Maine artist Tom Jessen wants you to lighten up a bit. Well, at least when it comes to art, and specifically when it comes to his latest show, “Play,” which he debuted at the L/A Arts Walk in August.

Tom Jessen is a multimedia artist based in Temple. Submitted photo

The three-dimensional, interactive exhibition at LA Art Gallery is meant to be playful, Jessen said. Visitors are meant to get up close and personal with it. While most museums or galleries would probably frown upon visitors taking apart the art and putting it back together, Jessen is encouraging it. (But only at his show – always check with an artist before touching their art.) It’s a game, after all, and visitors should have fun with it, he says.

“Some of the pieces in the show were put together by playing a simple game to determine the final form,” he said. “Anyone can play the game and construct the work – it doesn’t have to be me. You can take apart and reconstruct any piece any number of times; it will always be different, just like the outcome of the game.”

Jessen’s show runs through Oct. 18 at the LA Arts Gallery at 221 Lisbon St. in Lewiston.

Name: Tom Jessen

Age: 52

Hometown: Strawberry Point, Iowa

Lives now: Temple

What inspired you to start making art? My dad used to plow the snow into massive piles at the end of our driveway. On snow days we would be out there on those mountains building forts and tunnels for hours. I keep coming back to these moments because they’re early recollections of simple repetitive, almost meditative acts that, ultimately, seemed to be more about the labor than about utilizing that final “object.” In a lot of ways art making is really about this for me. I think that sense of process, labor and the relationship of one’s body with the world is the thing that got carried over from those days of playing in the snow.

What themes are you interested in exploring in your art right now? Lately, it has a lot to do with looking at everyday objects around me with new eyes. I try to transform this stuff in a way so that the viewer can also see these objects in a different way. I suppose it has something to do with salvaging and transforming what seems like junk into something that isn’t “worthless.” I like that alchemical process.

The current show is all about the parallels I see between making art and playing games. For me, they’re both acts of play. I also see that kind of playfulness (and irreverence) in the materials being used. Some of the pieces in the show were put together by playing a simple game to determine the final form. Anyone can play the game and construct the work – it doesn’t have to be me. You can take apart and reconstruct any piece any number of times; it will always be different, just like the outcome of a game.

What are the primary mediums that you work with in your art? Lately, it has been found objects that eventually get painted in some way.

I usually start off just simply noticing something I hadn’t before. Perhaps it was because I was working with a particular material or object and then that led me to look at other found objects that were similar. For instance, at one point I had the idea to do something with this roll of fencing I had propped up against my barn forever. The whole thing looked like a tangled nest of metal in the center of the roll. I was struck not only by the inherent grid but also by the web of wires being like drawn lines. That led me to paint each individual wire strand a different color. I was taken with the way the enamel paint looked like nail polish – shiny but with a glossy crust, like crème brulée. After that was finished, I started looking at metal differently, noticing it everywhere and what that might look like painted in enamel. In the end, I think my attraction was to the materials. I did a number of pieces from found metal objects. There are a couple pieces in the show that use tin cans.

In other instances, it is the shape of something that is interesting. Like the piece in the show with the #2 plastic containers painted and adhered to the wall (“Nothing Hides the Color of the Light That Shines”). I initially just started looking at the hole at the top of the bottle and wondering how that would look coming out at you from the wall. That led to thinking about it as a vessel and trying to illuminate the interior by cutting it open. This all started just through experimentation, though.

In many of the pieces in the show, I simply feel like I’m drawing with objects.

Sometimes the piece I’m working on inspires me to look at other similar things. But then other pieces start with the attraction to the object, fiddling around with it, and then realizing later what it should be.

What do you hope visitors take away or learn from your show, “Play”? Lighten up! Art doesn’t always have to be so humorless. Have some fun.

The common denominator between the pieces in the show is that the forms in many of them are assembled through varying degrees of chance operations. This is where the games come in. For some of the pieces, games were devised for either (me) or the viewing public to assemble the works. Theoretically, we could take the entire show down, play the games again and those pieces would be entirely different.

Other works in the show involved chance operations in their construction rather than their installation. My entire impetus to introduce chance into the process was simply to keep myself engaged and to hopefully be surprised. Prior to this, I felt like I had gotten to the point where I was nauseatingly bored with my own choices and feeling like I couldn’t trip myself up in any meaningful way to keep it legitimately exciting.

Some other works in the show simply have a playfulness about them, which for me generally has something to do with considering the materials and objects in context to what is normally seen as a “serious place” (such as) an art gallery or museum. Choosing these objects/materials is another way of not being precious and overly serious about what you’re doing.

Because the works are designed for anyone to assemble, I want people to understand and consider that maybe there isn’t so much “talent” or “genius” in making art after all. That’s about recognizing the kinds of expectations and baggage you are bringing in the door with you. You feel like you need to put on your “art glasses” and look at it a particular way. “Non-” artists feel like it can only be done by a kind of wizard with endowed magical powers. The power dynamic is staggering.

People who go to see the show will probably see there is nothing too overly complicated about any of my works. It’s not tricky or heavy on technique. I often use accumulation and repetition as a device to arrive at a place where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

So, I guess, if there’s a political motivation, I’m interested in interrogating those assumptions about looking at art and artists and how the art world perpetuates those perceptions.

What’s the best piece of advice you received, and what does it mean to you now? A mentor said to me a long time ago, “making art should be as easy as falling off a log.” I still try to follow that advice. It opened up the possibility that this doesn’t necessarily have to be some tortured activity.

I think in many ways that saying refers to a lot of what I was speaking about above. I think ultimately for me, it means that if you were really in tune with your own motivations, the process should be effortless and fun; the work should just fall out of you. But our expectations and judgments often get in the way and then the whole thing becomes “labored” or “forced” because we end up overthinking.

It seems to really be about letting go of those expectations and staying present, allowing the materials to do what they want instead of forcing them to bend to your will. It’s a dance – you have to dance with your materials, not drag them around the dance floor. But you are also dancing with your own head if that makes sense. You are constantly in a heightened sense of self reflection, noticing what you are thinking and feeling.

One of the biggest reasons to introduce chance operations into the process was to not be in control so much. At that point you get to watch the art being assembled (as opposed to dragging it around the dance floor). Ultimately, I think a lot of this is simply about acceptance. Just allow the moment to be what it wants to be. You can never fully step out of the way, but you can at least try to commingle and dance with your circumstances, instead of trying to push the river.


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