Dessie Jackson, Fine Artist | Los Angeles, CA
Growing up I was always drawing. I was really interested in it and I kept doing it - it kind of took the place of playing. So, instead of going upstairs to my room and playing with Barbies, I would draw fairies and copy out of magazines, books and everything. I continued to do that through high school. I took art classes, AP Art and all that, and then took some classes at PCAD - Pennsylvania College of Art & Design, doing figure drawing and portfolio building.
I then went to school in Philadelphia..Tyler School of Art and I got my BFA in painting, drawing, sculpture. In college I think that's when it kind of all happened. It clicked for me. I started putting my artwork online. I think that's what kind of got the ball rolling a little bit. My work, started to gain an audience that wasn't just my classmates. It started to put more eyes on my work. I started exploring Philadelphia post-college. I showed in Philly, I had a few select exhibitions. From there, I moved to New York for a brief amount of time and then after a year in New York, I moved to Los Angeles and I've been here now for almost three years.
Most recently I have been working with oil paint. I've been exploring painting more over the past two years. I’d say that my favorite medium is charcoal. I love drawing because that's the first thing that I've ever done and I feel that skillset, technically is where I'm the strongest. When I draw and when I use charcoal or pencil, it just comes the most naturally. I also like to work with collage, which is funny because that’s more behind the scenes, more part of a bigger process. I don't always show that as a finished project. Some sometimes it informs my paintings or informs my drawings.
I like the materiality of paper a lot. When I collage, it's mostly from magazines - beauty or fashion. I like the glossiness of that and I try to emulate it through my paintings. That's why I've been exploring painting more and oil paint specifically, because you can get the shine and different parts can be matted. You don't have as much flexibility with other media. With paint, you can do so much with it, you can build it out, you can have it really, really thin.
It just has farther reach, where pencil and paper and charcoal for me doesn’t as much. But, I still like charcoal and drawing the best. It's my favorite.
“It’s a beautiful thing - this blank canvas. Sometimes you're scared. You're scared to put the first mark on the canvas and I think that's why drawing is still my favorite. To me, it's scrappier.”
What's a typical day in the life, of Dessie Jackson?
If I have a full studio day, I like to treat my studio practice like a work day. So, I wake up. Everybody wakes up haha.
Coffee…I take some time normally to go through emails and just do computer work. I sort through the day and figure out what I'm doing. From there, if I'm not in the middle of a painting or a project, I try to warm up.
Warming up could be drawing something, quick sketchbook stuff, collaging. Then I kind of dive into the piece...if I have a piece that I'm in the middle of. A lot of it is research based. A lot of that is looking at imagery. A lot of it is reading. My work is informed by different essays. So, research or warm up and then I'll start painting. Normally music has to be on. It's music or no music. I've gone the path of listening to podcasts and stuff and I get a little distracted. I've even tried sometimes to do TV if I was doing something small and it doesn't really work for me either.
When I'm in the middle of a piece, a serious piece, I normally do two hour increments and then I'll break - whether it be for a meal or even returning to checking phone or computer or getting coffee to break it up. Then I'll dive back in.
Sometimes I do work at night if I'm really excited about a piece, which is nice because it's quiet and your phone isn't blowing up as much, you're not getting emails at night and just quieter outside. So yeah, that’s my studio practice.
How did you first become interested in art?
I think I got really lucky. I think that when I was younger I figured it out. When you're really young, it's an activity that your parents or a babysitter or somebody gives to you - “here’s a coloring book or paper and pencil, do what you will.” I think I figured out really quickly that I enjoyed it. Specifically, I enjoyed copying images which is most of my work. I'm starting to explore different outlets but it’s pretty heavily photo based. Normally just as reference. But, that’s where the piece comes from..or at least is inspired by.
I always found a lot of joy and it was kind of a challenge seeing a photo or an image and then copying it. That's where I got the “Aha” moment! I think I found a lot of joy in it. When I was younger, specifically, I would make a lot of characters and comic books. The characters were all girls, you know, they were projections of me in forms of little fairy or fantastical creatures. I think I was influenced a lot by TV shows and the tropes of media and cinema- this is the assigned smart girl, the nerdy girl and this is the sporty girl.
This is this identity and this identity and this identity. From there I would assign personality traits. I would assign costume and hair. That's what I really dove into. I kind of made them separate characters.
So you gave your art life?
Yeah, I think so. I think I tried to! Each character that I created had a full file! I would attach the little comic books with bobby pins. I still have them all. They're so funny!
Growing up, both of my parents worked in education, so that required them to be at work really early. We'd leave my house at 6:30 or something and my mom had to travel a little bit to get to work, so we would get dropped off to this woman's house named June. She watched me and my brother and a lot of other kids. June is from Japan and she's a huge influence on my work because growing up all I would look at were Japanese magazines, imagery, movies and TV. June really fed that machine of me wanting to make. She's super creative. I would call her an artist as well. She'd always have crafts and things for us to do and paint.
