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An Anthropologist at Home by Jean Hess

The Candy Factory, seventh floor

Through April 30; Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., with an opening reception on Friday, April 6, from 5:30-7 p.m. Call 523-7543 for information.

Layered Art

Hess' work shows where the golden mean meets the snarl

by Heather Joyner

I recall revealing an odd little secret about myself to a poet friend long ago. Her writing occasionally delved into dreams. She was published, self-assured, exotic. I was sure she'd know what I meant if I told her about a strangely pleasurable sensation I'd get every now and then when various individuals talked to me. I described it as a faint humming in the head—not unlike the tingling some people feel listening to specific musical passages, and I told her I'd first experienced it in kindergarten. I said that the words didn't necessarily matter. Nor did the tone or gender of the voice, although its resonance usually intensified my response. My friend looked at me as if I were insane. Her only response was, "Do I ever make you feel like that?"

Some people still have that effect on me at times—Jean Hess, for instance. When we conversed at the Candy Factory as she was hanging her show that opens tomorrow evening, Hess seemed to emanate a palpable energy. Beyond what she says, there's a sort of undercurrent of communication; one comes away from the conversation sensing that they've heard something unspoken. As the Arts Council's Artist of the Month this April and recipient of a $2,000 "Best of Show Award" for the upcoming Dogwood Arts Festival exhibit in the TVA towers, Hess has reason to celebrate. Rather than being unsettling, the eagerness in her speech and movement inspires a certain fascination. In Hess' company, one is swept into her rhythms as well as drawn into her exquisite paintings.

Hess was raised in Baltimore by adoptive parents. Her biological mother died of cancer when she was only one month old, and her father—overwhelmed by the responsibilities of rearing a child—let her go. The personal history of her natural parents, whose roots were in southwestern Virginia, has manifested itself in her art. Hess frequently uses maps of places significant to her family's past as an "infrastructure" for her work. This practice of imposing layer upon layer of material onto a map or grid is central to her process and allows her to incorporate things not always visible in the final product.

For example, many of Hess' pieces contain lists of words, scraps of pages from books, and other bits of "information" that wind up being obscured. Just as a poem often begins with lines that are eventually dropped, art can have invisible components. She remarks, "You bury something underneath and put something beautiful and ethereal and transcendent on top." One of the canvases in her " Series" goes so far as to include the names of everyone the artist had ever known at the time she created it. It's also punctuated by copper "dots" alluding to computer circuitry boards. When we consider the disciplined study that earned Hess a B.A. and M.A. in cultural anthropology from the University of New Mexico, this seemingly groovy notion of something unseen informing a painting's presence is not so weird. After all, evidence of a given material culture or individual's experience (however incomplete our knowledge of it) simply is.

In Etienne Gilson's Painting and Reality the author writes, "We can pretend to believe that the intrinsic physical characteristics that make some Egyptian paintings such an unexpected joy ceased to exist during the millenniums they spent in complete darkness, invisible to human eyes—[yet] successfully achieved works of art are not beautiful because they please our eyes; they please our eyes because they are beautiful." Hess herself views that which is there but unseen in her art as utterly essential. She says, "It's a process of reading, researching, making lists and finding poetry in them, daydreaming, finding the beauty and balance in it all—and instinctively trying to embrace something lost—there's an energy and vitality that otherwise wouldn't exist without the activity underneath."

As for uniting numbered canvases into the " Series", Hess explains that her contradictory title combines the term for "Earth Mother" with something computer-related and therefore reflects "a mediating between us and the natural world—it's a metaphor for displacement," she says. Having been employed for years as a marketing director and research consultant, Hess knows a lot about relocating (and about Atlanta and Dallas, where she lived before moving with her husband Kevin Keller to Knoxville three years ago). Upheavals seem to have enriched her work.

Whether we're looking at colored blocks in a multitude of configurations or Hess' wildflowers and spider lilies glowing like jewels beneath coats of Verithane, we're witness to unique expressions of one artist's story. We're even provided with pairs of small canvases that serve as "footnotes" to larger ones. Like journal entries, they are visual records of experiences influencing the works they're placed beneath. "Look here," Hess says excitedly as she points out one plant part embedded in the surface of a piece, "this is from a sweet potato vine!" She goes on to say that the more deeply she gets into a painting...the more labor intensive it is, the more meditative she finds the act of creating it.

Hess describes reaching a "golden mean," or happy medium, when her art is challenged by what she calls "snarls" and nevertheless achieves balance. She mentions that the writer Oliver Sacks had an aunt who showed him how the spiral center of a sunflower reflects the mathematical Fibonacci sequence (wherein each term is the sum of its two predecessors). Hess states that she's achieved that balance through grids and the like "[while] at the same time doing all these wild-ass things with plants." Finger paintings on glass placed over collages, U.S. maps showing railroads and canals, flattened four o'clock petals, rubbings of coins on pages from a long-ago student's geography textbook—all come together "like one giant collage," says the artist. "I want the whole room to be a work in progress." In Hess' case, that progress is a wondrous thing.

April 5, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 14
© 2001 Metro Pulse