i'm so pleased to bring you my latest interview w/ one of my very favorite artists, jill bliss. jill is an artist that i have admired both artistically and professionally for quite awhile. jill's colorful palette of dots, lines, circles and shapes create beautiful images of native flowers, trees and beautiful, organic designs. a great example of what a working artist can be today, jill works incredibly hard. her shop blissen is an inspiration filled with everything from tiny buttons to original artwork. jill took a moment to answer some q's as she was winding down from a very busy start to her year.
you grew up on a farm in northern california, how has that influenced you as an adult? both personally and professionally w/in your work?
i was just discussing this with my mom the other day, who was concerned that those farm years weren't such a good idea after all for us kids because the slowness and idealism of farm life may have made it more difficult for us to reintegrate into "normal" corporate lifestyles as adults. my brother [he's now a computer programmer] and i are both unafraid to work around the clock until the job at hand is finished, and we're both attracted to working within small groups of people, and i think these traits can be directly attributed to a family farm mentality. both of us briefly tried working in large corporate environments, but it didn't work for either one of us.
in the corporate world, i just couldn't wrap my head around all the people in the same environment, each having their own narrow set of tasks. on the farm if you see something that needs doing you do it, you don't wait around for permission or wait for someone else to do it because it's not your job to pick up all the walnuts before the storm hits and ruins the entire crop. and then not being able to see or understand how the whole organization worked was equally as puzzling. it was all just too big and beyond a single human scale for me.
also...growing up on a farm, i got to experience the entire cycle of life, and the deep commitment every component within the cycle must have in order for everything to function properly. at the same time, the experience also taught me to remain flexible and optimistic, to remember that every situation, good or bad, is temporary. for example, you can lovingly tend to a crop for the whole growing season, and then one storm can come and destroy all your hard work for the year. it's not your fault, nor the plant's fault, but you have to find a way to survive it and go on with the belief that next year's crop will be better.
being eco and earth conscious is very important to you. can you tell us a little bit about what you do in your work to maintain these beliefs?
trees are always my number one. they're like people to me, which i guess comes from growing up in orchards. after them, i'm always intrigued with all the small over-looked details in the forest or in the tidepools.
you are one of the first artists i remember to start using recycled materials, it's such a normal thing to see w/ in art & the art-commerce world now. did people 'get' you when you first started out or was it a struggle?
i read a lot of non-fiction devoted to environmental studies and economics both as inspiration and reminder, and go for lots of walks/hikes. my mfa thesis was studying the visual language of anthropomorphism. as a result i'm interested in figuring out visual ways to garner empathy and understanding for non-human things, without resorting to adding a human face on them. i don't think i've succeeded at that yet, but i'll keep trying!
isn't that awesome that it's normal now?! at first i learned it was just easier to downplay that aspect of my work and concentrated on attracting people to the things i made because they were well-designed or well-made. then, afterwards, maybe i'd reveal the recycled part, or just keep it to myself like a little in-joke.
now that i sell larger quantities of things i'm beginning to use "new" materials, but i remind myself that these new materials should also be recycled or sustainable. and i strive to make just enough items to satisfy demand. making too many items, even from recycled materials, is also wasteful.
what's your feeling on how trendy "green" is becoming?
i welcome it, i'm constantly learning new things and ways of working and thinking. and there's more and more people and places available for me to work with now as a result. even though it may be classified as a trend, i think it's much more than that. i don't think any of us will have a choice in the matter for much longer.
when and why did you start blissen?
blissen came to be in may 2001, as a place to sell limited edition goods i made from materials left over from other projects.
you were incredibly industrious as a child. are any of your products at blissen reminiscent or inspirations of things you made as a child?
now that i look back on it, it all seems like a lifelong natural progression. i've never not done what i do now, it's just on a different scale these days. on the farm we were paid once a year, in january, for crops harvested in the summer and fall. by october the funds would run low so i'd help my mom make holiday craft items to get the family through the rest of the year. i graduated from making spice ropes, raggedy anns, pom pom animals and quilts in middle school when we moved back to "the city." by then i was altering thrift store clothes and accessories or making them from scratch for me and my friends. then art and design school projects, and nights and weekends devoted to making stuff, and now what i do now.
