The Artist Formerly Known As: Julia Brown

Julia Brown is an art studio major whose thesis work will be premiered in the Wilde Gallery in the Spencer Art Building in early April. She has worked in a variety of media, only recently turning to painting for her thesis. Her work has also been exhibited at Goodrich Hall and in group exhibits for various classes in which she has participated at Williams.

In asking about exhibit information, Julia told me that I was making her “feel like an untested artist” because of the limited number of exhibits in which she has shown her work. I began the interview by responding to that feeling.

Let’s jump into that. Do you feel that having your work exhibited is a crucial part of the artistic process, or is it just something that goes along with the game, or the name “artist?”

I think I used to say that I didn’t really care about exhibiting, but you think about your work differently when you think about exhibiting it. Formerly, my art was very self-contained, I was doing it for me and trying to accomplish certain goals that I had, I didn’t really feel like I had anything developed enough to show. Whereas now I’m starting to focus on more specific ideas.

There was a period of gestation in the fall where I didn’t show anything that I was doing, and that was all for me. Now, as I’m for fellowships, and thinking about the shows that are coming up, it’s just this totally different element, which I think is particularly important for my work, because I’m not doing figurative stuff. My art needs a context, so I have to really think a lot about how I present it to push people toward the way of looking at it that I want them to have.

So you don’t feel like your art stands alone, or stands on its own?

I think it stands on its own, but it’s in process. I have these very clear ideas about what I want it to convey…right now I’m doing painting, and I’ve really just begun doing painting. I’ve done a lot of drawing and printmaking previously, so I have to test out the medium. And I don’t know if I feel like I have it to the point where I have the control over it so that I can make it express what I want. I think it does [stand alone].

I think the problem with abstract work is that it’s under-determined, so the very specific thing that’s inspiring me, you’d probably never be able to derive just from looking at it. How much that matters, I don’t really know. I’d like for people to know, but I think the visual presence on its own is interesting.

How do you deal with abstraction? You said that what you’re imagining something to be about is not necessarily what somebody else is going to perceive it as being about. Do you make it with your own form in mind, or with a variety of viewpoints, how they might take it from the viewers’ perspective?

It starts off very hopeful…I think you have to only concentrate on what your intention is when you’re making it. In abstraction, differences are so pregnant with meaning that there’s this really intense compression of intention, so every intention you make with every brushstroke contributes to how people will read it, so you have to be really pure about that. While I’m making it, there will be points where I’m sort of reflecting back on what I’m doing, and judging it, and deciding where to go next. I can enjoy other meanings that I can see coming into it, other ways of interpreting. Sometimes it’s fun just to let those be ambiguous.

Abstraction is something kind of new to me, as well. Last fall, when I was doing my thesis proposal, they want you to have this idea of what your work is about. And all of sudden, it’s like, “Wow, I have this unifying conception which all my work has got to be about! Okay, this is what I’m doing,” and it happened to be abstract. So I don’t really know where that came from. It feels really right.

Can you talk more about your history? You say this is new to you.

I’ve always drawn, since I can remember. But especially in the time since I’ve been here, pretty much everything I’ve done has been either figurative or representational.

So then what made you turn to abstraction for your thesis?

I guess it started from a little assignment I had in a Drawing 2 class, which was just a sketchbook exercise in which you’re supposed to do a drawing a day, and one of the assignments which she gave us was to do a drawing with words. So I did this drawing just using words, which ended up being something I really liked. The words were layered on top of each other, and grouped, so they started to form this kind of body.

So I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that my work is abstract – it really isn’t. It’s representational hiding under being abstract. So that shape, that configuration of words that was a body, started to pop up in different beats, different works that I had been doing. I had another professor two years later, where for my Junior Seminar, I had made this hat out of hair – I crocheted a hat out of synthetic hair. It was supposed to be a nappy hat, and it was about black identity. He was looking at the hat, and he was like, “oh, this is like your drawings with words.” And I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but I think it gestated in my subconscious for another 6 months. I started cooking up this idea that there are these central things that I’m interested in.

When it came to making what I really wanted, the question was, “what is my work? What am I interested in?” And so this was the first time I asked myself that question, and I was like, well, I’m interested in these three or four archetypal symbols, one of them being words, which to me are representative of time and heritage. Atmosphere and space that contains it, and then circles and squares, where circles – they’re really spheres – are like bodies, in the most general sense, and where squares are like limits. I don’t really know where those things come from. I guess I’m a visual thinker, that’s what those things have always meant to me. Those are the things that I’ve tried to explore in my work, through abstraction.

So it’s not really an abstraction – it’s almost like your own language.

Yeah, that’s exactly what it is.

Do we see those things in the work that’s going to be exhibited for your thesis?

You see the forms. I don’t know if people will perceive those things at all. Mostly, I’ve been focusing on the idea of bodies within limits, although I think I’m going to start working on the linear word-oriented, time-oriented part of it soon. Mostly, it’s using the forms of circles and squares, which in a way is really funny. When I talk about it, I often feel like a real jerk – if you walk into my studio, I’m usually painting circles or squares, which I think is objectively funny. Everything I’m working on is pretty narrowly restricted to that – it’s all circles and squares. One aspect of abstraction that’s frustrating to me right now is that a lot of the things I’m interested in have a lot of political intention, insomuch as my personal can be political, and in that way I think that creating a discourse around the formal qualities of the work is really important to the political meanings in them.

What sort of political meanings?

I’m really interested in identity. A lot of it has to do with African-American identity, as being biracial, or me as a woman, and that particularly comes out – I’ve done a lot of work with makeup as a material. Looking at it, you wouldn’t necessarily know that’s what it is, so in that respect the piece doesn’t stand on its own. You have to know the material, which is supported by a wall text, or you have to know that it’s referencing some other artist, or is part of a movement.

Do these issues pervade all of your artwork, or is it a choice that you make?

I sort of feel that it has to be a choice – an abstraction can only carry so much meaning, so you have to choose where you put your emphasis and how you do it. I think that I’ve been very conscientiously trying to divide things out from each other, like “this idea goes in this direction, this idea I’m going to address this way, and this idea I’m going to address this way.” So things are sort of diverging.

How have you found Williams as a place for you to develop, as an artist, especially?

I think it’s hard. I don’t know how it is for the other arts, but for the visual arts, there isn’t a lot of community. We spend so little time in the studio anyway – you don’t have a studio space until you’re a second semester senior – so that there’s a tangential feeling to being a studio art major. It’s the thing you do after the rest of your classes, after the work for the rest of your classes is done. So in that way, it can be kind of uninspiring, kind of lonely. There are some nights when I’m really enjoying it because I have the space, and because I’m in this big room with my own partitioned-off studio, with a bunch of people working on their own thing. And so there’s more of a feeling of mass, there’s a critical mass, which is really nice.

I think by now, finally, I’m at the point where I’m independently motivated enough…what I constantly see is people not putting in the time, even people who really say that they’re committed to art in their life aren’t really putting in the time because they feel so peripheral and because of the structure of the major and the really small number of people who are doing it. I mean, my God, our building is the farthest out building on campus – nobody just happens to wander through to see an exhibit. You don’t end up in Spencer unless you meant to go there, which I think is unfortunate. Eventually, though, the solitude of Williams is conducive to intensity, and focusing on what you want to do…with the absence of all other distractions.