I would start to copy those images, you know, and she would teach me how to paint traditionally, Japanese imagery, with watercolor and ink. I even would write my name in Japanese characters. That was kindergarten through sixth grade. I’ve been in touch with her since then too. I went to Japan with her a few years ago. I think June is a huge influence on my work and growing up and finding that voice, exploring different kinds of art and continuing to copy images.
It wasn't until I was 18...that I was confronted by the questions of “why?” Why am I copying these images? Why am I specifically drawn to the images that I make? Then I started to again ask the questions of why specifically these images? Why am I drawn to these things? Asking the “why” definitely helped.
That's what I try to continue to do to continue to make more work.
It wasn't until I was 18...that I was confronted by the questions of “why?” Why am I copying these images? Why am I specifically drawn to the images that I make? Why specifically these images? Why am I drawn to these things? Asking the “why”definitely helped. That's what I try to continue to do to continue to make more work.
At this point in your life, what role does art play?
My work plays a lot of different roles in my, in my life. One, it's career, which is interesting. I wouldn't have it any other way, but that’s the main one. It’s funny, there's career where I'm building a body of work for myself. I'm doing my own research and stuff. But, I also have people who I do private commissions or work on projects for. It makes me happy. I enjoy it and it's entertaining for me. I still have those “Aha!” moments that I had when I was younger. But, I think the “Aha!” moment is getting rarer and rarer as I grow as an artist. You start to look at things more objectively and through a certain lens. My work is for me, but at the end of the day as a working artist you look at things differently with more criticism, more experience - the way you view your art becomes narrower. Well, harsher - I’m definitely my biggest critic.
When you're younger you're a little more free, but that's why I enjoy the process of when I'm collaging a lot. I feel a little bit freer. I can explore more and I think that has to do a lot with materiality, whereas painting is more of a commitment. A tube of paint is X amount of money, you know what I mean? And if it's a blank canvas you’re working with, even just prepping it - you make the stretcher or you buy a pre-made one and then you stretch the canvas and then from there..it’s such a process.
It’s a process just to make the surface of what you're going to create something on. It’s a beautiful thing - this blank canvas. Sometimes you're scared, you're scared to put the first mark on the canvas and I think that's why drawing is still my favorite because to me it's scrappier. I can crumple it up and throw it away. It's way more economically friendly as opposed to a painting where I think it does hold more of a weight of masterpiece. You have the flexibility with a drawing to a erase or just throw it out. To draw, you just need something that makes a mark. You could have a pen, you could use lipstick…anything!
Anything that can make a mark with you can draw with. You can draw with a match, you can draw on a window with droplets outside after it rains. With oil paintings specifically, there is so much more involved, which is what makes great paintings. That's why I really enjoy looking at paintings. I think more labor goes into them sometimes. I’m of course speaking very generally. But , for me, that's the difference.
Finish this sentence for me. “Art has the power to__________.”
I think art has the power to create a narrative. It's history. It's writing something that is more than just what’s within a history book. It's coming from the ego and the personality of the artist who is creating it. Art has the power to make commentary on where we're at and what year it is and the political climate and economic climate. I think it's a very powerful tool of storytelling, whether it be narrative or or not.
With this power in mind, we're obviously in the midst of a turning point in terms of the conversation about women and are witnessing an incredible movement. What role does art play in that? Has there been a shift in culture for women identifying artists?
I think art can certainly impact how we view politics or whatnot. It's hard because I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful that the voice of women becomes louder and has more of a presence. But it is tough because within the art world, it's still very dominantly straight, white, men. We still have a very long way to go to change the narrative within this very classist art world and hierarchy of it. It’s a privilege to be able to paint and to make things. A huge privilege. For women identifying artists, I think it's important to continue to be make artwork that's true to their voice. It’s still a battle and I think within that we have to keep pressing on.
We have to continue to make and not wait for specific gatekeepers. We need to continue to make your our narrative and break whatever rules. I think it's important to show your work in group shows with not just women. I think it's important to show work to show we're all here and not to follow the trope of what is “women made artwork.” There are a lot of stereotypes involved with that. It’s important to continue to create a dialogue. Through art this is made very possible and very accessible. Also, with the the Internet and social media, it’s becomes accessible to those who have access to the Internet. It's a great thing to be able to have access to these images. People who don't necessarily have access to go to the Met or LACMA or something…but, there is Google.
You've won awards and you've been recognized for your work. Your work is a little more public now. What responsibility do you feel as an artist in terms of the work you put out there into the world?
As people are seeing more of my work, there is a responsibility to an extent in terms of what I'm creating. It's just being a little bit more self aware. When I was younger, I made things and then I put them in my drawing drawer. Now, I still have that drawing drawer and a sketchbook where I make my own work and it's for my eyes only.