you have designed so many beautiful paper products, what is it about paper for you? do you yourself write letters? are you online a lot?
paper and fabric are my two favorite materials for sure. although wood is pretty appealing when i have access to a good woodshop! paper is just an easy material to work with because it's easy to find. i do write a lot of letters. and emails. i'm not so good with the blog thing, either writing one or visiting others' on a regular basis. the social networking websites aren't my thing either. i prefer one-to-one communication.
how i first found you was through your delicate and beautiful flower necklaces about 5 yrs ago. what was your inspiration/drive behind making something so delicate and unique? how many incarnations have you made since the first one?
gosh, i have no idea how many different flower necklaces there have been! i remember the first ones were inspired by learning the names and shapes of different flower parts, and wanting to make 3 dimensional models of those to help me try and remember the names. i want to get back to those roots of making small meticulous hand-made fabric items!
can you tell us some of your favorite blissen products right now?
right now i'm using my datebook and datebook cozy the most! oh, and my perfect pocket wallet. and the notepads. and the notebooks. my favorite products are always the newest ones, right now i'm incubating a few new ones i can't talk about yet!
as an artist you are heavily associated w/ northern california however you are now living in portland, what made you move?
yeahhh, i'm just another californian ruining oregon. i really, really tried to stay home in the bay area with all my friends and family, but could no longer keep up the 90 hour workweeks necessary to pay the rent. the increasingly expensive, competitive and desperate atmosphere down in california was totally draining and affecting my ability to work. i'm still recovering.
i think my first visit to portland [as an adult] was in 2005, jenn at the recently closed motel gallery invited me up for a show and i was enchanted. it's all her fault! since then it's been my favorite quick-get-away-for-the-weekend destination, so much so that a lot of friends here began asking me "so when're moving up here?". i moved this past summer and my favorite thing besides my friends is the gloomy weather. it was disgustingly sunny and nice this past weekend, and i just couldn't wait for the rain to return!
who are some of your favorite peeps in the art & craft world?
right now i'm interested in art more than craft, and i've been mesmerized by the work of nigel peake, jen stark, jenny bowers, helle jorgensen, jacob magraw...in person, i try to keep up with friends saelee oh, souther salazar, caroline hwang, evah fan and brendan monroe, and fellow portlanders brittany powell, amy ruppel, bishop lennon, apak, kara at egg press... i'm sure i'm forgetting a lot of people and places.
what are you listening to? any favorite bands you want to share w/ us?
i'm just rediscovering music, both old and new favorites, via mp3s and digital downloads rather than cds and records. wow, the "shuffle songs" feature is a brilliant invention! i know, i know, i'm a little behind the times!
well i've been listening to a few of the bands you mentioned a few weeks ago and checked out some of the other ones i hadn't heard yet. it's getting harder for me to find whole albums i like, mostly it's a song or two only. to your list i'd kick up the dance factor a bit with the ting tings' "great dj" , justice's "d.a.n.c.e.", and cut copy's "future".
as for albums, on my i-pod m.i.a. and seawolf have been on constant repeat this past week. and i'm looking forward to re-aquainting myself with life without buildings' "any other city" album. i can't find a digital download for this anywhere. i bought the cd online and have to figure out how to transfer it to my i-pod so i can listen to it over and over and over no matter where i am with headphones so i don't drive anyone else crazy with it. i tend to listen to a particular song or album continuously, like it's my personal soundtrack for a project or time period.
what's coming up for you this year?
right now i'm taking a bit of a break to reorganize and re-prioritize. the past few years were overwhelming and extremely busy both professionally and personally. all of it was necessary, but now i need a time-out! once i'm done catching up with sleeping, i have a few book ideas and fine art and limited edition goods ideas i'd like to work on.
can you give any advice to to peeps who are just starting out on their own self-employed, creative adventure? any key nuggets of support or inspiration you'd like to share?
dream big, but start small! learn from your mistakes (because you'll make plenty), don't get discouraged by them, and seek out like-minded people to work with. and find a good accountant. they're expensive but worth every penny. a good one will help you figure out how to hold onto as much of your hard-earned money as possible!