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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Staying with Art: An interview with Seattle artist Jenny Fillius

I first met Jenny Fillius when she transferred to our high school in 1974. She was the tallest and most stylish student I had ever seen. I couldn’t quite believe she was a student. Her family’s home on the bay in Point Richmond was like a bohemian refuge. By the time we graduated in 1976, we were pals and went to Mexico with another close friend of ours, Cherie. Somehow we all returned in one piece. I remember attending her first wedding in Point Richmond in 1980, but we lost touch later in the decade. Subsequently, she moved to Seattle, remarried, and had her daughter, Montana. When Paul and I were planning a trip to Seattle for a concert, I wrote to her and we met at Zeitgeist, where she was showing her artwork.

Q: When we first met in high school, you were already doing a lot of drawing. Would you say you were then self-identified as an artist?

Fillius: I don't know. When I was in kindergarten I wanted to be an artist. People would say, "What do you want to be?" "I want to be an artist." Drawing was just an integral part of my life.

Q: Did your parents encourage it?

Fillius: Oh, my mother did. When I was a little older and stayed up all night smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and drawing, I could wake her up at 4 a.m., and say, "Look what I did," and she'd be very excited. When I was in high school, she bought a membership to the Museum of Modern Art, and I could get out of school if there was a lecture that she thought I should go to.

Q: What happened with your art after high school?

Fillius: From high school I went to junior college and took drawing, but I wasn't good at school. Then I decided I'd go to L.A., and I did extra work on TV commercials. Then I had to get out of there because it was really bad. I came back to the Bay Area and I got married. I went to the California College of Arts and Crafts and took life drawing, but not really.

I signed up for the class, and our first assignment was to draw our own genitals. We were even told how to sit against a wall and position a mirror between our legs. I decided I wasn't hip enough for that, and I wanted out of the class. Because I was a day late, I only got $400 back, and I had to write a four-page essay about why I wanted out of the class. Then I took color and design, and I was in there with all these young kids, and even though I was in my early 20s, I felt out of place.

Then I was hooking rugs, still drawing, just doing all kinds of different things. I was hooking rugs when I came up here, and nobody respected them, because they went on the floor, and I didn't want them to be wall hangings.

They were really great, colorful, 100-percent wool. I was collecting skirts from Goodwill and the Pendleton outlet. I would dye the wool on the stove. I sold a few, but they took me forever to do. I thought, "Well, I do these designs that go on the floor, I might as well be doing paintings, if people think these rugs could be on the wall."

So then I started painting, and then I took a class doing oil sticks, and I loved it. I was cranking out paintings right and left and having shows. My first show, I sold 14 paintings, and so an artist friend said, "You need to up your prices." So with each show I was upping them, and then I priced myself out of the market.

The paintings were just okay. They weren't great, a lot of dogs and cats. I guess it would be considered lowbrow. So then I burned out my shoulder.

Q: Doing repetitive work?

Fillius: Yeah, and taking care of my daughter. I felt that if I had a show, I couldn't show anything I'd shown before. I had to have new work, and I would have four shows a year. I'd show anywhere, I didn't care. I still will show anywhere. Any place that wants to hang my work, I am there.

Eventually I had to get a job. I sold real estate for four years, and I was terrible at it. I'd take somebody to a house, and I'd say, "Oh, you don't want to buy this house, do you?" I did this before I had my daughter.

One day I was sitting in the living room of our house, I guess it was 2007, and I had an empty Diet Coke can in my hand, and I thought, "I should be able to do something with this." So I had my sketchbook, and I took a piece of paper, and I made a little bird out of it. I figured out how to make a little model for a bird. Then realized that if you fold the aluminum, it breaks.

I knew I had to make stronger wings. A friend gave me all her Neiman Marcus cookie containers, so I'd make tin wings, and then I could cut out the bodies and make the beak and the tail, and I figured all that out and put them on Etsy, and as soon as I put them on, they'd sell.

Then I was having all this tin left over from the wings. I already had a tin collection, which I started probably when I first moved here in 1986.

Q: So this was just whatever tin you came across?

Fillius: Oh, no, English coffee tins or tea tins from Holland and England, the really decorative ones.

Q: You were collecting a very particular kind of tin? But you didn't know what you were going to do with them?

Fillius: Well, I put things in them like chess pieces or Bingo pieces. Now they are holding buttons, palm trees, and little rubber dogs for the little assemblages I am making. Sometimes I'll take one off the shelf and cut it up, if I think I can use it, but I don't like to.

Q: How did you get into this medium?

