Ted Hendricks in Conversation with Painter Jessica Damen

Jessica Damen has been painting seriously, “professionally,” she would say, for about 15 years. In that time she has produced a original and provocative body of work. I spoke to Damen in her spacious, sunny studio in Woodberry about her development as an artist and the direction her work is taking.

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Ted Hendricks: You didn’t begin painting professionally until you were middle-aged.

I had a talent for art really early, but I didn’t do anything with it for many years. I was a pediatric nurse, and I taught pediatric nursing. and so on and so forth. I became a mother and raised three children. Then, I started feeling really dead because I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do, and I started telling myself,  “Oh I’ll just take some Chinese brush painting lessons. It’s not going to be too serious. I’ll just do this so that I can get back into it.” Well, you know I don’t do anything half-assed, so after that I was taking lessons and practicing every day. I was really going full force with it.

I started taking courses at the Corcoran—you asked me how I learned how to draw—I took a lot of courses. At that point I was living in DC—we’re talking about, in the ’80s—I didn’t move to Baltimore until 2001.

In 1996 I entered the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate program at MICA. I had drawing, some printmaking, a color course. The whole idea behind the post baccalaureate program at MICA was taking people who already had a pretty good body of work but needed refinement, and that was me. I had been doing so much artwork, but I needed refinement, and I needed more of an artistic context. I was doing this self-learning, a lot of self-learning, aside from the courses at Corcoran. It was a much more rigorous program than the one at the Corcoran. I commuted from Washington for a while, then I finally rented an apartment here, and then a studio. I felt more at home in Baltimore.

I had a wonderful survey course on the history of art from Sue Lowe—do you know her, Sue Lowe? She’s a neat lady. I knew that I wanted to study with Grace Hartigan—don’t ask me why. It really didn’t have so much to do with her being a famous artist as that I read an article about her, and I knew she’s got the kind of personality that I could relate to and I thought she’d make a difference for me.

And so finally in 1999 I got accepted into the Hoffberger School of Painting. I applied three times—I’m very determined—and on the third try I got in. And as I said, Grace was the one who said, “You’ve had a life. Don’t follow the trends. Just paint what means something to you.” She’d say I was a “hot” painter—there’s “cold” painters, strictly analytical. But Grace told me, “So you don’t have that analytical side to you; you’re a hot painter or an emotional painter. Just paint what you like.” She was so right. I do my best painting, I think, when I’m really connected to whatever it is that I’m expressing.

One thing led to another. Between the first and second year of graduate school, that’s when I figured out how to work with a pallet knife, that there was a way for me to take what I’d learned about doing strong brushwork, but not use a brush. Load the palette knife and you can get all these variations in hue and value with one stroke you know. So I worked that out. I’ve been working it out for years.

And when I was finished at MICA I received a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. And it was there I met this wonderful poet named Maj Ragain, and he was the one who got me all excited about mythology and how relevant mythology is to today.

He was the one who first told me about the Leda and the Swan myth. And one thing led to another there. Maj is still alive. He lives in Ohio. We see each other every once in a while. Hopefully we’ll do some more collaborative work.

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You have a good command of both anatomy and perspective. Did you have had a lot of training in figure drawing?

I had a leg up with anatomy, especially children’s, because I was a pediatric nurse for so many years. I remember once doing a painting where the photographic references were just absolutely horrible. Obviously it’s hard to find a baby model, so I basically started recalling when I was a nurse, you know, palpating the heads of children and feeling their arms. There’s a lot of memory that comes into my doing the figure.

There are times when you start really feeling the movement too. If I’m like having an issue and I’m not getting it right I actually will do the movements myself so I can feel it. I had to do that when I was working on that series of the women wrestling [Epic Wrestlers, 2009]. I’m not photographing myself. I’m just a feeling like what is tight? Oh, when I do this this muscle gets tight. When I turn like this this stretches—it’s very visceral you know. Honestly I don’t do this all the time, but if I’m doing some real motion and real energy, yeah, I’ll do the energy myself. You know, feel the energy and then try to paint it.

Because I do so much photographic reference there is a point sometimes when my mind switches—”This is not a photograph, you’re in there.” It’s like turning off the object-subject thing, becoming blended and melded, you know.

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I see two themes in your earlier paintings, children and classical mythology. What’s the connection?

When I started painting, I’d raised three children. My elder daughter is a lawyer. My son has a film and video production company in New York, and my younger daughter is planning on becoming a nurse practitioner working with PTSD patients. I started trying to portray the conflicts and anxieties of adolescents. My Two Selves, for example, suggests that the boy on the right—he’s attractive, but still awkward—thinks he has a darker self.

The boys’ pose looks familiar . . .

