Sam Jaffe is an interdisciplinary artist born in Milwaukee, WI. Characterized by toxic color and overstuffed, mutated forms, her recent work explores labor, ornamentation, femininity, and the fallibility of the human body. Sam received her BFA from The Rhode Island School of Design in 2005 and her MFA from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago in 2009. She spent a year studying painting and Art History in Rome, Italy as a part of RISD’s European Honors Program. Currently represented by 65GRAND in Chicago, Sam is a lecturer in the Department of Painting and Drawing at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. Recent exhibitions include 65GRAND: Chicago, IL, The Terrain Biennial; Waterloo ON, Red Pipe Gallery: Los Angeles, CA, The Contemporary Art Center: Peoria, IL, The Hyde Park Art Center: Chicago, IL, Peregrine Program: Chicago, IL, and The Highland Park Art Center: Highland Park, IL.
In my work I like to insist on the centrality of the human hand and employ techniques such as knitting, embroidery, sewing, beading, and quilting as feminist signifiers that imbue the objects that I create with familiarity, improvisational spirit, uniqueness, surprise, and anthropomorphic character. I want the pieces to appear to communicate with the body in personal, emotional, or interactive ways - like things you would want to cuddle with, sit on, lick, wear, that might somehow respond to your touch. I feel that it is my duty as a female artist to keep these dying craft practices alive as we slowly lose them to more and more dehumanizing, mechanized, and commodity based processes.
Q&A with Sam Jaffe
by Kaveri Raina and Katie Kirk
Hi Sam! We are curious about how you got started as an artist? Could you give us an introduction to your practice please?
Many of my works begin with a certain visual delight I find whilst examining my personal collections. I started many of these collections (bits of lace, seashells, kitschy figurines, beads, stickers, miniatures, handmade potholders and blankets, vintage clothing, sea glass, Lisa Frank everything, foreign coins, holograms, colored light bulbs, fake eyelashes, children's books, yarn, plastic flowers to name a few) before I can remember how or why. My art is all about combinations and amalgamations of details; it could be seen as an over-romanticizing of the commonplace.
Thrift and antique stores are some of my favorite places because one can just get lost in the disposable and often antiquated material culture of a place. I love to rummage through such venues in search of hidden treasures. These cultural materials are never meaningless. They speak for themselves and provide extensive narratives about the person who owned or made them, about history and conquest, or about me as the voluntary excavator. All material, all objects contain millions of latent artistic possibilities. This includes the most common remnants and detritus of human life. I love that! A large part of my process involves accumulating an ever-growing lexicon of materials that I can then draw from. It’s kind of hoarder-like behavior, but I justify it by being selective about what I drag into the studio, by staying organized, and by getting rid of things that haven’t found a home in the work before too long.
How is Chicago treating you as an artist? Are you satisfied? Is Chicago the ideal city for you? Is there anything else you wish Chicago had to offer for an artist?
I think that Chicago is a generally good city for me, but I have found that I remain relatively true to type no matter where I live. Perhaps shamefully, I tend to be far more inwardly focused than overly influenced by my surroundings. With that said, the opportunities and challenges offered by urban life are stimulating, and Chicago has a vibrant art scene that has provided me some exciting professional opportunities. It’s difficult to answer this question without acknowledging the mountain of privilege within which I work. Chicago is a city with a deep history of violence, institutionalized racism, and political corruption. It is a fluttering metropolis with a corresponding commercial art scene for some, and a lawless war zone for others. In this context, if I had a wish it would be for more Chicagoans to simply have the necessities of life. That would be a start.
Can you talk about the importance of process and materials in your work? We know you use a lot of feminine and body related items in your work.
