Kim DeJesus: “Know your purpose”

In many ways, I feel like I am just beginning. Seeing my current show up on the walls and experiencing it with other people has taught me a lot about my paintings. I’m already working on a new body of work for my next project, and I’m incorporating into my process many of the observations […]

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In many ways, I feel like I am just beginning. Seeing my current show up on the walls and experiencing it with other people has taught me a lot about my paintings. I’m already working on a new body of work for my next project, and I’m incorporating into my process many of the observations and discoveries I have made through this exhibit. As I continue the conversation I have been having in my paintings with memory and forgetfulness, I am hoping to ask better questions.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kim DeJesús.

Kim DeJesús trained at Arizona State University, where she was the recipient of the Katherine K. Herberger Painting Scholarship, and received a post-graduate degree in art from North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. After her studies, Kim took a teaching position. For over a decade, she pursued community-based collaborative art initiatives in the US and abroad. In recent years, her studio practice has led her back to painting and sculptures.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I was raised in a Midwest town outside of Chicago. My parents were involved in sciences and were creative that way. I really appreciate and love coming from a small town, but felt curious about the world at large. I was always interested in making things, but I really began to think of my work in the context of art when I did a drawing of my sister around the age of 12. I remember something happened when I was making it. It made me think of what I was creating in a different way. I think of that as my first experience of art. I have been painting and drawing since I was young, making things, creating characters, or performing skits. I vividly remember a lot of my paintings as a kid. I used to hide in my closet and draw and write all over my closet walls and ceiling, there was not an inch of free space. I participated in a lot of art competitions which built my confidence, and that led to getting a scholarship for art school.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

What I am doing that is disruptive is creating tension between beauty, colors that seem easily appealing, and a process that undermines it all. I have been exploring how marks, colors, and layers speak about memory and forgetfulness and how that suggests the discoveries we make in our lives. I like to explore how these things can be erased and sometimes obscured.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A mistake I repeatedly made in the early stages of my work was to show up to my studio in regular clothes. I couldn’t stop myself from working, so I destroyed clothing after clothing. Eventually, I learned and now I always walk into my studio in my painting clothes. It is important for me to remember the way I approach everything about painting matters, including the way I prepare to go to the studio. There is something grounding about getting dressed to go to work. It reminds me where I am going, and it’s these small details that collectively build a sacred practice.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I have been fortunate to have a lot of mentors who have been critical in my growth as a person and artist. They help keep me grounded and remind me to stay on my path.

I have a good friend and teacher, Larry, who during an important transition in my life was willing to challenge and push me, and who trusted I would come out the other end. I’m grateful to someone that was always raising the bar and would not accept compromises. He has an unusual way to be firm, gentle, intuitive, and helpful all at once.

I am also incredibly thankful to many women who paved the way for female artists. For example, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, or Elaine DeKooning were all essential to the modern art movement of the ’50s. I am in awe of how they took incredible risks while facing enormous rejection. It is mind-numbing to think of the staggering low numbers of working female artists in this time, yet these women were powerful and unstoppable. Hilma Af Klint is another revolutionary painter who I look up to. She was making insane abstract paintings way before her time in the 20th century. It wasn’t until long after she died that her work started to be recognized. Hilma was doing things no one ever had before. To stand in front of her work is a spiritual experience that makes me think about painting differently.

I think of these women often during challenging times in my studio. For example, I am often reminded of how Lee Krasner had nothing to show in her studio, and she knew it. Her studio was full of gray paintings and she had an important collector coming by. Her husband, Jackson Pollock, and the collector went into the studio, looked at the paintings and everyone walked out silently. Imagine if she had let that failure or embarrassment stop her. She found her footing, regained her confidence, and kept going even when the work was dead. I think of this gray painting story often, and others like it. It is critical to stay rooted in substantial things and having strong guides helps me to stay focused on what I am doing, and why I am doing it.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

We must remember that painting is a 30,000-year tradition so a large part of the painting has to do with appreciating and respecting all those who have come before, and the great works they have made. Disrupting of course is also important to open new territories and possibilities, so I see my work as indebted to both processes. That of recognition of all the lessons of the past, and the invention of the future.

