Summer has officially arrived – and so has the second installment of The White Space, the VIUS art gallery. This month, we welcome to our walls five mixed-media collage pieces by Jen McCleary.
At VIUS, there are multiple components and collaborations involved with what we do to provide you a shiny, finished product. Similarly, Jen combines an array of media – silkscreen prints, a stranger’s old photographs, pieces of jewelry – to create cohesive, unique works.
Preferring to let each piece evolve gradually, Jen hates starting with a blank slate. So for some of the pieces inside The White Space, Jen started with old etchings or prints left from her time at Tyler School of Art, where she was a printmaking/painting double major. “It’s been interesting to use some of my earlier unsuccessful work as a starting point for something new,” she says.
Check out photos of Jen’s works after our interview with her below, or stop by Studio 407 in the Paper Box Studios to see them in person. Don’t be shy – we’ll have Jen’s pieces on display for the next three months.
An Interview with the Artist: Jen McCleary
VIUS: What inspires your art?
Jen McCleary: I think it’s partially just an internal need to make things. I feel happiest when I’m working on some sort of creative project, whether that is making art or jewelry or cooking or my newest love, practicing aerial arts and flying trapeze! I see all these things as somehow part of a whole, a way of living and exploring. From a visual perspective, I’m sometimes inspired by just observing my surroundings, like how the light and shadow changes across buildings seen from a train window. I also love collecting things to be used in my art, either digitally via photography or by collecting scraps of paper and bits of metal and found objects. A lot of inspiration for individual pieces comes from just sitting down with the materials and starting to make something and seeing what evolves. Also sometimes something I read or see in a movie just really sticks with me and I think has some sort of influence somewhere along the way.
How did you get your start with collage?
I remember in high school art class making basically a mosaic image out of tiny squares of colored paper I had cut from magazines, and my teacher saying that it was interesting but it wasn’t really collage. So then I began exploring what collage actually was. The next one I made was basically just an assortment of stuff I found interesting from catalogs, like a picture of a goldfish and a lamp and some furniture and whatever, arranged in a vaguely surrealist manner. I didn’t do a whole lot of collage in college, but I was still very attracted to it. I was a double painting/printmaking major, and the painters wanted me to paint, and the printmakers wanted me to print and seemed sort of puzzled or disapproving when I tried mixing things up. Which I guess makes sense since they were trying to teach specific techniques. But I was never really that excited about making either straight paintings or prints. A real turning point was a semester in Rome when I had a class called “Sketchbook,” where we went to all these different places and the teacher encouraged us to do all different kinds of media and collage and stuff. Rome was a great place for finding interesting scraps of paper to use. That semester I made a lot of really good mixed-media books and some terrible paintings where I tried to incorporate collage. After I graduated from art school, I felt more free to just experiment and see where things took me, and I never really make prints anymore and very rarely make a painting that doesn’t have some sort of mixed-media or collage element to it.
Where are your favorite places to collect pieces for collage?
I love when I find stuff randomly, like pieces of paper someone has left in a library book. Once I found a whole accounting ledger in a dumpster. I get a lot of stuff from flea markets and yard sales and Ebay – once I bought a whole box of someone’s old photos from Ebay and it was just fascinating looking at someone else’s past. There were Christmas cards and graduation announcements and everything. I like incorporating personal ephemera into my work as well- I did a series of paintings which included shredded pages of my college journals after I decided I didn’t need to literally and metaphorically haul around all that angst with me for the rest of my life. Recently I’ve been using a lot of imagery from old medical and math text books or scientific journals – I worked in academic publishing for a while so friends who are still in that field will sometimes send me pages with interesting images.
You said you like to let pieces evolve intuitively, how do you know when to stop?
That’s sometimes the hardest part! I think I’m getting better at knowing when something is complete, but I’ve recently tried a tactic of working on something and then letting it rest for a while and not even looking at it, then coming back to it with fresh eyes and it’s easier to judge if it needs something else or is finished. It also helps that I now almost always work on more than one piece at a time so I’m not just obsessing over finishing one thing.
When you’re working on a collage, do you visualize what piece you need first or do you see something and know it has to go in a certain space?
