From Jessica Bartoe’s second appearance on the Berea College campus in Kentucky, she resented the upcoming artist talk last year that was required for her 2018 art major. Bartoe was very scared of public speaking and she had no idea what pictures she wanted to take for the senior show.
Despite all this fear, Bartoe campaigned for a solo exhibition that was separate from all other seniors. She bought a 30-foot canvas, hung it on the gallery walls, and painted on the huge canvas in front of a live audience for four weeks. “I was there after hours. They had to give me a key to get in, ”said Bartoe recently on the phone from her apartment in South Side Columbus.
While it was not a conscious choice, Bartoe began to think about her nomadic childhood while painting. She jumped between parents in Arizona and California and grandparents in southeast Ohio, resulting in geographical and emotional whiplash.
“My grandpa was a Baptist minister and my nana is from West Virginia. And my dad is a DJ, ”she said. “When I left my grandparents’ house to live with my father around the age of 10, I was so difficult in this Christian world where there was church three times a week and I went to church because my grandpa preached everywhere the place. So it was a bit of a culture shock to transition into my father’s lifestyle, where he DJed house parties [in Arizona]. ”
Bartoe’s father was also the one who introduced her to the arts at a young age and gave her a sketchbook as a gift after she showed interest. “One of my earliest memories is watching my father and uncle draw,” she said. “I remember watching my uncle draw a rose and I thought it looked real – like I literally thought he was going to make a real rose on a piece of paper. And I remember saying to my father, ‘I want to do this. ‘“
Bartoe took a year off between high school and college and lived with her mother in California, but on her first day behind a cash register she knew she needed to find something else, so she took some art classes at community college and then applied to Berea. And while Berea Bartoe provided a supportive, close-knit (and tuition-free) community, she often felt out of place. “Everyone in Berea has this very strong bond with a shout in Kentucky or some place in Appalachia, and I don’t,” she said. “I don’t have these old family roots that dig deep into the mountains. I just kind of flown in from California. ”
Once, when Bartoe was working on the giant canvas for her seniors show, she took a step back and looked at what she’d painted so far. Suddenly her whole life came into view. She saw sharks and corals one summer from a diving adventure. She saw written meditations that almost felt like writing. Her life in the Midwest, Southwest, and West Coast – it was all there. It just needed a finishing touch.
“The first thing that crossed my mind was the big red flowers that appear on barrel cacti. So I just covered the wall with these huge 6 foot tall cacti with big red flowers. And that was it. Done, ”she said. “It’s vulnerable. It’s like an open wound. But here it is. “
After the show, which she called “Graphein” (Greek for “to write”), she kept the canvas rolled up in the garage for about two years. In fact, she hardly painted after graduation. What do you do after such a monumental undertaking?
But in preparation for an exhibition that is now in the Grand Lobby of Stuart’s Opera House In Nelsonville, Bartoe took out the canvas and began cutting it into smaller sections, cutting out pieces of the memorial landscape, and propping them up around her apartment. The weight of the work hit her again. “Surrounded by all of this work I was doing as I was preparing for the Stuart show, it was an emotional moment,” she said. “It was like, OK. Art block gone.”
“The Graphein excerpts and current works“At Stuart’s includes pieces from Bartoe’s” Graphein “installation (including the flowering barrel cacti) as well as early academic works, a watercolor and two paintings from 2020. One of the most recent works, a floral painting titled” Memories of Summer Jackrabbits and the Southside “Water Tower” started out as an autobiographical piece.
“Among all the flowers I have this shape of a rabbit. … I remember seeing a rabbit one morning while waiting for the school bus to pick me up in Tucson. It’s one of those animals that I have a personal connection with, ”she said. “You are lanky. You are weird. You’re kind of out of place. ”
Bartoe depicted the rabbit under a water tower on the south side, which she can see from her living room window near Parsons Avenue. But then she kept painting, layering more colors and flowers until the jackrabbit disappeared underneath. Still, she knows it’s there. “I always try to take the idea of a memory and separate it from its time and place and then overlay it over something I can see now,” she said.
Just like back then in Berea, present and past merge in a wonderful way on Bartoe’s canvases. “There were times in my childhood when it was difficult. I helped my parents take care of my little siblings because they worked or partied. I’ve been a kind of full-time babysitter for a long time. And it’s difficult to be 13 and suddenly have two babies to care for. That was my reality for a long time, ”she said. “But by putting elements of the landscape from which these things happened in the here and now with a water tower, I can digest them and place them in the context in which I have been, but also where I am going.”