Cell Phone Towers, Swamps and Woolly Mammoths: A Conversation with Jill Lavetsky

by Michelle A. M. Miller

Images courtesy Jill Lavetsky

It’s tempting to write that visual artist Jill Lavetsky sleeps in a partially buried room in the ground—that the roof of her bedroom is carpeted with vines and lilies in bloom, that this oddly rustic suburban situation somehow summarizes her life as an unconventional artist. One might even write that her sinkhole of a bedroom serves as a metaphor for her moody graphite drawings; but, that would miss the mark. While elements of this soft-spoken artist’s life may be obscured, Jill’s compassion and thoughtfulness illuminate her path as she engages the world and the making of art. I met Jill when she was the teaching assistant for a color fundamentals class and we have been friends since. Her Lake Worth home studio is filled with silvery graphite drawings on Yupo, two of which will be on view in the All Florida Invitational that opens July 16 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. The following is from a conversation we had this May.

Michelle A. M. Miller: What can you tell me about your background and where did you go to school?

Jill Lavetsky: I was born and raised in Hobe Sound, a lovely beach town in Southeast Florida. Jonathan Dickinson State Park was my playground and where I learned to drive. My high school art teacher introduced us to art around Florida. I had never been to a museum as a kid and this had a huge impact on me. One day he drove us 5 hours to Florida School of the Arts in Palatka so his influence was profound. I received my AA in studio art there. FloArts is a small specialized 2-year program for about 100 students. It was a very traditional technical education where I worked on endless still-lifes and learned realist painting techniques. It was a formative period. Then I went to the University of Florida for my BFA. UF was different because it was more conceptual than FloArts. I earned my MFA from Florida Atlantic University.

MM: Are there other artists in your family? How supportive was your family about your decision to become an artist?

JL: There are no other artists in my family, but my dad’s very creative and always making something (building his own bows and arrows, tying his own flies for fishing, etc.). My parents didn’t seem to have a ton of interest in the fine arts, but they encouraged me to study it every step of the way. They never tried to push me into another career. I imagine they worried about how I was going to make a living, but they never showed me that they were worried.

Jill Lavetsky,  Passing Over

Jill Lavetsky, Passing Over

MM: Was there an “I’m going to be an artist” moment?

JL: Never. It was always, “this is what I do.” I was an athlete, in IB, and in the art program in high school. My senior year I chose art because I just couldn’t do it all.

MM: How does your work as an art educator impact your studio practice?

JL: I catch myself giving good advice that I don’t take myself often enough. You try so hard to impact someone’s practice. [Teaching] keeps me on my toes, and I need to practice what I preach.

MM: In addition to teaching at local colleges, you teach art in prisons. How did you come to work with prisons and has working with prisoners influenced your art? Let’s discuss your video, “I was Never Dead.”

JL: I made that video when I was in my final semester of grad school taking a course in the English department called Rhetorics of Incarceration. It was a collaboration with inmates at Homestead Correctional Institution. That video came from a beautifully written poem by a woman named Shelley, where she wants the reader to know that even though she’s in prison, she still wants to be considered a living, breathing human being, rather than a number or someone who has been written out of society. I’m not sure if the prison work has directly influenced my drawings, but it has changed my life for the better in that it influences how I interact with and view people. You just don’t know what’s going on with someone and their life, and you can’t assume anything.

MM: You hope to positively impact their lives in some small way?

JL: Totally. People ask, “Why should they deserve art?” Because rehabilitation does help. I’ve seen it. Imagine what they could be doing with their brains and bodies. Other countries understand this far better.

Jill Lavetsky,  Serenoa Sea

Jill Lavetsky, Serenoa Sea

MM: Let’s discuss your art. How would you describe your work? What is your subject matter and what materials do you use?

JL: My friend, a poet and English teacher, saw my work and immediately said out loud “ghosts and light” and I haven’t found a better way to put it.  The landscape drawings are mostly invented, partially from reference to Florida wilderness. They are “moody” and “gestural.” I like the ghostliness of the powdered media, its transparency, but I don’t think of ghosts as sheet-covered beings. When I make these marks I think about real places that are partly invented, alive with spirits—life energy—the idea that we don’t know everything. To draw something is to get to know something and I’m honoring the fact that I don’t really know this place.

MM: Would you call your work autobiographical?

JL: I haven’t used the term autobiographical, but I can say that it is. I make this work because I grew up with a connection to this place, and I wouldn’t be making this work if I didn’t have the experience I did growing up here. My dad would take us to these special places in Florida—most families were going to Disney World, we went to the swamps, rivers and lakes, to be in quiet, beautiful places.

