On March 16th, a day after the opening of “Beyond the Mountain” at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art, I sat down for a talk about the inspiration behind my work. I explain my painting process, where the ideas for Paper Mountain and Sky Project came from, and why art and going outside will save us. And if you scroll down a little farther, I added a little treat: a private tour of my work in the exhibit. Enjoy!
You can experience the exhibit for yourself until April 25th at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art in Charlotte, NC. To see more of Paper Mountain and Sky Project, visit the project page HERE.
At the start of the year, I sat down for a conversation with Cory Huff, founder of The Abundant Artist, to talk about busting the starving artist myth. We talked about my trajectory from graduate school to becoming a parent, to being a professional artist and quitting my day job.
The Abundant Artist is an artist association, and our interview was featured last week on their blog, emails, and social media. Read the interview below:
CASE STUDY: JESSICA SINGERMAN
Association member Jessica Singerman recently quit her day job to focus on pursuing her art full-time! Woohoo! We sat down to learn more about Jessica’s trajectory: how she arrived from art school to quitting her day job, and what lessons other artists can learn from her experience.
Of her trajectory from art school to quitting her day job to create art full time, Jessica says it was “not linear.”
“I finished my MFA at University of Delaware in 2004 and I had been teaching while I was in school.
I kept teaching, so I was teaching art at University of Delaware and the community college as an adjunct in New Jersey. I was doing the adjunct thing and I was also working at a bike shop.
I was painting, but kind of inconsistently. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life after grad school. I would say the first few years out of graduate school I did not know what I was doing.”
It wasn’t just the sense of uncertainty about the way forward that was an obstacle to Jessica’s success at first. She shares that her understanding about the way that inspiration functions for the working artist was preventing her from making regular work:
“I had this misconception that you will work when you’re inspired. And now I know that that’s really far from the truth. You just work. You put the work in, and then inspiration comes.”
It wasn’t until her son was born and she experienced a crisis of identity that Jessica discovered how to incorporate a daily art practice into her life. She also found that this profoundly alleviated the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
“I set this goal to do a daily project. I would do a project in one sitting, usually when my son was taking a nap, and I started hanging on to this for dear life. I did that for a few months. We were living in Australia at the time, so I didn’t have a studio. My studio was like the contents of a little box. I learned really quickly that I had to make my work space easy to access, and my projects quick to get into with no clean up. I wasn’t using oil paints at the time, I was using watercolors and inks and drawing. Everything was quick to set up and take down.”
Jessica has fallen into a new rhythm since that time. She is still somewhat beholden to her son’s schedule, but most often she chooses to make work first thing in the morning while her “critical brain is off”. It was those early days of motherhood that taught her the importance of making art everyday. Around the time her son was one, she met a fellow artist through a life drawing class who referred her to a gallery in Charlotte. The gallery took her on, which Jessica described as “very validating.” In the end the gallery didn’t work out, however, and Jessica had to flounder a bit before finding new representation that was a better fit. She says of her current situation:
“I’ve got this gallery in Charlotte which is a great fit. The owner trusts me, and she’s willing to take chances on my work, so I’m trying something different. I’m doing a big installation and a video projection in March as well as some paintings, to give her something a little more easy to sell. But I really appreciate that she’s willing to take that chance on me.
I also work with a shop in Winston-Salem. It’s a showroom for really high-end hand built furniture, and they also show other local artists there, so it’s a really nice fit. It’s a beautiful space. I also show at university galleries and other nonprofit spaces as well. This year in September I had a show at Salem College, I have some work going in to a faculty exhibit at a beautiful gallery at Winston-Salem State this month and then I’m showing in an architecture firm also next month.”
This is a surprising amount of activity for Jessica, who was not too long ago struggling to make any work at all and feeling adrift between teaching, a full-time job, and trying to make room for her art. When asked how she accomplished her current lineup of representation and ongoing shows, she shared the details of that “non-linear” path that led her here:
“A friend of mine is friends with the owner of the gallery in Charlotte, and had mentioned my work to her. I showed her my work, and the gallery owner actually approached me, which has never happened in my life, and asked if I wanted to show in a three person show last march. That was kind of like a trial.
