Thursday, March 29, 2012

Studio Visit & Interview: Jill Christian

Anyone who is familiar with the Albuquerque art scene has surely been to the Harwood Art Center or perhaps even sent their children to school at Harwood's parent organization, Escuela del Sol Montessori. The building was built in 1925 and since 1991 has continually been a fixture for providing community outreach in the arts, exhibitions, workshops, summer camps, art classes and and even affordable studio space that it rents to over 40 local artists. 

After attending Harwood's mega-successful even The Butterfly Effect, I discovered that
New Mexico Showcase artist Jill Christian had a studio there. I stopped by one morning on my way to work to check out her studio and discuss her work. Jill's got a great perspective and approach on being an artist while holding down a full time job amidst balancing other distractions.

Some new works in progress

Background layer
Where are you from? What brought you to New Mexico?
I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, a suburb about 30 minutes west of Boston. In 1994, about two years after graduating from UMass Amherst with my BFA, I moved to New Mexico with a friend. I wanted to experience living in a place very different from New England – my friend was interested in studying anthropology at UNM, and I was thinking about getting my MFA.  After a trip to the southwest, my friend and I decided Albuquerque seemed like the best place to relocate.  I loved that the climate allowed for time outdoors. And the landscape is incredibly beautiful – especially the sky.

Some older, more gestural abstractions. She cites the smaller piece as being an important breakthrough in the distillation of her brush stroke, visible in her most recent work.

Some large work being prepped for paint

You have a varied educational background: BFA in painting, MBA and an MFA. What attracted you to getting a business degree? In many ways it makes perfect sense being that artists are essentially in business for themselves, but was there any connection with your career as an artist or did you have other intentions with your MBA?

I’ve had a bit of a circuitous path. I’ve always had diverse interests – even during my undergraduate studies I couldn’t pick one thing, and so I simultaneously pursued fine arts and comparative literature (I ended up getting a degree in painting).  After I moved to New Mexico, I found myself working as an executive assistant at a start-up technology company.  What I saw was that many young women start out in administrative assistant and office management positions, often with a great deal of responsibility. I had a friend who had just finished up his MBA, and it seemed that he was doing much the same work as I was, but getting paid a lot more.  I decided to get my MBA to learn as much as I could about business, and get a credential that would help me earn more money.

Because of that, painting was placed on the back burner for a number of years.  I often wonder what would have happened if I’d pursued an MFA right away as I had originally intended. That was a long time ago, but at the time I think I was unsure about how to make a living as an artist. I’m still unsure.

I thought that I could do both: have a business career and an art career.  I really enjoy working in marketing – there is a lot of problem solving, creativity, and strategic thinking involved.  And I love the idea of delivering something of value and helping people. But there was a point that one really needed to take precedence over the other.  That was part of the impetuous to enroll in an MFA program in 2009.  It represented a decision to recommit to painting and my time in the studio.  Right now I have an employer who supports that.  I give them 100 percent.  But I am no longer focused on “climbing the corporate ladder.”  I can apply my skills and still reserve enough time and energy for the work I need to do in the studio.

What are some of the ways (if any) that having a business background have shaped your approach to making or selling work?

I really do feel that the MBA has given me a broader perspective.  I get the viewpoint of business owners. And artists are in business for themselves and they do need to think about ways to get their work in front of audiences and manage the finances of what they are doing.  That said, an artist has to play two roles – the creative and generative part that happens in the studio; and then the business and operations part that happens elsewhere. In fact I think it is important to keep boundaries around the two spaces. Knowing how to take care of the business side is one less hurdle.  Though I must say it is easier to think about promoting someone else’s work than your own.  It is challenging to create some distance to write about your work, for example.  So, even with a business degree, I face the same struggles with marketing and selling that every other artist deals with.  And it’s got to be about more than just the business of it all – that’s not why I chose to be an artist.  I do this regardless of whether I sell anything ever.  But I also don’t want to see my work tucked away in a storage unit.  At the same time, I think an artist can choose to not participate in the market, and create ways to get exposure for their work without a focus on financial compensation.  You need to focus on how to support what you do.  I am still figuring this all out.  There isn’t one right way to do things.

I have been wondering a lot about restraint – mostly because I’ve just graduated from an MFA program. There is a temptation to go all out. But you need to think about how you measure success, and balance what happens in the studio with other types of success. I was recently given advice to really resist the temptation to engage in marketing – I was told that many MFA graduates get ahead of themselves and don’t protect their work and time and burn out because of that.  This particular artist advised me to keep control of my work and focus on setting up the rhythms and routines of a regular studio schedule. She suggested, and I’ve been reading, Anne Truitt’s Daybook as a model for keeping your work private until you are ready to let it out into the world.  To give yourself space in which to let the work grow without pressure – I think that’s important.  I had another mentor emphasize how important it is to not think about your career and rather think about how you can be generous to someone else.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all did that?

