Jessica JH Roller brings a very unique aesthetic to the Ugallery collection. Her bright, quirky paintings of flora and fauna jump from our pages, and are frequent favorites of both our customers and staff. We caught up with Jessica recently and learned more about her transistion from dense Philosophy and Economics to life as a full-time painter.
Can you tell us more about your name? What does the JH stand for?
My first name is Jessica, my middle name is Joy, my maiden name is Hooker (yeah, I know) and my married name is Roller. Although my legal name is just Jessica Joy Roller, I felt like my maiden name should somehow be included in my art since I was Jessica Hooker for 24 years. Jessica JH Roller was a good compromise.
What’s your earliest art memory?
Drawing people when I was 3 and 4. I was constantly perfecting my own way of representing the human form. I specifically remember taking an orange crayon and drawing people all over some of my mom’s books, which didn’t go over very well.
You studied philosophy, not art, through school. Does your background in philosophy impact your artwork?
Yes, philosophy taught me how to think critically and thoroughly, which is an important aspect of my creative process. Some specific philosophical issues that fascinated me as a student are a big part of my work. As a student of philosophy, I was most interested in metaphysical notions of essence and identity, especially the Aristotelian idea of essence. Aristotle defined essence as what a being is in respect to itself. The essence of a cat is all of the properties that make it physically identify as a cat, apart from any other animal. It is also important to note that Aristotle believed that we define this essence by understanding what is to be a cat - we know the essence of a cat because we have seen many cats and we can identify them by their essential properties.
This notion of essence is critical for capturing creatures and plant life in my environment through graphic representation. I utilize this symbolic language to communicate a rich visual narrative. My paintings act as a visual record that summarizes and documents these extraordinary moments of inspiration, as I perceive them.
Did you pursue any other careers before you committed to art?
I attempted a few career paths before I decided to focus on making art. After I graduated from college, I felt very confused about my career goals. I entered graduate school for Economics, which I had studied to some extent as an undergraduate. However, after a couple of quarters, I felt like I had little interest in being an Economist. After that I also attempted going to school to be a teacher, but that proved to be an even worse idea than being an Economist.
Through all of this, I kept painting and developing my style. Finally I came to grips with the idea that I really wanted to be creating art as my full-time gig. It made it much easier that my husband strongly encouraged me to pursue my art. He has always told me that I have a special talent to share with the world and that it makes him happy that he can support me in doing so. I have been creating art full-time for 3 years now and although it has been very difficult, I have had a fair amount of success. More importantly, I love what I do and I am grateful that I am able to follow this path as an artist.
Can you tell us more about the cats that inspired you to start painting?
A few months after my husband and I got married (in 2003) we adopted two cats from a shelter that we named Tony and Larry. They were six-month old Siamese mix brothers and we weren’t about to separate them. We quickly fell deeply in love with these kittens and I began to see how magnificent the feline species really was because these cats changed me. It was like I never really took the time to look outside myself before these cats came into my life. They made me really open up my eyes and see the world. I started to notice birds, tree, water, color, everything. It was as if the artist inside had been unleashed.
What did your first pieces look like and how has your style evolved?
I had always enjoyed drawing throughout my life, so it was the most natural way for me to begin expressing my new view of the world. I started drawing my cats and then painting them. My first paintings would many times include people and cats together and they were painted in an almost cartoon type manner. At this time, I didn’t use the type of iconographic imaging that I use in many of my newer pieces. I would just paint my cats as I saw them with my own twist on style.
When I first began, I didn’t pay an abundance of attention on color and form. Instead, I was more interested in mastering how to maneuver my paintbrush in accordance to my brain. As I became more skilled in painting, I began to concentrate more on developing my style. It probably took a good four years before I felt truly satisfied with what I was painting and it was about this time that I knew it was time to take it more serious. My art is always evolving and I am always excited to try new things, but I think my distinct use of color and elements of design will always make my art distinguishably my own.
