Jill Waterhouse, Out of the Earth Like Iron II, 2004, French cafe, chair, blue-steel carpet tacks, vintage barbed wire, grapevines, forest moss, approximately 40 in. x 42 in. x 41 in. 

How would you describe the work that you do?

For much of my career, I described my work as “dancing on the frayed edges of the American social fabric.”. . . I examined social, political and, yes, feminist issues with an eye towards creating change. More recently, it is more about exploration . . . about deepening the conversation with myself, the work and the world around me. As I grow older, I am experiencing a deeper sense of wonder and awe and want to explore and express that through my work. Now, I am more interested in questioning the answers than answering the questions. . . . Physically, my work has focused primarily on sculpture, with secondary but deep interests in photography, bookmaking and writing, which are often incorporated in the sculptures. Materials are part of the essence of my work. . . . I have a penchant for found objects that are imbued with meaning, time and a sense of use or purpose, and for ordinary objects used in extraordinary or unusual ways, such as, blued steel carpet tacks as a covering for a phallic weapon.   

Are there ways in which you intend your work to challenge the viewer?

I think I was more intentional or conscious about “challenging” the viewer in my earlier works than I am now. . . . Currently, I am more interested in challenging myself and letting the viewer come to his or her own conclusions about the work. I am, however, very interested in their questions about the work, their experience in or through the work, and where it takes them or what it makes them think about, rather than taking them to any preordained destination. That said, I am honored when someone tells me that my work challenges them to think of something in a different way . . . or to expand their concept of something important to them. Ironically, the piece I am creating for this show could be viewed as pretty confrontational or challenging, because it is using a sexual image to talk about sex as a form of violence, a tactical strategy in war. But, I think this is more specific to this show than to the body of work I am beginning to develop as I move forward.   

Is there something you are currently working on that you are particularly excited about? 

I am particularly enthused about my work on two related series, The Cabinet of Wonder and What Remains. The Cabinet of Wonder is an ongoing public art piece. It is a collection of beloved objects and their stories—found, gifted or gathered—that remind us of all that gives us a sense of awe, inspiration, and connectedness to each other and to the fragile planet we call home. . . . The concept is based on the Cabinets of Curiosity, those collections that from the Renaissance to the French Revolution displayed disparate objects together in a single place. That place, in this case, is a series of vintage lead‐type drawers that contain and elegantly display the objects that are arranged to accentuate the oddness of their juxtaposition as well as its beauty.

Jill Waterhouse, Out of the Earth Like Iron, 1988, Cast plaster female torso, 7/8 in. blued steel carpet tacks, blue lace edging, folded and tufted blood-red satin lining, 21 in. x 16 in. x 8.5 in. (detail)

What have been the greatest challenges to your art career and how do you navigate them?

I would say, most significantly, it is balancing art and the demands of life and making a living. But, also balancing the demands for creating community—in particular for women artists— versus creating my own work. And lastly, as time passes, the ability to persevere. Navigating those challenges is a constant. . . . Life happens and you have to decide to step up to the plate or not: I can or I can’t or I’m not willing to, and somewhere in there is who you are, what you believe in, and what you value. My greatest allies in navigating these challenges are flexibility, a willingness to dance in the moment with whatever shows up; commitment; my deep and abiding love, which drives what I do artistically and in the work I do for a living; community, a strong basis of enthusiastic support and camaraderie; discipline, knowing when it’s time to just do the work; and an ability to play with abandon, knowing when it is time to have some serious fun in order to recharge the batteries, re‐energize the work and maintain a sense of hope.   

Jill Waterhouse, Out of the Earth Like Iron, 1988, Cast plaster female torso, 7/8 in. blued steel carpet tacks, blue lace edging, folded and tufted blood-red satin lining, 21 in. x 16 in. x 8.5 in. (detail)

What advice has influenced you or your art making?

Over the years, I have benefitted from the sage advice of many others. But, the earliest and one of the most significant pieces of wisdom I got was from one of my high school art teachers. He taught me about the deadly impact of perfectionism on creativity; though I have to admit it took me years and much hard work to finally absorb his message. In a moment of great insight, he said to me, “I can’t wait until you have a spectacular failure. Your work is so perfect, so tight; but once you fail in a big way, you will loosen up, and you and your work will become incredible.”   

How do you know when you have been successful?

