Jessica Hiemstra is an award-winning multi-disciplinary artist,writer and compulsive collaborator.
Jessica divides her time between Toronto and Atlanta, Georgia where she is a showroom artist, creative consultant and designer for Accent Décor: an ethical, adventurous home decor company. In Atlanta she draws, paints, designs props, and makes everything from whimsical holiday dinner plates to giant showroom sculptures of jellyfish. In Toronto she is a writer, set designer, visual artist and film-club dictator. She lives in a little beige house, takes long walks and gardens. Since 2008 Jessica has edited numerous anthologies of poetry, stories and essays, among them How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy,Parenthood and Loss. She is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, most recently The Holy Nothing, with Pedlar Press (2016). She loves the usual suspects –O’Keeffe, Miró, Kandinsky, Magritte, Hafiz, Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes.
“Art is no longer snobbish or cowardly. It teaches peasants to use tractors, gives lyrics to young soldiers, designs textiles for factory women’s dresses, writes burlesque for factory theatres, does a hundred other useful tasks. Art is as useful as bread.”
- Azar Nafisi
Write to Jessica
— Jessica's lived from Edmonton to Sierra Leone. Right now she's in Toronto.
Jessica asked three friends who write to ask anything.
These were the answers she had.
The questions and their answers were published in
Exile: the Literary Quarterly.
In order of appearance:
Shannon Bramer is the author of Precious Energy (BookThug) and The Hungriest Woman in the World (Pencil Kit Productions). She is currently at work on a new project called Little Guns.
Marianne Apostolides is the author of six books, three of which have been translated. She's a recipient of the Chalmers Arts Fellowship, and the winner of the 2017 KM Hunter Award for Literature.
Karen Connelly is an award-winning writer who has always wished she was a painter. Her most recent book is The Change Room.
Shannon Bramer: How has your approach to creating changed over time? Do you find yourself wrestling with uncertainty as you continue to grow as an artist, or has your experience made you more confident and adventurous?
JH: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t compulsively make. As a child I’d draw urgently before I peed in the morning. What’s changed is that it’s not as hard now as it was then to get my hand to do what I want. Making is a function of my body.
When I think about uncertainty, I think about being 9. I stood in our forest, looked at light through leaves and spun myself in circles. In that moment something ripped through me: god would get complicated. I felt something critical: belonging. That fact of childhood –– a physical and certain belonging to our world – matters. Many of us spend adulthood trying to belong again. We belong whether or not we think we do, but what we believe becomes more real than what’s true. Things get complicated when we think we’re separate. And I don’t think my work’s mine (I belong to it, not it to me), so that lets me adventure.
SB: What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken in a piece of writing? In a piece of visual art?
JH: I confess to love. Art that lasts smashes into mortality and wails, sings – Auden’s message in the sky, Picasso’s Guernica, Kahlo’s self-portraits, O’Keeffe’s exaltation of flowers, Bach translating angels, Hafez touching the divine, Langston Hughes truth-telling, Nina Simone talking from her body to God. I don’t care (anymore) if a critic doesn’t value love poems. I need to figure out why we hurt each other, understand why, when we could be making love and planting beans, people with drones kill people in living rooms.
Making art about love is risky. A lot of people have said a lot of stupid things about love, so we’re advised to steer clear. Because love scares us we trivialize it. But if we dig into love, we face how we’ve hurt and been hurt – begin to do something about it. Writing about love’s unpopular but shouldn’t be – because we’re preoccupied with it and because art can articulate love in a way that isn’t didactic. We should encourage our artists to get it down, say I don’t know, I praise. We shouldn’t stop them because it’s risky.
Marianne Apostolides: What (if anything) can you express or explore in a painting, which you can't in literature, and vice-versa. By asking this question, I'm curious about the limitations (and possibilities) of each medium as such, but I'm also wondering what each medium opens in you, as a creator.
JH: A poem starts in the place where a painting ends. In my poems I start with the finished thing – our world, my curiosity, our pain, a drawing.
I paint to arrive and write to figure out why and how I arrived, where to go next. Painting comes from a deeper, wilder place. When I write, my language delineates. I wonder if my painting is id, my writing is ego. I don’t think this is true for all writers and visual artists, but seems true for me.
The limit of poetry for me is that it happens word by word. Painting is a language I speak better. I can say and feel all at once, which is closer to my experience of being. I can say things that don’t have edges. Painting is somehow more accurate than writing for me. A painting has no plot. It is plot. I write to translate art and experience.
MA: All your poetry collections include visual art. What would the books lose if the visual component were not included? Which is not to ask: what does the artwork add to the book, but rather, how is it integral.