Sometimes we resist change, because of the pain we know that can come with it. The negative feelings of pain however are usually restored by the positive experiences that came from growth. I have often looked back and thought about how I could have saved myself a lot of struggles had I ripped a band-aid sooner. Being stagnant can be a creativity vampire. To avoid this from happening, it is important to be consistently reflecting on your purpose, goals, and how to be more disruptive to get to where you need to go.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

1.) Only show your work when you are ready.

I think every artist wants to show his or her work because we are looking to make a connection and have responses, but sometimes it is important to let it mature and develop before you put it out to the world.

2). Know your purpose

There are many ways you can be an artist, but It is vital to know your purpose and what you are after. I have found writing helps and is a good way to track growth and stay accountable to our purpose and remain rooted in meaningful things.

3.) Respect the Process

Sometimes we come to the studio with plans, but the process of making teaches you that something else is possible.

What helps me respect the process is keeping a sacred studio space, revering what has come before me, and having a commitment to discovery and growth.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

In many ways, I feel like I am just beginning. Seeing my current show up on the walls and experiencing it with other people has taught me a lot about my paintings. I’m already working on a new body of work for my next project, and I’m incorporating into my process many of the observations and discoveries I have made through this exhibit. As I continue the conversation I have been having in my paintings with memory and forgetfulness, I am hoping to ask better questions.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

When women are disrupting things people tend to label them more negatively, such as difficult or looking for attention. But women have always been willing to reinvent, to adjust to changing things and to try to respond to whatever is around them. Women being disruptors is as old as history itself. Women, more often than men, tend to be apologetic for disrupting things. Historically women have felt less comfortable voicing opinions. However, it often seems that it is the women who generally don’t apologize for their disruptiveness that seem to go farther. It’s a lesson I have had to learn as I try to not apologize for the space I take up or the boundaries I implement.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel was with me a lot this past year. It’s a fantastic book about some of my favorite female mentors whom I mentioned earlier from the modern art movement in the 50s. It tells the inspiring and entertaining stories of how they navigated the postwar art world and established themselves as pioneers. On the way home from my studio, I am usually listening to some podcasts about interesting topics such as memory, history, or mindfulness. I love to learn about many different things and I also have a good collection of art books.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It would be a movement focused on living meaningfully. I have been reflecting on that a lot in this pandemic. If everyone felt deeply connected to their purpose and felt challenged and inspired to consistently grow, the world would be a better place. People would not be wasting time focusing on things that are not substantial. Meaningless time on our phones is a global issue. Ultimately, happiness is, of course, a great thing, but to live with meaning and purpose is critical. If people were truly immersed in what they were passionate about, they would be less involved in things that do not bring them joy. It is very easy to get caught up in trivial things, and if we are not careful we will waste our lives doing so. When I am lost in my work, I simply do not have the capacity for things that are not substantial. I am always striving to remain devoted to my work because it is easy to be distracted.

It might seem cheesy to say, but the world needs love. Love for others, for self, and for purpose. Mindfulness meditation and making an effort not be so self-focused can help us remember the world is bigger than our singular lives. Sometimes when I’m in my studio, I step out on my balcony and look down at the busy city. I see hundreds of cars and thousands of windows in each of the buildings around me. These moments remind me that ours is a very big world with billions of stories. I’m reminded how love can impact so many around me. We are part of something bigger than ourselves.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”

I love this quote by Samuel Beckett. The idea of acceptance and that no matter what happens, what really defines your courage is not the ability to succeed, but to get up again when you fail. When you’re an artist, failure is an integral part of the journey, but you’re continuously trying to fail better and do a slightly better job than you did yesterday. I have been challenging myself to not abandon a canvas, to continue to push through.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on Instagram at @kimdejesus

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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