Art Zealous contributor Alexandra Fanning talks with Jen Dwyer about the feminine figure in relation to marketing, the benefits of the telephone in today’s turbulent times, and moving to the big apple.

In our series, The Zealous Set, we talk to the artists catching our attention about what they’re creating, watching, reading, and what they’re being inspired by. This week we chat with Jen Dwyer whose elegant ceramics engage in gender politics and examine agencies of power through pastel color palettes and delicate table arrangements.

In Jen Dwyer’s work you’ll find references to Rococo beauty, iconology from Antiquity and a cheeky bit of political Rock and Roll. Her candy colored ceramic pieces range from candelabras to vulva-shaped incense holders, The Venus of Willendorf making recurring appearances.

Graduating from Notre Dame, she pondered putting down roots in the Bay Area, her hometown,  before (thankfully) accepting a residency at the famed Wassaic Project, a couple hours north of New York. 

We talked to Dwyer about what’s inspiring her right now and the long list of shows and opportunities she has coming up. Watch this one closely!

Dwyer_Dreamers Delight Installation, SPRING / BREAK Art Show

Alexandra Fanning: Tell us a bit about your practice, and how you got into sculpture?

Jen Dwyer: From an early age I had an affinity to art, it was always my favorite subject and a treat to go to afterschool art classes. In my last year of high school I finally had time in my schedule to take a ceramics class and I quickly fell in love. I also adored my high school ceramic teacher. I have a reading and learning disability, so I felt like I always had to work twice as hard for decent grades but when I was doing art it came pretty effortlessly which felt really nice at a young age when other things didn’t come that easily. I’m also really sensitive and  found clay at an early age to be a really soothing and healing practice. Not to mention my high school art teacher just let me do and make whatever I wanted, and as a teenager that gift of freedom felt really precious.

AF: Where / how do you start with a series? How does a project begin to form for you?

JD: My practice is shifting a bit now that I’ve been out of my MFA program for almost a year. In school I taught to research first and make second in response to what I learned. But now that I’ve been at the Wassaic Project for almost a year (I began doing a residency and it serendipitously transitioned into a fellowship) but I’ve essentially been in the studio full time for the past year and it’s made me really reflect on what feels like an authentic way to create for me. And I’ve realized that although I’ve always had a love of learning, I’m particularly grateful for my art history and gender studies classes at Notre Dame, but I also make a lot of my decisions based on feelings so working intuitively back into my practice feels nice. That’s a long winded answer- but to begin a new series- I usually have an overarching idea that is based on a certain feeling I want to convey. Then I will usually choose a few books or articles that can help me article my thoughts and give me further inspo for making. I’ve been trying to write more about what I’m making but that’s been hard- despite being an avid journaler.

Another new thing I’m doing is making a few smaller pieces as a sort of moquettes for larger pieces- and I kind of see them as small series or warm ups to flush out ideas for a larger body of work. I find it helps me have fewer larger pieces that I’m really excited about.

Incense holders

AF: Where are you finding inspiration at the moment? What are you into right now?

JD: I’m really interested in how taste, power and desire are shaped, the Rococo aesthetic in regards to porcelain feels really emblematic of those ideas. During the 18th c. porcelain was considered white gold and one of the most coveted comedies, and today it is a relatively inexpensive material (at least compared to back then). I’m also intrigued in the ways that women’s bodies, both through the lens of art history and advertising, have been used as marketing tools. I find that desire and obsession with porcelain has interesting parallels between the visual consumption of the female body. I think it’s interesting to question who has the agency to create taste and desire (and I’m certainly calling myself out on this, I am definitely swayed by good marketing tactics).

