Studio Visit with Jessie McNeil

I'm happy to introduce Jessie McNeil. As it turns out, we've known each other for many years, way back to highschool at Vancouver Technical Secondary, then we followed the same post-secondary trajectory, attending the Fine Arts Diploma program at Langara College and then Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Among other things, Jessie is a masterful collage artist.  I love her creative inquiries into pedestrian life and the way she extracts inspiration from people and place. When I visited her studio, the collage figures did indeed seem to be walking across the walls, carving out their own sense of place and creating new narratives. It's a treat to share with you some of her work here and give a little insight behind the scenes.

To learn more about the Studio Visit series and see the first interview with Rachael Ashe click here.

Studio Visit: Tuesday December 8th, 2015
Photographs by Sarah Clement

Introduce yourself. How would you describe yourself as a maker/creative? How do you spend your days?

I’m an interdisciplinary artist that spends a lot of time cutting paper and thinking about making miniature things. With my work (mostly collage right now), I gather impressions of the urban place through its people. I do this initially with my digital camera, then later in the studio by assembling bits of found paper to mimic the image I have captured out on the street. The camera and my scissors help me unearth meanings behind certain characteristics of a city that I visited or currently live in. When I’m not doing this, I’m in a blanket, or answering emails, applying for things, biking around or working a couple part-time jobs. Friends and Family somehow miraculously fit in there somewhere.

I gather impressions of the urban place through its people...The camera and my scissors help me unearth meanings behind certain characteristics of a city that I visited or currently live in.

Briefly describe your journey. Were there some pivotal things that helped propel you to where you are now? (Perhaps there were some struggles that you see, in hindsight, helped you get to where you are now?)

This past year has been a blur of successes and wins, personal hardships and losses. It’s been an amazing year. But a couple events since graduation (2013) come to mind... I curated my first exhibition a month after finishing my courses at Emily Carr. It was called “Libro: The Liberation of the Book” and was a seriously ambitious group show of 30 participants, each with their own art book or zine displayed in an interactive fashion. The school’s administration told me on the day of our installation that we would have to take down (and then put back up) our 10-day show for a “secret” (less one hour) public event in the space (the Concourse Gallery). It was an eye-opening and exhausting experience that really tested my patience and professionalism, really early on in my practice. I came out of it stronger though, and realizing the importance of communication, friends and community and knowing that it’s ok to accept help.  

A less dramatic event that brought me to where I am today is my artist residency experience in Tartu, Estonia in the summer of 2014. I had been out of school for a year and was still identifying myself as a “student” or that I “just graduated from...”. Tartu was the first place where I felt like an Artist. I feel like an adult-child a lot of the time, so when I’m asked my profession (by a stranger at a party or by a Customs officer), it feels really great knowing that I can call my life-long passion a legitimate career. It’s a part of my adulthood that is welcomed with open arms.

You’ve created quite an amazing visual vocabulary with your collage work. What kinds of materials do you use to create your images? What do you love about the collage process?

Thank you! I work with paper found in fashion magazines primarily. And occasionally I use graphite, paint or whatever is on my desk to give an essence of a certain city background. Collage is a very instinctual medium to me. I can’t remember I time in my life when I didn’t play with cut-outs or assemblage. I like the democratic or accessible nature of it. That you don’t need to go very far or pay much to play around with it. The process of making my meticulous collage figures is both meditative and frustrating. Like a painter or any other kind of artist, it’s a joyful thing being able to see something grow out of almost nothing.

Do you have any rituals or a routine that helps ground you & primes your creative mind?

Would it be terribly unromantic of me to say “deadlines”? Haha. Just like any day though, I must have a solid 45 minutes to make and eat my breakfast, a way of easing out of bed into my “artist/me day” routine of checking emails and then working in the studio. Deadlines (whether actual or made up) really do help me concentrate and give priority to studio time. I work from home, so I’m easily distracted by domestic tasks or letting my cat stay on my lap for another 30 minutes... Occasionally, I visit my dad in his studio and see what he’s been up to. (Now that’s a humbling experience!)

Fear and uncertainty seem to be an innate part of the creative process. How do you confront your fears, instead of letting them stop you?

I feel like I don’t confront my fears that often. I dwell a lot about the inevitable and things I can’t control. But then I just make myself busy with work and then I forget about whatever was worrying me before. Time is really valuable. So I try to spend as much of it as possible thinking about what is going well and why.

It helps to also keep an up-to-date website. Whenever I’m feeling doubtful of myself or a project, I look at my work there and my CV and realize, “Hey, I’ve accomplished a lot!  Obviously something is working!” It’s also a helpful tool to analyze your growth as an artist and how you can attempt the next 10% (Liz Magor at a review panel gave me that advice. “Keep on thinking about how you can improve this by 10%”... or something like that).

What kinds of activities/interests do you have outside of your actual art practice, that you feel informs or inspires your work? (or maybe just contributes to a richer life)

I contribute a lot to my Estonian community. My mom was Estonian and I feel quite connected to the culture even though I was born here and don’t really speak the language that well. So, I sing with the folk choir here in Vancouver and occasionally organize these little events through this initiative my friend Kristen and I founded called Nordic Culture Days. At the moment it’s just a facebook page, but for the last 2 years we were coordinating almost monthly events like workshops, folk dancing events or movie nights celebrating Baltic and Nordic culture. Like I said we can’t contribute to the community with our knowledge of the Estonian language, but at least we can provide a place for people like us who are interested in our culture and heritage that want to feel included in the local community. This involvement has inspired a collage series of mine that has been traveling from Vancouver to Toronto, to Tallinn (or the nearby city of Viimsi) and then to Tartu, Estonia within the last 11 months. Language and the issues of cultural identity are no doubt ingrained in my current artistic practice.

The process of making my meticulous collage figures is both meditative and frustrating. Like a painter or any other kind of artist, it’s a joyful thing being able to see something grow out of almost nothing.

Any exciting projects that you are working on?

In the next year I’m wanting to create a site-specific installation of my collage figures. Like 200 of them, without backgrounds, floating on the walls, and without frames. We’ll see how far that goes.

Favourite music or podcasts you like to listen to while making art?

Podcasts! I love listening to Monocle 24’s the Urbanist, Lena Dunham’s new one called “Women of the Hour”, Jealous Curator’s “Art for your Eye”, This American Life, a few on Gimlet Media and guilty pleasure: Travel with Rick Steve’s. I talk so much when I’m working my customer service jobs, that it’s great to just have my own time, making my work and listening to garbage-free stories about topics that I’m interested in.

Thank You Jessie!

You can find more of Jessie's awesome work here:

For even more insight into her process you can watch this video 'Open Studio with Jessie McNeil' by Zach Rampen