Guest Blog Post: Jackie Bell Johnson

My guest blogger this week is Jackie Bell Johnson. I met Jackie during my studies at Claremont Graduate University. Recently, she launched a Hatchfund project for an installation she is working on and asked me if I would highlight her work in my blog.

After thinking it over I said sure, because it gives me and you, my readers, a chance to peak inside her process and learn a bit about the behind-the-scenes-work she does to bring projects to fruition.

Lucky for me, and you, she jumped at the chance to share her story! I am happy to bring you her story. A story of how Jackie Bell Johnson brings her ideas to life. Enjoy!

The Importance of Drawing to Bring Ideas to Life

As a sculptor, and someone who works relatively large it makes things a lot easier to make macquettes and models.  But what comes as a surprise to most people is the role that drawing plays in my work. I thought it would be interesting to share my process with you.

Jackie Bell Johnson, The Storyteller, 2013.

Jackie Bell Johnson, The Storyteller, 2013, wood, black cotton twine, steel cables, twelve feet wide.

First let’s get some things out of the way: Sculpture & Installation. These two types of art are like sisters. Sculpture mostly focuses on the object as an autonomous thing. Whereas, I like to think of installation as an environment. The isolated sculptural object is viewed by walking around it.  The installation is something you can walk through. An installation has a different relationship to the space it occupies than a singular object.

These are two sides to the same problem of three dimensions. I like working with both, but honestly, I think more in installation oriented ideas because that is how we perceive things in our daily lives. Our experience includes the peripheral. Both of these art forms speak of the act of making.

The processes and materials are potentially infinite. Add large scale into the mix and we are talking about some complicated stuff!  To create in this way takes planning, some vision (at least an idea), and materials – enough to do the job. Often the opportunity to create an installation piece is limited. Gallery floor hours are similar to retail, an empty space is counter productive for business. Usually a gallery space has an expectation of a piece being available for viewing for a maximum amount of time, in between other shows.

I approach making my installations rather methodically. I either have a process or a combination of materials that have been circling around in my head. These may already reside in my sketchbook as what I call, lazy drawings. I take a field trip to the actual installation location and take photos and maybe a video.  I take measurements and get a floor-plan from the gallerist, if they have one.  I note details like columns, window placement, position of doors, outlets, lights — basically I look for anything that could potentially change or disrupt my design once my turn is scheduled to create in in the space.

Jackie Bell Johnson, intital drawing of an idea, the folding skin as a cavernous form, ballpoint pen on paper.

Jackie Bell Johnson, initial drawing of an idea, the folding skin as a cavernous form, ballpoint pen on paper.

With new information gathered, I go back to the drawing board. I figure out what forms/shapes that I want to create. I do some formal drawings along those lines. I sort through potential materials, drawing out the materials in some sketches and ignoring in others. Sometimes the choice of materials is the challenge of making the piece. Materials become a part of the many problems I will need to solve.

I have a few ideas that I haven’t been able to execute because I haven’t figured out what material to use yet! Sometimes I will do field research… I take a few hours and roam craft, dollar, thrift and home improvements stores.

Jackie Bell Johnson, close-ip photo of folded paper macquette of second sculptural form. Stands about two inches tall.

Jackie Bell Johnson, close-ip photo of folded paper macquette of second sculptural form. Stands about two inches tall.

I make macquettes of the forms, usually using a material that behaves the same way, if not the actual intended material. I will also make samples to test out processes, or ways to connect materials together.

I then take my pictures of the gallery space and superimpose photos of the models on top.  I use GIMP, which is similar to Photoshop and digitally mesh the photos together.  Sometimes I have to delete something in the room (like a broom leaning against the wall) or remove a shadow. The sketches and models are placed into the virtual gallery.  They have to be tweaked: rotated, stretched to enhance perspective, and lightened or darkened to have the photo of the model match that of the gallery. I use lighting effects over the entire thing.  The lighting helps unify both photos into one image (I tend to use dramatic lighting in the actual installation).

Jackie Bell Johnson, photo of Human Resources gallery space, during an exhibition. When used for my proposal images, I Photoshoped out the piece on the ground and the other wall.

Jackie Bell Johnson, photo of Human Resources gallery space, during an exhibition. When used for my proposal images, I Photoshopped out the piece on the ground and the other wall.

This seems like a lot of work right?  It can be, for me, making macquettes tends to take the longest.  I’ve gotten really good at making the digital models. Samples of processes are meant to be quick. I’m not using them to make something pretty. At this stage I am figuring out if I can screw A into B or if a certain kind of glue will stick to a piece of plastic.  Also, now is my time to make mistakes and experiment. Macquettes are little, inexpensive learning experiences.

What can macquettes be used for? What is their role in this whole thing? The macquettes and models help me answer questions about where the actual curve will happen, or how to make the form so it’s not top-heavy – I liken it to sketching in 3-D.  I can make a scale model of the space, and a scale model of my sculpture and figure out how tall it will be, or how it will feel in the space – Cramped? Tiny?  If I am making multiple pieces, this is a way to play with the layout of these objects in the space.

The digital imaging… for me, it’s a way to fully imagine the work in reality. The models can be moved around but they still look and feel like toys compared to the reality in my head. The digital images are a way to bring images of my models to the level of clarity that lives in my head.  Digital images, drawings, macquettes, and models also serve well for proposals.

A photo of a model can look like a real artwork in a real gallery, and that helps the people I am pitching ideas to really see the work in the gallery.  They don’t have to imagine because the image is in front of them.

When using studio assistants, or working with the gallery preparators (the people that install exhibitions) my images and models can act as a guide, so they are up to speed on what the end result should look like.

I recently launched a Hatchfund campaign in order to help fund raise for my next big installation project.  Some of these images (and most definitely the tricks) that I have shared with you I have used in my proposal video. I invite you to take a look at my video. You can view it here.

Thanks for reading!



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