Contemporary Photographer Series - Jocelyn Mathewes

After the Stroke ©  Jocelyn Mathewes

Jocelyn Mathewes is a photographer and image-maker based in Appalachia whose mixed media work explores motherhood, the body and the connections between nature and faith. She graduated from Messiah College in 2004 with a BA in Studio Art & English. She has had solo and group shows locally and nationally, including New York and Chicago. Her work also appears in publications such as The Hand, F-Stop and Photographer’s Forum. She was recently interviewed by MFA candidate Alice Salyer for our Contemporary Photographer Series (CPS). 

While you work in various media, photography seems to be the bedrock of your artmaking. Could you talk a bit about the importance and history of photography in your life and work?

Photography was my hobby in my teen years. My mother dug her old Pentax SP1000 and my dad taught me how to use it when I was about 12. I don’t remember what prompted them to do that, but soon thereafter I spent all my allowance money & extra earnings on developing film at my local Walgreens. I took pictures of my friends and things that interested me, and became especially enamored of how monochrome images gave everything a different feeling (to me). It was a bit of a compulsion, to keep trying new subject matter, to keep trying to make my pictures more interesting. I tried to pay attention to the qualities in photos that I wanted to keep on display. I had no formal vocabulary for what I was seeing and looking for, though. If I liked how something came out, I’d try to replicate that feeling or outcome. In college, I pursued photography because it was something I seemed to be good at. It continued to be a bit of a compulsion. I had no trouble burning through film to complete an assignment — being given creative problems to solve was highly engaging to me. This was also true of graphic design, which I also pursued. These were both technical mediums with paths to mastery where open-ended problems could have many interesting solutions. The possibilities & avenues for experimentation were sort of intoxicating. But a big part of my pursuit & interest has been communicating — how and what is communicated is part of what makes a work of art interesting or successful, in my opinion. Both of these mediums can communicate ideas very quickly and succinctly.

What got you hooked on working in Alternative photo processes?

A set of circumstances converged to allow me to better explore them when I moved to Tennessee 6 years ago. Moving from Boston to East Tennessee tripled my available living space and literally moved us closer to a better latitude to work with alternative processes (which often use UV/sunlight). I suddenly had access to more resources (sunlight & space) in which to do that kind of work. Previously we had lived in small, shaded apartments at more northern latitudes that made it difficult, if not impossible, to make good exposures and keep up a practice in that work in all seasons (exposures in Boston in the winter can be over an hour, and in the extreme cold temperatures that can crack printing frames). I had always wanted to explore them more since having a few rudimentary lessons in college, and so once the opportunity arose, I jumped right in and started practicing and experimenting on my own.

The Hunt © Jocelyn Mathewes 

You investigate themes such as motherhood, chronic illness and the natural world that are simultaneously deeply personal yet very broad. So, I don't really have a specific question here, but any comments?

I make art about my experience, what I know about, and what I care about. I make art about things I draw out of my life that seem useful or relevant or have given me something worth saying. I’ve always cared about and been fascinated by children—we were all children once, and the experience of growing up is an immensely complex and powerful process. This doesn’t mean I always knew I would (or thought I should) become a mother. I’ve gravitated towards working and being with children for a long time, though, because they are fascinating, imaginative, unique, and full of new perspectives. I learn from them; they take me outside myself. My chronic illness is a recent diagnosis, but has dramatically changed the way that I have to structure my life. As a result, I can’t imagine not talking about it. Art is a place where I can explore the issues I find living with illness, and where I can connect with others to help them understand that experience. As for the natural world, that has always been a place of inspiration and solace for humankind. I’m definitely not the first or last artist to write the cliché phrase (that I actually really hate to read): “I’m inspired by nature.” It’s built into our DNA, I think; we’re a part of this enormous world, this beautiful ecosystem. How could we not be in awe of it, explore it, cherish it, and be in relationship with it?

The Figure series © Jocelyn Mathewes

Could you discuss your series The Figure?

One of my fixations is with the power of the figure in the narrative sense. Very little of my work in the past has been completely abstract or non-representational. One of the things that drew me to commercial photography and graphic design was the way I could tell stories with people as the subject matter—weddings and portraiture were all about saying something about the people in the frame by using compositional elements and the context of body language and placement. In this series, I’m intrigued by the power of even small, dislocated elements of the human figure in relationship to objects and textures, and the power to evoke emotion and story. That said, this series in ongoing and I don’t feel fully satisfied that I’ve succeeded in my explorations.

Domestic themes and media such as textiles and embroidery have historically carried less weight in art historical terms. Is that something you consider as you work with similar themes and media?

All the time. Not only are they more traditionally feminine, these mediums tend to lean more towards the craft end of the “fine artist vs. craftsperson” dichotomy. I cannot say that I’ve chosen these mediums with a great deal of intellectual intentionality; more, that I’ve gravitated towards them because I think mixing them with photography is fascinating. Although photography democratized imagemaking, to a degree, it can still require investment in technology and equipment. The barriers to entry there continue to break down. But embroidery & textiles have been around for ages; by contrast it’s a very affordable and a very accessible medium.

What is the significance of embroidery and gold leaf in your work?

