The Art of No Fear: Jennifer Maria Harris


I interviewed artist Jennifer Maria Harris last week at Samovar Tea Lounge about social action, childhood, persisting as an artist, and her upcoming collaborative work.  An exhibition for her Fear Not Project  is currently on display at the Red Poppy Art House.

Harris will also be contributing to Artlarking’s June Neon/Nature and the New Currency show  in collaboration with local band Cartoon Justice.  They will be doing a live musical remix of audio files from the Fear Not radio project, where people call a hotline with voicemails to spread the No Fear message.  Check it out June 4th at the Box Factory (865 Florida @ 21st, SF)!  And read….
The Interview!

Alison Dale: Your site is tallpainter.com.  So who is this tall painter?

Jennifer M. Harris: When I was first working as an artist, I was just doing painting, for probably the first 5, maybe even ten years.  When I was in school I’d always done many many different things and enjoyed them.  But interestingly at one point one of my main painting instructors had expressed the opinion that you shouldn’t cross-craft and diversify, and you should focus.  And although I think there was value to that, that is not the way that I work.  I actually really benefit from doing many different things.  So… straight out of school I was listening to him and I think it also made sense just for me to kind of hone my craft… and I also just love it.  But as time passed I got more and more drawn to other projects from the past:  ….printmaking, but primarily doing different projects that would be installations, public art, social action- I was always really interested in that.

The Man in the Napoleon Hat, the Dog, the Lamb, and the Cat by Jennifer Maria Harris

AD: Yes, I’ve noticed you have done quite a bit of conceptual art pieces. A few of them are chalk based projects- what was that about?

JMH: Yeah- growing up as a teenager during the time of the birth of graffiti art, I did a bit of graffiti.  But I got more interested in doing this kind of impermanent, unsophisticated, and in many ways uncool street art -chalk on sidewalks, like children do.  I figured the benefits are: no one’s going to arrest you for it, you can do it pretty much wherever you want, and it’s this very benign entity.  I also got interested in the fact that it disappears over time.  All of the pieces I did were about sharing stories and how they affect us over time, so that made sense with the medium, as something people would run into and then they slowly disappeared as they walked over it.  And I love seeing how over time the older ones would fade and the newer ones would be the strongest, but it was a nice gradual process.

AD:You were trained as a painter- where did you attend school?

JMH: I initially  went to Virginia Commonwealth University.  I got really lucky getting into their program – I had no idea how good it was, but it’s a fabulous program.  And as part of it, I was able to get a scholarship to study abroad at Loughborough College of Art and Design in the UK.

AD: How did you decide initially that you wanted to be an artist?

JMH: I always wanted to be an artist, was always drawing as a kid….  When I was really small, 3-4 years old, my mother ran a  hair salon.  At one point she had me enrolled in this daycare where kids were running around screaming at each other, and I don’t really remember any adults being present- I”m sure they were, but …. i was really unhappy.  At one point she peeked through the window and saw that I was sitting in the corner crying, kids were hitting eachother, all this chaos.  So she pulled me out and made a deal with me that if I could quietly entertain myself in the salon I wouldn’t have to go to the daycare.  One of the big things that i did was to draw people and animals to keep myself company, because it would get very boring.  I always think of this as an important stage, because a really important aspect of art to me has been creating characters-  many of them are animals, so… entities, beings?  that I really wanted to spend time with but who did not yet exist in the world.   It’s almost like that feeling of missing somebody, and then you see them after a long time- that was how I always felt working.

AD:  How did you decide on art school, officially?

JMH:  Going to art school and choosing it as a profession was a random process, and a bit of a surprise.  In high school I was not in the healthiest place, didn’t apply to colleges.  The process of application at VCU was quick enough that I could commit to it- Literally you just go for an interview, one day, and they told you if you got in.  I think I did my portfolio staying up all night the night before, my typical procrastination at the time, went there, and thankfully got in.   Everything changed for me.  Once I got there, I just got healthy on all kinds of levels .  One of the most healthy parts was learning how to commit 500 percent to what you love.  In terms of artwork, that should always be first and foremost in what youre thinking – not what’s gonna sell, or what other people  will like , but what you love.  And secondly, how to communicate that clearly, so that everyone can hear it.

AD:  Would you absolutely recommend art school to aspiring artists?

JMH:  Yes, because the best way to learn is through lots of other people.  When other people have gone before you doing all of these things, then you can learn quickly from the environment.  VCU accepted around 70 percent of their applicants, which I think is a great idea because who can tell who really has “art skills” when they’re 18?  Because you know, it’s not all about draftsmanship, and how can you tell who’s going to do what?  So they would accept 70 percent and just really kick your butt your first year, so it was all about who cared enough to persist.  And that’s a good way, because when you really get out there it’s the same- I’d say that almost all of the people I know who are working as artists now are really the ones who care enough to persist.