Fillius: A friend of mine, Bill Herberholz, was teaching a two-day workshop on tinwork. He is a former Trappist monk and the youngest of 16 children, and his tinwork is about the childhood he never had. So he does a lot work with toys, really colorful toys.

I went to the class, and it was just like, "Okay, wow, this is just too good," and I just started. It took off. I dreamt about tin every night for three weeks.

Q: Do people give you tin?

Fillius: Oh, yes. The residents at the retirement community where I work give me a lot of tin. Then there are people that leave tin in my driveway or at our gate.

Q: What tools do you use to do this work?

Fillius: I have this really nice, big, rubber mallet that I whack the tin to flatten it out. Before that, I used to put it in the driveway, and I would back over it with my car. The neighbors would see me going back and forth in the driveway flattening it, because I didn't know how else to do it.

I have some really good tin snips. I bought every pair of tin snips I could find, from aviator tin snips that are two feet long, to little things. Then I'd go through awls. I'd break the points off. That's what I use to make the hole in the tin and the wood, before the nail goes in.

Q: Do you have to wear gloves?

Fillius: I don't. I get cuts.

Q: What about goggles?

Fillius: My glasses work, but sometimes things do shoot. I find it in my bra, or I'll track it into the house, and I'll be in the house, and I'll see something shiny, and I'll think, "Oh, heck," and then I go pick it up. Tin is really hard to cut, and I try to stay away from the really heavy-duty stuff, like a tray.

Q: Do you go in search of tin?

Fillius: Last summer, I took a trip to Ohio to go the world's longest yard sale. I drove through Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee down to Chattanooga buying tin and dollhouses. I shipped it. Cost more than buying it. But I was so pleased when I got it home, because dollhouses are great. The deer jumping through the window and the one about a turtle, they came from dollhouses.

Oh Dear

Q: Are there a lot of little tricks that you taught yourself about making these?

Fillius: (Removes Look What I Found from the wall.) I took copper tubing and a pipe cutter, and that's what makes this 3D. This one's fun because the goldfish looks like it's floating, and that's pop-riveted. See the little things in here? It turns out that I couldn't find my pipe-cutter one day, so I was just taking metal and rolling it into little tubes to keep it afloat. I also had to come up with a way to finish the edges so they aren’t sharp.

Look What I Found

Q: So, talk to me about the imagery, and do you sketch these pieces out?

Fillius: Yes, I sketch them out, but the ideas come not only from the tin itself, but from everywhere. Here are the drawings for Shakespeare Kick in the Rear. That idea came from a game at school. It was just like Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football. You knew something bad was going to happen, but you did it anyway. A kid comes up and says, "Shake," and you'd shake their hand, and they grab your hand and pull you around, and then say, "Spear, kick you in the rear," and they'd kick you in the butt. And you'd laugh about it, but then you'd think, "Oh, that was dumb."

Shakespeare Kick in the Rear

Somebody said "elephant in the room," and instantly I had this image of an elephant in the room. And then I thought of a couple sitting in overstuffed chairs, somebody knitting and somebody reading the paper.

Elephant in the Room

I've got a lot that are about making the most of your time, because that's a real issue, you know, after almost dying. So this one is, "You're gonna die some day." It’s a good message. People should be aware of it.

Same thing with the cakes. The cakes are going to say, "Your time is running out," you know, "Don't waste your time."

You're Gonna Die Some Day

Q: So, where did the swimmer come from?

Fillius: The swimmer was actually a box that I did years ago. Annie Lamott wrote a story about her son Sam, and she talked about having a God-box, and so I started making these elaborate boxes that have secret openings where you could put your prayer in. The idea for me wasn't necessarily prayer, but it was positive thoughts.

So, this was a box with this clay woman with her big feet. Her feet were huge, because the idea was that it was underwater and it was magnified. Then there were all these rubber sharks that went around the box, and I loved that.

The Swimmer

And I still have it, and I love it. I got a game that had sharks, and thought, "I'm doing it again," 'cause boy, if anybody knows, you can prepare all you want, and the morning you get up and you have that car crash and you die, when you got up that morning and you were having your coffee, you didn't know it. You didn't know you were going to die that day.

Devil's Pie Hole

Q: How long does it take to do one of these pieces?

Fillius: Days and days. First there's all the collecting. Then there's finding the right pieces. Then there's cutting it up, and then there's putting it together and deciding whether it's okay. Cutting out letters takes me a long time.

Sometimes I'll do something and then I'll think, "No, there's got to be an element here." Then I have to find that. Then if I’ve already nailed it all down, I have to pry it up and not scratch the piece, so they take a long time.

