"What I try most to express is the fluidity of memory. Places and times can blur together, or have very sharp, focused edges. Seeing an image can remind you of something else from a completely different time and place. This is how stories start, how stories are shared. I just try to be a conduit for those."
It's always nice to meet another Jes. Especially Jes Lee.
I admire how Jes explores nature, landscape, and the environment through her layered and interdisciplinary photography. Her use of narrative, history, and impact in her art is rich and compelling too. Her recent exhibitions explore all of these very themes. One show is an ecological comment on water and light and the other is an intriguing study of a human being through the places and spaces they inhabit.
Jes is a photographer and printmaker, living and working in Minneapolis, MN. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota in 2003. She studied book arts and printmaking at Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Like me, she enjoys reading and traveling. She has a number of fiber-related hobbies, mostly to justify her desire to buy pretty fabric and yarn. I can relate!
Her day job includes being one of the studio technicians at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in the Visual Arts Department. She lives in a house at the top of a hill with her significant other, and two spoiled house rabbits.
Please read on to learn more about Jes. In this interview, she talks about her recent shows, the processes she uses to create her photography, and what she loves most about being an artist.
Jes: I am interested in the ways you push the boundaries of photography. Can you describe your process and when you first began this approach?
Jes Lee: I have been interested in making multiple exposure images since my first photography class in college. I loved how surreal they could be, how two images together could completely change the story told by just one. During my BFA degree, I took a class on Photoshop, and learned to scan negatives and layer bits of images together, having full control over how the parts blended together. It continued from there.
One part of my practice is creating images digitally. I photograph using mostly medium format film, scan it in to a digital format, and manipulate it in Photoshop. These images exist in the world as prints, and books. This process I have been using since that Photoshop class. The layering of images is a process that takes place mostly subconsciously. I collect images, sort through them, and wait for something to catch my eye. It all goes from there.
The other part of my practice involves printmaking. I use the same process of digitizing negatives, and creating a layered image in Photoshop. The image is printed on a transparency, which I use to expose the image on a hard plastic, light sensitive photopolymer plate. The image is etched onto the plate. I ink the plate by hand, and print the image using an etching press. This process I learned five years ago in a workshop at Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Every time I make an image using this process, it is a practice. I learn new things about it, usually the hard way.
I get very different results between the two techniques. The story within the image dictates what medium I use for the image.
I learned photography using film. While a large portion of my work is done digitally, I still start out almost always photographing using film. I have a relationship with those cameras.
What are you looking to express most through your photography?
What I try most to express is the fluidity of memory. Places and times can blur together, or have very sharp, focused edges. Seeing an image can remind you of something else from a completely different time and place. This is how stories start, how stories are shared. I just try to be a conduit for those.
Tell me about your recent exhibitions with The Phipps and Concordia College. What was it like to organize these bodies of work? What went into these pieces too? What are the themes you are exploring?
Both were continuations of series I have been exploring for a while.
Gathering Water and Light which was on display at The Phipps in Hudson is a series I have kept going back to for many years. It explores our relationship as humans with water and light, too much of each: light pollution, flooding; or too little of each: darkness, freezing, drought. The exciting part of putting together this exhibit was going through pieces I have created over the last few years, and looking at them critically. It was a chance to change their story a bit, and create new work. In May, I finished a year-long project of photographing Lake Superior every month. I was able to create new work from those images, and incorporate it into this series. That was really exciting, to focus on a different aspect of the water side of the series.
The Digital Dreams of You series was at Concordia University in St. Paul. It started out as a way to explore creating Photopolymer Photogravure prints, to teach myself the medium and master it. (I have not mastered it, but I have improved from my first attempts!) The basis for this project is a digital personal assistant that becomes sentient and falls in love with their human. They gather information about their person by analyzing the images this human collects, the places this human visits, objects and trails left behind by this human and others. An attempt to understand what being human means, combining and comparing images to get a more complete understanding. The project grew way beyond what I first imagined. With this series I was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant that allowed me to purchase my own etching press. I was awarded a solo exhibition in Iowa at the Octagon Center for the Arts, as well as the solo show at Concordia. Being able to exhibit it at Concordia gave me a chance to once again edit the series, and make new work for it. I don’t believe I am completely finished with this series yet.
Having two large exhibitions at the same time was exhilarating, and completely exhausting. The end right before the exhibitions opens is always the hardest, editing, editioning, cleaning, framing, etc. I am really proud of the work I created, and how the exhibitions turned out.
Do you work with other mediums?
Besides photography and printmaking, I also use book arts and ceramics as mediums to create with.
What is your studio practice like?
This is a tough question to answer! My studio practices change a lot based on the time of year, what I’m working on, etc. I am always ready to collect images. I always have a camera with me, ready to photograph what I see when I want. Some weeks I spend a lot of time developing film, scanning negatives, and sorting images. I share a studio space (that once existed as a science lab) with two amazing women. No matter what I’m working on (digitally layering images, pulling prints, making books) I try to work and be in that space at least twice a week. During the summer, I don’t work my day job, so I am at the studio a lot more. I tend to work on smaller things during the school year, the little pieces of larger ideas, practicing a new medium, collecting images and ideas, things like that. I don’t always have as much time as I would like, so working on smaller things that I can accomplish in less time is much less frustrating. Over the summer I have a lot more time to be in the studio, so I try to save the big things, finishing series and editions, long days of printing, pulling together all the little things I have finished into something larger to be done over the summer.
What are some challenges you face as an artist? What do you need to help you and your career?
Currently, a lot of my struggles come from myself. I was quite burned out after all the work I did on those two exhibitions. For a long time, I didn’t want to create anything, didn’t have any ideas, didn’t know where to go next. That was mentally hard to get through. I tried to be patient, and give myself space. I’m finally coming through it I think. I have some ideas, and some new ideas that I’m really looking forward to working on. For me, being patient and kind to myself, and just being ok with not always creating something new and spectacular is often the toughest part.
What do you love the most about being an artist?
I love how it has taught me to create something from nothing. To gather a bunch of images, or paper, or ink, or whatever, and make something completely different out of it. Being an image maker, especially a photographer, has a unique feeling. When someone looks at old photos, from 50 years ago, they see what life was like back then. Someone witnessed that exact moment and captured it. That is the basis of photography. Someone in the future will look at the images I have created, and see what I witnessed of life as it is now. It is a magical, and humbling experience.
Where can we find you online?
My website is a constant work in progress, and I am making peace with that. Most of my newest work is up there. I am also on Instagram quite a bit.
Is there anything else you would like to share, Jes?
Thank you for asking me to be a part of this!
All images courtesy of the artist.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.