Jennifer Hamilton: Black and White and Rainbows

Black and White and Rainbows
Belgo Building space #531
fall viewing availability: Friday and Saturday 12-5, artist present by chance or appointment.

Jennifer Hamilton’s new series of paintings, Black and White and Rainbows, is displayed in her charming, sunny studio on the fifth floor of the Belgo which boasts of a lovely view of the back of neighbouring Eglise de Gesù. It presents the perfect mood for a conversation with this multi-faceted artist and recent theology graduate. These abstract works, which bear a visual language of sensuality and spirit, are immediately seductive. There is a consistency to the mark-making, to the willowy, sinewy lines and feminine forms that sometimes recall the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe. Hamilton’s organic passages which typically dominate, form a counter point to the intersecting rings forming geometric patterns which give you the feel of art bearing a spiritual dimension just from the first glance, without knowing any background information. For the most part, this body of work has a very peaceful effect, they are something you could look at not just for pleasure but as an object of meditation and focus.

Hamilton recently received private funding from a patron who previously commissioned her wonderful light installation All the King’s Men, which the artist created for his private residence. Upon a recent visit to this collector, she presented her idea of what she would do next if she could do anything, and he offered his support. The result is going to be Hamilton’s dream project which will be a three-year endeavour: a series of large scale paintings which consists of four triptychs based on the wheel of the year. They will be created in a temporary studio which is also a yurt, allowing Hamilton to create these works in a circular configuration in harmony with nature, within the idyll of her Laurentian forest property.

Jennifer Hamilton "Journey to the Center of the Earth"
Jennifer Hamilton “Journey to the Center of the Earth”

Kara Williams: Tell me about the new commissioned project that you’re doing in the Laurentians.

Jennifer Hamilton: The project is taking place in a yurt but it’s actually “The Altars to the Directions”. So, it’s a series of four triptychs. Each one is associated with a direction. I’m going to be starting them in the North and I’m also going to be painting them in the wheel of the year. Starting on December 21st of this year I’ll paint the northern triptych for three months, and then on the Spring Equinox I’m going to move to the East, on the summer solstice I’m going to move to the South and at the Autumnal Equinox I’ll be in the West and I’ll do the turning of the year three times. So each panel will get three months of attention, and then a nine month break, and then three months of attention again and another nine months of break and then another three months of painting.

KW: So you were saying that the yurt is going to be your new studio and it is next to your home in the Laurentians?

JH: That’s right.

KW: Where are the works going to be located when you’re finished? Are they going to stay in the studio or are they going somewhere?

JH: One of the reasons it’s in a yurt is because it’s a temporary structure so the idea was that the paintings are going to be made inside of this building and then the whole thing is going to leave. It’s a commissioned piece and so the person who is commissioning it will be responsible for taking it to festivals or other places or wherever he wants and they’ll go live near his residence which is in Prince Edward County.

KW: So it’s almost like a Buddhist concept of making something and then taking it down, you won’t have your studio anymore.

JH: Well it’s hard to say what’s actually going to happen, because the yurt might come back to me, or another studio might be built exactly in its place… it seems more permanent than I was anticipating. We have to still figure that out. The fact that it is in a yurt though is really quite incidental, and it is really just because it is a round room. It has these qualities of being portable and the qualities of spatially being very unique so that’s why I chose to do it in that kind of a building.

The paintings are actually going to be painted on the front and the back, so I’ll be painting the backs of the paintings before the 21st of December, and that part will be hidden for the entire rest of the time that I’m painting. So I’m hoping that when they travel around wherever they end up being that they get to be in interesting spaces where you can see them from different ways. So, like if they were in a sacred space for example, or in a church or some kind of temple then maybe they would be set up on the directions so that you could walk around them. Or if they were in a gallery space then maybe they could be just displayed as regular paintings, so flat on the wall, and they would be six feet by twelve feet, you know, in total, on the wall, so that could be an interesting way of showing them. So even though they’re being made in this one kind of space, I anticipate that they can be shown in a variety of ways.

KW: So you moved to the Laurentians about a year ago, was it?

JH: Yeah I moved on my birthday, June 23.

KW: How would you say that the change of residence has informed your art practise?