The shop in Winston-Salem I found through Instagram. Someone who I didn’t even meet but we were following each other, had mentioned my work to their friends who run this shop. So when they opened the shop they asked me if I wanted to show some work there.
The show at Salem College last year, I found out who the contact was and emailed her. I asked her if I could show there, and actually it wasn’t gonna work out for a couple of years, but then all of a sudden she had a hole she needed to fill. The Winston Salem State show is because I taught at Winston Salem State and they’re doing a faculty exhibit.”
Perhaps one of the key takeaways from Jessica’s experience is that it’s all about who you know. She’s had the benefit of valuable friends and acquaintances both in day-to-day life and on social media who recognized the quality of her work and shared it with others. So the key? Talk about your work.
The flip-side of that coin is that not only does Jessica talk about her work with people she knows and maintain a good online presence, but she also jumps at opportunities that present themselves.
Jessica also has the unique experience of being an art-world native who has had to find her wings outside of the protective bubble of art school and academia. As she has taken steps to grow her own career both with and without gallery representation, he has encountered elitist attitudes about doing the work of selling her own art:
“It’s ego, you know? You don’t want to look like you’re selling your work, because then it’s like you’re selling out. And it’s such a misconception, because the idea is that the galleries are going to take care of it. But even now, I think it’s expected that you still represent yourself on social media. I have friends who are represented by plenty of galleries and they’re still working it on social media.
So for me, it’s ego. It’s been just swallowing a lot of the misconceptions that- I don’t know that they’re actively taught, but you’re definitely made to feel that if you try so hard to sell your own work, you’re selling out or that you’re not a serious artist. Not a lot of people talk about having day jobs in the art world, because it’s like this dirty word. It’s okay to be a teacher, and it’s okay to have a wealthy partner and not mention it. “
Jessica’s current focus is on improving her writing, producing more content for her marketing efforts and finding a new rhythm, having recently quit her day job to pursue art full time (way to go, Jessica!)
“My big thing now really is not to overdo it. My natural tendency is to work all the time. And the big thing I want to work on this year is spending more time with my son. With a day job and teaching, I was teaching last semester, and then my art practice and the business, I was not spending what I felt was enough quality time with him and that’s the big thing for me. That’s the big shift. Spending more time with my son. Not overdoing it. Setting boundaries for myself, and not burning the candle at both ends, which I’m really good at.”
Growing up, Jessica spent a lot of time drawing and making things. Looking back, the experience of making things was and still is the same for her: she is focused; nothing else matters except for what she is making at that moment, and in the best case scenario, she is in a state of flow. This feeling of being in the moment and fully engaged with her environment and what she is doing is similar to her experience when she is enjoying the outdoors. Whether in a forest or on a mountain top, what resonates with her are the feelings of being connected to the world and at the same time, of being small in a vast universe.
It’s through making things and being in the outdoors that Jessica is able to connect to the world and to find her place in it. In the outdoors, we are reminded of how small we are in the world. We experience the vastness of the universe and at the same time, the interconnectedness of it all. See more of Jessica’s work at www.jessicasingerman.com
I’ve been making things since I was a kid – I remember a lot of time making stuff with my mom at the dining room table – and I always drew.
Fast forward a few years… My dad signed me up for figure drawing sessions at the École des Beaux Arts in Tours, France when we lived there during my tenth grade year of high school. That was my first time drawing from the nude figure and in a room full of other adult artists.
I continued studying art in college and in grad school, I even taught art, but it wasn’t until after we had our son that I really began to understand what it means to be a professional artist. After he was born, I had to make art a priority – to be ruthless about it – if I was going to keep making things along with being a mom, a wife, and holding down a day job. I also wanted to demonstrate strong work ethic to my son, to show him that part of the process of doing things is to experiment, to fail, to start again… and I wanted him to be proud of his mom.
I finished installing Paper Mountain at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art last week. After one year of planning, three months of folding paper cranes, and one week of installation with a team, it feels good to see the project come to life and to share it with others.
