Since my twenties, I have worked in the arts, mostly in DC but in other places too. I started doing this work as an artist and I have come back full circle to that, while also knowing that although what I do is driven by my artist-mind, it is not largely based in object making but in community.
I never meant to have a “commercial gallery” where I sold artwork for money, but it happened and I’m grateful for it. But showing and selling artwork was never the totality of my vision or the meat and bones of who I am. My first real art jobs were at non-profits, public charities designed to educate the community about art and artists.
When I started Civilian, I was burned out on managing boards of directors, so I stripped everything down to a simpler system. And then I started teaching and doing more independent curatorial projects.
As you may imagine, I burned out. Around 2018, I was chronically fatigued and I needed a city break. After contemplating a move for three years, I took the leap to the Eastern Shore of Maryland near my mom and in the same town as my life-long best friend. Until Covid hit, I commuted to DC once a week to teach, take care of business, have meetings, go to stores, etc.
I soon found myself accepted into a graduate program to study museums. The program is set up to be mostly online; I’ve been Zooming since January 2019. Next, my mom was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. She beat that one quickly. Then, last September came the big one—pancreatic cancer.
This week will mark the end of that saga when she finishes her treatments. It has been quite a journey, but she is alive. That was the end goal and what I held in my mind as my deepest intention. I couldn’t lose my mom.
Although it was terrible, I was sort of lucky when the lockdown happened. I was already socially distancing because I was so far away from everyone in DC. The broad brushstrokes of the pandemic didn’t really change my day to day that much except I stopped going to stores and just bought from farmers. But I did have to face the serious reality of mortality and the fact that everyone I know and love will one day die, including me.
To maintain sanity, I escaped a lot to the wilds of the shore, particularly Assateague Island, about 30 miles from my house. Many of the photos during the time of COVID are from here. My sister was also hospitalized during this time. Processing your core love unit in peril requires deep work of the mind and soul. I was committed to trying to stay as healthy as possible and that meant creating as much space as possible to simply be.
The hardest day of my life was dropping my mom off at Hopkins at 5 a.m. in the pre-dawn light. We couldn’t go inside with her or visit her. We had to send her off for life-or-death surgery and wait it out in an Airbnb rental in East Baltimore in the #82 No Shoot Zone.
That house proved a blessing and a transformation. It was the first time I’d spent the night in East Baltimore. Something shifted in me. I became more aware of the work I wanted to do next. I made a promise to the ancestors to do the work. And I’m doing it, or getting ready to, although I’m still in school until May.
I can’t really say that much more about my future plans other than things are transforming. I’ll still do what I’ve always done, support art and artists and make art, but I’ve been studying climate change and community resilience. Certain communities need more investment and this has to be led by those who live there.
I’m a dreamer by nature. I spend a lot of time in a dreamy headspace. This next phase of work comes from there—dreaming about what is possible while science tells us about the weather that is actually coming. They say when your work and heart align, it’s not really work anymore but I know from experience that you do have to pace yourself or you will get sick.
You have to take care of your temple. That’s what these photos are about. And oh yeah, I turned 50 in lockdown. In a weird way it was the best birthday ever because I’ve made it this far—tell that to my 25-year-old self who couldn’t imagine life past age 30.
Bio: Jayme McLellan is a curator, educator, artist, and writer. For over twenty years she has curated the work of artists in galleries, museums, and arts organizations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. She founded the Washington, D.C. based gallery Civilian Art Projects in 2006, and co-founded Transformer in 2002. Prior to this she worked at DC Arts Center. She leads the Senior Art Majors seminar at Georgetown University and a graduate course on controversial exhibitions. She is in the final year of her master’s degree course work at Harvard University Extension School. She lives close to the ocean and visits the horses at Assateague Island National Park as often as possible.
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