All In The Family: Jessica Dessner
She may be best known as a dancer and a poet, but it was her artwork that first piqued our interest in Jessica Dessner. After seeing the covers she designed for critically acclaimed albums by Sufjan Stevens and The National, we called upon her to lend her talents to our Spring 1990 (The Other One) release. Find out how she's built a career based on creativity and how the Grateful Dead's iconic imagery inspires her in this edition of All In The Family.
Give us a little background on your upbringing and your earliest exposure to art/music/creativity…
My brothers and I were rescued from suburban Cincinnati in the 70’s by Casey, our babysitter. She would ferry us around the city in search of art adventures. I remember experimental percussion concerts, endless gallery hopping, her sister’s dingy pottery studio, sneaking into art house matinees. There was Casey and then there was ballet. Typically, I had my heart busted open by The Nutcracker. Age seven, I entered the preparatory ballet program affiliated with the Cincinnati Ballet. Classes were held in the same studios where the company rehearsed, so I spent absurd amounts of time mingling with these radical dancers from all over the world. The suburbs just faded away.
You dabble in a bit of everything – dance, writing, art. Which is your first love?
I danced and choreographed almost exclusively, in New York and Europe, until 2003, when I took an abrupt hiatus to focus on poetry. During a spell of procrastination while pursuing an MFA in creative writing, I bought a massive set of colored pencils and discovered I could draw. Now my way is to sustain all three mediums, or rather, they sustain me. There is always a drawing, a poem, a dance, in some pot somewhere. I can’t imagine life without all this possibility.
How do each of these art forms appeal to you? Do you find they work hand-in-hand?
Drawing, dancing, writing, they all hold hands in me for certain. When I am not working on a commission, I tend to migrate instinctively, from one practice to the next. Drawing and writing can’t always accommodate the cathartic physicality of dancing. Conversely, drawing and writing are my only chance to permanently capture what vanishes the moment I stop dancing.
You touched on it earlier but what is your experience with formal training?
I studied ballet at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music through high school, but academia trumped trying my luck with auditions for ballet companies. I headed to Barnard College in 1991, where I majored in dance. In 2008, I earned an MFA in creative writing with a focus on poetry, from the New School. I have no training in the visual arts. I draw from photos I take with an old Olympus point-and-shoot, which is all I can manage as I know nothing about photography other than point and shoot. I don’t know how to sketch. To draw an animal, I start with the eye and ‘build’ out.
Aside from your work on the Spring 1990 (The Other One) art, you've done album art for Sufjan Stevens and The National. How did you break into this field?
Nepotism!! I am so blessed to have such talented friends and family. There have been many friend- and family-related collaborations over the years, and I am sure there will be many more to come.
Is it more challenging to create commissioned works? What makes it interesting?
I love the parameters set by commissions as they give me an extended reprieve from those parts of my own art-making that can get bogged down by angst or doubt. The research necessary for commissions always opens whole new realms of knowledge and imagery to me, as well as new creative challenges.
Let's get into your connection with the Grateful Dead…
I think the story goes that when the Dead team at Rhino began to look for an artist for the second 1990 box set, Doran brought in my work for the Sufjan/Osso project and it felt right for everyone there. Mark Pinkus got in touch and maybe the fact that I saw the Dead in ’89 at the Cincinnati Coliseum sealed the deal? He was also thrilled about hiring a female artist for the project as he mentioned there is dearth of women on the roster of artists creating imagery for the Dead.
How does their iconic imagery appeal to you?
Before settling down to draw for this job, I combed through loads of Dead imagery and was overwhelmed by such an expansive sense of nostalgia. It was like sitting down with old friends I can always rely on to refresh an impulsive freedom of spirit and expression. As a lifelong performer, I’m drawn to the theatrical aspects of the Dead icons, the stealie ‘mask’, the romance of those roses, not to mention all the dancing. And the theater of the circus in the Without a Net art was a ball to reinvent.
Given that the Dead do have a very specific aesthetic, what were some of the challenges (and rewards!) of creating the artwork for the Spring 1990 (The Other One) box?
The best of my primary instructions was to work with a lot of color. Colored pencils, my medium, aren’t particularly loud, but I think managed to cover the color wheel. The greatest challenge was engaging with the skeleton, making certain something potentially morbid is rendered joyous and playful by color, context, and the skew of an expression. The poet in me enjoyed working through the song lyrics in search of symbolic images. Finding the right balance and placement of objects and animals to draw for the cover of each set might be analogous to coming up with a set list?
What's on tap for the rest of 2014?
I was pregnant with my first child while drawing for the Dead. Luigi Rainbow was born in June, so for now, I am on that remarkable baby odyssey. But there is some more album art on the way, and I hope, my next show of new drawings. There is also a book’s worth of poems inspired by Montaigne that I need to pass around. And four solos to choreograph for a festival in Ireland next fall.
Check out more of Jessica's work at jessicadessner.com.
"There is always a drawing, a poem, a dance, in some pot somewhere. I can’t imagine life without all this possibility." Me neither...