JH: Well, the seasons are very obvious up there, and I’m really exposed in a way that wasn’t really happening in the city. In the city I lived in an apartment where I had people living on all sides and windows at the end of the apartment just like a lot of people do here. But when I’m in the forest, the house is, I don’t have neighbours necessarily, I can stomp around on the floor and nobody will hear it. I can play the piano in the middle of the night, it doesn’t matter. And I really feel the weather changing and the seasons, so that’s been a major difference, just because those environmental factors have created a situation where I can’t get distracted as much.

KW: And this body of work you’ve done, you’ve done about 25 paintings since you’ve been up there? And can you tell me about them? You said that many depict the Flower of Life, is that right?

JH: Yeah, so some of them are based in sacred geometry, and some of them are totally abstract, just using my own intuitive mark making, which seems to be the same a lot of the time. (laughs)

KW: Well, that gives it a kind of language of its own though.

JH: Yeah, I just have this compulsion to make the same kinds of marks over and over and over again. And I’ve been adding in these geometric elements like the Flower of Life. So the Flower of Life is a grid of circles. It’s a very beautiful healing matrix and I was learning about it when I studied sacred geometry and Celtic knotwork with my teacher David Rankine. He showed me some of the underlying geometric structures in the Book of Kells, and in other famous religious and spiritual art. And so, I really wanted to play with that. He has been working with this for many many years. He’s an artist and a dulcimer player. I met him when I was a kid. I bought one of his drawings when I was a kid at the Goderich Celtic Roots Festival. And then I went back as an adult to my hometown and took courses with him, so I could just understand these images.

KW: So how does the Flower of Life fit in with all of this work? It reappears in many of these paintings.

JH: Well, it’s something that I’ve been exploring for a while, and I go back and forth between geometric and non-geometric, because usually abstract art falls into one of those two categories. The person who really inspired this series is Hilma af Klint, who was a famous spiritualist artist from the turn of the last century, and she seemed to be doing that. She seemed to be using geometry but also not, so going back and forth. She also had a really interesting palette, which I call black and white and rainbows, and it is the palette that I also chose and the title of this series. I really wanted to be open to playing with the geometric elements and being free from them at the same time.

KW: What would you say is the most common reaction people have to this body of work, if you’ve had some visitors, and also is there any reaction you’re looking for, to create in people or in yourself while you’re making this work?

JH: Well, today is really the first day that I’m opening up my studio officially so that people can look at the work. I’ve had a few people see the work, just my very close people, but it’s pretty new in terms of colour palette, so even though I had picked this black and white and rainbows, what actually ended up emerging is that all of this deep blue that I call rainbow-lightspace, is kind of like when you’re meditating and you feel like you’re floating inside some kind of cosmic grid, and there’s a really deep, deep set of colours, so the backgrounds of some of these paintings are these deeper blue, rainbow, dark colour palette—void feeling places. So that’s been the comment that I’ve been getting, that my colours have changed since I’ve moved up there. My palette used to be much more pastel, light, and a long time ago when I had my very first studio at the Belgo, I was working on a series that was inspired by Agnes Martin and I loved her really light washes of paint, and using pencil. For a long time, even though I wasn’t using grids in the way that she did them, I was doing work that I was trying to make as light and lacy as possible, but then this work is heavier and it’s darker, the colours are more bright and deep.

KW: Would you say your meditation practise has been informing your artwork more since you’ve been in the Laurentians? Have you been meditating more or changing your spiritual practise at all?

JH: Well, I’ve been meditating a lot but doing a lot less physical practise, less yoga, and that has to do with how I was injured a couple of times this year, and being disconnected from the yoga community, even here in the Belgo, for many, many years I was going to Ashtanga Yoga Montreal and that was the base of my practise. But then when I moved up north my yoga practise kind of disappeared, and I just went for long walks. I was walking with my dog a lot in the woods. Biking a little bit, snowboarding. All the physical stuff was much more outside, as opposed to in a room with other people. I’ve been by myself all the time, just kind of exploring the woods. Yes, I’ve been meditating at home, but a lot of it has just been part of the activities that I’ve been doing. Gardening, I’ve been doing a lot of that, digging in the dirt and planting things, harvesting what’s available and making little bouquets of flowers.

