Philosopher Albert Camus once said, “to create today is to create dangerously.” When it comes to Bay Area artist Jessica Hess, creativity spurs from lives lived dangerously. Hess, 33, is a photorealistic landscape painter, but her canvases are filled, not with scenic voids but with cropped views of urban city-scapes. Her carefully constructed paintings feature the work of major bay area graffiti artists, casual taggers, and other creatives who risk everything to leave their signature mark on city streets.
Hess’s work both validates and celebrates graffiti and street art, giving new permanence to a craft which is often transient and as fleeting as the life on the streets themselves. Looking at the present, Hess preserves the past. A featured artist on SF Station, we spoke with Hess about her work and Bay Area street art.
What drew you to the Bay Area Art Scene?
The landscapes I paint are highly saturated with street art and the Bay Area is of course one of the most graffiti-soaked places around. There are some massively talented graffiti writers and street artists here and it is great to be constantly inspired right where I live. Also, I have found galleries here to be more receptive to street art related works. I used to live in Boston and was so unhappy there. Boston has a much smaller street art scene and galleries there just weren’t interested in my graffiti landscapes. Old sticks in the mud, they were.
How has your art evolved or changed since moving from Rhode Island School of Design to the Bay Area?
My art has been evolving for 11 years now. I began painting my cityscapes in 2003 while still in art school. In the beginning they were images of factories, power plants, and warehouses around Rhode Island, but without street art.
What stoked your interest in street art?
For the first five years of my career I avoided graffiti completely. I would deliberately leave it off the buildings in my paintings because I was conflicted about including the artwork of others in my work. There were questions I had about doing this that could only be answered by graffiti artists themselves and back then I didn’t know any. It was a whole scene that I wasn’t part of and I did not understand, so for years I kept a healthy distance. Eventually I had to address street art in my work because it was present on, in and around the subjects I was focusing on and most importantly I really liked it.
By removing it from the buildings in my paintings I felt like I was not being true to my subject matter. I felt ridiculous avoiding it and thought that in my leaving it out in a painting it was the same as buffing it out, and buffing is insulting. I gradually introduced street art into my landscapes, little by little.
At my first solo exhibit a graffiti artist came up to me and said his tag was in my painting. Immediately I was nervous. To my surprise he was really excited about this. He loved my work and was happy to see his tag again as it had since been buffed. We became friends and he introduced me around to other street artists in the city. I was excited and relieved to have their blessing. It was explained to me that as long as I reproduced their work with fidelity than it was all good. Having their graffiti in my paintings was just one more place for them to get up (and stay up).
Their positive reactions gave me the confidence to be comfortable including graff and street art in my fine art in the future. Over the years I met more and more street artists and I no longer felt like a tourist. I have made some of my best friends through street art.
Your oil/gouache paintings convert street art to high art and deal with derelict streets and places the general public wouldn’t normally consider “artsy” or beautiful. Your work forces us to re-evaluate these places and respect them—or at the very least, look closer. It doesn’t just seem to be about glorifying tagging or graffiti. Can you elaborate on this?
I enjoy elevating the derelict and overlooked. Extracting beauty out of unconventional places is pleasurable, but there is a larger geometry to the work that I am creating. All of my work continues to explore the idea of deconstruction and manipulation of structures by mother nature and/or man. Street art is a fascinating alteration of surface, a step toward abstraction of the subject matter in the real world even before I manipulate it in studio.
Nature has an even more powerful effect on this so-called abstraction of a subject. In this case the change is much more physical. I am very interested in rust, weathering and decay, for starters, but things like overgrown plants reclaiming territory and larger abstractions like natural disasters and structural failure are where I am headed. For me, the aftermath of these things adds beauty and complexity to a location. I have photographed demolition sites for years but am not ready to deal so directly with this as subject matter yet.
In painting these works there is also an element of collecting for me. I encounter a location, explore it, photograph it, paint it and the end product is a painting that will (hopefully) sell and disappear from me. I have collected it however through my process. These are places that get internalized, memorized, analyzed, and filtered through me. After a painting is completed I have consumed that location. It becomes part of my mental map.
Who are your favorite favorite street artists/graffiti artists?
Brace yourself for a list and I am so sorry if I overlook anyone. This is by no means everything I like:
GATS, Jeremy Novy, E Claire Bandersnatch, DYV, Nineta Bcn Bos Ber, Blu, Above, Toro, Swampy, Odd Fellow, Pear, Depht, Joker, Dead Eyes, Alphabet Soup, Matt Siren, Dark Cloud, Sad Cloud, Broke One, El Pez, Pez, Oracle, Nina, Girl Mobb, Becca, Imp, ABCNT, Filth Grime, Eddie Cola, Faile, Elbow Toe, Get Up, CAB, Shark Toof, Nite Owl, Buffmonster, and of course Shepard Fairey (I am not a hater, it’s damn good work, I don’t care how popular he is)
What are you working on now?
I am working on paintings for two two-person shows this spring. The first is in April and will be in Portland at Breeze Block Gallery with fellow painter Brin Levinson. I will be showing medium sized works there with a focus on Portland landscapes. The second show will be here in San Francisco at Hashimoto Contemporary (which is a sister gallery of Spoke Art) this May. I will be showing with my number one favorite graffiti artist GATS. I am very excited for this! I hope to so some collaborative works with GATS. Stay tuned…
Where can we see your work locally?
I show with Spoke Art in SF, Hashimoto Contemporary in SF, Breeze Block Gallery in Portland, Abmeyer Wood in Seattle, Geoffrey Young Gallery in Western Massachusetts. Every so often I do print releases with both Spoke Art and 1xRUN. If you are interested in behind the scenes studio photos and daily graffiti wanderings I am on Instagram as JessicaHessArt.
What advice can you offer us about the creative process and pursuing art for a living?
Be confident and never give up. I was a real starving artist for a very long time. We are talking late-rent, bathtub laundry, crappy day jobs, living off crackers and cheese at art openings kind of starving. I wasn’t one of the rich kids at RISD. I was a hard working student who was very lucky to be there on scholarship.
In the 10 years after graduation I was on my own and starving but I never stopped making art. Every gallery I ever approached shot me down. I just kept making work, trying for group shows, applying for awards and eventually the right people saw me. Every gallery I work with now sought me out. All I can say is keep making art even if no one is buying it or showing it. It takes guts and a long time to make it in the art world. I am still trying myself.
What is your ultimate goal for your work?
I am invested in lifelong observation, exploration and deconstruction of my subject matter that will eventually evolve into educated and meticulous abstractions. My art will change a lot in the next twenty or thirty years, but slowly, very slowly.
I read on Refinery29 that you’re somewhat of a burrito connoisseur. What is your favorite spot?
El Tonayense has a cilantro garlic sauce they put in their veggie burritos that is out of this world. Poc-Chuc has the best carne asada I’ve had. I am still searching for better fish tacos.