, living in suburbia, they are a symbol for all things evil and must be exterminated at all costs! It’s like a beautiful plant demon.
Q: I am drawn to the Flower Series: Protrude and Reluctant Sexpot being immediate favorites. You’ve described these as self-portraits of sorts, human/botanical hybrids, or rather “anthropomorphic beings [that] are at once, powerful and powerless, beautiful and absurd, inflated, and amputated.” Can you talk about the process of these from concept to execution?
A: With this series, I have created a number of characters or personalities. With Reluctant Sexpot (pictured here) I was trying to talk about that awkward time of development, where a young woman is developing and growing and feeling very messy and unsure about it all. Subtle physical gestures are really important to me, so having her pigeon toed really spoke to that narrative. I chose a hanging fuchsia bulb as the inspiration for the floral element because it’s so seductive and I love the form. I chose wool felt as the medium for the bulbs because I wanted something really tactile and inviting. I created hundreds of the felted bulbs and stems that are knotted on the inside of a fiberglass sphere. The legs are cast in porcelain from molds of my own legs and shoes.
With Protrude (pictured below), I wanted to create a form that looked purely organic and bush-like at first, but to have this bizarre nose, poking out, in a Freudian manner. I’m currently making a companion to this piece in Pink, with a receding belly button.
Q: Undeniably, with something so innately personal (though universally profound), it seems it would be difficult to present often conflicting obligations and subsequent emotions. How you find the sweet spot of what you’re thinking about and how much of you is imbued into the work?
A: At the core of my work is really an interest in opposing elements and ideas = dualism. I want this series to be viewed as simultaneously beautiful as seductive as well as ridiculous and a bit absurd. That pretty much sums up my feelings about modern life as a woman. To get that across I try to make compositions and forms that really draw somebody in through surface and color and hope they are then surprised by the strange gestures and combination of forms. I also try to show that conflict with formal elements, using a strong combination of organic and geometric elements.
Q: I particularly enjoy the mixture of materials, again as in Reluctant Sexpot and then So Square. Can you elaborate on your process of material selections, what are the connotations for you, if any?
A: Early on in this series, I was using vitreous enamel on copper exclusively. This is and has been my primary medium for that past fifteen years or so. It has been a sideline process related to jewelry and metalwork, marginalized and very female-dominated. I started thinking about that in relation to the content of the Floral Series and wanted to expand those materials by choosing things that fall into similar categories. So, learning wool felting came next – which is the primary material in Sexpot – as well as china painting on porcelain. More recently I’ve been using polymer clay in my work, which is creating more visceral responses, especially from other artists. It’s a very DIY craft that is not totally accepted yet in the art/craft sphere.
Q: You mention your work with vitreous enamel; in fact, you are widely recognized for your mastery of enamel (something that isn’t hugely popular in contemporary jewelry), what initially attracted you to want to work with this specific media?
A: When I was in school I wanted to become a painter and was solely interested in making images. I took an Enameling class at the Cleveland Institute of Art randomly as was really captivated by the process and the culture of the medium. I was fascinated by the firing process and the changes that occurred to my marks in the kiln.
Q: I also enjoy the smaller, more two-dimensional works such as Bed and Garden of Delights. There is something really interesting in the juxtaposition of the crafted ceramic and your suggestive drawings – they’re intimate but I’m drawn in by the material and your application. There is a delicacy here that really resonates, can you talk about your conceptual notions in these works?
A: I created a lot of these drawings in porcelain, but Bed and Garden were some of the few that actually survived the firing process! This was my first attempt at creating work that was explicitly about relationships. My intent was to show the beautiful and mundane, and taking out or censoring certain details by either blurring them or covering them, like when they blur someone’s identity on television.
Q: Speaking of ceramics: tell me about your residency in the Arts/Industry Program at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. What impact, if any, did it have on your work and your practice?
A: I was a resident artist at the Kohler Factory two times. The first time was right after undergraduate school and I working in the Iron Foundry. It gave me the confidence and interest to pursue sculpture and push scale in my work.
Most recently I returned to Kohler to learn slip-casting in the Pottery Factory. It was an incredibly humbling and helpful time for me. I felt really supported and it really allowed me to figure out some technical and engineering issues I was having with my work that I don’t think I would have solved by staying in my basement studio.
Q: Its interesting to me how much your sculptural works are “of the body” even when they aren’t visually replicated – the body seems always present in your work. This is certainly something you’re mindful of, do you consider these always a representation of your own body (a way to impose yourself into the works)? What is the real significance of the body for you?
A: Yes, I like to use the body or fragments of the body as a frame of reference or springboard to talk about life and experiences. Sometimes my references are very literal and accurate representations, other times, they are more abstracted or make reference to a body’s interior.
Q: Having said that, this makes the correlation between your sculpture and jewelry an obvious direction – adding the engagement of the viewer becoming the wearer totally makes sense. I understand that although you are trained as a metalsmith, you initially first made jewelry as maquettes for your larger pieces. Can you talk about the point when you began to make the jewelry as stand alone works and how you make the choice of an object’s presentation (sculpture or jewelry)?
A: I think that in the very, very beginning, I was thinking of jewelry as maquettes. Very quickly, I realized that it wasn’t that linear and what I liked about making jewelry was the dialogue between large and small. I really enjoy how meanings and interpretations change when scale becomes an element. I am able to work through ideas by pushing the format and scale. I was also struck by the challenge of making something functional and that it gave me the contextualization of my imagery on the body. When I’m working through a series, I am working on large and small work concurrently and my ideas about content and composition just flow through the various scales.