I think of my drawings as a kind of excavating, working backwards.
— Jill Lavetsky

MM: Your studio is in your home, how does that influence your work?

JL: I’m grateful to have this space, sometimes it’s easy to get distracted by everything else here, but it means I can spend a few moments here and there as well as longer hours.

Jill Lavetsky, detail of  Among the Sabals

Jill Lavetsky, detail of Among the Sabals

MM: Over the years, your work has evolved from colorful painterly works on canvas that evoked the Fauves, to technically complex monochromatic charcoal drawings on paper. Your MFA show reflected an interest in William Kentridge through your cinematic use of movement and time. Now you’re using powdered graphite on Yupo. These new works are still dense with marks, both additive and subtractive, but there’s something almost menacing going on. Long, dark and shimmery shadows pull the space in interesting ways. What can you tell me about these newer works?

JL: I began drawing as my primary medium in grad school when I realized I needed to make marks more directly than I was with paint. And as much as I love color, black and white is what I need to say right now. I have tried going back to paint but it’s just so wet and all I want to do is put down marks and pick them back up again. I’m still in love with the dryness of powder and I love the back and forth of drawing (and erasure). I used powdered charcoal for years, but it became dingy. I use the graphite powder on Yupo because there’s a particular brand of eraser that will wipe the graphite up clean off the smooth surface. It also looks somewhat photographic, not in the imagery so much but the look of the paper and shiny medium on it. I am pretty seduced by materials and the sexiness of black, white and gray. I remember years ago looking at Leonard Baskin creatures he printed and loving the darkness and drama in them.

MM: Baskin’s work is so intense. You’ve also got something reminiscent of Hitchcock’s use of psychological drama going on. Does that relate to you at all? Theatrical drama?

JL: Definitely, although I don’t directly think about someone like Hitchcock.  I’m not outwardly a theatrical person, I’m naturally an introvert; but I love drama, and I actually really love to perform. I have done some performance art and have performed as a musician many times, and I love it, it just takes a lot for me to work up to it. That may be why there’s so much drama in my drawings. I think actors and artists have a lot in common—I love the book “And Then you Act” by Ann Bogart.

Jill Lavetsky,  Flatlands

Jill Lavetsky, Flatlands

MM: It’s interesting that you are using dry powder to evoke these wet, humid environments.

JL: I use the graphite to create atmosphere…and drama…I’m always seduced by the drama.

MM: Are you still using screen printing to lay down the powder?

JL: I love the mechanical look of what screen print can do but now I use hand and laser-cut stencils. I love the shapes of the stencils, so I use a combination of observation, photographs, sketches and the stencils.

Failure is a key ingredient, it’s the only way to keep moving and not get stuck on something comfortable.
— Jill Lavetsky

MM: Would you take us through your process, particularly for these two works that will be in the Boca Raton Museum exhibition?

JL: The two going to Boca are Passing Over which is 42 x 80 inches and Turf and Tusks which is 60 x 36 inches. I think two important elements about my process are acting intuitively, and also working subtractively. For both of these drawings they began with laying down initial shapes and marks with both pencil and the graphite powder, more so than I know I need, and then working with the eraser to bring out the drawing. “Turf and Tusks” began with an article I read about mammoth bones recently being found under the end zone of a football field in Oregon. I don’t typically react to a specific story or narrative like that, but I was enamored with the idea that these players were unknowingly running over something so old and still relatively intact. I think of my drawings as a kind of excavating, working backwards, so I first drew images of mammoths, not knowing where to go with them. When I had enough of that I turned the paper 90 degrees and drew more on top of them, building up the layers of powder via stenciling, simply because it’s easier to control the shapes and edges with the stencils. The powder just wants to be an amorphous cloud otherwise. “Passing Over” became a drawing in March in the midst of my hour-long commute to Davie twice a week to teach Narrative Drawing. The tangled overpasses I would traverse had my mind in a knot, so I made a drawing about some plant-life woven into the overpasses.

Jill Lavetsky,  Turf and Tusks

Jill Lavetsky, Turf and Tusks

MM: Are the collages a way to prepare for the compositions or are they just explorations?

JL: The collages are just fun, quick and dirty, playing with shape and value. Collage is a great way to sketch because I love to move parts around easily. They haven’t ended up as drawings as far as I know, but maybe subconsciously.