Both things happen. Usually at the beginning of the process I’m more deliberate about what pieces I select, like I’ll know I want an image of a tree or whatever. Things are more open at the beginning and there is more space to work with and things can go in any number of directions. But as a piece develops it becomes more like a puzzle and it’s more about finding pieces that belong in a certain space. I’ll usually sit with a pile of possible images to use and hold them in various positions and I can tell if they’re going to work or not. Things just feel right sometimes and I know it belongs, or it doesn’t and I’ll save it for later. Sometimes I have pieces that I think of as extra special in some way and I want to use them but I also don’t want to because then it’s locked in place and all the alternate possibilities for it are gone. I think that’s why I love also doing the digital work, because there can be endless variations and possibilities for any particular image.
What is the best art gallery in Philadelphia?
I guess this is kind of weird for an artist to say, but I almost never go to galleries. The last time I went to First Friday in Old City was when I was in a group show in 2005! I think galleries obviously have an important and good role to play in the art world but I’ve never been quite comfortable with that whole scene. I’m basically an introvert and art openings are like a personal circle of hell- too noisy and crowded and schmoozy. I don’t think I could even name three galleries, but Philly is really a great museum city which is one thing I love about living here. The Mutter Museum, the Penn Museum, the Barnes, the Philadelphia Museum of Art…
Any big art-related plans for the next year? New projects, trips, etc?
This is going to be an interesting year! For the past seven years I had a full-time gig as a graphic designer at the University of Pennsylvania but that position is ending (due to lack of grant funding). It was a bit of a shock and upsetting at first because I liked it there and that job was sort of my security blanket that allowed me to basically do whatever I wanted on my own projects and not worry too much about selling stuff. But security blankets can also be sort of inhibiting and stifling so I think it’ll also be a huge opportunity for me. I’m going to continue doing design work, probably on a freelance basis since good full-time jobs are sort of unusual in the design world. But I also want to focus more on developing my fine art stuff further and possibly branch out into some illustration projects and also work on my metalsmithing skills to do some different jewelry projects… I’ve had a lot of ideas bouncing around my head that I couldn’t do for a while because I just didn’t have enough space or proper ventilation for things like soldering or resin, but my boyfriend and I just bought a house so suddenly I have twice as much studio space as before which is really exciting.
And one last fun question… Where is the best place to buy a cheesesteak in Philly?
Another weird answer for you… The seitan cheesesteak at Blackbird Pizzeria at 6th and South! I’ve been vegan for about fourteen years now and they make by far the best vegan cheesesteak I’ve ever had. That place used to be called Gianna’s and their vegan cheesesteak was kind of icky, but then the Blackbird people took over the space a few years ago and made everything awesome. Their Tofu Cubano is also one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had.
Jen McCleary: Artist Statement
I studied painting and printmaking (at Tyler School of Art) but ended up being neither a painter nor a printmaker. Despite spending the better part of my undergraduate years feeling repulsed by the idea of using a computer to make art, I eventually found my way into doing just that. The advent of digital photography opened up a whole world of possibilities and I now keep a camera with me at all times to capture an interesting texture or shadow to incorporate into my digital collage work. As much as I love the flexibility and freedom of working digitally, I still enjoy working in more tactile media, especially collage. I’ve also had a lifelong fascination with jewelry and have recently been focusing on creating pendants using found objects and collage materials. Even though I work in a variety of media I view it all as a whole- each type of work feeds another. I often use scraps of digital collage prints in paper collages and jewelry and scans of mixed-media paintings in my digital work. I prefer to work intuitively and let each piece gradually evolve rather than having a particular concept in mind for each piece, but common threads in my work include color, texture and pattern, scientific imagery, and the different kinds of beauty found in both nature and urban decay.
The five collage pieces hanging at VIUS are part of a series of recent works in which I started attempting to create larger pieces. For many years my mixed-media collage pieces were quite small, usually around 8×10 inches or smaller. I think this was because my workspace was small and also I was working with tiny scraps of paper. This past year I decided to try creating larger collage pieces, which involved figuring out how to fill greater areas of space. I’ve never been especially good at drawing, but I love doodling random patterns so I started incorporating that into my mixed-media pieces as well. Some of these pieces started with old etchings or silkscreen prints left over from my college printmaking days. I hate starting with a blank slate and it’s been interesting to use some of my earlier unsuccessful work as a starting point for something new.