“I am a believer in the magic that happens with creative rituals.” —Jessica Townes George

When you think of this season’s theme, Kristin Chang’s poem “Etymology of Butch,” what elements / images / phrases most strike you? How does your work relate to these ideas?

The parts that resonate with me personally are the categorical numerical form. Chang breaks her writing into some kind of a system with various short phrases like, ” I am bowl” that is interjected with a categorical change to the number 2 and then follows “of howl.” To me this parallels what working on a paintings in more than one sitting does. It leaves a crack open where someone could interpret one element, say a background object or something painted last time you looked at the canvas. Then see another object spatially added on top, yet possibly relational to the space they both share. Think of what you see when you look at a wall of graffiti and you can see the edges of what was before, and those colors speak to whatever is drawn up next and most recently—

After her use of a systematized way of injecting more and more information, I am drawn to the larger excerpt about Lesbos; it describes another type of vessel to be filled, soaked in female qualities the way empty canvases can be and references geographic space. Often I work with islands as well as daughters, which is the closest relationship to another human being I have.

the island of Lesbos is not an island but a boat. The oars are enormous arms. The boat itself is a belly. It swallows its own sail. It sells wind to women who return as pickled swans. Some heroes, before leaving home, carry their mother’s sweat in a vial around their necks. They sniff the vials to keep from straying. Daughterhood is something like dogness.  

All of this excerpt is very close to me in the way it invokes a lingering childhood interest I hold with myths and folktales and aptly describes a sense of motherhood-daughterhood. I often want to alter archetypes and think innovating them is a great task of empowering us to the here and now.  We don’t have a choice who our mothers are, we follow many elder women who we admire other than our mothers.  We learn from what our biological mothers share and pass down and can be loved as a loyal companion or we can break the leash and go on our own way without a close relationship with them, of course, it’s all circumstantial. I can see in my own daughter how hurtful it is when I am not approving or yank her along to something she has no interest in and would rather chill out by herself. I agree with the idea Chang proposes about mothers and daughters. There is a quality of dogness between us.

Love can easily be transferred into poems and paint—and so can beauty. All the things we want to hold close and look at often.

My childhood interest in myths and folktales has begun to reemerge as I have begun to paint people more often—the idea of archetypal men and women and what it means to be a man among men, a mother among a world of mothers, and a daughter among a world of daughters is something that I see emerging when I put a figure into a painted space.

Describe the work you’ll be contributing this season.

In response to the way “Etymology of Butch” holds and turns around the idea of what implicates each of us—I mean implicate in the best way, in what is woven around our being—what forms our identity, our history, how attached or detached we are from that history, our position to the present moment and the future, our immediate and distant family, perhaps a struggle to reach a tabula rasa and so on… I have thought long and hard on how to make something that touches on the complexity of what identity really is and how it can be constantly reinvented or manipulated to deny a particular audience or receive another audience.  How there is potentially some perception of others that is not what we intended or what we realize to be of ourselves when we are in unfamiliar territory.  I want to use my voice and my work to write and speak out about what I can identify with in certainty (which seems impossible) within a rapidly changing and ideally empathetic world so we can safely be ourselves and respected within it. 

Using my words to identify and frame the work I want to make in relation to Kristen Chang’s poem, I have grappled with what it means to be influenced by other things we relate to, read and see. I have chosen to write one poem influenced by an identifiable form of Mary Mackey’s in her collection The Dear Dance of Eros. This new version of her poem takes the structure of one of her poems in that collection and reconstructs, deconstructs, and inputs images I relate to and identify as my own memories into a present account of longing and intimacy. 

The other thing I want to offer is an experiment with new materials and methods along with a matching found object: a canvas wrapped 2″ x 4″ that ergonomically feels like a good sized book in your hand. On the canvas is marbleized pattern of crimson red, lavender and black.  There was very little control in the making of the color pattern, the control being simply in choice of colors. This is then waxed and more patterns and symbols are painted and drawn on with marker in correlation to the abstract marbleized color field. Along with this is a photograph that holds the same tone of colors with a psychedellic yet identifiably natural scene to it. A fall lakeside horizon reflected in the water and positioned vertically against gravity as to invoke the feeling of a Rorschach test. 

Work in progress.

Both pieces tones hide something in their darkness, an unknown questioning, the lavender imaginatively poking at finding out something, maybe something totally impractical, with the splashes of red reminiscent what is involved with anger or sex. I am always looking to develop new ways of making a painting that has to do with methods other than simply observation and trying to create more of a personal vision without too much fussiness. That being said, observation is a tried and true way to create a beautiful light filled thing.  

