Interview by Madeline Walker of Show and Telephone & Audra Lambert, Editor in Chief – ANTE
Artist Jess (Jessica) Duby is one of our honored winners of the open call ‘Earthly Delights,’ and her responses on how her work exalts and honors the natural world capture the Zeitgeist encapsulated in the open call’s theme. Below, Duby on how plants and nature hold the power to heal, but inside and outside the urban environment.
ANTE. Thanks Jess for chatting with us! For starters we wanted to know – can you share with us – what about the theme of the open call caught your attention in relation to your practice as an artist?
Jess Duby. It spoke to me on several levels! I use my art practice as a way of exploring and deepening my connection to the earth and the larger systems I’m entangled with. The day I saw the “Earthly Delights” call, the theme of emergence was so present in my practice and psyche that I had just spent an hour talking about it on the phone with a friend.
Broadly, I’m always wondering how I can harmonize my own cycles with the natural cycles and movements around me, which is why I’m so interested in ritual, and particularly, ritual’s intersection with bathing culture.
My series “The Bathers” started as a kind of introspective experimentation and unfolded to an intentional, more social engaged and collaborative practice. I think this shift itself tracks what has been happening inside and outside of me vis-a-vis the pandemic. The series began in quarantine with just myself and my roommate Heloise’s plants as the subjects. At the time, I had been reflecting on how important cleansing rituals were for my mental health, and how objectifying, exclusionary, and Eurocentric the theme of bathing has been throughout western art history. Through making this image I attempted to find communion, both spiritually and aesthetically, with the fresh green outside my windows, and to reclaim the genre “The Bathers” as a woman, using my own body in the style of many femme artists I admire. I think this image also mirrors how surreal and weird things got in quarantine. I remember turning the shower on these plants and myself in the tub, which made my body paint go everywhere. My roommate and I really needed that laugh.
The question I’m asking in the work now is how can we consciously appreciate and take advantage of the return of this freedom to be out in nature, the moving around and the gathering, while also maintain the deep community care, the mutuality, and moments for the nourishing stillness that we cultivated over the last year?
ANTE. And how has Ecofeminism(s) played a role in your works, such as The Forest Bathers (Shinrin-Yoku) specifically?
JD. The ecofeminist work of Vandana Shiva and Ana Mendieta always inspires my actions. It definitely influenced the composition and smaller details of “The Forest Bathers (Shinrin-Yoku).” Ecofeminism draws a social and political connection between women and the earth, including the types of suppression both have historically endured. I’d love to note that I tend to dislike the word feminism because of its violent history of being exclusive regarding race and gender, and I think that ecofeminist theory applies as much to all that is considered “feminine” as it does women. So while I still use the word Ecofeminism because it efficiently describes what I mean to say in other ways, I always like take the opportunity to name the problem I have with it.
At the same time “The Bathers” revives the old bathing in genre in art history, it also critiques the genre in a way that aligns with ecofeminist values. The “Forest Bathers (Shinrin-Yoku)” features two of my fully vaccinated friends finally out in the world indulging in the Japanese practice of forest bathing. Unlike the images of bathers painted by the likes of Renoir, Cezanne, and so many others, these are fully covered un-edited Korean and Asian-American women—not frolicking, nude, unblemished white women caressing each other in a pond. They are bathing conceptually, fully covered by bath towels and in a state of meditation with the earth. Each is holding a conch shell, a symbol of rebirth and regeneration. What we wanted to present was an embodiment of the themes of purification and renewal that the genre has always claimed to offer, but without the voyeurism and fetishization you see in nine out of ten images of bathing throughout what has been institutionalized in the west as Art History.
ANTE. Do you have a connection to the particular landscape where this image was taken?
JD. Yes! This was actually in the more heavily wooded area of Prospect Park, which carries great meaning for me. This was the first place I took myself when the heavy quarantine was lifted last summer. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced such a state of bliss as I felt that day outside. It’s one of my favorite places in New York. The shoot was especially magical because it was the first time the two friends in the picture had ever been to Prospect Park. We actually all had an incredibly stressful day for different reasons, but when we arrived, we dropped into a meditative flow state. The ethereal, soft tone that took over the whole scene while the sun was setting as compared to the pressed states we arrived in stunned us.
ANTE. How does your relationship to place become part of your artistic process?
JD. The place I’m creating work in very naturally becomes a part of the process and aesthetics. I wound up in Florida right after my graduation in May 2020 due to a housing issue, so that became the landscape for another image. Roberto, who shot “The Ocean Bather” on his drone, had at some point introduced me to Virginia Key, which is, even in normal times outside of Covid-19, almost always empty. The ability to visit this quiet part of the sea was an unimaginable blessing. I always feel invited to let my guard down there in the same way I feel invited to drop into a state of peace and pleasure in Prospect Park. The short time I spent in both these places filled me up with community and strength to sustain the long stretches of solitude and the waves of grief and worry that we all were going through. I kind of let the land, air, and water take care of me when I didn’t quite know how to take care of myself, and so my art practice was a way of honoring and documenting these restorative gifts from mother earth. In the process I have become increasingly more conscious of the impact of my habits and consumption. How am I reciprocating these gifts?
ANTE. Can you tell us more about what you’ve been working on recently? Anything you have coming up that you can share?
I’m excited to continue “The Bathers” project and see how it progresses now that it’s flowing in a collaborative direction.
July (2021) brought “the Sun (Flower) Bathers,” which captured two of my friends who are healers, activists, and artists, sunbathing—sun worshipping, really–in a field of sunflowers. I absolutely loved seeing them exalted in the company of these flowers, radiating. Like the sun card in the Tarot, joy, self-love, and vitality are the emphasis of this image.
In the immediate future, I’m working with two performance artist friends on “the Sponge Bathers,” in which they’ll ceremonially bathe themselves and each other with natural sea sponges on Riis beach. The sponges nod to nonduality/nonbinary gender. And I’m waiting for the right time for “the Pink Bathers” which will take place in a flamingo sanctuary a few hours from my Florida hometown, hopefully at sunset. Pink on pink.