I’m also really inspired by a new book I’m reading, Goddess In Every Woman by Jean Shinoda Bolen. She talks a lot about women having a variety of elements of major Greek archetypes in them. I feel like in this digital age people are so easily categorized or flattened into one trope of being, when in reality everyone is complicated and multifaceted. This book highlights major archetypes of Greek Goddesses and how they can be found in many women. I’m such a slow reader so I’m only about half way through it, but it’s been really inspiring. I also have been thinking about an idea that I thought a lot about last year when I was working on my thesis- how taste is shaped, particularly through art history and gender. I find the Rococo Aesthetic in France really interesting it was essentially Madame Pompadour that inspired Louis XV to bring the Rococo Style, including serve porcelain, into the Palace of Versailles, and she was just a mistress yet I feel like her taste became the epitome of the Palace of Versailles. 

I’m also just finding inspiration in what I’m feelin at the time. Oil Painting and throwing are two of the most meditative mediums I’ve come across over the years and during the pandemic I’m trying to think about what brings me joy in the studio, trying to think more long term about my practice and work and I really love them both and find them both to have similar soothing qualities. Lastly I’ve always been fascinated by hierarchies and how they are sharped. Today it would be hard to argue that there is a hierarchy between ceramics and painting, but that still feels like a new development to me.

AF: How are you staying connected with other artists and the art world at the moment? 

JD: The telephone and instagram. It’s been nice to watch Virtual Studio Visits that my friend Grace Lee Lawrence started. And just calling friends to talk about art has been helpful. 

AF: What are you listening to as you work? 

JD: I’ve definitely been on a self development kick (in my post MFA heeling year) so any podcasts about being in touch with your feelings, learning what brings you joy, nutrition, rituals, etc, and I always periodically listen to art podcasts, Moma Talks & Art and Cocktails are my current favorites.

AF: What are you reading or binge watching at the moment?

JD: Love is Blind- truly magnificent, Russian Doll, I was watching You, but it became a little too creepy for me. Goddess In Every Woman, Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (although I feel like I have to reread every page) and a variety of articles about Rococo Art and Gender.

Power Pose (oil on canvas)

AF: What’s next, what are you excited to share with your audience soon / gallery or museum show upcoming?

JD: I have a two person show with Grace Lee Lawrence called Virtual Paradise at House Guest 

Gallery curated by Samantha Sipps that was going to be in April but it is now pushed to January 2020 which feels good to be able to make more work for it. I have more studio visits with the curator between now and then. I was also going to do an installation for the Wassaic Project’s summer show but that has been turned into a printed book of the show so I am excited to have a few new sculptures included in that. 

I’m also just excited about painting. I have yet to exhibit my paintings IRL, the show I have in January will be the first time, so I’m really looking forward to that. I’ve been painting vignettes and for my sculptures and furthering the narrative/ feeling of my sculptures in my paintings, I’m excited to share how they come together as one body of work.

I will also be in a group show at GeorgeTown College in January 2022 also curated by Samantha Sipps. It’s been really wonderful to work with a curator that is also a professor of Art History, I’ve been learning a lot in our virtual studios (I miss school, or at least parts of it, haha).

I also have a few virtual things coming up, I’m currently a part of a ‘Girl Gang’ sculpture sale curated by Deanna Evans Projects. Sarah Potter curated a virtual show with Showfields where a portion of the proceeds will be donated to ‘The Mental Health Fund’.

I am also moving to NYC soon. I was planning to move to the city after my fellowship at the Wassaic Projects was over at the end of May, but now with the quarantine I am pushing my move back but once things open up a bit more, I am going to move which feels exciting (and a little scary). Thinking about moving into my own apartment is also making me think a lot about what I want in my home it’s been 5 years since I’ve had a long term home (I did a year long residency in 2015, then grad school for three years and I have been at the Wassaic Projects for the past year) so I’m really looking forward to laying down roots. And it’s making me think about what I want in my home and what would make me feel good and calm to live around.

I’m working on a new dinner set, candelabra- and have plans for my first chandelier and large porcelain gilded floor mirror. I’m thinking about making some of the smaller functional works available soon, so stay tuned 🙂  

AF: Fabulous! We can’t wait to see more.