Monday, May 30, 2011

Speaking with Jessica McCallum

It's Speaking with time again and for the month of May I caught up with all round talented lady Jessica McCallum via email.


Hi Jessica, what you are working on at the moment?

I'm working on an exhibition, opening, hopefully, at the end of this year and, possibly, in the State Theatre Centre of WA, Studio Underground. The theme is creepy clowns, buxom burlesque beauties, fetish, fear and fascination...complete with feathers. A little bit circus and a little bit carnival.

I'm doing a series of watercolour/ink/gouache portraits at the moment, inspired by my evening Dr Sketchy’s Anti-Art School classes. Once I move to bigger quarters, I'll start working on some larger spray-paint/acrylic graffiti slash comic book style paintings. I've got this idea for some mixed media pieces tentatively called ‘Stains’ using tea & coffee, salt & silk (if they work).

Also I'm hoping to finish some fascinators (just in time for the races) which I was going to display on a slightly freaky, but not offensive, sculptural installation. I wanted to explore a slightly darker, sometimes creepy, definitely sexy, but always fun side of theatrics in this exhibition. That and I’ve always wanted to run away to the circus.

Sounds exciting!
We met when we were working front of house at a theatre together and I think, from memory you studied at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA)?

Yes, we met at His Majesty's Theatre, which, oddly enough I applied to work for when I was a WAAPA student... & didn't get :). Too young I guess, straight out of high school. Or too goth. Studied scenery, props design and construction for a couple of years at WAAPA. Lots of carpentry and welding, and unfortunately for me, too little designing.

Went on to use my scene painting for the more practical purpose of painting murals for businesses and also in people's houses for a while. I'd like to get back into staging though, it was fun. The interactivity is cool, doing stage design, knowing that someone is going to utilise and interpret whatever you've created. I guess that's why I'd like to get back into sculpture and why I studied product design at one point. I find people's reactions to things they can actually use interesting.

From the Red Umbrella Series

I'm interested in how performance and theatre has influenced your work. In your exhibition, Raincheck you had small watercolour drawings that for me acted as a storyboard for the larger scale 'feature' works. Even your process of having people 'play a part' in photographic reference material seems akin to performance, rather than just the artist's model posing. Is that a correct observation?

I've done a bit of film stuff too, which yeah, I guess kind of explains my storyboard style. A picture might paint a thousand words but throw in a couple more and you've just got so much more to say. I like to kind of write a story by either photographing or filming my friends, then I'll edit that down to several frames which capture, the introduction, conflict and resolution, in a few different moods and expressions. I choose my favourite moments, those which really encapsulate my friend as I see them. Then I just pick a favourite shot, or two or three... like a 'best of', to paint.

I ask my friends to pose, but it's the moments that happen in between I tend to choose to immortalise. The one's they've suddenly burst out laughing in, or a coy, shy look to the camera to check if you're still filming, a spur of the moment 'what about if I do this?'. So yeah, I guess my process is very filmic, even a little voyeuristic but then I paint them how I see them anyway and in a kind of fantastical, 'what if' background too. I'm no landscape artist and painting fruit just doesn't do it for me. Neither do torsos and bits of bodies, too clinical. I like faces, animated faces. Maybe moments in mixed media is a fairly accurate description of my portraits.


It is interesting what you say about directing your friends into poses then capturing them in the moments they are at their most natural. I think it is the balance between the staged and the spontaneous that attracts me to your work. It is a good metaphor for the way relationships between people often are, a precarious balance of the identity we want others to see with our private inner desires and insecurities. Is it important that the identity of the person you paint is recognisable to others? and how do you choose who to paint?

I know what you mean by 'what we want others to see'. Most people show a particular side of themselves to the world. I guess it's that vulnerability, I'm compelled to paint. Good or bad, the traits that make that person them are what makes them beautiful. So why not share those with other people that may not see them the same way I do.

As for how I choose who to paint, those people I've become closer to recently because they have all that untapped vulnerability. Probably because I know the person but have only just glimpsed their inner-selves, I don't know them well enough to be privy to their secrets. A desire to know more about them through focusing on the contours of their face, drives me.

Did you always want to be an artist? or did that come later in life?

Not sure about always wanting to be an artist, think I wanted be a lawyer or a cop when I was a kid. I've always been creative though and drawn to beautiful things. By beautiful I mean both natural and man-made. I grew up on a farm when I was very young and near the beach as a teenager, so the environment and nature are important to me.

Symmetry and pattern also fascinate me. I rarely paint portraits face on because I like imperfection and there's this compulsion to balance the features. I've seen a documentary before that studied the asymmetry of nature, while we are made up of a series of patterns we are imperfect, unbalanced and I like to reflect that in what I paint. A computer program can replicate and produce pattern, nothing creative about that, it takes human intervention to make the beautiful mistakes.


What is your earliest creative memory?

Earliest creative memory. Not sure, I used to sit out in the backyard with my brother and draw a lot. Mum would give us a pile of butcher's paper and coloured pencils, we'd happily sit at the picnic table scribbling. Dad was a biologist and he would tell me all the botanical names of flowers, while Mum would walk with me in the garden and tell me their personalities, as though she was introducing me to friends. I'd make up little stories about their daily lives based on the shapes of their little faces and their individual attributes along with their terribly formal sounding names. I would address them and converse as though we were colleagues or co-conspirators. Pretty creative, and maybe a little nuts. Now you know way too much about me :)

I don't think that's nuts, I love that idea! It sounds like with the flowers you were already homing in on the stories faces can tell. It also sounds like your mum was quite a creative lady too? Can you name some artists/people who you've found most inspiring?

I guess my Mum, I would have to say, has inspired me the most. Since I was a little girl she's been involved in film and now writes screenplays, and dabbles in publishing the occasional poem. I always ask her to write some words for me to put next to my paintings when I exhibit and I've started putting together little postcards with a print and the poetry, just as something people can take home if they don't want to invest in an original.

Other influences are usually film orientated; I'm a bit of a Tim Burton fan, Eiko Ishioka, Art Director on the movie the Cell and the costumer for Cirque Du Soleil's Varekai, who started out as a graphic designer in Tokyo. I love all Cirque Du Soleil's stuff of course, and I'm developing an interest in street art and graphic novels.

Creepy Clown

Do you listen to anything when you are working? Is there a soundtrack to your work?

I always put my i-tunes on at home while I'm working. Usually I start a new themed playlist. At the moment it's anything burlesque, carnival or circus inspired, from Christina Aguilera's Candy Man to Eminem Welcome to the Eminem Show to Barbara Streisand's Send In The Clowns to Missy E's Get Your Freak On. It keeps me focused. Last exhibition I listened to Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head waaaay too many times.

Where can people find out more about your work?

I have a blog, I update occasionally, when I've got something to say, which qualifies as a website at the moment Working on the website side of things, I want something interactive otherwise it feels a bit like a one-way conversation, or worse a sales thing, ickky.


  1. So fun and wonderful, Claire. I love reading these interviews.

  2. What a great interview, Jessica is such a talented artist and she is also my niece, can't wait for her next exhibition!