KW: Being in the moment is its own kind of meditation.

JH: Yeah, a lot of what’s going on right now has been more active, with my eyes open kind of thing.

KW: Can you talk specifically about some of these paintings.

JH: Some of the paintings are listening paintings, I was doing them while I was listening to specific music. And others were about pretty specific emotional events, things that came up for me during meditation or things that I really wanted to share. For example, this one is called When Souls Meet, and it’s an image of two Flower of Life grids that are touching each other, and there’s a golden thread that goes through the Flower of Life that connects the two of them, it is just one line, so it is kind of a complicated infinity symbol, and they’re meeting each other inside this rainbow lightspace. So on a cosmic level when you connect with somebody, if you can’t see the bodies and you’re just kind of seeing through the material and you can only see the spiritual, I just imagine that when two hearts centre on each other, instead of having just one continuous loop inside of yourself, that you actually open up to be able to have the infinity loop with the other person, so you become…you become entangled. (laughs)

KW: Quite. (laughs)

Jennifer Hamilton “The Birth of Grief”

JH: This one up here is called The Birth of Grief. And there’s the one I affectionately refer to as “The Cosmic Jellyfish”, which is actually The Transmutation. They’re kind of a pair. I do this technique, it is called the emotional freedom technique, where you tap on your body and you talk about your problems. So sometimes I do trades with my friends who also do these things. With a friend of mine, we facilitated each other’s sessions where we talked about things that were quite deep and quite personal. In the case of The Birth of Grief, it was somebody who had lost an important person in their life, and the grief felt like a pregnancy. It felt like it was so big, and it was something that this person had to carry for a long period of time and that person was waiting for it to be birthed. And so we imagined that there was actually a canal, like a birth canal that went from the body into the centre of the earth, where the grief could be born if it wanted to.

KW: So painting these emotional events, that’s something you consciously seek out or you have an experience then you paint it?

JH: Those two paintings came out of this experience with this other person. She actually suggested it, and I thought it was a cheesy suggestion. I don’t like it necessarily when people say to me, oh you’re an artist, do you teach art? You’re an artist, can you paint my dog? You’re an artist why don’t you do this random suggestion? I don’t like it when people make suggestions about what I should or should not be doing. But this person said, why don’t you paint what is going on here, and my initial reaction was, that’s a really cheesy suggestion and I’m not going to do it. But then I had an image in my head about this one, The Birth of Grief, and I started these two paintings on the same day. I actually took the suggestion and started doing it and it became really meaningful to me.

KW: Do you tend to do a lot of spontaneous things while you’re painting, letting things happen?

JH: Yeah there are some pieces in this series where I just started painting and I wasn’t listening to anything in particular, wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. I just wanted to let it happen. Maybe they’re obvious.

KW: The more organic ones, with less structure?

JH: Exactly, the ones that are really just about line and colour, that aren’t stuck on a geometric grid in any way.

KW: Do you want to talk a little bit about the listening paintings?

JH: Sure. Listening paintings are something that I started a few years ago. It’s just an experiment, maybe this is another cheesy idea. (laughs)

KW: It’s about what happens, it’s not about the idea. It’s about what happens in the painting I think.

JH: Because music has a vibration and the vibration is specific, I was curious to see if I listened to something in particular while I was painting what the result would be. I listened to a particular piece of music. A lot of them I listened to over and over again but some I only listened to once. So The Goldberg Variations is one of my favourite pieces of music ever, I’ve listened to it so many times. I used to have a record player here in my studio at the Belgo where I was just flipping it back and forth and somebody from across the hall came over and said: “Jen, enough with the Glenn Gould.” (laughs) I thought that would be a good listening painting since I never get sick of that piece of music. They’re not always classical. There’s The Butterfly Lovers. That one I started as a listening painting and I completed it in silence. And then Journey to the Centre of the Earth, that one is from a crazy weird piece of 70s music done with synthesizers and its very psychedelic, I played it once, and I made this crazy painting, it was a suggestion from a friend, which I was very surprised by, I didn’t even step away from it while I was painting it.

KW: It’s a lot more aggressive than your usual paintings.

JH: Yeah, I didn’t care.

