Briefly describe the work you do.
For the past few years I have been making paintings about repetitive mark making and color. My inspiration most often comes from observations of light and color – in the sky and landscape of my daily environment. After developing a color palette, I typically apply the brushstrokes one after the other, left to right like writing. I allow intuition to determine which color follows the next. As I work, patterns emerge, which suggest the flickering colors and movement of water and sky as well as the warp and weft of fabrics and textiles. I recently began a series that isolates the color in particular impressionist paintings, and reassembles these colors in a new way. My hope is that my paintings will invite a meditative experience for people looking at them.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I grew up in a suburb of Boston–Concord, Massachusetts. I was fortunate to have a lot of exposure to art and culture as a child. The school system was excellent and had a good art program. My parents also made sure there were always art materials in the house and extra lessons when they were able. In middle school, I was selected to be part of a program for visually gifted students called Project Art Band. Each week I took a bus to the studio of a fiber artist. It was an incredible experience to have that kind of mentorship and role model of a working artist at such a young age.
Though I always took art classes, I never seriously considered getting a fine arts degree until my second shot at an undergraduate degree (I took a break from college after two years at American University in Washington, DC). I transferred to University of Massachusetts Amherst to study Comparative Literature, and my first semester I took a painting class. The professor suggested I apply for an art minor, which I did. I heard back that I’d been accepted as a minor, but that the committee would also accept me as a major if I wanted. I immediately said yes. I think having such encouragement along the way has helped me continue making art, even through the detours I’ve taken in my career (I received an MBA in 2002, and an MFA in 2012).
Growing up in Concord, I was exposed to transcendentalist ideas (Ralph Waldo Emerson and of course Thoreau). I spent a lot of time outdoors, and my father was an avid fisherman and boater. I feel these early exposures encouraged in me an interest in being in and closely observing nature, as well as a spiritual view of nature that informs my current work.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
Right now I have a fairly conventional studio practice that consists of painting and drawing. I rent a space at an art center and have a small workspace/office in a spare room at home. I definitely fit the mold of the artist working alone in the studio. And I like the solitude of my space, which creates a kind of cocoon in which I can work uninterrupted. At the same time, I have begun expanding my activities in the past couple of years: teaching a class; getting involved with an “art as business” focused organization; virtually co-mentoring/critiquing with a small group from my MFA program; and weekly co-coaching/critiquing with an accountability partner who is a painter in California.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I would not have seen myself making slow, repetitive, meditative paintings earlier on. Hearing someone say that they get lost or entranced in the colors of my paintings is very gratifying in that I had a hand in creating a contemplative space for someone.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I have a set schedule that I established while I was in my low-residency MFA program at Lesley University College of Art and Design. I have a day job that I work Monday through Thursday. Every Friday I am in the studio all day, from 8:00 am to 5:00 or 6:00 pm. I also work in the studio two nights a week from 5:30 to 10:00. My weekend work time varies, but I try to get in a minimum of two 6 hour weekend days a month. With family obligations, this can be a challenge. But I’ve found having these regular studio hours are essential to getting anything done. Without that commitment, it’s too easy to give in to being tired or to other things that inevitably come up. I also found that for me 20 hours a week is a magic number when things begin to happen in the studio. Fewer than that and it feels more difficult to establish a flow. I also make sure that every week I put aside a few hours for marketing or administrative work. I am a natural night owl, but working at night doesn’t fit into the rest of my life right now.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
Five years ago, in 2009, I began a low-residency MFA program. Going into the MFA, I was making gestural paintings based on the figure and on still lifes and was very influenced by abstract expressionist painters like Joan Mitchell and Willem de Kooning. I was challenged to question the all-over quality of my painting and how I was organizing my paintings in patches of color, often with similar size brush strokes. That led me first to making small, pared down paintings of still lifes constructed out of sticks and branches I found on walks in the Bosque along the Rio Grande. I became interested in discovering what makes individual marks expressive and thinking more constructivistically and systematically about how I made my paintings. I started looking at artists like Alma Thomas and Bradley Walker Tomlin on the one hand and artists related to Minimalism and Post-Minimalism on the other. In my final semesters, I made a series of black and white paintings consisting of brushstrokes applied one after the next. I’ve continued this exploration ever since, more recently re-introducing color. Even though my work is now more regulated and structured (and a bit obsessive), it is still concerned with expression and feeling in reaction to the natural world. The gesture and materiality of the brushstroke is still important as well as my interest in color relationships. Now I have a system and structure that allows me to explore color and brushstroke in a different way.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
The biggest impact has been from my family. The time and perseverance required to regularly paint in the studio would be difficult to keep going without their support, understanding, and encouragement. My artist friends and mentors – particularly the artists who mentored me during my MFA program – have been wonderful in terms of both support and pushing me to work out of my comfort zone. Annie Dillard is a writer who comes to mind as an early influence in observing and finding inspiration in nature.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
There are so many other occupations I’d like to experience if there were infinite amounts of time and energy. Other occupations that intrigue me are writing, filmmaking, biology, ecology, landscape architecture/urban planning, and psychology. I’ve also fantasized about opening a gelato shop – it would be great to feel like you’re giving people a little happiness every day. Since time is limited, I am very happy that I am able to paint and vicariously fulfill my other interests through lots of reading. I also want to incorporate teaching into my practice, either privately or at the university level.
Jill Christian is a visual artist working in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Having spent time on the water growing up in Massachusetts, she finds parallels between the ocean and the great expanses of distance and sky in New Mexico. She holds an MFA from Lesley University College of Art and Design (Boston) as well as a BFA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an MBA from the University of New Mexico. She was a recipient of a 2011 Creative Albuquerque/Albuquerque Arts Business Association Emerging Creatives Award. Her work has been published in New American Paintings West (2014) and Studio Visit Magazine and has been shown in a number of group exhibitions, including 516 ARTS’ New Mexico Showcase (2012).
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.