Interview with Jacqui Larsen

I opened the latest issue of Segullah on a cold day in a new land surrounded by boxes and space, lots of them both. “Here,” it said on the front cover, running up the left side of the page. “Here,” it said going down on the right. I read it from cover to cover; and as usual, I cried not from sadness but from the realization (again) that I love to hear how other women create the mosaic of their life.

Jacqui Larsen kindly agreed to feature her art in this issue. She begins her artist’s statement with this quote, “As a life’s work, I would remember everything— everything, against loss. I would go through life like a plankton net.” —Annie Dillard

Jacqui’s plankton net is, if I might say so myself, mighty beautiful. What some might turn into scrapbooks or family history or junk drawers, Jacqui turns into art. She says, “In my work, fragments of handwriting, musical notes, blueprints and discarded texts act as artifacts, proof that we are passing through a chain of mornings.” Passing through a chain of mornings is what Jacqui and I were doing as we slowly got to know each other over email. Here’s a few snippets of our conversation:

What are your artistic impulses?

On my recent trip to Upstate New York, I visited the places where that strange and relentless art machine inside me first clicked to life. Once such spot was a shallow ditch across from my childhood home. The place where I discovered that a thin film of oil on a puddle of water makes splotches of purple, deep pink, and a greenish-yellow. Splotches that I swirled with a dead twig into stripes. Stripes that I wanted to make permanent somehow. I looked across the street to my house. It was summer. My hair was loose and uncombed. My shirt and shorts, likely stained with dots of tar from my self-imposed summer task of crouching in the ditch, popping tar bubbles. I had to do something with those colors, combine them with something else, make them last. A quick run to my room, and I was back with a naked, plastic doll with only a few hair plugs. I dipped her into those colors. First toes, then a foot, then a whole leg and wide belly. I held her high. For one glorious fraction of a second the colors shimmered.

In many ways, that early artistic experience is emblematic of what I’m still doing, decades later. Daily, I run across images and materials, impressions and ideas which find their way into my artwork, hopefully combining in ways that make discoveries and raise new questions about this ever pertinent business of being human.

How do you do it? Describe the balancing act that allows you to exhibit, teach, be interviewed, and most importantly create? What does a “normal” day for you look like?

Balancing act? This, I think, is the big myth among women especially. The idea that you can do anything and everything if you just balance it all—kids, housekeeping, employment, PTA, art, volunteering, gardening, cooking, etc. My metaphor (sticking with the circus theme) is more like crude juggling—take on too many pins, drop them right and left, bend over to pick them up and get hit on the head by another two or three. The trick then, is not to balance everything, but to wear a hard hat and keep picking up the pins.

Metaphors aside, keeping up the art while being a parent is a challenge. For me, deadlines are gold. I try to always have a show scheduled for myself within the year. That keeps painting a priority, something I need to stay on top of, rather than a luxury I’ll do when I get a chance. Because we all know, those chances rarely come. So a typical day for me is to get up at 5:30, oversee piano practices, go running, have family time, then send kids out the door. The next hours are spent on painting or art related business until kids come home from school. From then on it’s sports, lessons, homework, and lots of listening. But I try to keep an art-making sensibility throughout the day—I’m always on the look out for interesting color combinations and ideas for paintings. It helps, too, that my husband is a poet. We have great conversations.

In your opinion, what is the value of art for an LDS person?

LDS or not, I think the challenge in contemporary society is the dominance of pop-culture. It seems that the majority of people allow someone else to dictate the movies, music, literature and visual images they consume. There’s a wealth of insightful movies, literature, music and art out there that the general population never sees, because the media doesn’t call them to it.

You ask what is the value of art. I can best answer that by giving an example. Yesterday I watched the documentary “49 Up” by Michael Apted. It begins with interviews of 7 year old kids in East London in 1964, then follows the same kids every 7 years until the age of 49. Though it began with political aspirations of showing the divisive class system of England, it became much more. This opportunity to watch entire lifetimes caused me to feel great empathy for these individuals, as well as to reflect on my own life. It raised the question—how am I doing with the life I’ve got? No Hollywood movie comes close to achieving that.