How do you select the other flora and fauna you paint?
For the most part, I choose flora and fauna that in see in my environment that have good form. I live in an urban environment where I see squirrels, raccoons, birds, opossums, dogs, cats, bats, mice and all sorts of trees, weeds, bushes and gardens. If I drive a few miles to a park or drive twenty minutes into the country I see deer, fox, squirrels, skunks, ground hogs, an abundance of wild flowers.
Of course, I see some animals more than others, which probably explains why I am more often inspired to paint certain animals than others. For example, I seea lot of deer in the winter and spring, so I am much more interested in painting deer during those months. The only animals that don’t live around here that I sometimes paint are bears (I just love their posture and have to paint them anyway). When it comes to plants, I will usually notice something really special about a certain tree, plant or flower that I will inspire certain shapes in several paintings, and then I will notice something else. Right now I am really into honey locusts and prairie wild flowers that grow as tall as small trees. My inspiration changes with the seasons, of course. I love that I have snowy winters, hot, vivid green summers and colorful springs and autumns because I am greatly inspired by it all.
Can you describe your creative process?
My creative process begins with a thorough contemplation about the flora or fauna that I wish to include into my visual lexicon. Using ink, I repeatedly draw out the contours until I have achieved the form that I feel successfully expresses the insight and inspiration that I have developed from observation. At this point, I take my work to canvas and relatively quickly express my ideas. Each time that I express the same subject matter, I repeat this process; perfecting and refining the form to describe its true essence. Often, I change my mind about the most accurate way to express my ideas, alternating between a neatly presented, efficient and tight geometrical visual language, and a more expressive, expansive and visually organic style.
You live in Dayton, Ohio. What’s the art scene like there? Where do you go to look at art?
Dayton is actually a great place to be a professional artist. It is a very supportive but unpretentious region for the arts (not to mention, it is extremely affordable here with a fair amount of stuff to do), and Dayton has an abundance of art opportunities for it’s small size. On a large scale, there is a magnificent art museum, performing arts center, ballet and theater. There are also several galleries and artist groups, coops and collectives to fit the needs of different artists from edgy performance and conceptual art to traditional oil painting.
I am involved with two groups in the region, the Dayton Visual Arts Center (DVAC) and the Yellow Springs Arts Council (YSAC). DVAC is an organization geared to meet the needs of professional artists by offering workshops, community out-reach programs and opportunities for exhibitions. The gallery at DVAC showcases artists from across the country as well as local artists (I just had a very successful show in May). The YSAC is located in Yellow Springs, a small but dynamic arts focused community just 20 miles outside of Dayton. I am on the committee that maintains the gallery programming for the YSAC Artspace.
My involvement with these two organizations enables me to feel like I am able to meet and nurture other artists in my community while gaining an abundance of support for my own art. Overall, I feel like Dayton is a place where artists are appreciated for their genuine expression and honest approach at making art that is unique to themselves. I also travel to other cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland and St. Louis to exhibit my art and I am always delighted to tell people that I am from Dayton, Ohio, and that I really love making art in my little city.
What are you working on now?
Currently, I have been very inspired by trees and prairies and have been working on new ways of representing these subjects. I have been painting on small canvases and paper. Also important to note, I am expecting a baby sometime around February 7. This new development has affected my work in a very positive way in that I have been much more expressive with my paint brush and have felt very open in taking new directions with my art.
What advice would you offer to other emerging artists?
The best advice I can give to emerging artists is to try to not compare yourself to other artists and their careers. Art and how one chooses to share their art with the rest of the world are unique for every artist. It is good thing to be inspired by other artists and have goals similar to what you have seen other achieve. However, there is no need to feel inadequate just because you don’t do things exactly like anyone else because you’re an artist - why would you want to do things like anyone else? You need to follow your own path, make art that looks right to you and set goals that satisfy your (and only your!) meaning of success.