JANET LOREN HILL
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
Janet Loren Hill is an multidisciplinary artist whose work is concerned with the consequences of our socialization. Specifically, what harm might occur when we let the construction of these learned lenses fall back into our peripheral vision. Hill purposefully uses textile techniques including weaving, sewing, knitting, crochet and coiling for their use by feminist and queer activist groups, innate sensuality, and effectiveness as storytelling and memory-conjuring devices. She is preoccupied with the unseen forces that mold who we are, who we pretend to be, and what “buying in” to these narratives might restrict within ourselves.
Hill’s recent work is inherently communal, which made her time as an artist in residence especially purposeful. The work she produced at Anderson Ranch is a direct result of the spatial and relational influences of the ranch. The culminating Parachute (discussed in the following interview) considers the role of her fellow artists, the location’s history, and ideas surrounding utopian-turned-dystopian societies. From its initial fabrication to its performative activation, and as it passes through new spaces and people, this work reacts and creates new contexts and connotations that probe into the problems of our social realities.
You have been to several artist residencies including the McColl Center for Art + Innovation and Vermont Studio Center Residency. What drew you to apply to Anderson Ranch?
I’ve been dabbling in ceramics recently and Anderson Ranch is known to have one of the most extraordinary facilities and legacies in the ceramics world. I was itching to take on a larger sculptural project within the history of that space. I also do not have access to a kiln in my current studio in New York City, so it was one of the few ways I could materialize the ideas I had in my head that I felt needed to be in porcelain.
Parachute Games: And then it stopped and we saw our shadows. Run under anything nearby., 2022. Image courtesy of artist.
I was also making these parachutes that started out as smaller activations by me and my spouse, but were slowly growing to include community collaborators. The concept around these objects is based on the Parachute Game. This game, some may remember playing as a kid in gym class, was meant to teach kids to be good team members. My parachutes grapple with the positive and harmful ways we rally together, organize groups, and passively participate in the social fabric. I wondered what it would mean to activate one of these parachutes about teamwork with a bunch of artists.
In what ways could this Parachute interrogate the roles artists play within the social structure? How could romantic myths about the genius artist be challenged and/or paired with other myths of utopian saviors? Anderson Ranch was an ideal place to make this Parachute because of the other artists in residence and Colorado’s mining history and tycoon constructed factory towns (or “utopias”.)
It's interesting that you were not only looking for the technical resources that Anderson provides, but also the communal aspect of the residency to achieve the full experience of your work. Can you talk more about that?
The last residency I had participated in was at a different stage in the pandemic when folks were much more cautious about being in close proximity with one another, so I had a lot of alone time in the studio. I came to Anderson Ranch with several projects to work on that would bring me into the Interdisciplinary Studios, hoping that I would be able to interact with more people. One being a parachute piece that would involve the other artists in residence participation.
Luckily, it turned out we were together at a moment when cases were very low so the residents were able to have a lot of time to get to know each other and to learn more about each other’s practices, which was really special.
Power Hoarding, 2022. Image courtesy of artist.
It's great that you were able to get to know each other's practices. That can often lead to fruitful collaboration. In what ways did working with your fellow AIR’s affect the projects you came in with?
I always learn so much from watching how other artists make a routine and ritual within their practices. I think observing how other’s set up an artistic life has been an inexhaustible lesson as I try to craft balance in my own practice. Additionally, the artists who coordinate the studios at Anderson Ranch were a true joy to work with. Yehudis Moskovits, Louise Deroualle, Amy Lee Raymond, Zakriya Rabani, Cat Liu and Trey Broomfield each took the time to understand what I was hoping to work on and provide critical suggestions and alternative strategies to accomplish those imaginings. I had so much trust in their advice and that gave me a lot of creative headspace to dream big and far. In the end, I’m very thankful to have started a few different larger projects with their voices as guides in the beginning and I’m excited to see how they continue to develop post-residency.
I wasn’t able to complete the parachute in the form I thought I would by the end of the residency, but the experimentations and conversations I had with folks in my studio shifted the vision and birthed a new path for this parachute that I couldn’t have previously anticipated. In that way the parachute is directly responsive to people (and the places) I encountered at Anderson Ranch.
I want to hear more about this parachute piece. It seems like it was a large part of your experience at Anderson.
Yes, I was working on the largest parachute piece I’ve made to date at Anderson Ranch. This parachute is 20’x 20’. The fabric is screen printed with imagery inspired from this book I’d been reading, “The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that Shaped the American Economy” by Hardy Green. The book describes the residual generational impact mega-rich tycoons and their utopian visions of capsule “moralistic” communities have had on our current culture. We see it show up in our continued want (whether active through an idolization of Elon Musk or passive in our participation in a “democracy” run by lobbyists) to entrust influence in corporations. In this book, I found a series of maps of literary “utopias,” which prompted me to find maps of American factory towns to include alongside them. I see these maps as sharing both a similar aesthetic format and misguided idyllic philosophy. They both so quickly slip into distopias as an inevitable end to their narrative lifecycle.
