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Art AND: Jessica Gatlin

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Jessica Gatlin is learning how to be patient with herself. For the self-declared overthinker, the pandemic provided an opportunity to slow down and take stock of her artistic practice and newly transplanted life. Gatlin is relatively new in town; she first moved to the College Park area for a year to take a full-time faculty position in the Print and Extended Media Department at the University of Maryland, and then purchased a home in Baltimore in June 2020 with her husband, the artist Brandon Donahue.

The interdisciplinary artist approaches her work “from a standpoint of print theory” even though not all of her work manifests as prints. Her childhood was rooted in a matriarchal tradition of craft and DIY practices passed down to her from her mother and grandmother. Material is important for Gatlin, as it is for other practitioners who use a mixture of media and approaches in their artwork. But material is not the origin of most projects for Gatlin. Instead, “most of the time, the ideas come first,” she explains. “It’s usually an idea that won’t leave me alone. Grudgingly, I’ll do it. And then it turns out nice.” With patience and an open-ended approach, she has found a way to blend together “high and low” aesthetics alongside sewing, which is a cornerstone of her work “typically relegated to this whole other world” of craft, Gatlin explains. To elevate the way her sewn garments are discussed, she says, “sometimes I call my garments ‘paintings’ or ‘sculptures.’” 

Gatlin is cognizant that her work, which spans so many media and styles, “probably looks all over the place sometimes because I haven’t found that harmony.” But it’s part of her process to look at the same big idea in different ways as she considers it from every angle. A running theme is her examination of systems, into which her tangible art objects are going to then participate as commodities, for better or worse. 

In the 2018 piece Systemic Trapping(s), Gatlin focused on the common cheese ball as a symbol for 1990s aesthetics and white supremacy. In the installation, a video plays of Gatlin consuming the snack in a room where they are also on the floor to be stepped on by the viewer. “Cheese balls represented that same sort of lie or that same falseness [as dangerous systems],” Gatlin explains. “It’s bright and it’s attractive and you think that something that attracts you is good for you, or you would at least think that sort of thing is not there to harm you. . . . They are delicious and weird, but at the end of the day, if I eat too many, my tongue is raw and my fingers are covered [with] dye and that isn’t necessarily great.” She sees the beguiling food as a “metaphor for all the things that we take in that aren’t true, like white supremacy and capitalism and patriarchy,” and how those systems affect our own beliefs about ourselves. “For me, rejecting and crushing them was a way to let go of some of that and try to re-establish a healthy gut/brain communication,” Gatlin says. “Overall, it’s about self-healing or self redirection, and also just trying to get people to take some time with themselves to think about what things are inside you that aren’t true.”

 

Collaboration comes as naturally to Gatlin as garment making and quilting. She is attracted to the community-building aspect of working with other people and the fact that collaboration naturally operates in opposition to what she calls an art “system that very much tries to individualize and make us all compete.” Smiling, she recalls that it is “really attractive to play with somebody else. It gets me out of my own head because I can have a million ideas and I’ll never do them, but if there’s somebody holding me accountable, it really helps to work through that.” 

During the pandemic, she worked with her partner Donahue to create sewn pieces for their home, and while in graduate school with Abigail Lucien at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, they collaborated on a number of performances and pieces. Gatlin appreciates the problem-solving required in working with another artist and thinking through ideas side by side. Inspired by their collaborative work and looking to extend it, Gatlin and Donahue opened an exhibition space called Abode in their home this year. (More info to come depending on COVID and semester schedules.) In this time, sorta-post-pandemic, as many are reflecting on their values anew, Gatlin and Donahue are using their collaboration “as a means of digging back into our origins as makers,” side by side.

Over Zoom, Gatlin and I chatted about how challenging the pandemic was for college educators and our students, how much harder yoga got after 30, and how she keeps making.

SUBJECT: Jessica Gatlin, 30ish
WEARING: “Black joggers, black tee, black calf-length linen shirtdress, braid extensions with lavender and purple highlights, my birthday air max-90s that have only made it outside once.”
PLACE: Zoom

 

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading?

Jessica Gatlin: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster—I read this as a kid, and I just loved the world it created. The only book that I’ve seen adapted into a movie that just works in both media. I reread it recently, and I see all the ways that impacted my interests in math, language, and art.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler—Prophetic AF; OB is a major guiding light for my work.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander—Great starting point for chronologizing mass incarceration and understanding how the language around racist anti-Black policies adapts over time to become intentionally abstract yet resulting in effectively the same outcomes.

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

Don’t know if was good advice or bad, I didn’t follow any of it:

  • Go to school in-state
  • Move back home
  • Go to Yale for grad school
  • You won’t make money with an art degree; just become a teacher.

You lived in the College Park area for a year to take a full-time faculty position in the Print and Extended Media Department at the University of Maryland and then bought a home in Baltimore in June 2020. How has adjusting to Baltimore been for you? What are you liking about living here so far?

For the most part, we’ve been nesting and getting a feel for our neighborhood. We were/are really concerned about getting out unnecessarily, so nesting felt like the best use of time. We’ve also gotten to enjoy some of the parks and public spaces. Under different circumstances, it would have taken me a while to get around to enjoying green spaces. There’s also a familiarity that’s hard to describe. I love a city with its own distinct vibe.

How would you describe your relationship with failure? Is there any advice you give to students about dealing with the disappointment that is a natural part of any career?

It’s hard to unlearn, but I think we stress over failure because from an early age our advancement and sense of self depends on meeting certain markers. Failing means being held back, losing the game, loss of privileges, etc. I tend not to use the term, but whatever you call it, it can be useful. It can help you make decisions about how to proceed, which way to go.  