AD:  How do you define art? What is art to you?

JMH:  An interesting thing I recently read about the word art is that the root of it has to do with the place where two things join- almost like the word “joint”, just this place where two things connect and where they articulate- where they connect and move…. I thought that was really cool.  Etymology is obviously really interesting to me.

AD:  One  of your current projects is the Fear Not project.  Can you explain this concept a little bit?

JMH:  The Fear Not Project is based on this idea: iif we were all paying attention to both looking for anti-fear messages in the media and the world around us, and also focusing on sharing those messages with each other, we would benefit.  This, rather than what I think our natural inclination is, which his to look for things that we need to be afraid of, and share that information about what to be afraid of.  I think especially in our current times there’s just so much information everywhere that I think you can end up getting an incorrect view of what the world is like.  And that’s not to say that there aren’t things to be afraid of out there, or really difficult situations, but I do think that our level of focus on fear is not only bad for us, but affects our view of other people.  It makes us more likely to be afraid of other people.  Boundaries like race, religion, politics- for those to be stronger, and more negative because of the emphasis on fear.  Part of the idea behind having people share these anti-fear words is about having them say those words- there’s a nice thing about hearing hundreds of people telling you not to be afraid.

Fear Not Library at Root Division, from fearnot.com

AD:  That’s one thing I’ve seen as a common thread throughout your work, storytelling about that larger connection to people.   JMH:  I really at the heart of it, it’s about having people connect with each other and be united in a goal, without caring about if that other person agrees with them on abortion, or if that other person shares their religion, or is a democrat, or is liberal enough, or republican enough, all of these things.  Because I think in reality the world is a much less scary place when you are connecting with people without regard for those things.  And I know that when people have been willing to connect with me, even if I know that on some deep level they may disagree with how I live my life- that makes me feel so much more inspired with everything that I do, and just safe!  It’s sttange but it’s true, that one person can actually make a difference.
AD:  People can connect to your work May 2nd to June 13th is an exhibition of Fear Not at the Red Poppy Art House (the opening reception was on May 11).
What can we expect at the exhibition?

JMH:  The ongoing exhibition will have over 150 images of Fear Not indirect mail, the hand-written part of the project where people send me written messages that I turn into magnets and put them on the street for other people to find, and the finder can report the find on the website, and also share a little bit about themselves and what they think of it.  Fear Not radio is a sound installation of people who call in to verbally assure us to have no fear to this Hotline:   1-888-END2FEAR (1-888-363-2332)  And Fear Not library is 18 of the best selling books of all time- so that includes books like the Bible, and Quotations from Chairman Mao, but also books like Harry Potter, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull- all of the text in these books has been whited out except for the words “do not be afraid” or similar messages (the Bible has 366 instances of this phrase).

AD:  What are some upcoming projects on your horizon?

JMH:  I’m currently working on a collaboration with Dr. Gino Dante Borges, who has a project called The Wild Self (http://www.thewildself.com/).  The Fear Not/ Wild Self collaboration is going to be called the Yip and Yelp project (a website will launch in June @ http://www.yipandyelp.com).  It’s about connecting with the wild part of our nature and finding a voice to maintain a connection with the animal part of our nature; embracing the uncivilized.  It will be a safe place for people to experiment with this idea.  We will have a toll-free hotline to call as well (1-888-yipyelp) where people can call in and record their wild sounds- all sounds will be anonymous.  These sounds will then be divided by location on an interactive map online.  When hearing these sounds, it will be interesting because it can bring us back to our unseparated, animal nature- like, “is that my accountant, or a the guy from the gas station?”  We also plan to do flashmob-style events to bring the wild nature of people to a public space.

AD:  How did you begin this collaboration?

JMH:  Well, I’ve done very few collaborations- not since I was out of art school, really.  This year is all about bringing more people into my art space.  Gino and I met at a show we were both in at Trickster Art Salon, and then we contacted each other at the same time, kind of serendipitously.

AD:  What is the benefit of collaboration and what is your process?

JMH:  No one told me in art school how collaborations can be important- but they are.  In collaborating with someone, you get a better sense of what you bring creatively, because of how your work can be shown in contrast to theirs.  Also working with people that closely you get to learn so much- they can be great teachers.  Gino Borges is a philosopher- he also brings an awareness of marketing and organization to the table.  I’m more timid at getting people to participate in art projects, and he’s more marketing oriented- together we strike a good balance between coaching people and being a little more aggressive, and being cautious and non-pushy.

We meet once a week at Samovar tea lounge, work 2-3 hours together and discuss, separate tasks for the week, and email throughout when needed.  I feel like collaboration has energized and amplified my work- it’s become a great deal of what I want to do with my artwork as the ideas from Fear Not Project have developed.Thanks to Jennifer Maria Harris for the interview!
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