I’ve used copper, silver, and gold leaf in a variety of works. Mostly gold and copper, though. Aesthetically, it complements the Prussian blue of cyanotype very nicely. It is an exciting texture, and a challenging medium to work with. For those reasons, I enjoy the process of working with it. But from a meaning standpoint, my use of gold leaf mimics that of my faith tradition. We use iconography in our worship, and gold leaf represents the spiritual unseen realm (or holy light). There is so much to family life and relationships that is completely unseen, that exists in that spiritual realm; gold leaf is meant to evoke that. As for embroidery, I remember being encouraged by my grandmother to explore embroidery. She had this marvelous sewing box that was full of tools and where everything had it’s place. It felt magical and powerful to me. And when she showed me the way that different stitches could create shading, or texture, or even letters, it seemed so unusual. It was like you could write with thread, but the thread could do so many things that traditional two-dimensional media couldn’t do—weaving, three-dimensional construction, and more.  I still haven’t finished exploring where thread can take me.

You seem to intentionally cultivate a positive attitude, as opposed to the trope of an artist as angsty, angry or withdrawn from society. Could you talk about that? 

I really dislike the trope of artist as angsty, angry, and withdrawn. It’s a very limiting stereotype. It’s difficult to cultivate more voices in the arts and allow for more venues of creative expression—more variety—if we don’t have good alternative role models. I know that I’ve struggled to find my own way because it’s hard to find people in similar situations to my own. It’s gotten easier with the networking & searching through the internet, but it’s still difficult. But a big part of it is that my life is very full—I don’t have time to be negative, even when my health is poor or life gets difficult in other ways. I don’t have much time to waste on feeling sorry for myself, or to waste time wallowing in despair. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel those emotions or feel like withdrawing from time to time. I’m sure I’m not alone in that I’ve known some dark times. But I don’t like who I am when I find myself dwelling in that place. I don’t enjoy being endlessly sarcastic or challenging, nor do I think that is the proper “stance” to be in when it comes to living life, or that it leads to right action. It feels like its own sort of poison that eats away at the joy in life. I’d rather be listening, curious, open, observant, and vulnerable in the face of all things. So, that’s what I try to be.

 In My Garden series © Jocelyn Mathewes 

Who are other imagemakers you feel an artistic kinship with?

Hannah Hoch (working with a “kitchen knife” to make her collages, using “low” mediums), Frida Kahlo (struggling with illness & her beautiful personal expression), Kandinsky (his thoughts the spiritual in art). I keep photos of Frida Kahlo painting in bed, Henri Matisse sculpting in bed, and Flannery O’Connor with her crutches on my wall.

You mention your artist Manifesto and experience with the Artist Residency in Motherhood, which leads me to this article about art and motherhood: You Can Be a Mother and Still Be a Successful Artist Why do you think the question of being taken seriously as an artist if you are a mother is still being discussed? 

So many reasons. For one, it’s apparent that we’re not in agreement over the seriousness of women artist’s work, regardless of whether or not they are a mother, because of the lack of representation in the formal art world, in addition to the anecdotal evidence suggesting bias in gallerists/gatekeepers’ practices and opinions.  A small set of things that culturally creates barriers for women artists: motherhood is a liability and a “burden,” the caregiving of children is not seen as intellectually challenging work, women (through sheer biology and cultural practice) bear most of the early caregiving, and there are geographic areas of the country where there are fewer opportunities and outlets for success.  Not to mention the strange phenomenon where a woman is perceived as not serious about her career if she makes choices that prioritize her family or personal life. All those things contribute to this still being a point of contention. Perhaps this is in contrast to the positivity I want to cultivate, cynical of me, but I don’t see this as going away anytime soon, and I think that’s because we have distorted & conflicting idea of what an “artist” should be or looks like that make it difficult.

In My Garden series © Jocelyn  Mathewes 

You have a well-balanced and interesting web presence. It is evident that you take your work seriously, both in terms of fine art, craft and work for clients. Could you say a bit about your journey to reach this point and what you’ve learned along the way? 

One of the first things I learned in my graphic design classes was that presentation really matters. Students were encouraged to think about making sure their presentation methods were as thoughtful and polished as the actual projects in their portfolios. We analyzed packaging design and what made things work or fall flat. That experience, plus working in the commercial/retail realm, really brought home how important it is to show that you take yourself seriously, and think through how each presentation medium supports that.  Getting paid to create things and making sales of your work certainly helped me to take yourself seriously. But I’ve also learned that money is only one indicator, and often a poor one. What I’ve learned is that taking creative work seriously doesn’t mean that you get a lot of recognition, money, or external validation. To really keep things sustainable and keep up the practice, it has to come from your own inner discipline and motivations — that means treating it like anything else you’d want to excel at — dedicating time & resources to your practice. It’s such a boring thing to say, but it’s true: showing up and doing the work (regardless of the outcome) is the most essential thing.

 How did you get into doing your Local Maker Crush interview series?

I was frustrated by the fact that the arts aren’t highlighted very well in traditional media in the area—especially smaller artists & makers. There are some really lovely organizations in the area, but they’re mostly for networking or for a particular larger purpose. There is so much more going on in this area beyond what is seen through the top hits of a Google search. For a year, I chose to devote time to talking to local artists whose work I found organically. Just as an exercise.  That work was a variation on a project I gave myself when I first moved to Johnson City — a photography critique night that was hosted in various places around town. Like the interviews, it was a great way to meet other people and talk about creative work. I know that I’d like to revisit that kind of gathering again in the future — an open & productive space for artists to have feedback is very rare outside of an academic environment.


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