It’s hard not to be taken with Jessica Scott-Felder. But it’s not just because of her work, although that is compelling. It’s because she has a presence – a warm, fearless, adventuresome presence pushing into restricted territory, from her grandmother’s plastic-covered living room to restrictive social codes of the South.
Scott-Felder’s work “addresses issues in identity, heritage, culture, and society’s rapidly disintegrating connection to the past,” as she puts it on her website. She was raised in Atlanta’s vibrant African-American community — we met at her house in south Atlanta, next door to the house where she grew up — and has deep roots in Charleston, South Carolina. A graduate of Spelman College, she earned her MFA at Georgia State University in 2009. She’s been at Spelman as a full-time visiting lecturer for the past four years and has shown extensively in galleries and museums throughout the region – you can see a select list of her exhibitions here. And her career is quickly growing – shortly after I met with her, she accepted a position teaching studio art at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. She’s in the inaugural group show at Hathaway David Contemporary [through Aug. 14] and her next national exhibition is a solo show at Bone Black Gallery in Austin, Texas, from June 3 to June 26.
She’s on a mission, and it started early, with a middle-school visit to the High Museum. “That was really the moment,” she says, when she knew “this [art] is something that people can live off of.”
“Was there a particular piece you remember that stood out at that time?” I ask.
She pauses. “Actually, to be honest, we didn’t even go into the museum,” she confesses. “My teacher took us on a field trip . . . . She had an errand to run, so she dropped off something at the museum and took us right back to the school. So we didn’t go inside, but I remember thinking, ‘That’s a house full of art.’ I do remember that vividly, just sitting out and thinking, ‘What’s in there? . . . Is the Mona Lisa in there?’
“Because she didn’t take us inside, I created my own spaces full of artwork,” she adds. Back at home, she simply made a museum of her own: “a wall full of women from around the world,” first from every state, then different countries. “That just seemed like it was normal to do.”
She still draws – her studio contains work from her chair series as well as her version of South Carolina’s ubiquitous Piggly Wiggly sign, but lately she’s been focused on installations and performance art. When we met in late February, she’d recently completed a performance piece for the “Print or Projection” exhibition at the Swan Coach House Gallery. She’s also developing a series on hybridity, in which she brings together elements from divergent cultures – e.g., Victorian dresses and African masks — to comment on their relationship to each other.
Her interest in both performance art and hybrid identities emerged during graduate school at Georgia State. She describes her graduate experience as “creatively and socially challenging,” partly because it was the first time she was immersed in a mostly white environment. Describing her first critique, she recalls the question posed by a white student: “Why don’t the women in your drawings look African American?”
She was stunned: “These are self-portraits,” she says. “These are pictures of my sisters. These are pictures of people I thought looked African American.”
The question was a “Pandora’s box,” says Scott-Felder. “It brought the attention to my form, to who I was, and I hadn’t considered that. I knew who I was. I know who I am. But someone is telling me something different: ‘Are you though? Are you really who you think you are, in this setting?’ . . . It was something that I had to go through in order to understand what I contributed in regards to that learning space.”
Following that critique, Scott-Felder realized, “I must look like a little bit of everything, and I’m okay with that.” Now she incorporates “a little bit of everything” into her work. Describing her costume for “Vicarious Engagement,” for instance, she says it suggests “a silhouette of Victorian clothing, the underwire of Victorian clothing, but it references the outside form as well. But it also has references to Africa with the Dinka people [whose men wear beaded corsets] … So I’m playing around with Victorian, and carnival, and African, and as a result you get something that is somewhat familiar but a little bit different.”
Her time at Georgia State also taught her that she had something special to offer, especially after she was exposed to the work of performance artists like Marina Abramovic and Carolee Schneemann: “That’s me, right there!” she remembers thinking. Schneemann’s Interior Scroll was particularly influential. She recalls her professor’s description of the piece: “The significance about feminist art during the ’60s was that only women could do it. Only women had bodies that had vaginas and had body parts that men don’t have, and only Carolee Schneemann in that piece in particular could have done that . . . . I liked that idea. I wasn’t sure if I liked it yet, but I was drawn to it, so I started to explore my presence in that learning environment.”
