Jessica Maffia is a visual artist born and raised in New York City. Her work has been exhibited throughout the US and is currently in the Flat Files of Pierogi Gallery in downtown Manhattan. Maffia created the artwork for musician Childish Gambino’s two singles “Summertime Magic” and “Feels Like Summer.” Her solo exhibition at Denise Bibro Fine Art in Chelsea featured her large, photorealistic pencil drawings of urban cracks and residue producing unexpectedly beautiful surfaces. Maffia is the recipient of 13 artist residency fellowships and two grants from the Hells Kitchen Foundation. Her work is featured on the covers of Fabio Gironi’s philosophy book “Naturalizing Badiou: Mathematical Ontology and Structural Realism” and poet Firas Sulaiman’s latest book “As if My Name is a Mistaken Sign.” The artist’s installation Lanterns for Peace was exhibited in various sites throughout the US in response to the 2016 presidential elections. A portion of her series “Walking Broadway: Signs of Nature on the Wickquasgeck Trail” is on view now through September 6, 2021 at the Queens Botanical Garden. She is currently working on a mural for the Audubon Mural Project. For more information, visit her website www.jessicamaffia.com or www.instagram.com/jessicamaffia/
A little note:
I am writing to you this evening from a native medicinal plant sanctuary in rural Rutland, Ohio called United Plant Savers. It is a nearly 400 acre forest preserve. I was invited to be artist in residence for the next two weeks (through August 9th). The cacophony of birds, even at this late hour of 8:57pm is extraordinary. Wood thrushes, cardinals, hooded warblers, robins, blue jays, tufted titmice, mourning doves, eastern wood pewees, American goldfinches, and many, many more are singing their hearts out while the fireflies have started their evening dances. It is a magical place and I am eager to soak it in.
Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry? What do you do now?
I have been making art professionally since 2010. I first realized that I wanted to be an artist in my junior year of college, many moons ago. I was fretting about what to do with my life when my oldest friend Rose said to me, “Jessie, all you ever want to do is make art, why don’t you be an artist?” Such a novel, revolutionary idea! I took her advice and slowly built my life in support of my art practice. I went from teaching literacy full-time in public schools to teaching literacy-through-art part-time in public schools to now making art nearly full-time. I was lucky enough to have a mentor for four years, Anita Steckel, who taught me how to draw and how to structure my life around my art.
I currently work in a studio in Washington Heights through the Chashama Space-to-Connect program, in which I get free studio space in exchange for teaching art monthly to the residents of the building in which I work. It is been a true, rare gift to have free studio space in this expensive city, and it allows me to give as much time to my practice as I do.
Where are you from?
I am from New York City, born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
What is the arts community like there?
Needless to say, New York City is one of the arts capitals of the world. There are several thousands of artists living and working here, hundreds of galleries, and some of the most world-renowned art museums. The arts community is huge, diverse and ever-shifting. The city has become increasingly less hospitable to artists and non-billionaires alike over the last years, but it is my hope that the recent injection of city and state covid recovery funding to the arts will have an on-going impact.
Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?
Undoubtedly, my art practice has been heavily informed by the city. One of my first series On the Wall, involved walking the streets and photographing evidence of cracks, residue, decay and urban detritus on walls, then drawing those overlooked details in pencil on paper at many times their actual size. More recently, my work has been about connecting to my more-than-human neighbors and noticing the natural world of New York. In my series “Walking Broadway: Signs of Nature on the Wickquasgeck Trail,” I walked the length of Broadway in Manhattan and the Bronx and photographed an element of nature on every block. I then used the scraps of cut photographs from that project to create another series in progress called “All the Birds I’ve Ever Met in NYC 1983-Present” in which I made small recycled-photo collaged birds- 90+ species so far and counting.
31 of the 300 works from “Walking Broadway” are currently on exhibition at the Queens Botanical Garden through September 6th.
What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
Being an artist is not for the faint of heart. It requires a level of passion, tenacity and commitment that can withstand all the art storms of regular rejection, financial instability, and doubt. The best piece of advice that I can offer to working artists was passed on to me by my mentor. She advised us to put a protective bubble around our sacred art practice. “The art world will close many doors on you. Do not close the door on yourself.”
Above my studio desk sits this quote from Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille, mailed to me at the exact moment I needed it most by a dear friend:
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will never have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU. Keep the channel open.”
What is one of the greatest accomplishments in your career so far?
Perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments so far in my career was making the artwork for two of Childish Gambino’s singles “Feels Like Summer’’ and “Summertime Magic.” Ibra Ake, Gambino’s creative director, reached out to me out of the blue. They had seen my self-portrait silhouette series on Instagram and wanted to go in that direction. It was a lot of fun to work on and I was honored.
What has been a challenge for you?
Being an artist is rife with challenges. Periods of drought are very challenging, when I don’t know what to make. I am so very grateful that there has been a consistent flow of ideas for the last several years (with the exception of a couple of months during quarantine) but I never take that flow for granted. Making space for the requisite art-business time can sometimes be a challenge. Most artists want to make art 200% of the time but there is a lot of effort required to get that art out into the world including applications, portfolio maintenance, exhibition promotions, etc. and it requires tearing oneself away from the creation process to do so.
What is something you do every day at the studio?
When I arrive, I change into my uniform (a smock and leggings) and then I engage in the daily studio ritual of giving thanks for the great privilege of the time and space to create my work and for being in good health and having the resources that allow me to be there. I then let the universe know that I am showing up and listening, and I hope for the magic to transpire.
What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last years?
Before Covid, I saw Vija Celmins’ retrospective at the Met Breur. Her water drawings are among my greatest inspirations. During Covid, I saw Howardina Pindell’s exhibition Rope/Fire/Water at the Shed. It gutted me and I wish it were required viewing. I am looking forward to seeing Niki De Saint Phalle at MOMA PS1 and Julie Mehretu at the Whitney this season.
What artwork is in your home office?
My studio is filled with my own work, both finished and in progress. At home, we are surrounded by the art of others including the beautiful work of my inspiration, my grandmother Martha Ferris as well as Hokusai.
How do you think art can play a fundamental role in the world’s recovery from climate change?
We urgently need artists to draw attention to the natural world that can be saved. We need to inspire love and a sense of responsibility to care for and protect the environment. Right now.
What is your go to snack these days? And your go to soundtrack?
What do I wish my go to snack was? Cashews and dried mango. What is my actual go to snack? Sour cream and onion potato chips and the occasional snickers bar.
If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?
Today my answer is: Vija Celmins, William Kentridge, Frida Kahlo, Maria Berrios, and Whitfield Lovell. Yesterday I would have added Basquiat and Kerry James Marshall. Tomorrow maybe Ill add Francesca Woodman.