You’re bound to be disappointed at some point, whether it’s because you weren’t selected, or that goal you set for yourself, once achieved, doesn’t satisfy you like you thought it would. I think it’s just important to not internalize these things as personality traits or commentary on your value as a person. That’s hard as an artist because often we put so much of ourselves into the work. But ultimately, you are not your work. 

In our conversation, you mentioned that you haven’t been making as much as you would like during the pandemic and as a result of your recent move. You seem to be at peace with the idea that your life will have seasons of making and seasons where you aren’t making as much. How did you arrive at this acceptance? Do you have any exercises you can suggest for creatives struggling with a constant “need” to be creatively productive?

Oh, I’m not at all at peace with that. It’s a constant battle to unlearn this idea of productivity being related to your value or morality. I’m comforted somewhat in that it’s not just me. As a collective, we are being asked to slow down, to move with intention. 

On a personal level, I try to embrace everything I do as being critical to my creative practice. That way I’m always “productive”—whether I’m making a meal, writing feedback for students, or just lying here listening to the ceiling fan and street sounds. Other than that, I would suggest getting out of your routine. Learn something new, play a game, or assist someone else.  

 

What has teaching printmaking online been like for you during the pandemic?

It’s incredibly hard. I think the thing that I miss most is the ability to be communal and share objects and tools. I think that’s how I learned so much. If you’re in the space and you’re like, “Oh, your tool isn’t working, try mine, and yes, it’s more expensive, but you’ll get the feel for it before deciding whether to commit to it.” Just those little things that you just cannot get across the screen. But now that I’ve had two and a half semesters online, I have been able to kind of adapt and let go of some things. I’m really excited about bringing this [adaptive] attitude back into the classroom when we do go back in person. This experience has definitely shifted my thinking and how I’ll teach in the future. 

What does your daily or weekly routine look like during the semester? Being at home so much and teaching printmaking from home are hugely challenging, so how do you structure your days to feel the best?

I’m terrible at routine. I try to at least have breakfast and do something for myself before plugging in in the morning. And now that I’m home a lot, I take full advantage of opportunities to nap or break up the day with other activities.

Have you had any pandemic-influenced hobbies or just things that you loved coming back into your life because you’ve had more time to reflect on them?

My hobbies are hard to identify because they’re always in danger of being folded into my practice. I love to cook and I really think a lot about food. I joined the bread-baking craze for a bit. I do yoga when I can, and I’m trying to build that back up, and bike riding, those sorts of things that aren’t necessarily tied to making, but they’re good thinking places. 

With yoga especially, it’s hard to get back into it if you’re not doing it regularly.

Yes, exactly. I fell out of it and it has been so hard to even just be patient enough with my body as I try to get back into the practice. My ego! [I tell myself] we gotta go back to being a beginner. You can’t do the headstand anymore. You got to build back up to it. I’m now at a place of trying to work on acceptance and reacquaintance with my body. I’ve been seeking out different teachers and just trying to find that place where I feel comfortable physically and spiritually while also honoring the cultures that give us these practices.

Is there anyone in particular who has been helping you with that?

I just started following Dianne Bondy. She teaches classes on one of the apps I signed up for. I like the way she talks and guides people through a session. She said something that really struck me, “if you have an abundance in your center, make this adjustment . . .” She even referred to herself saying, “I’m rocking a larger body.” Subtle, but intentional, making space for different needs and abilities. It was just a comforting space to feel like my downward dog doesn’t need to be perfect. We all see what is sold to us as “the yoga body.” I’m trying to decolonize my mind and practices, so hearing how she approaches language has been helpful for me.

 

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing? What is it?

I aspire to be a daily uniform person, but lately, I just put on whatever’s clean and/or feels good. Lots of sweats, house dresses, and muumuu-type garments. When we return to school in the fall, the plan is to wear more overalls and coveralls, since I’ll be printing and demoing more regularly. 

Your practice is interdisciplinary, but do you typically call yourself a printmaker?

Yes and no. My MFA is in printmaking and I often talk about my work from a print theory perspective. Even when it’s not in the visible, 2D paper-on-the-wall sort of way, print shows up in my work. Sometimes I identify as interdisciplinary and sometimes I even go as far as to say non-disciplinary because I have a craft and DIY background. I don’t necessarily feel like discipline is the right word to use. I love materials and I love playing with something new, I think that’s the thing that pulls me.

I also like to play with language, especially as it relates to categorizing in art. Sewing is often relegated to the craft space. So sometimes I call my garments paintings or sculptures or structured paintings. I’m attracted to places where the meaning of a word breaks down, becoming more ambiguous.

You mentioned that you have a craft and DIY background, is that from growing up? 

Yes, sewing and crocheting and those sorts of things were the first things I learned how to do. With my mom and my grandma. I was the kid who was fascinated with that. So [from a young age] I was making Barbie doll clothes and all kinds of little things. 

 

What are the last three emojis you used?

Smirking cat, black heart, facepalm

Do you believe in astrology? If so, what kind of insight can astrology give our readers about you?

I recently found this account on Instagram, @cancer_sassy. Never have I felt more seen yet simultaneously attacked.

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

Working in food service as a host, bartender, and server was very formative. Taught me a lot about food, how to treat people and how people may view you based on very superficial ideas.

What have you learned the hard way?

To take one step at a time. 

Have you discovered any local restaurants you’re liking and what’s your go-to order?

Sooo many, but lately Jerk Taco—Beef Patty & Small Jerk Plate. Yummmmmo.

What would you say is your mundane talent? Past examples have been parallel parking, loading the dishwasher correctly, etc.

I consulted my partner on this, and he said, “There’s nothing mundane about your talents!” So I’ll yield to his answer. 🤷🏾‍♀️

 

Photography by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt

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