Parachute Games:...initiation, instigation, indestructible, insurrection...I spy with my little eye...,2021. Image courtesy of artist.
This parachute is activated in pieces and with the forms of the collaborators mimicking the ceramic Parachute People I also made at Anderson Ranch. These Parachute People are ceramic figurines I sculpted and attached to hand sewn fabric mini-parachutes; modeled after parachute army men toys I played with as a kid. As part of a performance, the Anderson Ranch artists threw them up in the air and then ran around catching them which was recorded in a video. Then, the artists mimic the circular shape of the Parachute People’s arms when they are all in a circle with one another lying on the ground. I think about them as symbols of the “individual hero” that’s not coming, misplaced heros, or the lurid savior complex.
Parachute People, 2022. Image courtesy of artist.
I filmed the Anderson Ranch artists wearing parachute pieces and participating in group activities like trying to make a human pyramid. This way, the parachute pieces will have one group's collective energy within it prior to its second activation with another group of artists. I’m excited about the possibilities of this new collaboration within the construction process and the potential of having multiple groups of people activate a single parachute.
In addition to creating this parachute and the Parachute People that accompany it, I was also making ceramic narrative tiles that I plan to use to construct a sculptural vessel to partially contain these parachutes post performance. In one of the tiles you see a figure trying to capture the falling teeth from a Chattering Teeth toy. Here I’m referencing how our unconscious builds a lexicon of symbols in dreams to warn or prepare us. Some, including Carl Jung, interpret the “teeth falling out” dream to be your unconscious anticipating a rebirth of some kind or others interpret it as an indicator that the person feels that they are losing grip on reality. This tile vessel sculpture will attempt to hold the parachute as it lies “dormant”.
Chattering Teeth, 2021. Image courtesy of artist.
Knowing that your parachutes are grappling with social organization, how structured was the performance/video portion of this piece? Was there a general script/ series of events?
It’s interesting. There’s been a lot of variety with how each of the parachute performances have been facilitated. Some have had specific scripts the participants read and perform to with call-and-response gestures through the parachute (performance in Charlotte, NC), or are used to initiate a conversation that then births imaginative gestural metaphors (performance in Westfield State University). For this group of artists, I was more curious about making suggestions and then letting them perform those however they interpreted them. I think this helped adopt more of a sociological approach to documenting their group dynamics. This is a group of artists who had lived together for the past 5-weeks, so there were a lot of group dynamics that had already formed completely separate from my work’s direction that I was interested in translating. I didn’t want to limit their responses too much.
Collaborating with the other artists while filming their parachute activations was a ton of fun and no surprise if you give a gaggle of artists capes and ceramic Parachute People to throw hijinks ensue. I was cackle-laughing in the basement of the photography studio watching the footage back. I can’t wait to merge it with the second filming of the parachute fully constructed. Keep an eye out on my website (www.janetlorenhill.com) and Instagram (@janetlorenhill) for that video when it’s completed in the coming months!
Parachute Games: False Utopias (stills from video), 2022. Image courtesy of artist.
I love how this piece is almost like a living object in its responsive, archival, generative nature. I also like how you gave importance to location with this parachute. I get mixed feelings from it. Artists collaborating within a utopian context is really hopeful, but knowing the “utopias” on the capes have a darker, failed history is sombering. Do you always consider sites with your parachute series? Will you consider the location of the next group of artists it encounters?
I’m really glad to hear the work operates for you in that way, because I do try to make the work slippery. For me that slippage and complication is essential. It’s how it maintains its antidotale nature to propaganda and rigid ideology. It hopefully asks more from the viewer than passive participation and instead invites a questioning dialogue, a critique of self-involvement and a lingering residue in the body of where their gestures of “teamwork” have shown up elsewhere. As an artist I’m more interested in the murkiness of everyday actualities than over simplifying through easy binaries of positive and negative or morally pure and problematic. There are problems in virtually everything that we do and that’s what makes real change so challenging.
I am always thinking about each parachute in relation to their corresponding site. For example, the first two parachutes I ever made were activated in Upstate NY by my spouse, Jordan, and I at an abandoned Girl Scout Camp from the 90s where the cabins have been left in disrepair. Growing up one of my major connections to my own community and constructions of “teamwork” was through being a Girl Scout and attending summer camps like this one, so it was a way to bring the deeply personal into the origin story of these parachutes. A way to implicate myself in a critique of our collective socialization.
Yes, for the second activation of this parachute I’ll need to decide on a site that will continue to bring in the legacy of American factory-towns and American “Utopianism”. There’s really no shortage of possibilities even here in NYC. It’s just a matter of determining which historical threads I’m most interested in tugging on.
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