MM: I want to circle back to the shimmery quality of your work. I’m thinking about Jacqueline Humphries and her dramatic use of shimmer, there’s one of her silver paintings at the Norton Museum of Art. As with that painting, I find myself pacing, almost dancing in front of your work in order to see it…the shimmer makes it difficult to view the work all at one time. You see one version at a distance and then as you get closer marks emerge and disintegrate into the shimmer. It can be frustrating because I will get sucked into a particular passage, then my body shifts or the light shifts and the passage is gone and I have to try to find it again. How important is this shimmer?

JL: I actually haven’t totally made up my mind about the shimmer. For the first few works I did with graphite on Yupo I covered them with matte medium before I showed them because I found that there was too much glare and I also wanted to protect the drawing. I am now embracing the shimmer more, allowing it to do what you described so eloquently.

MM: How important are research, preparation and experimentation to your practice?

JL: Of the three, experimentation is most important, because I think as I do. I guess the research would be taking reference photos while I’m out and about, and sketching, and reading. Currently the preparation is needed for making the stencils I use to create shapes in the drawings.

A collage from the artist’s collection

A collage from the artist’s collection

MM: I noticed “Red Bird” by Mary Oliver on your studio table. What else are you reading? How important is poetry to your practice and which artists are you looking at?

JL: Yes, poems are a great way for me to keep thinking visually when I need a break from my drawings. I picked up Mary Oliver specifically because of how much she notices and pays attention to in the world around her. I also like the poetry of Adrienne Rich. Right now I’m reading The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012 because I love Dave Eggers and he edited it with high-school students. Artists I’ve been looking at are: Abdelkader Benchamma, Mauro Giaconi, Peter Owen, and Melissa Brown. 

MM: What about risk and failure?

JL: Yes, failure is a key ingredient, it’s the only way to keep moving and not get stuck on something comfortable. I don’t know how you cannot take risks. I make so many shitty drawings, then there’s the slightest epiphany. I think I could stand to take more risks. Risk would be 3D which frightens me.

MM: What do you want your work to say?

JL: I want my work to say that a little bit of darkness, mystery, and nuance is good for us. We usually want manufactured spaces, and quick answers, but I like to honor the unknowns, especially in natural spaces.  I like that people sometimes say they see something different each time they look at my drawings, like there’s something in there floating around that they can’t quite grab a hold of. People are surprised that my work is so dark, but it’s a safe place to put that darkness.

Jill Lavetsky,  Dusk

Jill Lavetsky, Dusk

MM: Have there been any obstacles to making your work?

JL: Yes, having a day job… besides that, they’re all self-inflicted obstacles, with having too many interests and distractions, and too many starts and not enough finishes. I’ve done all nighters, but now I’m not going to stay up all night unless there’s a deadline. Maybe that’s superficial but it’s the reality for me.

MM: What have you sacrificed to be an artist?  

JL: Logic and reason.

MM: I love that. We don’t need to expand on that. How do you navigate the “art scene” in South Florida?

JL: I hate that phrase.

MM: I know, I do too but I still can’t come up with a decent substitute. South Florida is a scene.

JL: It’s a good question. I tend to stay in my neck of the woods, and could stand to venture south more often. I go to Miami maybe twice a year. I am fortunate to know a lot of talented people in South Florida, many of them stemming from my years at FAU and just being in Palm Beach County for so long that you end up magnetizing towards like-minds. At the same time, I sometimes think about the artists that are literally down the street from me whom I never interact with, and it’s a matter of whose universe you’re throwing yourself into.

MM: There is an odd vibe going on in terms of our local arts communities, like cults of personality.

JL: I see so much nepotism going on and I should be proactive instead of reactionary, more vocal. The most vocal people get the most attention. There’s a lot of technically skilled but boring stuff and people can make demeaning comments about any thoughtful criticism.

MM: But we need thoughtful criticism. It may be tough to hear, but it pushes us to be better artists, to push our work or to see things in our work that we may have overlooked. In the end, criticism can positively impact a community of artists.

JL: It’s  true.

MM: Do you see your work as part of any current movements or directions?

JL: I see a fair amount of contemporary “landscape” artists (not that I’d particularly label myself as that) that embrace both the human built world with natural places and don’t try to pull them apart. I don’t think we can use that dichotomy anymore, of natural vs. man-made. My work is all cell phone towers and swamps. I also think about mixing technique with conceptual rigor. You need both. There’s also an increased appreciation for drawing which is great.

MM: Are there any upcoming shows or projects you would like to mention?

JL: I just completed a residency at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts in June, and two of my drawings will be exhibited at the All Florida Invitational at Boca Museum of Art this summer.

MM: Let’s do our own version of nepotism. Is there a local artist who you think deserves more attention?

JL: Nick Paliughi. His collages are fantastic.

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