How you view your relationship between poetry and visual art?

I think poetry is a great way to try to say something you don’t know how to really say and to say something you don’t really want to say but need to. My paintings aim to be poems without words. There are so many feelings words can subtly dance around and there are so many things words simply can’t say and don’t give justice to. I go between paintings and poetry, trying to obliquely address themes that arise in my life that I can not directly address due to obstacles, timing, distance. Love can easily be transferred into poems and paint—and so can beauty. All the things we want to hold close and look at often. The imperfections of reality, our difficulty in understanding ourselves and each other relationally, can be dissected and turned around, angled at and renewed, somehow, some way in both poetry and painting.

How does living on an island shape your creative practice? Your artwork?

Living on an island brings up the idea of what does it mean to live, the etymology of live: to make a home, to subsist, to leave, to spend ones life in particular circumstances, to be remembered. 

The island way of living has shaped my creative practice for the last ten years, my formidable years in Maine as an adult and now as a mother. The island’s limitations have created an invisible form to make sense of what I really need and do not need in order to live. The island has taught me I need more than just it to feel productive. I love the ocean and the windy and rocky or sun and wave filled shoreline of islands. It seems easier to get to the light there and get on the ground. 

Being close to the land is important for me to feel like I am living well. Walking the same paths, ritually tending to the same spots, watching the waves from a repeatedly chosen shore; all the repetition of coming and going are how I gather beauty that I hope to recreate with paint or any other medium I am working with. I can leave and I can come back and see what has changed within its limits and discover joy in subtle and big differences. The island is for going in and out of the same way we sit down to our practice and get up and tend to to other things. It took a lot of time getting to know the island but now I feel confident the parts I love will always be there for me to return to.  

What types of ghosts haunt your work? What kind of relationship do you have / want to have with these ghosts?

Ghosts is a funny word to come up in my work because I don’t think about them. I worked as the art director on a theatre set of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts in 2012 at SPACE Gallery with Lorem Ipsum. My friend Mira Ptacin-Jackson just finished a book she researched ghosts, psychics, mediums, spirits, clairvoyants to write. I talked with her here and there about her subject matter the past few years—it’s due out soon—The In-Betweens. So those are the only two references I think of to ghosts with my practice—both literarily and literally. 

My work goes between having landscapes with no human form (perhaps there’s a ghost in there someone else sees but I did not try and recreate one) and paintings with figures that are definitively human and alive. I am trying to rack my brain if there is actually a painting I’ve made that could be interpreted as having a ghost in it. There is one almost supernatural interior I have made which shows a dog that could be ghost-like. Really when I painted that dog originally she was alive and I sketched her in while looking right at her. By the time the painting was finished she had died and her face was the only part which remained untouched, the part that I saved of the original sketch that started the piece. So I guess there is the dog ghost of Roxanne in that one.

And there is a fish. A $17 dead striped bass from Harbor Fish modeled for this painting. I painted over a self portrait; it could be seen that there is still a girl inside the fish because one of my eyes did not get opaquely covered. I suppose painting could be interpreted as a woman deceased under the palimpsest of the fish body, yet still seeing through the animal body giving what used to be her eye, now a fish eye, a suspicious look to the viewer. Another animal painting I made in the last two years has a spirit-like quality—horses in an empty field. They seem kind of mystical, like they are ghosts alive in that place, or captured spirits. All of those paintings were made on the island. I have been painting more people living in my studio on the mainland since the fall.  

Things that you feel but can’t see or things that protect you—songs, prayers, animals, love—those things are the ghosts I want to have relationship to.

I would never claim to have any relationship with ghosts. Things that you feel but can’t see or things that protect you—songs, prayers, animals, love—those things are the ghosts I want to have relationship to. It’s again like the word butch or live.  What’s a ghost really?  

Our theme this season relates to etymology, the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings change over time. How do you define yourself / your work? How has this definition changed over time?

To define oneself is certainly an ongoing process. I know I have gotten stuck thinking I am one thing and then needing to take space to redefine that. Often times my go to is to define myself by what is around me; the people, the place.  This has been kind of detrimental in retrospect. I think if I could have found the words and courage to say what is actually inside me and define what I create on my own, outside of relationship with any person place or thing, I would be positioned in the world a bit differently than I am at the moment.

That being said, positions are fluid and I value preserving flexibility for I am greatly inspired by other people and places. Anything other than myself is almost exotic even if it is familiar simply because I have grown to realize we are all human, yet we all contain quite different make up, we can’t count on others simply understanding us.

My work as a painter has grown to be a practice of contemplation in order to muster understanding and overcoming misunderstandings through evidence of a point in which I undeniably stopped to think about defining something by memory or observation. In that same vein, another part of me that has changed a lot is my attitude or predisposition to discipline. I always had enough discipline to make the things I wanted to make, to concentrate enough to show observation or thought or care. Now, I feel like I need to make even more and do it even better so I can have the time—the quality of time—I want to spend with people I love when I am not working. This I find requires a very concentrated discipline. It isn’t just a switch I have been able to turn on; it is a slow reprogramming.

What is one important thing you’ve done for your own creative practice / own nourishment as a creative person in recent months?

Learning Mysore Ashtanga yoga—having a form to repeat that relaxes, stretches, and strengthens the body—is the most creative and nourishing thing I’ve learned to do in forever.  

I am lucky to have a dear friend who has recently she started gaining interest in developing her knowledge of different holistic therapies and has been sharing her new knowledge and practice of Ashtanga yoga with me. We went to a book group together to read Iyengar’s Light on Yoga and the biggest things about yoga (and anything else that can shape you positively)—is that you have to do it EVERYDAY. I have started to be able to do with yoga because the result is an immediate feeling in your body. Applying this to painting or drawing or editing photographs is my new goal. 

Do you have any creative routines or rituals?

I am a believer in the magic that happens with creative rituals, that a serious insight develops. Routine has always been kind of an ear-grating word for me, the idea that routine kills true amazing spontaneity. I’m beginning to look at this again and change my attitude. I think if we make our own routines, there is certain health that becomes obtainable in ways that can become building blocks that lead us to expansion. As far as ritual goes, anytime I have space to myself I create rituals. Against my will over these last few years, I repeatedly have a home and then become a wanderer then find another home and then get out of it. It is much harder for me having rituals sharing space with others in the in between times of having a home to myself vs. sharing space with others. Rituals are a very personal method of clearing space for me that I dont feel particularly comfortable sharing with others.  

I think if we make our own routines, there is certain health that becomes obtainable in ways that can become building blocks that lead us to expansion.

What are you listening to / reading / looking at right now?

I am not listening to enough new music. I listen to a lot of CDs in the car. Mostly of rhythmic meditation music. Talking Heads comes up a lot, The Life Aquatic soundtrackNatalie Merchant’s Tigerlily album. Every time I hear an Adele song I am blown away. I’ve been trying to brush up on female archetypes and have Eve: A Biography by Pamela Norris out from the library at the moment and John Berger’s Understanding a Photograph.

What wise words do you carry with you into your practice?

My friend Elizabeth Hartsig first gave me this Mary Oliver poem when I was struggling to live alone after a long relationship. It has never lost its great effect.

The Buddha’s Last Instruction

“Make of yourself a light”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal-a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire-
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

Who / what is currently inspiring you locally?

Locally people who inspire me are the ones who have kids and creative practices. People who get shit done and have time to play. People who are kind and listen and keep trying to learn more about the world. My daughter’s kindergarten teacher at Reiche. All the teachers at Reiche. Christina Bechstein at Love Lab Studio. The woman I landscape with on Peaks Island. Anybody who sings a gentle, clear, and strong song I am totally inspired by. Inanna Sisters in Rhythm—women’s drumming core. Caledonia Curry (Swoon). My daughter when she thinks of how to do something, asks for help, and and is exuberant in giving and receiving. Everybody who is healing themselves and persevering. Everybody who tries to say what they want and need. ■ 

Jessica Townes George is an artist whose practice is grounded in: sleeping on islands, reading poems, sun salutations, collecting things, giving things away, encouragement, exploring ecosystems, raising children, and movement. She explores her thoughts and dreams through painting, drawing, photographing and writing.  In between making her own art, she searches for new beautiful sites and old stories of the way folks used to do it.  Jessica has a BFA in Painting/Photography from Rhode Island College and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Studio & Theory from the Maine College of Art (MECA). Working from the approach of spontaneity, observation, cultural issues and imagination, Jessica’s work considers various forms of life and landscape features as beautiful and carrying meanings that poetically search within the realm of certainty/uncertainty. 


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