I got the pose from those Greek statues of young men, kouroi. Square shoulders, arms at the sides, one foot slightly ahead.

But these figures don’t look nearly as confident.

They aren’t, they’re just boys.

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I see the same awkwardness in your group portraits of teen-aged girls: Say Cheese or (They’re) A Quick River in a Green Time.

Yes. In those paintings I was exploring how girls in their early teens deal with their emerging sexuality, those new bodies they’re not sure how to present to the world.

Did you turn to classical myth because of its emotive power?

Oh, gosh, yeah. The stories are so violent and sexual and human and unintellectual. There’s this earthiness about it you know. If you look at the Bible as myth you see stuff like, “I will throw the enemies of my children down the ramparts” and stuff like that. This is expressing rage that people feel because of something that happened or what was the antecedent, you know? And that was the kind of rage people feel, the pain they experience. That’s the kind of rage that I feel when I paint. But the myths are about human nature and human beauty too.

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So in the series about Leda, Leda herself seems to get altered.

Yeah, yeah.

I’m thinking of the Rock-a-Bye Baby series. Leda is very erotic, naked, except for the track shoes, in the tree.

(Laughs) “Naked with track shoes in the tree!” It was fun! I wanted to protect her feet.

Is she, what, rejecting the baby?

“Rock-a-Bye Baby” is a jingle that some people think, you know, that it came from the 16th century or maybe when the colonists came to the Americas and they saw the children in the cradles and so on. But I remember once cradling one of my babies and singing this lull-a-bye “Rock-a-bye baby in the tree-top” and thinking “This is really a hostile song,” really. But who doesn’t, what parent, mother father, doesn’t everyone’s say, “I wish this baby would just stop crying?” Obviously most, 99.9 per cent of people don’t do what that song expressing, but it is a more acceptable way of expressing hostility. I think if anybody is least honest about it, she occasionally feels that way.

Is she throwing the baby? I don’t know. Is she trying to rescue the baby? I leave it purposely ambiguous. The song is not ambiguous, but the narrative in the painting is a little ambiguous. There’s also a lot of ambivalence. How do you express ambivalence? Through ambiguity in the message, I think.

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I see the same ambiguity in Mountain Mama, particularly in that tutu she’s wearing.

That tulle skirt? Yes, it’s transparent.

Is that a way of conveying two sides of her?

That’s a good interpretation. This is all part of that whole thing of “Who’s looking at you, kid?” and that series of women making a pose and trying to convey an image. I think the hands are very delicate—I really like that. And the vibrant smile on her face.

The reason I made her so tall is that every mother is a giant to every child. But she’s aloof. She’ not quite there, and there’s a yin-yang characteristic of the two girls. You know you’ve probably seen those medieval paintings of the Madonna and the Madonna’s got all the little children underneath. A woman is not just a Madonna nor is she just a Marilyn Monroe, you know? So there is a little bit of reference there. The skirt is transparent; you get some reference, it’s not in your face, but some reference the pubis, and she’s wearing high heels. She’s dressed to impress. And yet she’s a mother. The child sees the mother as God as child, you know.

I see the same techniques in your topical paintings as in the more expressive ones.

I wouldn’t dispute that. You’re talking about the things that I usually call social commentary. There’s the layering, the use of “flights of fancy,” where there’s cohesion but not necessarily a logical narrative there. I started this painting, Touch Me Not, after the killings at Emmanuel Church in Charleston last summer. I took the young man from a photograph of a white schoolboy, dated 1869.

He’s got his hand in his jacket, like Napoleon.

Right. The South’s been defeated, but he’s still being raised to be in command. The Confederate flag has the motto “Touch Me Not” as if the young man will never be touched by history. The flag, the white boy, the two black children picking cotton all partly overlap, but on top of them all is the red X across the painting, as if there’s a bull’s eye over them all.

There is a progression in the technique, as you can probably see, where I didn’t do much wash there. Everything was really thick paint in those early ones, and I wanted to experiment a little more with what I could do with wash and using the impasto paint with a pallet knife, could I combine that, would that work well?

Now after some many years challenging myself to create a unique painting style, that is, my own visual idiom through my use of washes, expressive lines, impasto paint well, these techniques are now confidently my tool chest with which I can better get the message of my painting across to the viewer.

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Do you have any ideas for the immediate future, any new directions?

I’m working on a “prelude” to my early painting Leda and the Angry Swan. This new painting is a response to the poem that Maj Ragain wrote about my earlier Leda. The poem begins, “I lie in the wreckage of my longing / which called him down to me” [“Leda’s Voice, Under Sky, Over Water”].

I have been troubled by the first two lines of this poem.  Just what longing “called him down to me”? Was it a yearning for the brilliance and energy of the sun? Or a sexual yearning?