The phrase “feminine related items” is funny. It makes me think of the aisle of chemical vagina fresheners and other wacky treatments available at the drug store. I think that my work is a feminist response to an art history narrative associated with a modernist vision of our world - one which tends to deny certain valuable qualities inherent in handmade objects (art objects, craft objects, or otherwise) like their ability to be intimate with the body or the fact that they carry with them the complex histories of their often female makers. Anytime we talk about the body, we talk about the feminine. People who express femininity are seen as particularly embodied, sexualized, and criticized especially if they don’t express that femininity in normative ways. In some of my work, I hope to complicate and undermine this modern order by creating works that mimic a modernist style or trope, but then at the same time are visually or sensually rich and tactile or ornamented, in other words, feminine.
We are really interested in the presence of physical body in your work. Could you expand on that?
My work is made up of vague imitations or mutations of the body. Because I use everyday materials of which we all have familiar, if not intimate, sensual knowledge, the work invites assumptions about physical interaction with those materials. We are almost never not physically touching fabric. In addition, we wear our bodies always and forever, so we ourselves could be seen as a type of fleshy, hairy, beastly adornment. I don’t try to transcend primal physicality in my work, I manipulate its logic to reimagine, recreate, and then ornament it. A world dominated by commercialism doesn’t allow us to forget that we are embodied; we are imperfect garbage pails needing constant updating, fixing, and maintenance. Of course, these perceived imperfections drive consumerism. I am a body, the pieces are bodies, the galleries are bodies, the viewers are bodies.
Do you tend to work intuitively or do you usually start with a plan?
Both. The mind works in mysterious ways and I think that I have a very active subconscious. I often sit on the El and allow visions of different exhibition scenarios, different pieces, and different ‘worlds‘ just come over me. I’m thinking, ‘What if I pour glitter on the floor of the space, what if I paint one wall orange, what if there’s a goat wandering around, can these two pieces get along in the same show - they hate each other…etc, etc?’ I typically take one of these scenarios and start out with a loose plan, but then I quickly abandon it once I start working with and getting excited about the actual material and the installation space. My work is an extension of, and a surrendering to, my materials, a conversation, an argument. I try things, I ruin things, I fix things again, I walk out on the whole thing, I hesitatingly return to try more things, I never pretend to know what I’m doing. I actually have two trash cans in my studio: one for works than need to disappear forever and one that is a purgatory-like time out chair for works that, if they’re lucky, may make it back into the mix.
We noticed that some of your colors are really pleasurable, while others are more toxic and neon, can you talk about repulsion and attraction with your work?
Well, neon colors are typically pleasurable to me, but I get what you are saying. Pleasure and repulsion are confusingly interrelated. I’m interested in using colors that demand attention, energize, and that draw the viewer into the work in a sirenic way. I then hope to create a shift in perspective, an insecurity about what the viewer is seeing.
Do the exaggeratedly bright colors and overstuffed, spongy forms begin to turn sinister when one turns away? Carnivals, cartoons, parades, and fairy tales can be simultaneously humorous and scary settings.
What do you hope your viewers gain from seeing your work?
It’s all about being really lusty and overdone about the materials that I use. I try to appeal to all of the senses by using familiar materials so that viewers can imagine what it might be like to cozy up to one of these things. I like to play with the taboo of touching artwork by making work that begs to be caressed. I have seen so many people sneaking in a quick touch or poke during an opening and then looking around to make sure nobody saw them. I love that visceral reaction. So scandalous.
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of your practice?
When I first arrive to work in the morning, I like for it to be totally silent. I naturally wake up very early, so I’m typically the only one in the creepy, old building that houses my studio. I enjoy being alone. I start a studio day by drinking coffee, sitting in different chairs, and observing the work. I like to allow myself to feel all dreamy and romantic about being an artist for a moment. Then, I slap myself and begin formulating an achievable plan for the day. I make lists (tweak a color, figure out a display method, pay bills, etc). I find sounds to be really annoying when I’m trying to think in this managerial way. Once I know what I’m doing, I often listen to podcasts or stand up comedy. I like to learn about theories in psychology and sociology, so sometimes I listen to lectures on these topics and sometimes I listen to interviews with other artists. Sometimes I put on a favorite movie while working. Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude are two that I watch repeatedly. I like the dialogue, scores, and sounds. There are times that I listen to music, but for some reason, lately that hasn’t appealed to me. Perhaps I need some new music.
