This interview will remain up until around Sept 15, 2012
For Jean Foss it's a family affair. Her Oaxacan husband frames her work (and often takes photos used as reference materials, since he can do it less obtrusively than she can), her 6 yr. old daughter commonly paints beside her, her mother takes care of all the business arrangements in the U.S. and passed on her artistic ability, the rest of the family are avid supporters and her friends and neighbors make up her subject matter. Sometimes it takes a village to be able to produce work like this. THE INSIDER'S GUIDE TO OAXACA interviewed Jean Foss in El Museo del Palacio (The Museum of the Palace of the Governor) in Oaxaca's famed zocalo where her current show “El Patio de los Abuelos” (In the Grandparent's Yard) is being shown. We are proud to bring you the following interview and pictures of her exciting and impactful work.
Jean Foss moved to Oaxaca in 2001 from Oregon, USA. At only 34 years of age it was quite a risk and an adventure for Jean to move to Oaxaca alone, where she planned to make her home. Living in downtown Oaxaca Jean took buses and collectivos to the nearby villages in Oaxaca to find out what her new home was really all about. These excursions have continued to this day, but now with her family every Sunday they trek around Oaxaca looking for fun and inspiration and finding both in plenty.
INSIDER: Let's start with your childhood and your artistic training... did you always have this talent? Were you trained as an artist?
JEAN FOSS: As long as I can remember, I've always enjoyed drawing and painting. My mother is a painter and a scientist. During our childhood, she took off work for 23 years to raise us, during which time she painted and took a lot of art classes. My parents took us to a lot of art museums-- mostly in Europe, where I spent my early childhood, and really encouraged us to appreciate art. Everyone in my family, except me, is a scientist, but they are all artistically and musically inclined as well. I studied art, first at the University of Iowa, and then University of Oregon where we moved in '88. I received my Bachelor's degree in Art from U of O. I also took a print-making class from el Maestro Shinshaburo Takeda at Bellas Artes, here in Oaxaca.
INSIDER: What style would you classify your work as, Jean? And what or who would you consider your early influences?
JEAN FOSS: I've never quite known how to describe my style. Recently, a colleague of my step father described it this way, ''It’s like Fauvism crossed with Mexican Art meets Quilting.''I think he hit the nail on the head, but I had to look up Fauvism (its been a long time since art school!). Once I realized I was using fauvism techniques, I began to purposely try to explore that further-- to study the Fauvist masters and see how they used color to represent light and shadow-- as you can see in my newer works. In school, more than one art teacher told me that I had my own distinct style, and to not pay too much attention to what they were trying to teach (for fear of taking me off my own path). About my influences, i would say that Russian primitive folk art was my earliest influence and then later on Latin American and Haitian primitive folk art.
INSIDER: Jean, i love your work! And it seems many are affected by your paintings. I know that you get your inspiration from Oaxaca's everyday life, vendors, weddings, friends, country scenes, etc., but what made you decide to use this extreme color palette? I mean, the cows are pink and blue, where does that come from?
JEAN FOSS: Since moving to Mexico, I gave myself permission to play and not worry about my colors being realistic. I'm so drawn to the colors of Mexico, and they fit right in with my subject matter. Small details in every day life can be enhanced if the color is pumped up a bit to be more vibrant. I have the power to change boring colored cows into vibrant ones, so why not?!
INSIDER: One of your main themes in your paintings has to do with the Pre-Hispanic parts of this culture, for example, it's really interesting and cool how you put Pre-Columbian ceramic heads (real ones found on your travels and on your property) on modern bodies. Those heads were obviously made with some sort of model of the time and to put modern bodies under them doing modern things really makes me realize where they came from. Can you expand on that?
JEAN FOSS: As soon as I arrived in Oaxaca, I noticed the very apparent (and sometimes conflicting) mix of pre-hispanic influences, in every day life, with those of the conquistadors. Sometimes physically, such as Cathedrals being built right on top of pre-hispanic structures, or using bricks from their temples, or more subtly, as in the fusion of the local gastronomy and languages (i.e. Spanish words added to native languages and vice-versa).
As soon as I landed here, I started wandering around in all the hills which I could see in the distance from my roof (and beyond), and the surrounding areas. (My late father was Norwegian, and I inherited the love of seeing a hill and wanting to go up it). I found it absolutely magical, that while exploring these lovely places, I would come across pre-hispanic art (I STILL find it magical). I began to incorporate the clay idol heads I found into my work, which later developed into mask like human faces, and then on to more representative faces with the facets accents in a Fauvist style.
INSIDER: In one of your paintings (this one directly above) you have a few different indigenous women depicted in various forms, 1 is carrying a child in a rebozo (the all purpose Oaxacan shawl!). She is wearing traditional dress but the baby's clothes (and the woman's purse) are very modern. In the painting, the woman in the center is carrying a basket on her head with a church on top of a pyramid and with the symbols for facebook & Twitter on top of the church? What's that all about?
JEAN FOSS: What is very apparent about the culture here, is that the poorer the people are, the more they stick to their traditions, not having the means to change their fashions or their lifestyles at the whim of what's in vogue, or to be able to buy modern conveniences as they become available. The men, in this culture, tend to assimilate to the times much more readily, since they leave their villages to go work in cities or in the U.S. Therefore, its the women who are keeping the traditions of the culture alive here.
For years, a lot of the women from the little villages around the valley, have not had many opportunities to even see the world beyond the nearest village with a weekly market. In the painting you mentioned, I've tried to illustrate that these strong, hard-working women keep on keeping on with what women have been doing in their villages for ages, despite the changes in who or what is controlling the world. For better and for worse, Oaxaca is changing fast, and even more so with so many young people suddenly getting addicted to social media like Facebook, even in poor rural villages (where they want the same things as everyone else). This is rapidly stripping a lot of elements of the culture and traditions of Oaxaca, as it gets homogenized into the world culture. I want to depict these traditions while they are still alive.
INSIDER: I notice that when The Insider has shared photos of your work on facebook or on the website that many Oaxacans “like” your paintings, and of course those of us who love Oaxaca also love your paintings. You really do capture it well, which is a hard thing to do.
JEAN FOSS: Its really gratifying to get so much support here, (and in the U.S). I've only just begun to show my work in Oaxaca, since I previously had the misconceived notion that people wouldn't want to see Oaxacan culture portrayed by a gringa-- that maybe it wouldn't come across as authentic. I've come to see, that as an outsider, I see a lot of things that people here take for granted, or overlook as commonplace, which they can appreciate more seeing through the eyes of a foreigner. In my comment books at shows in the U.S., I find it so moving to see person after person expressing nostalgia for the places they or their ancestors left behind, or from people like me, from anywhere, who are in love with the culture here.
INSIDER: Jean Foss's paintings are very reasonably priced and there's nothing like owning an original piece of art work, but she uses this very interesting technique called GICLÉE to make prints of her work. Below here, if you care to read about his process, it is explained in detail. Gicleé prints make her work affordable for everyone (they are between 100 and 400 US dollars). And Jean says that sometimes she cannot even tell the difference between the original and the Giclées.
JEAN'S CURRENT ART EXHIBITION "EL PATIO DE LOS ABUELOS" WILL REMAIN IN THE MUSEO DEL PALACIO IN OAXACA UNTIL AUGUST 26, 2012.