KW: It’s like a de Kooning, those toothy women, sort of.

JH: It was hard to listen to, the music was really intense (laughs)

KW: Do you find it breaks some conventions somehow, when you do the listening paintings? Or what are you looking for when you’re doing them?

JH: It’s just more relaxing, I can just do whatever, I’m not really attached to the result, I don’t have a plan. Sometimes, especially with the ones that are more stuck on a grid, I have a plan, I kind of see more toward the end.

KW: You’re also a musician, aren’t you? Could you tell me about your relationship to creating music?

JH: I have been playing the piano and singing for a long time. I took piano lessons from about age 4 to 14 and then I took classical singing lessons for a couple of years. I always sang in choirs at church and school and I always wrote little poems but it was only ten years ago or so that I started making songs. I was given a wurlitzer organ so I started making noise with it and singing in a very free way and then I really had a bunch of songs that I worked through making up the words, melodies and chord progressions. I am still trying to get a band together or at least get the songs to a point where I can record them properly. I have had a couple of shows but I mostly hide this part of myself. For several years before I moved up to the woods I sang with a Montreal community choir that is also a feminist art project, called Choeur Maha. They encouraged me to sing my songs and I got to perform some solos in our shows. So what music means to me is…. it is something that tugs at my heart so deeply and I want to share this part of myself with the world just as much as I want to share my visual art.

KW: For the Flower of Life paintings, how do you do those? Do you have to stencil them out or…?

JH: It’s with mathematical instruments. I just use a compass.

KW: That’s interesting. It would be interesting to see your process with that. You’re probably going to put that in your documentary right?

JH: Yeah, maybe we should film that part.

KW: I don’t think a lot of artist use those instruments.

JH: That’s what I like about working in nature and in this particular building. There’s no power, I don’t have lights, I don’t have any electrical anything there. I’m only painting in daylight and anything that I use to make the painting is really me interacting with the work. I have a lot of tools that I use but your basic compass is really the number one.

KW: How would you say your practice has changed over the years, or with this body of work, is it pretty much a continuation in subject matter from what you were doing before or have there been major changes?

JH: Yeah, there has been a major change actually. Over the last few years, since I started studying theology I have gone pretty much totally abstract. Before I started studying theology I was really sampling a lot. My art was based in my zine making and street art kind of practice. I’m not a graffiti artist but I was doing stenciling posters and stuff in the streets and drawing jewelry, drawing chains and symbols and stuff. Really sampling from a whole bunch of different spiritual traditions and basing things in symbols. And then something happened at a certain point of that where I’d been putting all of these symbols in a blender and I was being kind of critical and I was reading sacred texts from a whole bunch of different traditions and just kind of browsing through anything that I could find that was along those lines. That was what my art was. I was painting or drawing symbols, repetitively often, in a scribal tradition, I would be copying out texts in other languages, so copying out the Yoga Sutras or drawing the eye of protection a thousand times. Things like that, things that were devotional, meditative activities that were based in language and based in symbols. I did have a practise also of making large abstract paintings, but I would say that in the past few years I’ve really focused on abstract painting and then the addition of the sacred geometry is something new and something that is the future direction that I’ll be headed.

KW: So your studies in theology helped strip things down for you somehow or…?

JH: One thing that I learned when I was studying theology was that we don’t really have any answers. The people that know the most about the subjects that they teach are the ones that say, “I don’t know” the most also. When people ask questions, the answers that you get are very broad and include many different perspectives because it’s really hard to say there’s one truth or there’s one thing that is the correct answer. I realized that I can’t really say that I know. I can explore, I can wade around in the imagery, the symbols, the texts, and it’s a really beautiful process, I can’t present a concept or idea that I know is the truth, because I don’t know that that’s possible, so I stopped even attempting anything close to that. I was so busy in school writing and thinking critically and academically about the subject that my art practice didn’t need to be that because it wouldn’t do it justice and I needed a break from all of that.

KW: All of that mental search for answers and meaning and truth?

JH: Yeah, just being able to go into passages of the sacred texts and do close readings of them and be able to dig into it for so long it just didn’t seem like it was even respectful anymore to just take a whole bunch of texts and mush them all together.


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