Q: Do you work at a long stretch?

Fillius: I like to have blocks of time. So typically, I don't see my friends. I see them on Friday nights – that’s it. Sometimes I get up an hour before I have to go to work, and I will go out there and cut things out. On my day off I will go out there until the day is done.

Q: What part do you enjoy the most?

Fillius: I like figuring things out. That's the fun part, like figuring the deer coming out the window, and showing the window broken, and then figuring out her flippers, or attaching that little metal bug to that one, and you figure, okay, you've got to pop-rivet it in such a way to a piece of tin, and then you've got to nail down that tin. But then you've got that little nub in the back, so what are you going to do about that? So, little sorts of things, that's where it really gets exciting, because it's a puzzle from my brain that isn't like any other part of my life.

Q: So, are people buying these pieces?

Fillius: Oh, yeah. I've had them sell within three hours of being on Facebook. I sold a big one. It was really sad, because I had just finished it. But it's all about ego. "Look what I did." And I put it on there, and then somebody says, "How much?" And I tell them. They say, "Okay," and then it's gone, and nobody's even seen it. I don't even know that people look at my stuff that much on Facebook, and then I've shipped it off and it's gone from my life. I would have liked to have had it for a show so other people could have seen it.

It's interesting because they're not what you think of when you think of recycled material art. To me they are the equivalent of my paintings, but better, and the craftsmanship is really good on these pieces.

Part of it is that it's my sense of humor. These are my stories. This comes from my imagination, my sketchbook. This isn't something that somebody could look at and go home and do. You might be able to copy a painting, but not these. You've got to have a lot of tin. Not everybody's going to be able to find this tin.

Emerald City

Q: But why is this expression more successful for you than paint?

Fillius: Because in this town, you can't swing a cat without hitting a painter. Everybody paints. In fact, when I was little, I thought that's what you did when you got old, because both of my grandmothers were painters. Not everybody is cutting up tin.

Q: So some of it is scarcity, but don't you think there's something else?

Fillius: The transformation is a big part. I had this tin, and it was so awful and so tacky. But once you cut those cats out of the tin and took them away from the horribleness, they transformed. Suddenly, these were some pretty good kitties. Then they were looking through a window with some birds.

Q: I am interested in the critical eye. The tin pieces seem visually complex.

Fillius: They are smaller than the paintings. I'm already using material that's pre-designed. It has designs on it. Maybe I'm lazy?

Liar Liar

Q: There’s something fabulous about taking things that are broken and almost worthless and giving them a new life.

Fillius: Sometimes I get stuff that's pristine. I'll leave it outside for a few months, and it starts decaying. It fades, and gets rusty, and funky, and then you back over it with your car--

Q: And you're done. How do people find you?

Fillius: Well, if you Googled tin artwork, or recycled tin artwork, for some reason, and I swear to God I did not pay for this, I'm one of the first four people that come up.

Q: Are you in conversation with the other tin artists?

Fillius: I am in a group show in an office building. I like those because they don't take a commission. The space was too big for me to fill. So, I asked two other tin artists to take part.

Q: Tell me about the woman and the birdcage piece.

Fillius: I was working on it, and my husband and daughter weren’t there. I thought that she'd come home after college, you know, from being at school. She didn't come home, and I kept listening for the gate, and I thought, "Oh, my God, this is what it's going to be like when she's moved out." And so I was thinking of empty nest and no one's home. They've all flown the coop.

For more information on Jenny and her work please visit www.jennyfillius.com

Re-arrangeable Flowers


somepinkflowers said...

what a fantastic interview
i just may be
the president
of jenny's fan club

maybe you R!


jenny is tres clever,
don't U think?

betweenreader said...

Oh wow! Jenny's my fave. I have linked this interview on my blog at http://betweenreader.blogspot.com/2011/08/jenny-filius-queen-of-tin.html. Thank you for revealing the inner works of one of my favorite artists.

Unknown said...

What a great interview!!! yay!! I love Jenny and her amazing work.

and, if Ms SPF's is the president of the fan club...I'm in charge of snacks.

rochambeau said...

Great interview with Jenny Fillius!! And thank you for featuring this creative woman on Design Faith. It's nice to know that you both met each other in high school and to hear about how you saw her then. I met Jenny through blogging more than 4 years ago, so it has been a pleasure to read these both of your words and to learn more about your old bud die and a woman I really do admire and love.


Tim said...

Am a huge fan of Jenny's work. Well done!