Looks can be deceiving...a closer inspection is required!

Looking at some of your past works, it's all abstract, but you've obviously gone through different phases. Some of your work from 2010 is very colorful and gestural, while your more recent works are very minimal, controlled and with a limited color palette. Can you explain a little about your stylistic evolution?
I came from a place of being intensely influenced by figurative expressionism and abstract expressionism.  Being in an MFA program, I began to question what it meant to be expressive and gestural.   I decided to explore what could be expressive about a single brushstroke – and in doing so laid down a field of multiple, repetitive brushstrokes.  Within the restrictions I’ve placed on myself, I’ve found such a rich area of exploration.  It also comes from my observations of strata and repetition in the landscape of New Mexico.  Becoming more minimal was a bit of a surprise.  It’s almost like I’m a convert because before I had trouble understanding minimalism, and here I am finding it’s the best way to express my ideas and convey intense and transcendent emotions.

Nice effect, lots of tiny single brush strokes on a big panel.

You've also work a lot with print making. Is there a medium that you feel translates your work particularly well?
At one point I did a lot of monotypes, especially after my daughter was born. Monotypes allowed me to do a lot of work quickly and work through ideas in a rapid and direct way. The medium allowed me to be spontaneous and let chance to enter the work – you’re never sure what will happen when you pull the paper off the press. I recently had the opportunity to see some of Degas’ monotypes in Boston, and it reinforced for me the immediacy and expressivity of the medium – the lines and tones achieved are so lovely – so immediate. Although my current work seems structured, I always go through this stage of unknowing and exploration.

Jill sold this piece (still in progress) during The Butterfly Effect opening to a studio visitor. 


You create some really interesting and beautiful effects with seemingly very subtle modulation of line density. How do you gauge or predict those effects or is that something that you leave to spontaneity?
I try not to predict.  I am not interested in measuring out or calculating the variations. I want them to happen as a result of the material and the gesture of its application – how my body interacts with the material.  I do exercise control in selection of the size of the support, the brush, and the qualities of the paint – how those things work together is important – how long each row is as compared to the size of the stroke.

Monotype print. Jill has also worked quite extensively with printmaking. 

What about size? You've made some rather large pieces, which I can only imagine, are extremely time consuming. With your process or approach do you find it daunting painting on a large scale?
These recent paintings are time consuming.  I spend a great deal of time preparing the panels. And I often work up the background surface in multiple layers.  The final application of strokes requires an almost meditative concentration and stamina. Size can be tricky, and a lot of things go into making that decision.  In the current work, I wanted to convey a meditative, transcendent feeling, which I felt required a certain size. Yet, I didn’t want to get into the monumental and sublime – I wanted the feeling to be intimate.  So the choice of size becomes a very intuitive thing that you just have to figure out by trial and error.

A few finished pieces she had out during The Butterfly Effect

Any artists you draw inspiration from?
I’ve always loved Willem de Kooning and still draw inspiration from his work.  Other artists I love are Joan Mitchell and Agnes Martin. I’ve recently discovered artists whom I didn’t know of before: Marcia Hafif, Lee Ufan, Mary Corse, Xylor Jane.

Jill (left) and GuruAmrit Khalsa of the Harwood Art Center
What has been your impression of the art scene/community in Albuquerque? What could Albuquerque use more of?
I think Albuquerque has a very diverse art community. Still, I’ve always felt that Albuquerque’s a place where you have to hunt for things.  I think it has to do with population density. However, because of my background, I am a bit on the periphery and I feel that as long as I’ve lived here, I’m still a newcomer to the art community.  Some of the things I’m hungry for are more arts writing and commentary.  It would be great to have more public dialogue about what’s going on in the arts and how that relates to larger issues.  I am very excited to see events in New Mexico like LAND/ART and the upcoming ISEA conference.  Surprisingly, I learned more about the LAND/ART exhibitions and the University of New Mexico Art and Ecology Program at a recent College Art Association conference in Los Angeles than I did locally. I was amazed at the cutting edge programs in New Mexico – they need to be made more of here.  We really do have a vibrant and innovative community.

Do you have any up coming projects or exhibitions?
I am working on a series of paintings for July solo show at the Harwood Art Center.  I just graduated with my MFA in January, and I’m working through some ideas for my next project – right now dealing with time and light.

Tranquil Sky, part of the New Mexico Showcase exhibition currently on view at 516 ARTS


  1. When I went to the Harwood Open Studios I could not walk by Jill's studio without going in. I spotted the work in progress and bought it immediately. I loved her work in the 516 show and I am so happy to have one of pieces! Debi D


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