I recently had the pleasure of meeting up with artist and designer Jessika Dené Tarr who moved to Berlin from Washington D.C. this past January. Following a similar trajectory like mine (minus two kids and a cat), I was excited to discover what she would be working on. Her home studio is located on the top floor of an altbau (old building) nestled on the edge of the historic and lush Tiergarten (Literally translates to animal garden or what is better known as New York City’s Central Park of Berlin). Jessika’s main studio wall was covered with a number of small works on paper of punchy colored portraits of none other than commingling his and her underwear. Humorous, sculptural and poignant, Jessika talks about this work and the recent overseas move she made with her talented opera singer husband Jeffrey Tarr.
Your current body of work is a series of underwear. Were you making these before you arrived in Berlin? What’s the inspiration?
Though I had created some figurative work involving underwear in the past, this is the first time I have created pieces in which underwear acts as both the figure and the focal point. The inspiration for the series began during our journey through the USA and Europe as we moved to Berlin. I was creating small drawings and paintings during this time as a way to keep my hands loose and ideas flowing. While we were living out of suitcases, I began to notice the compositions of our folded and strewn underwear, seeing them as portraits. Upon our arrival in Berlin, I maintained my interest in this subject and decided to create a series with reference to underwear as portraits.
Can you talk about the process of making these works?
With this series I began by photographing underwear, both in natural and posed states. I proceeded to sketch out the subjects, sometimes piecing together images from various photos. Once the composition was to my liking, I approached the sketch as one would a coloring book, painting in color blocks with gouache paint. The next step, which I most enjoy, involves spraying each dried layer of gouache with a fixative and building additional layers of paint on top, often letting the colors shift as I build. Once the shapes have acquired a flat and even surface, I paint back in my original line marks with gouache and ink. Viewers often comment that the result of this painting technique gives the pieces a silk-screened appearance.
What is your daily studio routine?
Since arriving in Berlin and having more time to dedicate to my studio practice, I have been working to develop a more disciplined and structured routine. With that being said, I definitely have days where I am too excited to get to work and walk straight from the bedroom to the studio in my pajamas (the blessing and curse of working in a home-studio space). On prouder days, I head into the studio more centered— having generated some endorphins, showered, dressed, and perhaps meditated. Once in the studio, I prepare my supplies and delve into whatever project I have in-progress, whether that be completing an unfinished piece or beginning a new one. During seasons when I am between series, I reference one of my many notebooks or files full of ideas and inspiration and proceed to experiment, play, and think until my next project takes shape. Of course, I also occasionally experience a “lighting bolt idea” moment and will drop all plans in order to follow that train of thought lest it lead me to my next project. Unless I am in a thinking-heavy step of a project, I have either audiobooks or podcasts playing while I work which usually keep me more engaged than music.
You recently made a big move from living in Washington D.C. to Berlin. Have you noticed any changes in the way you approach your studio work and if so what are they?
Having left a full-time (plus) design job in the USA, the greatest change to my studio practice has been the increased amount of time I am able to spend creating. Being a person that thrives under pressure and time constraints, I have found that I am not necessarily producing much more work than I was with less time. However, I have been able to consider my projects more thoroughly and spend more time in the planning process which has allowed me to solidify my concepts and goals before delving in. It is refreshing to have time to better organize and prepare for my projects though I remain curious whether clarity or urgency play a more positive role in my studio practice overall. Another subtle change I have noticed since arriving in Berlin is new variation in my color palettes, inspired by some of the hues around me– mustard yellows, dirty greys, and crisp aqua blues, to name a few.
You also work as a graphic designer. How do some of the decisions you make in your design work enter into your fine art work – or are the decisions entirely separate?
Since establishing a career in the design industry about four years ago, I have observed the ideas and aesthetics in my fine art slowly transforming, most drastically in the last year and a half. My interpretation of concepts has become cleaner and more minimal and my concepts themselves have become more systematic and less narrative. Though many of my artistic interests and ideas remain unchanged, the way in which I approach them is (and always will be, perhaps) in a transitory period. I find that my fine art influences and speaks to my graphic design endeavors as well and I enjoy the ways in which they challenge and interact with one another. I resisted the idea that they would influence one another at first and attempted to keep them separate but am now excited to observe and encourage their interplay.
There are a number of artist couples whose work mutually influences or inspires one another creating a kind of symbiotic creative energy. Does your husband’s career as an opera singer come into play in your work in this regard, and if so how? And if no, why not?
Yes, our creative careers and pursuits are certainly harmonious and influential to one another. When we first began our relationship, I often longed to work in more similar fields so that we could collaborate and unite our endeavors more practically. However, I now appreciate our creative differences and am thankful for the perspectives that a partnership with a musician grant me. While we easily relate to and understand one another’s artistic joys, sufferings, and neurosis, we have different needs and habits within our practices that enable us to live a balanced and supportive existence. Though we work separately on our own projects, we frequently come together for support or discussion. Our daily conversations about art, music, and the act of creating are stimulating and centering.
Living with an opera singer opens up opportunities for me to learn from his unique expertise, grow in my knowledge of music and broader art forms about which he is more knowledgeable, and gain both inspiration and feedback from his presence. Aside from the daily inspirations I gleam from his practicing and performing, I have also had opportunities to participate in operas with him in dancing and supernumerary roles. These experiences, though not directly influential to my art, ignite me with fresh energy. They perpetuate synergy and discovery in both of us.
Do have any upcoming projects you’d like us to know about?
Having just completed the underwear series, I am currently taking some time to process and reexamine this project and the new ideas it has stirred within me. Aside from writing, thinking, and experimenting, another way that I cleanse my brain post-project is exposing myself to new experiences and art. So, I am excited to do more exploring and gallery/museum visiting here in Berlin in the next weeks!
To learn more about Jessika, please check out her website: