Q&A: Jessalyn Brooks

We first came across Jessalyn Brooks on Instagram. The LA-based artist immediately had us scrolling and double-tapping with her colourful, blocky images of contorted female bodies and characterful faces. Art - for better or for worse - has never been easier to discover thanks to social media and the internet and we find ourselves falling in love with prints and sketches through our phone screens far too frequently. In the case of Jessalyn, this is certainly a good thing. Her work has an air of Picasso about it with a female-focused, 21st century twist. Focusing on women’s shapes, faces and features, her drawings feel current and as if they have an underlying message about body shape and gender.

Jessalyn herself is equally as exciting. Working from her top floor studio in LA, we love that the artist masquerades as a jazz singer when the sun goes down and we had a feeling she’d be full of fun and interesting things to say. We weren’t wrong! We grabbed ten minutes with the West Coast painter to chat curves, colour and going dancing.

How did you get into painting?

Oh boy, how did I get into painting. Well, I went to art school for a year after primary school. I had a professor that I admired so greatly. He was an elderly, dark, provocative Londoner that made me question my thoughts on religion, good and evil, and everything else I had been taught growing up in Ohio. At that point in life, I was only doing still life, life painting and all the classic, first-year art school stuff. I was very into realism - you should see my old stuff. It’s a trip! I could not, for the life of me, “figure out” contemporary art. Naturally, I mean, I was 17. This lead to some pretty heavy conversations. I was obstinate, stubborn and frustrated. My professor eventually convinced me to pursue music and to come back to art later in life when I had the mind for it. He was right. I’m not sure I was ready. I still don’t know if I am! I didn’t paint or draw ANYTHING for about 12 years until now. Is this a weird answer? I’m off to an awkward start - typical.

Was it something you always wanted to do?

Drawing and painting was always something I HAD. It was a tool I used to cope with. As a kid, I was a bit of a loner, who secretly wanted to be loved and adored (as most loners do). I would draw things for my classmates and teachers as a display of my worth. I can remember being in fourth grade, kids would gather around me and draw random squiggles and I would render some sort of animal or creature out of it. I felt like I had a magical power. Wings. Ugh - to be in 4th grade again. It’s funny how the “magical power” turns into something else entirely. Again, normal questions, freaky answers.

Tell us about your jazz singing!

Jazz! Always a love. I’m not sure when I started. Somewhere in the early teen years. I started singing jazz professionally while I was living in Detroit. Probably around 20. Actually, and I say this a bit under my breath, I did full-blown MUSICAL THEATRE for about six years of my life. Regional and touring shows. But from that, came a deep, deep love for jazz because many standards are from musicals. I love spouting off which tunes are from which shows on gigs. In fact, if someone knows, I buy them a drink. Of course, jazz is a deeply rooted and historical art form. The “show tunes” came after. I’m very inspired by it in my work. It’s always on. Some of my favourite composers and players are Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Jimmy Van Heusen, Monk, Cannonball Adderly, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans - I could go on and on. Unless it rips a hole right through you, I don’t understand the point of it. Like much else in life.

A lot of your artwork is based on the female form. Why is this and how do you hope to portray women and their bodies?

The female form. Well, it’s sort of something that just felt natural to me, well, because I’m pretty familiar with it. I, myself am a female form! I love the breath of a line. Seeing where the breath line goes in those seconds is an intuitive, instinctual thing. It’s a combination of compositional instinct and flashes of every curve, crevice, joint and hard line you’ve familiarised yourself with throughout your life. The female form has lived and gone dormant in art so many times throughout art history. I do believe women are having a moment right now. This is the most powerful we have been in human history. I want to document that.

How would you describe your style?

Sometimes I feel like I’m still figuring out my “style”. Which I’m finding out is ok. I will say, at the moment, I’m very inspired by blocks and shapes of line and colour. Like, if a female form were a concrete building. Maybe I need to be an architect. Ah, maths. No.

What’s your approach when it comes to colour?

My approach to colour is very improvised. That’s kind of how I do it in life anyways. Again, instinct is kind of a key word in all of this. I’m a big fan of Indian Yellow, the oil colour. When I mix it with other cadmiums and hues, I just gives me that gushy, saturated satisfaction of colour. That and cadmium orange. Those two little things are great joys in my life.

You’re based in LA - does this influence your work/the way you work in any way?

LA - sigh - well. I’ve lived in some pretty intense, emotionally provocative places, Detroit being one of them. God, I loved Detroit. I’m inspired by people doing human things. What they look like when they know no one is looking. When fame isn’t the end goal. Obviously, most people move to LA to be seen. I get that. But when you’re near the centre of it all, you miss out on authenticity. LA has those moments. You just have to search for them. Luckily, I’m a good detective.

What do you do to unwind?

Unwind! I dance. I fucking love dancing. No better feeling in the world. “Let’s go dancing” will be on my headstone. Unless I’m cremated. Which is more likely.

Thanks Jessalyn!

All images: Jessalyn Brooks

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