Creative Quarantine: Artist Jovan C. Speller

Yeah, but where you from?, 2020, Cut and layered archival photographs, 24 x 24 inches | ©Jovan C. Speller

Esthetic Lens recently caught up with multidisciplinary artist Jovan C. Speller to see what she’s been working on as she prepares to show new work in Chicago this summer at Aspect Ratio Gallery and the following year at the Minneapolis Museum of Art. She discusses motherhood, collaborations, inspirations, and the work of others that feeds her soul.

1.How are you holding up?

It depends on the moment in the day. Sometimes I can really hold it together and feel like I have the energy to thrive and be productive.  But most of the time, physically and emotionally, I’m super exhausted. I’ve got a 2-year-old and a 9-month-old who keep my husband and myself on our toes. Being confined to our small home for this last year has been an adventure, to say the least. It’s been loud – too loud. Messy. Disjointed. I crave a quiet and orderly routine to an almost unhealthy degree…it pulls my focus. Makes it hard to stay present. But my family, especially my husband, are my life-line to reality, productivity and joy. There is a lot that I’m grateful for and thankful for, like having steady employment and new opportunities to share my work and engage. It’s been a struggle but we are all healthy. In the words of Nina Simone, “ I got my brains, got my ears, got my eyes, got my nose….” So yeah, I’ve got a lot of ‘I gots’, so I’m good.


Behold, the land before me, 2020, Cut and layered archival photographs, 20 x 20 inches | ©Jovan C. Speller

I just came across the River, 2017, Van Dyke brown print, 8 x 8 inches | ©Jovan C. Speller


2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?

It’s been really interesting actually. I’d say that my work during this year of quarantine has gained a lot of momentum. I’m not sure if that’s just an alignment of the stars – previous efforts finally materializing at this particular time, or if there has been such a shift in the art world, due to the pandemic, that curators and institutions are looking at how they engage with artists more broadly. Perhaps creating or offering opportunities to more emerging artists or artists they hadn’t worked with previously. Either way, there is substantial energy present now, pushing my work forward, that I did not feel pre-pandemic. I’ve experienced some incredible support and generosity from unanticipated sources. 

At the moment I’m working on two new photo series, one that will debut at Aspect/Ratio Projects in Chicago this summer and the other will debut at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2022. I’m having to find new ways to safely shoot and direct subjects. But I’m excited about the evolution of the work and my practice. The work is a bit more experimental. 


In the Thick, 2019, Archival photograph, 27” x 20” | ©Jovan C. Speller

And they were appalled by her serenity, 2017, Silver gelatin print, 8 x 8 inches | ©Jovan C. Speller


3. What are some of the unexpected creative things or projects that have developed for you while navigating the current state of the world?

Right around the beginning of the pandemic, an artist named Andy DuCett invited me to collaborate and conceive of a project for the Great Northern Festival in MN. We were initially exploring manifestations of winter culture. But, around this time George Floyd was killed and the city was on fire. The city was literally burning about a mile away from our home. The national guard came rolling down our block and all I could do was hold my newborn and 2-year-old and watch from the window. 

What is safety? How do I keep my sons safe?

Those are the questions I ask myself every day.

Needless to say, it became collectively necessary to create an experience that centers Blackness – black life in particular. We began to consider what spaces of respite could look and feel like in this region, during a time of seasonal bleakness, of literal oppressive whiteness. It’s important to me to reimagine and make visible scenarios of survival and freedom. To conjure possibility.

Now, we are in the process of designing a rather ambitious public installation called Conservatory. Conservatory will be a functioning greenhouse embedded in a giant block of ice. The interior will be a warm, humid environment filled with deeply hued plants – dark purples, browns, greens and blacks. 

What would it feel like to be surrounded by warm Black life – while still acknowledging the truths of perpetual power structures and systems? It’s an experiment of survival, but also a celebration of things that grow and flourish in oppressive climates. Right now we are in the design and fundraising stage but we hope to debut Conservatory for the 2022 Great Northern Festival.


Replacing Home I, 2019, Cut and layered archival photographs, 20 x 20 inches | Jovan C. Speller

Laid to Rest, II, 2020, 40 x 40 inch archival print, river rocks | Jovan C. Speller

4. Who do you wish were still with us to provide pointed commentary on what we are collectively experiencing and why?

James Baldwin. He had an unmatched ability to synthesize the state of humanity and diagnose cultural, societal, and systemic disorders. Not just diagnose but prescribe remedy as well. His kind of brilliance is rare and necessary at all times, but especially now.

…and I shall call you Home, 2016, Archival photograph, 20 x 20 inches | ©Jovan C. Speller

Deeply Rooted, 2017, Van Dyke brown print, 8 x 8 inches | ©Jovan C. Speller

5. What artists, performers, writers, have you come across recently that have created poignant work about where we are at right now?

With so much of the world in crisis, the things I turn to right now really need to feed my soul. I listen to a lot of Ari Lennox, Yebba, The Black Pumas, and The Michelle Obama Podcast. Michelle Obama talking about mothering, marriage, working, and friendship really brightens my spirit. And, I’m a touch obsessed with Simone Leigh. Her use of materials, manifestations of black women across history and time, and impeccable skill in execution inspire and motivate me like no other contemporary artist. An artist I came across more recently is LA-based photographer Janna Ireland. Her recent show at the Carolyn Glasoe Bailey Foundation in Ojai, CA, entitled Looking In, Looking Out was incredibly timely, having been made over the course of this past year in COVID. In her work, I see intimacy and softness that cushions the jagged edges of this difficult moment in time.


Some of us didn’t make it, 2020, Cut and layered archival photographs, 24 x 24 inches | ©Jovan C. Speller

In Lottie’s Living Room, 2020 Installation view, Plains Art Museum Photo Credit: Cody Jacobson | ©Jovan C. Speller

6. What are you looking forward to?

I’m looking forward to the feeling of warmth on my skin. Watching my brown skin get browner with every walk I go on. Sipping whisky gingers and margaritas at a crowded bar. Teaching my kids to swim. Attending exhibition openings. I miss those. Sitting in person with dear friends, while conjuring our best selves and wildest dreams into existence.


Housed in the body of the River, 2020, Cut and layered archival photographs, 20 x 20 inches | ©Jovan Speller

Jovan C. Speller holds a B.F.A. in Fine Art Photography from Columbia College Chicago. Speller’s work has been exhibited at The Plains Art Museum, the Bockley Gallery, and Minneapolis College of Art and Design, with upcoming solo exhibitions at Aspect/Ratio Projects and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. She is a recipient of the McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship, a Next Step Fund Grant, the Jerome Emerging Artist Fellowship, and a Minnesota State Arts Board grant. She completed a residency at Second Shift Studio Space in St. Paul and was awarded the Carolyn Glasoe Bailey Foundation Minnesota Art Prize in 2021. Speller is represented by Aspect/Ratio Projects in Chicago. Her artwork, I Just Came Across the River, 2017, (2020.57) was acquired by the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) in 2020.


Jovan C. Speller | Photo Credit: Laura Vale

Jovan C. Speller can be found online at her Website and on Instagram.