Five Questions for 2020-2021 Artist-in-Residence Jesse Aron Green

March 1, 2020

What is your background as an artist?

I was raised with the idea that the best way to learn—about yourself, about other people, about the larger world—is to have your fingers in a hundred different pies: academics in every field, mission driven service work, sports of every stripe, and anything else that might help you feel either centered in yourself or held as part of a group. In each case, the hope is that, if well-matched, one of these might become one of those rare things—a passion—that carries you with a special force across the years.

It was unspoken that the sweetest pie, but perhaps also the most difficult to bake, is art: big, wild, and filling, it might take any shape and feed any number of people, but if done well it might also hold any kind of idea whatsoever. (Remember too what Julia Child might have taught: that lives are like pies in that those lived to the letter of a recipe might taste equally wonderful as those thrown together with no plan at all!)

Whether looking at an azure-blue hippo from ancient Egypt, or a Klein-blue painting of body pressed right into the canvas, I came to see that art is shape-shifter, a bit of real magic in the hard-won world. It could mean anything, and hold any value, to any person, in any place, across any bit of past and future time.

Practice came early, at the age of six or seven, when I stuck a pinky into weekend classes at MFA Boston. In the thirty-odd years since, I’ve continued digging for sweet bits—in most corners of the visual arts and film, but also in theater, dance, creative writing, and music—where now I’m face first and elbow deep. I don’t think I’ll ever get full.

I came to see that art is shape-shifter, a bit of real magic in the hard-won world. It could mean anything, and hold any value, to any person, in any place, across any bit of past and future time.

– Jesse Aron Green

Who/what which artist inspires your work and who are your artistic role models?

I’m inspired by the same sorts of people who seem to inspire all of us. People whose lives are an articulation of their values, and whose values are meant to make the real world a better one.

How the best artists seem to do this was a mystery to me until I read everything by J. M. Coetzee, the South African novelist who is sometimes understood as one of the post-colonial inheritors of the ethical dimension of Modernist literature. Of course I couldn’t have described him that way when I started reading him in high school! But in the years that followed I felt him take this thing he had been given—the novel, with all its history and all its permeability—and slowly change its shape with his hands. I sensed that from book to book, he molded the novel not only to suit his needs, and the needs of the people he cared about, but also to be better suited to the problems and needs of the contemporary world. In his case (as was the case for my father, born in Johannesburg) these included the traumatic legacies of apartheid. 

Yes, Coetzee is a writer, but when I read him as I did—in order—the way you might look at every painting chronologically at an artists’ retrospective, I was able to witness someone trying to craft a better life by means of his creative mind.

Many other writers inspired or influenced things I do too. Jamaica Kincaid taught me how to throw my voice, and the more I practiced, the more I learned how to also deal with actors. I made a few short documentary films in college that were aimless; it took reading W. G. Sebald to learn that the greatest works of non-fiction often have the journey of their maker hidden inside. Thomas Bernhard taught me the same thing as Sol LeWitt: find a direction and follow it until you’re out of breath or out of life, whichever comes first. And finally Herman Melville, who taught me as much about color—in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale”—as any artwork or theory of color I’ve seen, Joseph Albers’ “Homage to the Square” be damned.

Today, I tend to be inspired by things that are jewels of private meaning for their maker, and relevant to lots of other people too. The personal is political, like the old saying goes. I think of Walid Ra’ad, who embodied an artist without a country—without an art-history of the Middle East to give him footing—so as a large body of interrelated artworks, he found terra-firma by inventing one, whole-cloth. Walter de Maria’s “The Lightning Field” in the New Mexican desert is one of the new wonders of the world, a secular Blue Mosque, absolutely worth the pilgrimage. The sculptor Charles Ray helped teach me that obsession doesn’t lead to perfection—there is no such thing—but it can lead to refinement, grace, and beauty. Among older painters I’ve always loved Gustave Caillebotte, who shows that desire for a body might in truth be mimetic for the more pure desire for beauty; but conversely that seeking beauty is not the same thing as wanting a person. The painter Noah Davis, who died too young, seemed to find beauty everywhere. And the carvers of ancient Assyria, who told such gruesome stories in their stella, but with such beautiful melding of line, word, and shape.

What are the primary materials that you work with?

I was originally trained as a filmmaker at Harvard, which taught me how to martial a thousand small creative choices in service of a much larger vision. From there I followed my nose into experimental forms of filmmaking such as video-art, immersive or expanded cinema, and artworks that combined film and sculpture, or film and theater. In practical terms, this meant that when it finally came time to get an MFA, I went to art school at UCLA, not film school as I had always planned.

These days I work like many studio artists: I spend my time struggling to ensnare a conceptual or emotional idea into a material form. In the past what I’ve come up with has run the gamut across media: everything from the most traditional of materials—carved marble sculpture, oil paint on linen—to photographs, prints in series, writings, performances, drawings, film and video-installation, and everything else besides.

It’s important to remember that it has become outmoded to think that an artist must be a master of only his specific craft to the exclusion of all others, and that he must touch every moment in his work’s creation. For viewers who prefer the older ways of medium-specificity, my work might be confusing or diffuse in its array, so instead of thinking of the medium I work in as my homeland, I think of it as the thing that helps me work the ground. In other words, materials are tools. Some I know how to use very well—film, certain kinds of sculpture, actors, dancers, the written word—while others require me to apprentice to someone who knows more. And sometimes it’s simply easier, more cost-effective, or more fun to simply hire a fabricator or subcontractor.

My job is to communicate complicated ideas or stories by means of material things. To do that well, I must put other people’s talents in service of my ends. The things I make are usually objects, and they usually get shown in art museums or other art contexts, but I don’t think of myself as an artist. I work like a film director. I work with people, and I work to get the best out of them.

How did you first get connected to Mount Auburn?

I have been visiting Mount Auburn Cemetery since I was a kid, when my mother brought me to appreciate the design of the grounds and the variety of plantings. In high school I would wander through with friends, sometimes even sketching. In college at Harvard, I would sometimes come to take respite. And after college my best friend’s father, Dean Archie Epps, was buried here; and then sadly, only a few years later, also his brother, Josiah Epps. In other words, I’ve come for nature, for art, for introspection, and in mourning. As the Artist-in-Residence, I hope to do service to all of the functions that Mount Auburn plays in people’s lives.

I’ve come for nature, for art, for introspection, and in mourning. As the Artist-in-Residence, I hope to do service to all of the functions that Mount Auburn plays in people’s lives.

– Jesse Aron Green

What are the first things you are going to do as artist-in-residence?

I’ve already started! This week was my first official nice long walk. Soon, I’ll start to visit other departments, including the archives and the greenhouse. Along the way, I’ll establish a presence on social media—@jag.mount.auburn on Instagram—so that readers can follows my residency over the next two years.

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