These are paintings I’ve been doing on paper and hanging them up and stringing them. It was pretty much of an experiment. I want to see where I can take that using a clothes hanger. I just saw this horrible article that in Texas a woman is being charged for murder because she used a clothes hanger to induce an abortion. I was a young nursing student at Bellevue—that was in 1970-71. New York State had actually legalized its abortion law a lot earlier than Roe vs. Wade came down, so there were a lot of women coming to New York to get abortions. They were so desperate for legal abortion that most of those abortions, unfortunately, were very late term. Late—it was before viability, but they were early second trimester abortions.

I’m getting off a little bit on to politics here, but I think the crazy puritanical attitudes about sex and birth control and abortions in this country are making the situation worse. This is just like what happened in New York; there is less opportunity for people to make reasoned decisions depending upon what they need and what’s important. Then being desperate and doing something desperate like that woman in Texas. They basically set up a situation where she was desperate.

It’s all about attitudes about sex. It’s all right for the god to change himself into a swan. Maj wrote a response poem to it, “Leda’s Voice, Under Sky, Over Water.” The first two lines of the poem Maj wrote talk about that, about blaming the victim: “I lie in the wreckage of my longing / which called him down to me.”

This is part of what I’m going into in this next painting. But I don’t know exactly where it’s going to go. That’s part of the thrill. As I said I like being a little bit on my own— “Gee, I have good ideas,” —but I need that anxiety to really make the painting go.

And I’ve been doing this series that’s little bit calmer, smaller ones responding in paint to two different poets. One is Maj Ragain. He’s very visceral. I’m real attuned with Maj. He’s also very spiritual; he integrates Buddhism and Sufism and just his own honesty.

The other poet is Janet Lewis. She’s also a free verse poet like Maj Ragain. I’ve never met her. She died I think in the early 90s. [Janet Lewis lived from 1899 to 1998.] She wrote the poems that I’m referencing from 1918 to like 1988. Her poems are almost Zen-like, really restrained, but there are a lot of references to being a parent and the people in her life she loves. She did a whole series of poems on Native Americans, and you could almost feel, the smell the dirt under her fingernails.

These are what I’m working on now. These are my “parent pieces.” This one [Reborned as an Old Man] is in relation to a poem Maj wrote, “An Old Man Lies Down with the Lion.” The poem is about accepting disappointment.

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The dragon in the poem is what we, and others, expect of ourselves?

Right. When you slay that dragon, you’re reborn. In the painting I imagine this child playing baseball and flubbing. Everyone is looking, everyone is staring. The ball is so big. And there is the glove, and the ball is not even in there. Maybe someone else got it, maybe the pitcher. These people are glaring. And then there’s this sense of, “Just run the base. Who knows what’s going to happen?” And there’s the old man, he’s got his heart in his hand. He’s also got the ball in his hand.

I finished this one, I Am Here, in June. It’s another related to a poem of Maj’s, “Let the Dolphin Dance.” There are dolphins dancing between the father and child’s heads. And she is stepping on a large rockfish that has a gaping mouth.

Maj does a very long narrative poem here. This image came from someone I knew. She shared a couple of photographs. I was so struck by this image of a father staring at a baby. I couldn’t make any sense out of it. Maj’s poem helped me to understand the father’s ambiguous expression.

Lacing Life and Death is my response to one of Janet Lewis’s poems, “Meadow Turf.” I’m intrigued by how expressively I’m responding to these poets in very different ways. Like my paint handling; people know they’re my paintings but there’s something different about them.

Here’s the poem. You want me to read it?

“Goldenrod, strawberry leaf, small bristling aster, all
Loosestrife, knife-bladed grasses, lacing their roots, lacing
The life of the meadow into a deep embrace
Far underground, and all their shoots wet at the base
With shining dew, dry-crested with sun,
Springing out of a mould years old;
Leaves, living and dead whose stealing
Odors on whole bright air shed healing—
O heart, here is your healing, here among
The fragrant living and dead.”

This is what I love this idea of placing life and death together in the meadow. Three quarters of the picture is underground. And the boy here is a reference to my son, four years old. He was climbing walls, racing ahead, I wondered if he was really going to make it.

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Author Ted Hendricks lives in Remington and teaches philosophy at Stevenson University. He is at work on a critical biography of the novelist Stephen Dixon.

(The text of “Meadow Turf” is from Poems Old and New: 1918-1978, by Janet Lewis. Athens, Ill.: Swallow Press / Ohio University Press, 1981.)

You can see Damon’s work in person in the 3rd Biennial Maryland Regional Juried Art Exhibition. The exhibition will run from September 18 to December 31, 2016, in the, University of Maryland, University College, UMUC Arts Program Gallery in Adelphi, Maryland.