Below are two time lapse videos showing the installation process from Saturday night through Wednesday. I used GoPros to shoot one photo per minute for the duration of the installation. The first video was shot from the ground floor, and the second was shot from the mezzanine for a bird’s eye view. These are the steps we followed to install Paper Mountain:
Assemble the scaffold (not for the faint of heart)
Place tape on the floor to mark the footprint of the mountain
Attach the wire fence to the ceiling trusses
Tie fishing line to the wire
Open each crane (fold wings down)
Pierce the top of a crane with a needle
Run fishing line through a crane
Place crane at correct height
Squeeze split shot (small lead weight) under the bird to hold it in place
For three months, artist Jessica Singerman set aside an hour or more nearly every day to hand-fold paper cranes. The end result of that meticulous exercise is “Paper Mountain,” a 13-foot-high, 30-foot-long installation that comprises more than 1,000 of these intricate figures.
It’s part of a new body of work that Singerman will debut in her upcoming exhibit, Beyond the Mountain, which runs through April 26 at the Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art following an opening reception on March 15. Also featuring pieces by abstract landscape painter Martha Armstrong, the show seeks to celebrate the human connection to nature and respond to the changing ways people interact with the outdoor environment.
Singerman, who majored in studio art at The College of William & Mary and received her MFA in painting from the University of Delaware, began incorporating nature into her artwork during a creative rut. As an undergrad, she focused on politically driven figurative work from a feminist perspective, but by graduate school, she had hit a roadblock.
“I didn’t feel like I had a lot to offer with the figure,” says Singerman, who lives in Winston-Salem. “And so I think as a result of that, I started exploring other avenues in my work.”
Like Armstrong, Singerman ultimately found her passion in landscape-based abstraction. After graduate school, she took a job as a cycling guide, leading tours across Europe, Central America and Australia. That adventurous outdoor lifestyle provided experiences that continue to influence and shape her work today.
“I started living on the road a lot, and then when I would get home, I had all these images in my head of all these places I’d been, outdoor places,” Singerman says. “Especially now looking back, I understand that a lot of that was fodder for my imagination. All these outdoor landscapes … you have all these memories of places you go, and all of that goes into my work as an artist. I think about all of these different spaces that I’ve been to.”
“Paper Mountain” marks a departure from painting for Singerman, who says the feeling she wanted to evoke with the project couldn’t be captured on canvas.
“I wanted to create something that was more immersive for viewers in a way that when we go outside, if we’re by a mountain or a big tree, we sense a presence that is bigger than us, and it’s awe-inspiring,” Singerman says. “And so I wanted to make something that would try to do that.”
For Singerman, the main challenge was finding the right kind of paper.
“Because I wanted to make something big, I couldn’t use regular origami paper,” she says. “And the big paper, the tough thing was to find something that wasn’t too thick, because then it doesn’t fold well. And it couldn’t be too flimsy; otherwise, it would just fall over. It had to have some kind of structure.”
Through trial and error, Singerman landed on drawing paper, and from November 14, 2018, through February 12, 2019, she dedicated a portion of each day — aside from three days to attend a painting workshop — to folding the 1,200 paper cranes.
And “Paper Mountain” isn’t the only part of Beyond the Mountain that has moved Singerman out of her artistic comfort zone.
A complementary installation called “Sky Project” includes 75 images of the sky, crowdsourced through Instagram, that will be projected onto the gallery’s walls. The project is a response to the modern-day desire to document much of our lives on social media and how that has altered the way we experience nature.
“I think of people going to places outside to then post about it, which is really interesting,” Singerman says. “In a way, it’s nice that it’s driving people to national parks or to go outside and do stuff. But on the other hand, there are places that are overcrowded now, because they weren’t meant to have so many people visiting them. So there’s a double-edged sword that’s happening with social media and the outdoors. The question I wanted to ask with this project is, can we have pure experiences outside? Can we go outside and be there and not have to filter everything with our phones?”
Here I am in the studio working on one of the paintings that will be shown with Paper Mountain and Sky Project starting next week.
I began the painting in acrylic. The paint’s rapid drying time allows me to work quickly, putting down layers of paint as I figure out the direction of the painting. You’ll notice when I swap carts that I am switching to oil paint. These dry more slowly and have a texture I really enjoy. They are very creamy and allow me to work wet into wet for relatively long periods of time.
