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Finding Connections in a Crowd: Jessica Tam on Creating Art Throughout the Pandemic and Beyond

For many artists, the pandemic has provided a silver lining for those seeking the time to create new work and seek out unconventional opportunities. For 2017 Walter Feldman Fellow Jessica Tam, the lack of crowds and empty space generated by quarantine and stay-at-home orders shone new light on her previous situation-specific pieces and provided new opportunities to reevaluate the context of the crowds depicted in her work and how her art might be received and seen in our new mid-pandemic world.

As a former Feldman Fellow, Jessica credits many of her artistic business opportunities to the community and connections formed between her cohort, the Arts & Business Council, and Walter Feldman himself. “It’s been a really great resource… the fellowship allowed me to connect with the Arts & Business Council, and, even now, I continue to go to workshops on financial planning and meet fellows, so it’s still connecting me with other people now.”

On the connections that were formed during the year-long fellowship, Jessica recalls a particular moment that solidified the impact the fellowship and the connections she would make would have both on her personal life and her career. “One of my memories of the Fellowship was an early one — [A&BC Executive Director] Jim [Grace] had rented a van and drove me, [Feldman Fellowship Coordinator] Almitra [Stanley], and Gabriel [Sosa, another 2017 Feldman 

Fellow] to Walter Feldman’s studio in Providence. There were snacks in the car, it was a really fun road trip, and Walter Feldman was a really interesting person and so generous… For him to establish this fellowship and create this community, expand his artist network and all the people he knew, and create the lasting kind of impact of the community that’s been formed through the fellowship very much connected to not just my process but artists all over the Boston area.”

Much like with her experience as a Walter Feldman Fellow, Jessica draws her artistic inspiration from a sense of community. At the start of the pandemic last year, Jessica said she did not think much of the changes that would come to impact her life, family, and art. But as the isolation wore on and the paid work dried up, she realized how important it was to keep connected with friends and creativity, something she accessed in virtual drawing groups. Jessica explains, these groups ended up “not really being about the work, [but about] just being able to make art together… I don’t know if people were as dedicated to that before the pandemic.”

Although Jessica doesn’t tend to make work that directly responds to our present-day life, she has found that these times have made her art more topical than ever and has forced her work to engage with our current world. When she originally began creating her situation-specific work in 2007  – a type of artwork, usually a painting or piece applied directly to the wall and made specifically for the space it occupies – Jessica was primarily interested in images stemming from the theatrical aspect of sports and popular culture, in addition to beginning with the question, What would it be like to be in this painting’s situation? Jessica wanted to bring the concept of the idea of walking into one of her paintings to life, something she accomplished through her first show, Welcome to the Jungle at the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton, MA in 2015. There, she created a film-like painting that wrapped around all walls, “big enough so you can’t see the edges,” to fully engage the viewer in a “surround-sound,” fully immersive encounter. Through the Walter Feldman Fellowship, Jessica was able to launch her first few series of situation-specific pieces with Leglocked and Deckle Log, both of which drew inspiration from Italian frescos, and the “experience of being in churches with a full multi-sensory experience.” 

Detail of Leglocked, site-specific pairing, 10’ high and wraps around gallery walls, 2015

 

After the fellowship ended, Jessica worked with the Connecticut River Valley Poetry Theatre in 2018 on a collaborative project called TRIAL / PROOF: Monument Field, which involved painting, printmaking, playwriting, and poetry, she constructed a tableau vivant, in which the actors became figures in her painting, acting in response to the direction of the brush strokes and color, creating a performance that was directly influenced by Jessica’s question that prompted her to create the piece: Can you hear a sound in a painting?

Now, Jessica confronts even more questions surrounding “the power of a mass of people.” Reexamining how the context of crowds have changed during the pandemic has prompted Jessica to look more closely at their potential for destruction, now reframed by disease and isolation. The pandemic and the various social justice protests that have sprung up in the wake of 2020 have forced Jessica to wrestle with the challenge of capturing “the frenzy of our current movement.” Still, she hopes to “create work that simultaneously can be read so many different ways and in so many different contexts.” She likes to pose questions that can then be answered through the work, whether creating it or viewing it. “Each time I’m experimenting, I start with a question…. My experiments make a painting and make the next painting… Each iteration is pushing forward to something different and trying to expand the scope, [which leads into]What else can I do with the materials?

The immersion aspect is also a huge part of why she creates, says Jessica. “I wanted to make pieces that were much larger than my own body, to create something from physically exhausting work… I wanted that challenge”.

As a new mother, more recently Jessica has drawn inspiration from her daughter born during the pandemic. “She’s trying to learn about all the different sounds you can make. As her world is expanding, she’s learning to navigate through it, and that’s kind of what I’m doing in terms of painting these worlds too, is trying to expand that as I work, how can I be in this painting and have multiple perspectives at the same time? How can I offer simultaneous multiple perspectives? I left that to the situation-specific work, with being able to look at this painting on this wall and this wall and have it changed by taking one step to the right, one step to the left. She’s doing this human need to explore, but also to connect as well, and I think that’s so connected to what artists do where we’re very much wanting to observe, process, and communicate and then ultimately connect with other people through the work itself.”

UNTITLED (from Launch Series 10)

Jessica Tam creates situation-specific paintings that stem from popular sport and entertainment, and evolve into immersive fictional environments. She has exhibited nationally and received grants from the Clowes Fund at the Vermont Studio Center, the NEA at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Al Held Foundation at the American Academy in Rome. Recently her work has been featured in The Boston Globe and Area Code, New England’s newest contemporary art fair that ran online and onsite around Greater Boston in August 2020.

Check out her recent work with The Gatherings Project, exhibited at Patricia Rovzar Gallery in Seattle, WA and Gail Severn Gallery in Ketchum, ID. Two of Jessica’s pieces are in the box begun by artist Laura McPhee and poet Jane Hirshfield: https://gatheringsproject.com/box-contents.

Be sure to view her upcoming work in her solo exhibition at the Oresman Gallery at Smith College (postponed due to pandemic, exhibition dates TBA) and her upcoming curatorial and exhibition project with artists Amanda Maciuba and Jen Morris to be exhibited at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton, MA in 2022. This show will explore the intersection between political and natural environments, and the suggested ideology that the shared language these two spheres evoke. Links will be posted on Jessica’s website when closer to exhibition dates: jessicajtam.com

Untitled (from Launch series of 10), oil on panel, 24 x 49 inches, 2013
RED/RANK/RALLY: Gatherings, monotype, 8.5 x 8.5 inches, 2020.

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