JH: I make because it’s my way of listening. I want to be part of the conversation we’ve been having since we put our hands on cave walls. Each of us since then has stood in that proverbial forest and realized being human is complicated. By writing I can talk to Hafez and you and those who put their hands in ochre and left marks on stone. My poems and paintings converse. I write the poem not to explain but untangle my painting – so we can talk. Without my art there would be no poems.
MA: In a recent interview in the Paris Review, the visual artist Carrie Mae Weems said: "While I take great pleasure in reading, I don’t read for pleasure. I’m too hungry, too desperate." In response to Weems' statement, you wrote, "I read to be consumed"—a phrase which I find striking. Can you say why you paint, and why you write? Are the reasons different for each art form?
JH: I write and paint to face mortality. I read for that reason. I’ll continue to be unfashionable: I want redemption. I want a story, essay, poetry, to change me. I want to be transformed. Absolutely and entirely. To disappear into art and come out altered.
MA: In your writing, you sometimes dialogue with visual artists—often referring to them by their first name, establishing an intimacy or familiarity which feels true to the way their work has affected you, and also brings the artist closer to the reader. Can you discuss which visual artists have most affected your work—as a painter, but also as a writer?
JH: I’m haunted by a production I saw of Two Cigarettes in the Dark (by the Tanztheater Wuppertal,Pina Bausch). Not just the dance, despair and poetry of it, but that the dance happened in the Paris Opera House under Miró’s ceiling. Art is layered– so Anne Michaels’ poems about being, Joan Didion and Margaret Atwood’s articulations, Claire Wilkes’ drawings of pleasure, Howlin’ Wolf’s belting it out, Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s fence sculptures in Australia – I draw from all of it. I’m intimate with everything that touches me. I touch back. Good art (to continue being unfashionable) is always contemporary. It doesn’t need context to be good – though context complicates it in important ways. Art’s a map that says we are here – in time and space. Art confirms our existence laterally. Here. Now. Then.
Karen Connelly: Regarding your last book of poetry, Sierra Leone is an important part of your work. What are some of the challenges involved in writing about this African country that is clearly dear to your heart and sense of self?
JH: The challenge of writing (in Canada) about things that have happened in my life in Sierra Leone is if the reader isn’t African or has only passively learned about Africa through Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, Barbara Kingsolver, TV, war stories, tales of poverty, she comes to the writing with associations that muddy things. Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche talks about “the single story.” She says “[t]he single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” When I write about things that happened to me in Sierra Leone I contend with that “single story.” When I write about friendship or a lizard on a branch that single story makes it hard for me to reach through to someone reading through Heart of Darkness or Blood Diamond. My friend dies and she’s an African woman who died. I come up against popular, literary (often bogus) histories that get in the way. I want to be part of changing the dialogue and narrative about how non-African Canadians think and write about Africa, Sierra Leone in particular, but it’s discouraging. Most of us aspire to a world where a woman can be a woman (and a lizard a lizard) but we aren’t there yet. I want women and lizards everywhere to be just women and lizards. We aren’t there yet. Even the lizards know that.
KC: As a poet, you are grounded in the real—the intimate grate and rub of real life—but you are not afraid to use some of the big, grand abstractions that poets are regularly warned away from—such as love, kindness, war, fear, history—indeed, you have a monumental poem called ‘History’—and I’m curious to know why you’re not afraid to use them in the open way that you do. What do you think of the ‘abstract’—and does it have any place not only in your poetry, but in your art?
JH: My poems are like prayers in the sense that I try to find the words to ask life questions I don’t know how to ask another way. I write and paint to make our world real – because it’s so unreal to me. I wrote History when my friend Yima died. She died in Sierra Leone and I was sad because in Canada her death was preventable. I was outraged by the single story making it so hard for me to mourn her in Canadian poetry. I wanted to write about that – and write about how sad and angry I was at history itself – her ancestors kidnapped, raped and murdered by my ancestors. I wanted to say sorry. I wanted to write about reconciliation. I wanted to write about how much I loved and missed her. There was no way to write that poem without writing in abstractions we’re warned to steer clear of. The big stuff’s the stuff I care about so I do it.
Love, kindness, war, fear, history – we’re made of these abstractions. I don’t think there’s anything more serious or important than figuring out how to be with each other in our world without causing harm. In the afterword of your book, The Lizard Cage, you say: “I came to understand that the most useful thing I could do as a writer was to contribute to the history of kindness. It may seem strange to look for kindness in a prison, but a prison is just a microcosm of the world we live in every day. The details are different, but the human struggles and needs are the same. To eat properly. To be clean and safe. To live with dignity. To live in choice, in truth. To love and to be loved. To die with grace” (431). That’s it, isn’t it? To live kindly and die gracefully. We all have that right. I want my art to express that, even be part of making it happen. I want a recklessly loving, radically kind world. As I say in that poem, History: “I want to turn the boats back. I want to change history.” I want to tell the truth. And that’s never been cool, right?