Q&A: Jen everett
By Jess T. Dugan | May 5, 2016
Jen Everett is a photo based artist from Detroit, Michigan currently living and working in Saint Louis, Missouri. Her study of Architecture informs her process, sensibility and art-making. She is especially interested in the space between photography and sculpture. Jen has received grants from the Saint Louis Regional Arts Commission and has been an artist in residence at the Vermont Studio Center. Recently her work has appeared in SPOOK and Transition magazines.
Jess T. Dugan: Let’s jump right in- tell me about “Inimitable Blackness,” which you describe as “a response to the nuances of Black identity in America.” How did this work begin and how is it evolving?
Jen Everett: The idea for the Inimitable Blackness series began with a piece that I made in conjunction with Saint Louis Design Week. I used thrifted books and found images to create a sculptural, mixed media work. I became interested in how sculpture could inform my own photography. From there it continued to evolve. Initially, I was very tied to placing sculptural forms on top of the portraits I made. In later works the portraits themselves become sculptural. Eventually I want them to come off of the wall completely.
JTD: I recently had the pleasure to hear you speak at the St. Louis Art Museum on the panel “If it Wasn’t For the Women: Women of Color, Behind and Through the Lens,” which was an absolutely wonderful and compelling event. There, you said that by complicating the picture plane, you cause viewers to engage longer with the portrait, trying to make sense of its multiple angles and fragments. How does this connect to the imagery itself? What kind of metaphor are you using?
JE: I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to present my work and to be a part of that conversation with other women of color. When I approach this series I am thinking about the construction of blackness: how it shifts, evolves and isn’t easily read. Representations of blackness are often reduced to tropes. I wanted this series to interrogate that. I wanted the viewer to work harder.
JTD: Your work is both photographic and sculptural- to what extent is this combination influenced by your background in architecture?
JE: My creative practice is heavily influenced by my training in architecture. It informs the way I approach any new project. My recent work really brought me back to architectural model making. The tangibility slowed me down and I needed that because so much of the process is digital. The sculptural components allow me to compose and recompose. I can enter the images again and again with new possibility and that’s exciting to me.
JTD: Let’s talk about your bodies of work “Black August” and “A Blues for St. Louis,” which engage with racialized violence throughout the country and with the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO on August 9, 2014. Of “A Blues for St. Louis,” you write, “this work, this blues, stems from the grief of living in traumatic times of state sanctioned violence and hashtag death rosters. This work was an interruption to my other work. It was and is uncomfortable and agonizing. It interrogates the uncomfortable silence that plagues Saint Louis and America. A discomfort that some would rather bury like a body than face. But it isn’t all sorrow. The work is a conversation, a dialogue of resilience, and transcendence. As Langston Hughes put it: ‘the blues are about the crossroads between good and evil and tragedy and comedy.’” How would you describe your personal process for making this work, as well as the social and political issues it engages with?
JE: I experienced feelings of grief and helplessness after Mike Brown’s death and the subsequent uprising. As a mother it was especially difficult to talk to my child about Ferguson, to find words when there are no words. I made a series of documentary photographs (Black August) during the protests but wanted to do more with those images. A Blues for Saint Louis pairs photos with texts from overheard conversations, news articles and other sources. Though it has been almost 2 years, the work still feels unresolved because revisiting it is painful. When I work with those images it’s like no time has passed.
JTD: Another one of your projects, “Sons of Rest,” documents St. Louis’s black queer community at the annual pride parade. The parade used to end in Tower Grove Park, which facilitated a certain kind of gathering, but has since been moved downtown. You write about the “rapid disappearance of black, queer safe spaces.” The images seem to be at once celebratory and infused with loss, and this sense of loss runs throughout your work. As an artist who is both black and queer, how do you negotiate these dual experiences within social spheres and within your work?
JE: In my work I can be completely whole. I don’t have to answer to anyone and I have the freedom to be specific and intentional with my voice. I can deal with blackness and with queerness in very direct ways. Those are ideal conditions. Outside of creative work it’s a bit of a balancing act. There are many times when I feel like an outsider.
JTD: Where do you find inspiration for your work, and what are you most excited about right now?
JE: I can’t always count on inspiration because it’s fleeting. My lived experiences and my place in the world continue to inform my practice. I appreciate the creative process and try not to force or rush the work. When I’m having a hard time I surround myself with other creatives and I find my way. I’m really excited about the artist community that’s flourishing in Saint Louis. I have met so many people doing wonderful work just in the past year. There is so much talent here.
JTD: What’s on the horizon for you as an artist?
JE: My next body of work will deal with my family’s history and archive of images. It’s an ambitious and necessary project that I have been thinking about for the past few years. I have been researching here and there but I am ready to dive in.
All images © Jen Everett