In my work, I feel it in my gut. There is a moment with every piece or body of work—I call it the “ugly teenager” phase—when it feels like a complete failure. I think, “I don’t know what I am doing” or “This isn’t working,” or worse, “This is never going to work.”. . . But, after years of experiencing this, I’ve learned to recognize it for what it is—doubt—and to move forward anyway. I trust in my experience . . . my eye . . . my process and keep going. Suddenly, it all falls into place, the ugly teenager blossoms into a thing of beauty—or matures in a way that I can tolerate it until it is a thing of beauty. In my career, this is a loaded question for artists because we are taught that success has a dollar sign attached to it. So, we have to redefine what success means—or many of us would be failures in the eyes of a culture that does not value what we do. Dr. Bob Maurer, a respected brain specialist, has done just that; he defines success as “creating and sustaining excellence in health, relationships and work.”  That is a definition I can live with and strive towards with much more confidence—and a better outcome.   

Why did you choose to pursue the life of a professional artist?

I don’t feel like I “chose” the life of a professional artist. It always felt as if art chose me. I started out studying pre‐law and pre‐med in college, but in my third year realized this was never going to work for me—at least not in the cutthroat way those fields were being taught back then. . . . I took a ceramics class that summer and immediately changed my major to art. Not the most strategic move if success is defined financially, but I’ve never regretted that choice. Ironically, since then, I’ve had to “choose art” every day in order to persevere. . . . It is the hardest, and the most incredible, thing I have done and that I am. Though we are told, “We are not what we do,” the arts for me, may be the one exception to that rule.  

In your opinion, how is being a woman artist in 2015 different from what it might have been like one, two, three, or even four decades ago?

The path is “lit” now. . . . If younger women want to see what has been done before, the information is readily available via the Internet. . . . More importantly, they know that it is possible to be an artist, as a woman. . . .  In the not‐so‐distant past, this wasn’t as likely. . . . Though, there were women who became artists because some extraordinary circumstance and/or ability allowed them to rise above what was generally “allowed” for women, the fact 

is that the path was strewn with barriers and brambles. Hazel Belvo once told me that when she wanted to pursue an arts education, she was told it would be “a waste of time.” College administrators advised her that she was “just going to get married and have children, so why would a college expend its valuable resources on her?” Obviously, things have changed. Younger women seem to have less internalized barriers than their older counterparts. They are out there with their work, . . . creating a life and a career in the arts. But, things also remain the same. . . . The challenges to a fully realized career still exist, as evidenced by the Guerilla Girls devastating statistics on women in the arts. What women artists have now is easier access to community—both virtual and actual—due partly to the Internet and partly to the work done by their predecessors, who worked hard to develop the language and a process for a community of women artists to support each other in moving up and out with their work.  

Does personal history work its way into your practice? How might who you are be reflected in your current work?

I am shaped by my life experiences and that in turn affects how and often what I see, as well as how I look at and interpret the world around me. This all impacts my work in a very direct way; what projects I choose to work on, how I do that work, what the work means to me, and the ways in which I get it out into the world. . . . One of the biggest changes for me has come, surprisingly, through the process of aging. The older I get, the less I seem to care about fame, and the more I care about an authentic experience with my work—for me and for the viewer. I am less concerned with perfection and care more about the quality of the experience in making and sharing the work. Often, I have found that it is in the mistakes—or the wrong turn—that I happen upon just what I needed to learn, do, or find.  So, I worry a lot less about what I am doing, and just do it. I have finally learned to trust my own process and to know it will lead me where I need to go.   

Are there certain ways in which you identify yourself as a feminist artist? 

I came into my own as an artist, just after the first wave of feminism – and the beginnings of the “backlash.” So, I saw myself working in the path of those who came before me, but also struggling with the mantle. At that time, I wanted to be an artist, not a subset called “woman artist” – the inference being that we were somehow “less than” our male counterparts. That said, much of my work strongly reflected a feminist viewpoint (especially my highly “feminized” but “dangerous” masks and torsos). My personal history and that of the women around and before me, greatly impacted what I thought and felt at the time, which in turn affected the work that needed to come out. It was also “the times” – a period of great upheaval in the social structure and the collective thinking that brought about a new kind of work, especially for women, and changed the art world in some very significant ways. . . .  So, to answer your question, perhaps inadequately, I feel strongly as a feminist, but call myself “an artist.” The difference may be insignificant, and I do not dwell on it; it’s just how I define it, when asked.

Jill Waterhouse







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