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Interview: Jessica Foley

Self-Portrait with Fishing Pole and Unwanted Advance (42” x 46”)oil on canvas, 2021.

1) Could you introduce yourself? Where do you come from, and where did you attend art school? When did you first become interested in pursuing art as a career?

Sure—I grew up in New Hampshire, and I have always been a painter. My parents let me set up a studio in the basement when I was 11 or 12, so I worked there all through middle and high school. When I left high school, I didn’t have my studio space, so I started using a little watercolor set to do landscape painting. I studied environmental humanities at Sterling College in Vermont before getting my MFA from Maine College of Art last year.

I didn’t consider painting as a real career option until last year, and am really happy I decided to make it work.

2) Your previous works were mostly consisting of landscapes and depictions of nature. What was the intent of these previous works, and what was your intent in introducing figures into your recent works?

I consider myself a landscape painter—I’m interested in the relationship we have to the world around us, and I find landscape to be a complex way to explore that relationship. So my intent, with all my work, is to remind my viewers that how we see paintings is how we see nature.

The introduction of figures into the painting has been a solution to some of my problems with landscape painting—one of which is the Hudson River School’s Romanticization of a human-free, wild landscape. The figures enable me to explore and process my emotions around sexual assault and power. They’re a way for me to work through concepts of embodiment and feminist theory in a more nuanced way than language provides.

Stump Speech Nocturne (24” x 24”) oil on panel, 2021.

3) What happened in 2020, and what kind of transformation occurred in your personal life and your artistic vision?

For me, 2020 brought lot of personal and professional trauma. Personally and professionally, everything was falling apart. I channeled all of my emotions and energy into my work, and I went into overdrive. It really felt like an extra year of grad school; the challenge of having no studio and no exhibition and no money and having to become an artist was huge.

In terms of what content has developed, I watched A Nightmare on Elm Street for the first time this fall and completely fell in love with it. I fell in love with the protagonist, Nancy Thompson, who is so brave and unapologetically angry. And I fell in love with how it was made—the practical effects are crafted in such inventive ways. I instantly knew I wanted to make work that had that feeling, the feeling of creepy-crawlies, the element of jeopardy or peril, and the gore. I want to be the Wes Craven of landscape painting.

4) While Western art has traditionally subordinated the ground beneath the figure, your recent paintings blur the boundaries between the figure and the ground by allowing the ground to go over the figure, which recedes behind the abstract embrace of the ground. What is the conceptual and historical significance of this blurring of the boundaries between the figure and the ground?

The merging of bodies and the world around them is a reflection of my understanding of vibrating, permeable atomic boundaries between all living things. The misconception that we are physically separate from our surroundings is so powerful, so sidestepping language and using imagery to undo that misconception is huge. This work reminds us that all things are really mingling together in a celestial soup.

Historically, there are European and American traditions of landscape painting that rendered invisible the people who occupied certain spaces. These traditions removed people in order to create images that were wild or pure. I’m interested in bringing figures back into the landscape as a way of celebrating people being engaged in the world around them, to show that people do interact with nature, and that people do claim space in nature. The trope of a human-free wilderness is a tool of white supremacy, patriarchy, and colonialism. I’m interested in nature as a setting for feminist intervention.

Nocturne with Ice Cream (left) and Nancy Makes a Few Calls (right) (both 24” x 24”) oil on panel, 2021.

5) Is your work political in any way? What is the significance of the depiction of Joe Biden in your work?

The images I’m sourcing of Joe Biden are all actually made using projections. These are real photographs of Biden interacting with and touching women and girls. I’ve replaced the real women with other figures, one of which is Nancy Thompson from A Nightmare on Elm Street, another is myself. It was important to me to use the projector as a tool for impartiality—to show: this is what he did, this is how we touches women.

Biden ran and won an election campaign based on his character, which is a ringing endorsement from the American public of how we treats women. I wanted to reimagine the scenarios. What would happen if he tried to touch me that way? How would I respond? How would I feel?

6) Can your works be read as feminist? What is the significance of abstracting the face beyond immediate recognizability? Does this kind of abstraction challenge the male gaze by removing recognizable elements that may be used for male fantasy?

Yes, for me the works are feminist.

As for abstracting the face, that’s a question that is a little more complicated. This is first a formal question. As a landscape painter, I love rocks and horizons and distant clumps of trees, and these things, taken at a distance, become brushstrokes and texture in the work. When I began to add figures into this work, I simply approached them the same way. I don’t paint individual leaves, or detailed bark, or really any fiddly details; I’m interested in the overall gestalt, the feeling and form of the things.

Conceptually, I would agree, I think the resulting ambiguous blank stares result in figures who are emotionally unavailable, who are self-aware, but not available to the viewer. There is fantasy—but not the sexual fantasy of the male gaze, rather the fantasy is in the world-building of the painting. The landscapes are fantastic settings for feminine liberation; places where my characters are allowed to experience the full range of their physical and emotional experience without having to be anything to anyone else.

7) There is a sexy quality to your work due to the heavy, thick, and rich impasto, which contributes to the materiality of the flesh. This is balanced by the denial of vulnerability and over-exposure of female bodies that typically exist in works by other artists with sexy and/or seductive qualities. Where does the experience or the aspect of sexiness lie in the non-male gaze or the female gaze?

I think the sexiness you’re describing is, for me, what I describe as the corporeality of the paint. I agree that there is a denial of vulnerability that comes from the lack of facial features—which we talked about in your last question. I think sexuality in the work is more nuanced in the sense that it comes from the application of the paint, not from gender tropes in the imagery. The figures within the painting aren’t sexy; the application method, as an extension of myself, is sexy.

So in a sort of virile, butch, fashion, I consider the works to be an expression of my performative masculinity, an expression of my own sexuality. And because I as the painter am not visible to the viewer, I express these things while avoiding being the subject of the male gaze.

Self-Portrait with Party Hat and Unwanted Advance (24” x 24”) oil on panel, 2021.

8) What does it mean to paint a portrait like a landscape and to paint a landscape like a portrait? Do you play with this idea of mixing and merging the qualities of the landscape painting with figurative painting? What new possibilities lie in this kind of thinking and approach?

I love this question. Because I consider myself a landscape painter, I think of the people in my paintings as bodies, not figures. Although I have some self-portraits, I consider those to be paintings of my body, not myself. Details like the face, the hands—these are all cerebral considerations of who a person is. I am also my body, and I think considering myself from a more physical perspective is an important in the sense that human experiences are not just emotional or intellectual, but also physical.

So painting figures in a landscape approach is, for me, a way to paint in a way that honors embodiment as a tool for self-understanding and healing.

9) What are some of the meaningful experiences that you had as an art educator? What is the essence and the importance of being an art educator? What are some of the challenges of this role?

I love being a teacher! I learn so much working with students. I coach privately and I work in the painting department at Maine College of Art. Because my goal was always to be a teacher, it brings me a lot of joy. It’s challenging to support students in becoming the painter they need to be, and not to project too many of my own preferences or objectives onto them. And, of course, balancing my time is difficult.

10) What are your goals and dreams for the future? What are your plans in the next five years as an artist?

I want to build a life that sustains my practice. I think that’ll mean earning more, and selling my work. A lot of my peers are looking for relationships with partners…I am looking for a relationship with a gallery! I think finding ways to get the work in front of people is big for me right now. Mostly, I plan to keep working.

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