The process allowed her to create the same kind of “psychological spaces” that emerged from her early drawings. “How am I doing that with performance?” she asked herself. “I saw my body and my presence as a way of leaving a psychological mark,” one unique to a particular moment and social setting. “Those marks,” she says, “are really what resonate for me, knowing that I’ve changed how someone perceives a space with my presence. That’s the purpose in the performance.”
In her performance at the Swan Coach House Gallery, “Vicarious Engagement,” Scott-Felder examined the effects of a modern African-American presence in the historical space of the Swan House, the former mansion of Atlanta’s white, wealthy, influential Inman family. During the piece, a trio of African-American violinists played as Scott-Felder led the audience from the gallery to the nearby mansion. There, she and two other performers enacted certain rituals that had governed the house during Emily Inman’s day. To protect the black marble tiles on the entry hall’s checkerboard floor, for instance, staff could only step on the white tiles and family members always used the back staircase. That history determined Scott-Felder’s movements: She stepped only on the black tiles, deliberately violating the old social code while simulating the “tightrope walk” employed by those historically restricted to particular spaces in America. It was a way of exposing social history, “of showing that tumultuous terrain that you have to walk, whether it’s race or being a woman, what type of body you have, how you’re dressed.”
Scott-Felder is also referring to the “tumultuous terrain” that resulted in the deaths of African Americans Sandra Bland and Michael Brown at the hands of the police. But even as Scott-Felder’s work exposes the obstacles African Americans confront in navigating that terrain, it also celebrates the ways Southern culture has moved past that. “That’s what makes me want to do more work in spaces like the Swan House,” she says. “During Emily Inman’s time in that home, an African-American woman, no matter what she looked like, would not have been able to do what I did in that space with three African-American violin players. That’s the part that I’m celebrating.”
But she’s also interested in social restrictions more generally, as reflected in the two corsets, uncomfortable shoes, and forced smile that she wore throughout the performance. “That’s what my portion [of the “Print or Projection” exhibition was about,” Scott-Felder says, “this physical exhaustion from having to wear a smile for three hours, and to always put your best foot forward when someone takes a photograph.”
I ask her how she feels when she’s in the middle of a performance: “Are you nervous, or are you feeling powerful? Or all of that? Or none of that?”
“It’s all of it and none of it at the same time,” she replies. “There are moments where I am hyper aware of my body. It alternates between knowing yourself and then being so into other people, like really trying to be a part of someone else. It’s sort of like being aware that you’re a player in somebody else’s play. And there are moments where I’m into myself: ‘Wow, my feet are hurting.’”
That comment prompts a conversation about the shoes she wore during “Vicarious Engagement.” Her entire house, where she does a good bit of her work, overflows with fragments of her creative process, including a series of etiquette books that epitomize the restrictive social codes she’s been exploring.
A tall chair from an earlier exhibition is in her living room, its plastic-covered seat harking back to her grandmother’s living room. The plastic, Scott-Felder says, is “always about preservation first, and preservation of certain spaces.” For her grandmother’s generation, “you could only be in that space if you respected and if you acknowledged the power of that space, and the plastic was almost a signifier of that.” She’s reminded of an installation she made at Spelman, Preserving History, in which she wrapped a plush chair in Saran Wrap. “When you want to take a to-go plate, you wrap in Saran Wrap,” she says, adding that the piece reveals the ways “that we’re attempting to hold on to this history.”
In her studio, we look at works in progress. She collects many objects for future use — discarded umbrellas, African masks, sports trophies. She says, “I want a wall full of trophies. The masks are worn by men when they reach a certain age, when they reach a certain level of maturity. They’re basically channeling the spirit of the mask that they wear. To me, trophies are the same idea. Sports are the coming of age for American boys.”
She picks up an empty frame from a hand-held mirror and puts it in front of her face. The effect is startling, seeing another person’s reflection when you expect to see your own. Scott-Felder knows this. “When I performed this, I held it up to people’s faces and I put on my makeup. It’s a little confrontational. One lady figured if she started to move her hand where my hand was, she could start to control me. So as I’m drawing my eyeliner on, she’s drawing a little bit past her eye, so I’m making this mark all the way across to my hairline.”
When others at the event saw that, they tried to do the same thing. But she refused to play along. Jessica Scott-Felder is her own person. She’s got this. She’s in control.
Jami Moss Wise is a lapsed academic with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is co-owner of Fred Wise Studio along with her artist husband.