Q: In a number of your more recent jewelry pieces, you rarely depict your subject’s face, even partially. I find the works that hint or suggest the figure, such as Navel or Blink rather provocatively engaging; but I’m curious why it is so rare that you include the face?
A: Well, for my past series based on ‘Consumption,’ I was dealing with SO MANY drawings that had some sort of hand to mouth portraiture that I think I became bored with drawing the face…. but really with this current work, conceptually, I wanted to negate the face, to censor it as some sort of denial to the viewer. Identity lies so much within the portrait and I didn’t want to render a specific person. I wanted the floral elements, color, type, size, etc to create the identity.
Q: Let’s talk about your Consumption Series: I really like the oval-shaped works, such as Smoke and Mirrors and Sticky Fingers. What were you thinking about in this series of and how did you define what a “consumable” is? Would you say you are making a judgment on these specific acts or merely highlighting them for consideration as superfluous and perhaps unnecessary?
A: I started that series really to talk about how people (including me) treat their bodies. I’m certainly not condemning from the mountain top. It really wasn’t about making judgement about any certain act or consumable, but talking about how what we take into our bodies and how we feel about our bodies can be wonderful and terrible all at the same time.
Q: One of the things I find interesting most interesting in your work is that although you are tackling very serious ideas, there are visual elements that read as distinctly feminine and others distinctly playful? How do you find the balance in these decidedly conflicting components?
A: I think that what you’re talking about helps to provide tension in the work. I can’t resist trying to make a beautiful and seductive image, form, surface, whatever, but I hope that the odd subject matter helps to balance that out.
Q: As most artists who are tackling challenging and personal conceptual ideas, do you ever have a moment where you think that maybe we are we all just taking ourselves a bit too seriously?
A: For sure, often, but then I think that if I don’t get this stuff out of my head, I might explode or need to be on serious medication.
Q: Ok, so tell me about your current exhibition, Flora and Flesh: The Work of Jessica Calderwood at the Gallery at Reinstein|Ross in New York, that features your oeuvre in its entirety including your enamel jewelry and ceramic sculptures.
A: This current exhibition really brings together all of the ideas that I’ve been grappling with through a collections of brooches, enamel wall reliefs, and mixed-media sculptures. Although I’ve been working on this series for a number of years, this show is composed of largely new works that also include a masculine character. As I work through these ideas, I realized that the issues I’m talking about really have to do with our relationships to each other, men and women. I felt I needed to address that.
The new works have also abandoned the specificity of the floral elements and have become these masses of colorful forms. This has been liberating and, for me, they become more about these looming clouds of color that block out the figure than a Victorian-style botanical.
Q: So as we wrap up, who (artists, philosophers, writers, musicians, etc.) do you draw inspiration from: artistically speaking?
A: Writers I hold dear: Kurt Vonnegut and Alice Munro, and Roald Dahl; Visual Artists: Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, Nick Cave, Rene Magritte; and the feminist / activist / speaker Jean Kilbourne
Q: Ok, just for fun: a major museum is burning and you have to go in and save 3 works — what works do you rush in to get?
A: Just three? Ugh, the pressure……Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered tea cup, Louise Bourgeois’s marble carving ‘Cumul’, and any Victorian Enamel Miniature painted brooches…this is a perfect world where they all just happen to be in the same museum of course.
Q: Last question: what’s next?
A: Guns...pictures of guns, bullet casings and toy guns have been collecting in a pile in my studio for a couple years now. I have been using them a bit in my imagery, so something is going to happen with them soon, I’m just not sure what.
In terms of shows, the Racine Art Museum has commissioned me to create a 90-foot-long installation on their ground level windows, set to open in August of this year. Something has to happen there and it might involve guns!
Jessica Calderwood was born in 1978 in Cleveland, OH; she currently lives and works in Menasha, WI. For more information about Jessica, please visit:
All images courtesy of the artist (from top to bottom): Propogation, 2015, slip-cast vitreous china, steel, polymer clay, wool felt, sterling silver, plastic, milk paint, 8 x 8 x 4 inches; Strangefruit, (circular wall relief), 2015, enamel, copper, underglaze, china paint, electroformed copper, 10 x 10 x 2 inches; Flower Series: The Seedy Type, 2014, slip-cast porcelain, paint, monofilament wire, stainless steel, 48 x 24 x 24 inches; Flower Series: Reluctant Sexpot, 2014, felted wool, fiberglass, slip-cast porcelain, paint, 48 x 24 x 24 inches; Asexual II (fibule brooch), 2015, enamel on copper, underglaze, sterling silver, stainless steel, 2.5 x 2.75 inches; Flower Series: So Square, 2012, enamel, copper, silk, plastic, earthenware, fiberglass, paint, 48 x 29 x 29 inches; Cutdown, 2013, enamel, copper, ceramic decals, sterling silver, stainless steel, 2 x 2 x 2.5 inches; Bed, 2014, slip-cast porcelain, china paint, 15 x 19 x 1 inches; Flower Series: Protrude, 2015, earthenware, milk paint, polymer clay, stainless steel, 40 x 30 x 10 inches; Navel, 2010, enamel, copper, nu gold, sterling, stainless, 2 x 3 inches; Consumption Series: Sticky Fingers, 2007, enamel on copper, 6 x 11 x 3 inches; Flower Series: Seedy Woman, 2015, slip-cast vitreous china, steel, sterling silver, plastic, wool felt, milk paint, 8 x 4 x 4 inches; Flora and Flesh: The Work of Jessica Calderwood Installation Shot, Reinstein|Ross Gallery, New York, NY; Iconography Study, 2014, slip cast porcelain, china paint, dimensions vary; Photo of the artist working-in-residence at John Michael Kohler Arts Center