My body of work is…I wouldn't say political, but I definitely am exploring things that I think are important and that my audience thinks are important, or somebody who isn't maybe a part of my audience would be able to learn something or gain some sort of insight from it. But, at the end of the day, I think it's just my responsibility to stay true to my voice. I also I think there's a responsibility of an artist to just know what is going on. Be involved, do your research - that’s the most important thing is to do your research with everything. I think that's my responsibility as an artist and just as somebody who has the privilege to vote. It’s good to be aware and know what's going on. If you want to make work about it that's great, if you don't think you're making work about it, that's great, but you still are because you're living with the, under the umbrella of it. It's just important to know where you stand, what you're voting for, things like that. I think that's your responsibility. That's anybody's responsibility as someone who has access to information.
What does it mean to be powerful?
It sounds a little contradictory, but I think to be powerful is to have the ability to listen. I think a lot of power comes in listening. Specifically listening to things that are quiet. Or to voices that are quiet.
Also, being true to your voice. I think that's very powerful.
Power is being able to listen and to process. When I visualize power I visualize somebody on top of a hill with their fist up, but I think that's a cartoon idea of power.
If you want to find true power within yourself, it's having the ability to sit down and listen. I think it’s very powerful to have that knowledge. That's what I'm getting at - acquiring knowledge by listening. That's where power lies.
Can you think of a time that you felt powerful?
I think if somebody reaches out to me or comes up to me and says that they enjoy my work or that it has meant something to them or that it's an inspiration or they say “I made this because you made this.”
When I’m putting something out there that is being regurgitated or seen or listened to, that’s when I feel it. I feel the weight- like this is not just me making fairy sketches and putting them in my drawer anymore. This is a little different. It always catches me by surprise when that happens because, you know, I'm in my apartment or my studio making it. It's just me and my work and I forget that it's bigger than that sometimes. I think that's powerful.
I think that it makes me feel that I'm contributing something. Especially when women or young artists or students, who are interested in art, say that something that I'm making has pushed them to make something or look into something or whatnot. I think that’s where I feel the most powerful. That's the reason that listening to others is powerful. People are always not always listening.
"It sounds a little contradictory, but I think to be powerful is to have the ability to listen. I think a lot of power comes in listening. Specifically listening to things that are quiet. Or to voices that are quiet."
Would you say you feel powerful when you don't put something in your drawing, but you instead put it out there for the public to see?
It's weird. I think it's a contradictory feeling that I have, because I get a different sort of gratification and pleasure when it comes to work that is more so just for me. It's tough because for me I really try not to let that dictate the work that I'm making or what I'm putting out there. So, there are different levels to it, you know? , When I make something and I post it on Instagram and it gets a lot of likes and comments, that doesn't mean it's necessarily good… and vice versa. I can put something up there that I'm super stoked on. Something that is a breakthrough for me and I won't get that response. But it’s remembering that at the end of the day I'm making because it's for me, it's mine.
Going back to the idea of power. It’s powerful to be very self aware. I could be making work that would be getting this sort of traction, knowing that it’s not what I want to make or I can stay true and authentic to what I actually do want to make.
I've tried really hard to always do that - to not cut a corner just because I know that it will be received well or something.
Have there been any challenges you faced recently? Not just as an artist, but as a young female living in a new city or in your career.
For me as a woman in general, it's hard because I think people are interested in the author. Who is making the artwork is important.
Say I make a painting. Is it different if you knew that John Smith made that same painting? Does the narrative change? It certainly changes! I think that it’s good and bad.
Someone will reach out and they'll ask about my work or whatnot. I don't know if this would be the same conversation if I was John Smith. I've definitely been put into situations where I didn't think that would be the situation. Where I thought it would be a meeting or someone interested in a piece and it turned out to be some sort of date.
It gives me a bad feeling because I want to be treated as a professional artist if that's the umbrella that we're working under. It's the personal-professional relationship. I’m a cis-identifying straight woman and I think that just dealing with that kind of identity and me wanting my work to be treated with the utmost respect - I try and demand that as an artist and as an individual. But, I think sometimes people don't take it as seriously because of how I present myself.
That's been a challenge, a hard challenge…being taken seriously for what I have to say.
This is a challenge that a lot of women face. A lot of women face it much more so than I do. It's important to acknowledge and remember that. It comes to this is really packed conversation of identity and the artwork that you make and how close you are to that and how much you put yourself in front of your artwork. It's not a lot to ask to be treated the same way.
People want you to be put in one box, not in multiple. That's the constant challenge for most women - to be able to be funny and feel sexy or to be smart and this other thing…that's where it becomes problematic with language and what we assign terms too.
Similarly, painting is a form of language too. And language is where it gets tricky. I definitely have hit some road bumps that have made me feel like less of an artist or that I have less to say or I have not being taken seriously. I think that's been a constant. So, I’ve been changing the way that I kind of go about things - being less friendly, corresponding differently. Again, it comes down to language. It's certainly changed the way that I go about business sort and to kind of in a, in a weird way to protect myself and to protect my work.