Tell me about your education and teaching career? At what point did you decide to quit teaching and why?

My art education came from many sources. I had good art teachers throughout my growing up years in public school in DeWitt, New York. My high school teacher was especially influential. Not only was he devoted to his own work—often painting during class time—but he also introduced me to the work of numerous artists. This began my own quest to study art history. I began with Rembrandt and worked my way up to the Post Impressionists through many visits to museums in New York City and Washington DC. I looked at the work up close. I imitated their styles, trying to better understand how they made paint do what they did. All this before beginning college. By the time I got to BYU for both a BFA and MFA, I was finally looking into work by contemporary artists, continuing my visits to major museums and art galleries. Then, when my husband and I moved to Houston so he could begin a Ph. D. program in writing, I became a frequent haunter of the excellent Menil Collection. This being the place where I came to know Joseph Cornell’s work so well.

While in Houston, I taught both art studio and art history courses at Houston Community College, and then accepted a full time position at Northwest College. Soon after, however, Lance received an offer to teach at BYU. By this time we had two children and wanted to have a one-income family. Since moving back to Provo, I’ve only taken on a few classed here and there, though most recently I taught for a semester at BYU as a Visiting Artist. I love teaching, and now that our children are older, I may consider more teaching opportunities.

There are many speculations about the temperament of artists, do you feel like you fit the stereotype? Why or why not?

I haven’t thought about artist stereotypes since I was a student in college. I now know so many dedicated and talented artists with such a variety of lifestyles, that I can’t even focus on what a stereotype would be. What I have observed, though, is that it’s easy to have a great passion for your work, to dress artsy and talk endlessly, but it takes much more to keep going into the studio day after day and put in your hours, while keeping the bills paid, and relationships healthy. I guess I’m saying that like most stereotypes the artist stereotype falls away when looking at real people.

Indeed…Thank you Jacqui.

8 thoughts on “Interview with Jacqui Larsen

  1. I enjoyed reading this! I like Jacqui’s comment on stereotypes falling away when looking at real people. I love the story about the doll dipped in oil. I like the art and have this urge to see it in person so I can get a good look at the textures, and maybe even touch it.

  2. Jacqui, I loved your artwork in Patchwork. It really brought the issue together for me.

    I love what you say about going into the studio day after day and putting in your hours. There’s a discipline to art. That’s something I hear from every successful artist / poet / creator: there is no substitute for a diligent work ethic.

  3. Jacqui, I so enjoy your artwork . . . and you. Thanks for being interviewed, and for your thoughtful, articulate answers. And the juggling metaphor—you summed up my life perfectly! (But luckily, a hard head seems to work as well as a hard hat.)

  4. Thanks for this interview, one of my favorite reads. I’ve really enjoyed having Jacqui Larsen’s art in our last issue and details from it on our website.

    Jacqui’s childhood memory of capturing the oil film colors on a doll reads like the landmark it is, and makes me think of the landmarks in my own life, from my childhood or -gasp- around the time I turned 35. I’m goign to save what she has to say about the temperament of artists too. I think sometimes those ideas about temperament keep us from our own productive and creative work. I love what she says about how she notes ideas and interesting color combinations during the “nonwork” hours of the day. I’m getting a sense of that these spheres of life can get a boost from each other, rather than just steal time from each other, when you are involved in more than one.

  5. Thanks for all your kind comments. Though a great deal of satisfaction comes from the creative process itself, it’s always surpassed by the opportunity to connect with people through the work. And I must say, Segullah has an outstanding community of readers and contributers.

    Thanks to Maralise for introducing me to this terrific publication. I only wish I had had access to this kind of community when I was first starting my family.

  6. Every time I read something from Jacqui, I feel motivated. She’s a true source of vision and inspiration.

    Thanks to you, I’m thinking more positively about the piles of junk and greasy puddles around my house. I better buy a few more Barbies for my girl to dip in them.

    Jaq, you’re the best!

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