ILLUSTRATION AS EMPATHY - INTERVIEW WITH LOS ANGELES PAINTER CELIA JACOBS
CELIA JACOBS CREATES EMPATHETIC ARTWORKS & ILLUSTRATIONS THAT REACH ACROSS TIME & SPACE TO PLAY WITH SOCIAL BOUNDARIES. SHE MODIFIES SHAPE & COLOR & SPATIAL PARAMETERS TO RECONFIGURE OUR NOTIONS OF THE HUMAN BODY. HER VISUAL WORK HIGHLIGHTS OUR ORGANIC NATURES, BODY PARTS ANIMATED BY MOTION, WORK, COMMUNICATION, & WHAT SHE FINDS BEAUTIFUL IN FORM. ILLUSTRATING REGULARLY FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES AS WELL AS CONTRACTING HER ILLUSTRATIVE WORK OUT TO OTHER BUSINESSES, & CONTRIBUTING PAINTINGS TO SHOWS & EXHIBITIONS SUCH AS HASHIMOTO IN SAN FRANCISCO, SHE BRINGS ALL OF THIS TO BEAR WITH AN INTIMACY & PERSONALITY & SOLIDITY THAT IS UNIQUELY HER OWN.
In Conversation with Alex Free
Photos Alex Free
Illustrations Celia Jacobs
Los Angeles, CA 06/11/2019
Alex Free: You’ve handled some really heavy topics, ranging across the board from immigration issues to violence against different people for their demographic data, and also the broken-heart syndrome. It can be dense, darker material sometimes, but I feel like you handle it with a lot of grace and gentleness, artistically. It respects the gravity of the thing but asks us to look at it with a light touch. How do you engage with works like that? What’s your process when you get content?
Celia Jacobs: My guiding principle is usually empathy. I’m given a story, I’m given a brief, and I think it through, identifying the main subject and the ideas that I need to get across, and that’s all pretty rational. When it gets to sketching or doing the final drawing, I’m always trying to relate to it somehow, or feel that it matters. They’re such hard stories to tell, and often hard stories to consume, too. I think of my job as making it more accessible. If I can just sort of be a door for people to walk through. You know, just a little bit of beauty, or aesthetic joy can lead people to a harder topic. I always want to treat it with that gravity, but also bring people in and ask them to think about this.
AF: I look at your work and I see a really strong feminine, or even womanly I would say, presence. It’s very robust and full and definitely female, and how do you feel about what I just said? Do you regard your own work that way, and what does that mean to you, especially treating a range of subjects from that kind of aesthetic perspective?
CJ: That’s such an interesting thing to bring up, I feel like that’s something I return to thinking about a lot. Especially when I was starting out, so much of my work was about feminism. The beginning of my career, at least as far as I think of it, was during Me Too, and I did a lot of work related to that. It’s been pretty obvious that there’s a strong feminine or relating-to-women bent to my work, but it’s also been a part of my life for a long time. Growing up as a woman is one thing and so is growing up in a very, very liberal place where we were always talking about feminism, and feminism was just accepted as a matter of fact but also something we knew was worth fighting for.
I do think about approaching work from a feminine perspective, or creating work that does come across a little more feminine, and I wonder if it relates back to the whole empathy as a guiding principle issue. I don’t know if it should be this way, but empathy is so associated with women. I don’t know if it’s right to put that as a gendered trait, it might be the way they’re approaching it, or it might just be an assumption. But I definitely think that there’s something to it, that this feminine perspective is going to be softer for heavy blows, and it’s going to have more empathy.
AF: The softness is very palpable in your work. It’s very soft and round, all the corners and the angles are neutralized with curvature.
CJ: I love representing people, and I love them being pretty round. I love representing women, and in a style of representation that pays a lot of attention to hands and feet, and faces, and treats the body like an object, not objectified, but as something very solid taking up space in the world. I don’t know if that comes through, but sometimes I think about the fleshy and solid quality of the people I’m representing.
AF: It’s very invitational. Your work is so beautiful, but I feel like I can tell that there’s something behind your paintings. I find myself thinking through the significance of placement, of expression and movement, and thinking of the piece in terms of narrative and relationships between characters. Can you tell me a little about developing these qualities in your work and deciding who you wanted to be as an illustrator?