On November 14th, 2018, I started folding 1200 birds for Paper Mountain. Well I actually started earlier, but all the birds I folded before then didn’t make the cut. I was testing out papers, and didn’t find the right combination of size and weight until the middle of November. So from mid November until February 12th, I folded birds every single day without fail (except for 3 days spent painting at a workshop). In this video, I am folding the last of the 1200 birds. As soon as I folded that last bird, I felt a tinge of nostalgia. I really enjoyed my daily folding (typically 1-2 hours per day).
From March 9-14, I’ll be installing Paper Mountain and Sky Project at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art in Charlotte, NC. The exhibit opens on March 15th. I’m still raising money to make this project happen, and I’d love it if you would contribute and be a part of this big undertaking. Thanks to everyone who has already contributed to the project!
Please forward and share this with all your friends!
Note: The video is sped up 2x and it’s set to Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”
Here’s a time lapse video showing the process of making an abstract landscape painting. This one was the third in a series of four that I made. You may notice the little drawing pinned up to the right of the painting. This is a loose reference drawing that I made from a friend’s photo of a valley in Spain. The photo really inspired me when I saw it – something about the big space, the layering of shapes of grass, ground, rock, and sky – so I asked my friend if I could make some work inspired by the photo.
If you look closely, you’ll see that part of the way through I swapped my acrylic cart out for my oil painting tabouret. I often start my paintings in acrylic so that I can more quickly put down successive layers of paint (acrylic dries very quickly – for a split second I use a hair dryer to speed up the process), then I move into oil paint which dries much more slowly. Some people are sticklers to one medium over the other, but I think they each have their benefits and drawbacks, and they are ultimately means to an end. I use what works best for me at any point during the process. Once you start working in oils though, there’s no going back to acrylic. The painting would literally fall apart since acrylic dries too fast for the oil paint to dry properly under it.
If you search for “How to Collect Art” you’ll find articles on how to build a “serious” art collection, a collection with vision that could be exhibited by museums. What’s harder to find is how to buy art that you want to live with. And what no one talks about is how to buy art if you feel like an art world outsider.
Buying art doesn’t have to be intimidating.
The art scene has changed in the last decade. With the internet, you can now buy directly from artists in addition to buying from galleries. And while the art world may seem hermetic and elitist, if you start to explore the art scene, you’ll find that there is a warm community of people who love creating, looking at, and talking about art – people who care deeply about art and its role in the world.
If you are intrigued by art but uncomfortable around it, the best thing you can do is to educate yourself. See as much art as possible, go to art openings, go to galleries and museums, talk to artists and art dealers. Ask questions! As you are exposed to art and talk to people about it, you’ll find that the way you see will shift. You’ll learn to appreciate work that you may have ignored before. You’ll also start to get a feel for what you like or respond emotionally to.
When you decide to buy something, it should be because you love it, because you want to live with it, because it inspires you – not because someone told you it was a good investment or because someone else said it was nice (unless it’s a gift of course!).
An easy way to get into buying art is to buy from a well-respected gallery, where attentive staff can answer your questions and steer you toward art you’ll love.
Another way is to get to know professional artists. You’ll be surprised to find out that most professional artists are not weird or unapproachable, and that instead, they are hard-working small business owners. Ask the artist about their work and about what inspires them. As you learn more, you’ll gain a more profound connection to that artist’s work. And when you buy from living artists, you are helping foster their career by supporting their work. As artists, when we sell paintings to people who love them, it is validating. It feels great to know that the work we poured ourselves into matters to someone else – that someone connected with our work. When you buy artwork from a living artist, you are saying that you believe in their work. And as an artist it is comforting to know that an artwork is going to a good home where the work will be loved and cared for.
If you have any questions or comments about buying art, feel free to reach out.
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Around the holiday season, I make a series of small works on paper to send to collectors of my paintings as a way of saying thank you. This time-lapse film documents the process of making the mixed media drawings I sent this year. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that I started working on light blue paper, but eventually switched to a white paper. The blue paper felt too flimsy, so I used a heavier-weight watercolor paper instead. You’ll also notice in the upper left corner when I cut the new watercolor paper. I think my favorite part of the video is seeing all the tools move around as I used them.
This was shot over the course of two days, with a photo once every 10 seconds. I used watercolor, graphite, ink, wax pastels, colored pencil, and gouache (opaque watercolor). Enjoy!