Jolie Guillebeau is busy—busy creating art projects with ambitious scope and writing about the process and the way she lives and moves through the world. She has completed thousands of paintings (really: thousands), each of which tells its own story and builds a connection between her and those who view it; her meditations on art, growth, loss, and renewal serve to link her personal story with the stories of others.
Jolie is busy, but she paused long enough to share her thoughts on how the visual and narrative intertwine and explain how and why she’s taking the win.
TOM BIHN CREW: You paint in a number of different mediums and styles, including one that relies on hot wax. How did you first encounter this method, and what drew you to it? Can you explain the process you use to create those paintings?
JOLIE GUILLEBEAU: Encaustic is actually my favorite painting medium. I was classically trained using oil paints, and learned that I was happiest with my work when I built many many layers of paint to allow the light to shine through the surface. It’s still a wonderful way to work, but oil paint takes a long time to dry—especially as you add more layers of paint.
Encaustic offers the very same opportunity for layering, but the wax hardens within minutes, so I can build many transparent layers over one painting session. I use beeswax mixed with a resin that adds durability, then I add colored pigment to the wax. That way I can control how strong the color should be. I have a large table in my garage (because ventilation is very important) and a pancake griddle that evenly heats the wax to its melting point.
After each layer of wax, I use a butane torch lightly over the top of the painting to smooth out the wax surface, eliminate air bubbles and allow that layer to bond with the layers below it. After the wax cools, I usually buff it with a soft cloth and move on to the next layer.
Some of my paintings have more than 30 layers of wax, so it’s a process. But the colors really stand out beautifully once it’s on the wall.
TBC: Your blog details how, over the course of nearly four years, you painted 1,000 “daily paintings” and posted them on your blog, usually with a story or narrative or mini-essay. Although both the painting and the narrative are mutually reinforcing (i.e., the narrative gives context or backstory to the painting, and the painting illustrates, in perhaps a more abstract way, the emotions or sentiments or metaphors attached to the event you described), what did creating these stories in two different ways allow you to achieve that you don’t think you would have been able to otherwise?
JG: The stories and paintings really connect me with my viewers and readers. When I was in grad school, one of my painting mentors said, “People don’t buy art. They buy a connection with the artist.” By telling the stories and sharing my process, I’m offering that. In many ways, the story and the painting co-exist. They each support the other, and without the story the painting is less powerful. Without the painting, the story is pointless.
TBC: People have ideas about what “artistic sacrifice” means: self deprivation, rejecting material luxuries, giving up friends and pastimes and so forth in order to dedicate their time and money to creating art. However, you have written about a different kind of artistic sacrifice, where the artist must efface, revise, or otherwise destroy some beloved part of an artwork because doing so could ultimately make the artwork better. Can you talk about that?
JG: First, the idea of artistic sacrifice as it’s traditionally seen is a big part of the myth of the starving artist. It’s an idea and a story that really just came about in the past few decades, and seems to be a way to reinforce the idea that the art world is separate from reality. Over the past fifty years, people have increasingly felt alienated from artists, because they think art has to be this esoteric, soul-wrenching process for makers. Most people are intimidated by art, and that’s frustrating to me. Art is for everyone, and the artistic “sacrifice” of isolating yourself or depriving yourself of joy in order to create something powerful just sounds like mental illness to me.
As for the artistic sacrifice that comes with creating a painting, yes. That’s a real thing. There have been many times when I’ve had to cover something that I love, or scrape back a layer that was beautiful in order to make the whole painting better. It’s a little painful. Sometimes I’ll take a photo with my phone, in case I decide to go back to my original plan. Most of the time, it improves the painting as a whole though, and that’s what matters.
TBC: One cool thing you do in your writing is talk about a concept, sometimes related to painting, sometimes not, but often with a few definitional layers: “balance,” “horizon,” “center,” etc. In a blog post titled “Risk”, you talk about the risk of breaking a rule, which had unexpected rewards. “The risk paid off,” you write; then: “Nearly four years ago, I took a risk and started painting every day. And that risk paid off, too.” How have the massive artistic projects you’ve done help you reconceptualize some of the adjectives, categories, and/or beliefs we use to structure our lives?
JG: In my own experience, I’ve learned over and over that my work shapes my world. The initial risk of the painting project and putting my work out in the world every day reframed my perspective, and the ritual of the daily paintings altered my view on ritual, rhythm and commitments. I don’t think this is exclusive to artists or the creative process though. I’ve had similar opportunities to reorganize my ideas or perspectives on a concept through travel or long talks with good friends. Reframing those beliefs is more about being willing to ask the questions and do the work your soul is calling you to do—no matter what that is.
TBC: This past January, you were named TedxMtHood’s artist in residence, and in that capacity you created a pretty epic installation piece that involved making 1,000 paintings in four months. Obviously the sense of urgency propelled this project in a different way from the first 1,000 paintings you did, but what similarities did you notice between the two projects?
JG: Yes—that was awesome! (And intimidating, and exhausting, and incredible!)
The biggest lesson of both projects is about letting go. Perfectionism is a deeply ingrained habit in my life, and in the past, I’ve let it paralyze me and my work. When you create 1000 paintings and then another 1000 paintings, you learn to let go of perfect. Even in the video of my TEDx talk, there is one painting just over my right shoulder that is hung upside down. Honestly, it drives me crazy. But no one else notices it until I point it out.
I think of Georgia O’Keeffe’s quote “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”
That’s how I feel about this project. Putting imperfect work in the world can be terrifying. But scarier than that is doing nothing. So I’ve learned to do the best I can and then let the rest go.
TBC: As the year draws to a close, you have a tradition of taking a vacation in order to get away and conduct your “annual review,” in which you reflect on the experiences you had and the goals you pursued over the past 12 months, and also set some goals that will help you structure the year to come. Often you also set a theme or set of themes for the new year. Without giving everything away, can you tell us about some things on the horizon that are particularly exciting to you?
JG: Yes, this is one of my favorite traditions. Taking a vacation and getting away from my usual rhythms is the easiest way for me to reflect on my goals and the choices I’m making.
Each year, I choose a word as my theme. In 2014, that word was “Stage.” Of course that referred to all the preparation for TEDx and appearing on that stage, but it was also about a particular stage of growth in my career and my heart at the time. In some ways, it reminds me to stay present, or to focus.
I don’t quite know what 2015 will bring. I’ve started working in a completely new medium, with a daily pottery project, so I’m pretty sure clay will be a big part of whatever I’m doing, but other than that, I really don’t know.
Every year at this time, I find myself a bit flummoxed. Usually, I’ve accomplished most of my big goals for the year by now, and I begin to look ahead. But one of the lessons I’m learning right now is what I call “Take the win.” Over the past few years, I realized that as I finish a goal, I rarely celebrate because I'm already on to the next goal. That began to wear me down a bit, and I noticed myself becoming frustrated, resentful and constantly stressed.
A friend stopped me early this year as I was complaining and asked, “When’s the last time you celebrated one of your successes?” I couldn’t remember. She said, “You’re accomplishing so much, but you’re too hard on yourself. When you finish something big, Take The Win. Celebrate. Enjoy the success. Otherwise, you’ll burn out.”
So, this year, instead of looking forward too quickly, I’m celebrating the successes of the year. I’m sitting with the uncertainty, and taking the win.