CJ: Getting somewhere where I was starting my career and really deciding what I wanted my illustrations to be like, I think was also a time where I was really looking at the way people have been represented in media, and disgusted by a lot of lack of representation, but also by the way people are stereotypically represented. There seems to be such a set of rules for what a person is, or what are the important parts of a person.
I’m not trying to add to the pile of representations of people who are depicted according to a certain set of rules. If you’re telling a story, the torso is sort of irrelevant. I want motion in the arms and the legs, and I’ve always loved different poses, or different ways a person could sit. The personal way that I place importance on body-parts. Anything in this world obviously has different significance to us, and it’s very nice to be able to say I’m going to create my own vocabulary of what’s important, because I don’t want to accept this one that others have set out that I don’t find resonates with me at all.
AF: I’m so curious about the relation in your mind between embodiment and illustration. We have these corporeal existences, and you have to translate that to this illustrative, two-dimensional plane that largely exists in your mind, but the act of transmitting it is also very physical.
CJ: Connecting body and art, basically? It feels like such a part of it, and I definitely know that it’s a very physical experience for me. That’s one of the reasons that I paint everything by hand. For one I think I’m better at it than digital stuff, but a lot of illustrators are doing digital work and it’s been a very conscious choice for me not to do that. Part of it is I like the physical experience of painting and I feel that when you bring a physical realm, it takes a lot of the decision making outside of yourself, or outside of your mind, and instead it becomes how do I interact with the qualities of the paint? Or because my wrist is attached to my arm this way, and it moves this way, this is the curve that is going to happen, and it wouldn’t happen if I was doing very small motions on a tablet.
Where I draw and paint is such a direct translation of how I experience the world. It’s obviously my added layer. I think that because I really pay attention to organic forms, things come out really organic, because things feel really solid to me, I want things that come out really solid. I consider the way that my body is shaped, and I myself as having a solid body, comes across in the way that I treat shapes. Even though I’m a very visual person, I’m not good at experiencing something or knowing the bounds of something until I touch every part of it. When I’m driving I have no idea I am, versus walking through a place. I always think of everything that I experience as a tactile experience, because for me it has to be.
If I can connect that to art, I need to feel what I’m drawing, I need to feel the paint go down. I feel the way that I design is in terms of massive shapes touching each other. I feel like every shape in a drawing is as big as I can make it and still have everything else function and fit.
AF: What direction do you want your personal work to go?
CJ: I’ve been thinking about it, because I’ve been thinking that I would like to do more painting for myself. I love illustration, for the reasons I’ve said and especially for working with other people, but it’s such a fast process. I want to take more time with things, and allow myself to give my own ideas a little bit more weight, and say, ‘these are important.’ By translating what I’m interested in or thinking about into painting is giving it a lot more time and space and physical presence than I would, otherwise. I’m curious to spend a little more time with things. It’s all been about time, this year. The way that it just goes away. There’s something special about spending time excavating. I really just want to go somewhere and spend time with painting.
AF: At the beginning of the summer you were part of a group show at Hashimoto in San Francisco on ‘Food.’ Your submissions were paintings of a picnic scene—food and blankets and people, together. Can you tell me why you chose the theme of the picnic and what it means to you?
CJ: It feels really full of the things that I care about. Which is just, like, your friends and these moments that you have… You know when you get nostalgic for something as it’s happening? The paintings that I just did are kind of in a sunset lighting. It’s the solidity of having a physical activity with your friends that almost has artifacts associated with it, like picnic food and picnic blankets. It’s nice to have these tangible objects that represent a relationship or represent a really happy memory.
CELIA WILL BE ENGAGING IN VARDA ARTISTS’ RESIDENCY IN SS VALLEJO FROM OCT 1-31 CREATING BUT NOT LIMITED TO THE CREATION OF PAINTINGS & ILLUSTRATIVE OBJECTS OF BEAUTY, EXPLORING HERSELF & CONCEPTS OF GIVING TIME & SPACE. POSSIBLY (WE ALL HOPE) SHE WILL MAKE MUSIC. LOS ANGELES & HER DOG ARCHIE WILL MISS HER FOR FIVE WEEKS. & HERE WE ARE HOPING FOR MORE SUNSET GLOWS & IMAGES OF CONTEMPORARY NOSTALGIA FROM OUR GOLDEN-HAIRED FASHIONISTA & CONSULTANT & DEAR FRIEND. WE KNOW WE WILL BE DELIGHTED BY WHATEVER COMES NEXT.