Could you talk a little about your wearable sculptural pieces? Is this an ongoing series?
It’s not an ongoing series. I have mixed feelings about that work. There’s something “zany” about those pieces that annoys me. It was more of a fun, summer project I did for a specific show. I had been toying around with the idea of using human bodies as supports for some sculptures and the wearable works were my first shot at manifesting that idea. People seem to respond to those pieces differently from the rest of my work perhaps because they are more explicitly figurative. These pieces also imply some kind of embarrassing performative element that I found disappointing. I don’t think I fully considered this before showing them. At the same time, these works were a conceptual stepping stone to more nuanced ways of dealing with this complicated body idea.
Also looking through your work we are drawn towards your titles for some of the works. One of our favorites is, ‘I’m Only Visiting.’ How do you decide titles for works, or do they come before or after you make the work?
I typically think of titles after a show has already pretty much come together and I need a way to distinguish the pieces from each other. Part of the reason I make visual work is because I think it might transcend some of the limits of language or vocabulary - or at least some of my own limits in this arena. I like the title “I’m Only Visiting,” too. That piece is such a weird little alien, I was thinking about what it might say, knowing people would be standing around checking it out at the opening. It’s as though the piece is trying to deflect all of the attention.
You received your MFA in Painting and Drawing from SAIC in 2009. How was your experience? Did graduate school change your art and/or life? Or at least somehow better it?
Like many, I applied to graduate school in the first place because I wanted to make some big changes in my work and life, but needed support and facilities. I often wonder how many people apply to graduate school after a long term relationship ends. It was one of those awful Bridget Jones style “I’m going to drink more water!” “I’m Marie Kondo-ing my apartment!” “I’m going to grad school!” moments. I had already been living and working in Chicago for a few years and was attracted to The School of the Art Institute for its interdisciplinary, free-form curriculum. When I made the decision to return to school, I think I just wanted some thought provoking experiences and to be surrounded by new people from a variety of disciplines. I wanted to keep learning about and growing my work. As a MFA candidate, I began to really develop a studio practice that I could sustain. More than anything, I figured out how I work best rather than about what to make exactly. I also learned that I could trust myself, my impulses, and my judgement more than I ever thought. I had always been an obedient student, taking notes during critiques and then very consciously trying to implement each and every suggestion. This became impossible. Awash in information, only some of which made any sense to me, and juggling feedback from all perspectives, I found myself being pushed and pulled in all directions. The only way to cope was to just trust myself, make the work I always dreamed I could, and let the chips fall.
You are currently a lecturer at SAIC. Could you talk about that? How do you balance teaching with studio time?
I give up on “balance.” It’s an unachievable and limiting ambition. I’m not “balanced” and I don’t care. I prefer rickety peaks and valleys. Devotion and diligence seem to be better antidotes for a busy life. Do it all until you die.
Do you have any advice for up and coming artists?
I always give the same advice to up and coming artists or to anyone involved in a creative pursuit which is to never wait. Just realize your ideas right away the moment you have them in the best way you can with whatever you have. I meet with a lot of students who have these amazingly grand visions for their work, but then come to class with dinky little trials that they brush aside as “studies.” Just because you see yourself as a beginner, or a student, or an amateur doesn’t mean you should waste time with the half-way version of your work - just do the real thing now.
Do you have any exhibitions coming up that we should know of?
Yes! This fall I will be showing new work in a group show at SideCar Gallery in Hammond, IN. I will also present a solo show entitled “Rings and Lobes” at Lake Forest College in October. Readers can check the news section of my website for updates.
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions! We look forward to the studio visit.
To find out more about Sam and her work, check out her website.