Creative Quarantine: Artist Jane Deschner

“From the PPE mask series (Real men wear masks.)” | Hand-embroidered found studio portraits, verso, each 10”h x 7”w | © Jane Deschner 2020

1. How are you holding up?

I think “okay”—considering how uncertain everything these days is. I’m an introvert so solitude and social distancing were already my preferred ways to spend time. I live in Montana where our governor acted early to shut the place down. [I’m] in a couple of high-risk groups so have been extra careful with distancing, mask-wearing, and hand sanitizing. But now, even here, the number of cases is rising rapidly.

“From the silhouette series (birthday cake)” | Hand-embroidered found snapshots, vintage album pages, 21”h x 32.125”w | © Jane Deschner 2020

It took a few weeks to dawn on me how much freedom I’d had before. I felt safe going wherever I wanted to, whenever I felt like it. Now I look forward to getting out for groceries. 
Ten years ago my home and studio were totaled. That loss was a solitary experience, shared deeply only with my partner. At least now, we’re all experiencing this together.
But I may not really know how I’m doing until I’m able to look back on these days. Was I super cranky? Overly critical? More stressed than I realized? Deep-down sad? Probably…

“From the silhouette series (holding cats)” | Hand-embroidered found snapshots, vintage album pages, 37”h x 13.25”w | © Jane Deschner 2020

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

I work more hours every day since I’m not out and about.
We are thinking differently about other people than we did pre-pandemic. Will they keep me safe by staying safe? Are they being kind? In fall 2015 as the country was rapidly fracturing, I began a project, “Remember me: a collective narrative in found words and photographs.” I hand-embroider anecdotes collected from anonymously-written obituaries into found family photographs to illustrate our collective narrative. I am reminding us that there is more we share than separates us. Beginning in spring I became even more obsessed with making work; I’ve now completed almost 900 in this project. 

“From the PPE mask series (Jesus with orb, class photos)” | Hand-embroidered found prayer cards, found class group photographs, 9.5”h x 25.75”w | © Jane Deschner 2020

And I’ve added COVID-inspired pieces to two other ongoing series. Early on we heard that we should wash our hands for as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday.” From now on hearing that song will trigger memories of this time. I made a silhouette piece of snapshots of birthdays stitched in the shape of a birthday cake. And followed it with dogs and people holding cats, animals we’ve turned to for solace these days.
I’d made pieces with masks before—the domino mask like the one the Lone Ranger wore. Now added to the series is the PPE mask. The pandemic has broadened my knowledge of face masks—and my appreciation for how they keep me and others safe.

“From the domino mask series (Madonna, many maidens)” | Hand-embroidered found prayer cards, found studio portrait proofs, 21.25”h x 27.25”w | Collection of Jon Lodge | © Jane Deschner 2015

A museum show scheduled for this summer was postponed until fall 2021, leaving me time to make even more work! But other opportunities I was looking forward to keep evaporating as case numbers rise and rise. I understand, but I’m left feeling increasingly sad and frustrated.

“Remember me: A collective narrative in found words and photographs (Her hands were never idle.)” | Hand-embroidered found snapshots, sizes vary | © Jane Deschner 2019

3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?

Making no-knead, cast iron Dutch oven bread has become a wonderful part of my life’s routine. 
I’ve made good and interesting online connections, like this one, with which I will continue to engage.
It’s always been easy to become informed about “THE ART WORLD.” And I know many artists and their work in my particular regional “art world.” This time of physical isolation has pushed many artists in a variety of art worlds out online and made a wider swath of them and their work visible and accessible. It feels equalizing, we’re all in this together—and that feels good to know more and more others.

4. Of the artists you follow, who’s handling this particularly well?

In early spring Liza Lou initiated her communal art project “Apartogether” “…to foster connection and creativity during a time of social distancing and isolation.” She discovered her childhood comfort blanket while cleaning out a closet. Cuddling it again inspired her to encourage others to create their own comfort blankets, using only the materials they had on hand. She has hosted several Instagram Live conversations with other artists and has become involved with participants. Making my blanket was a thoughtful, insightful process.

“My ugly, but meaningful comfort blanket created as part of Liza Lou’s communal art project, “Apartogether” | Hand- and machine-stitched found, bought and stolen fabrics; thrift store doilies; old clothes; anonymous Hmong embroidery | 57”h x 50”w | © Jane Deschner 2020

Finally, the absolute best thing I’ve heard/read was a tweet from Dan Levy (of “Schitt’s Creek” fame). He proposes “recontextualizing mask-wearing. Don’t think of it as a loss of freedom, but the simplest, easiest act of kindness you can do in a day, not just for yourselves but for other people.

About her process

My “Remember me” project stitched photo process: Every day I read 6–8 different obituary sources, copying down interesting anecdotes onto notecards. I match a quote to a photo (they aren’t from the same person). After I scan the photo into Photoshop in my computer, I typeset the text to make a pattern. I print the pattern at reduced opacity (27%) on my laser printer.

“Remember me: A collective narrative in found words and photographs” sampling | Hand-embroidered found vintage snapshots and studio portraits, sizes vary | © Jane Deschner 2018 – 2020

Taping the top of the photo to the back of the pattern, I then poke the holes that I will stitch through. I made a hole-poking tool by cutting a wine cork in half, sticking a long pin through (like the ones you see in the pincushion in the photo below), then taping and gluing the cork back together. 

“Remember me: A collective narrative in found words and photographs: collect” | Hand-embroidered Muralcraft Studios, LaPorte, Indiana, studio portrait proofs, each proof 7”h x 5”w | © Jane Deschner 2019 – 2020

On each pattern, I record the number of the piece within the series (here: 539) and the initials and state of the person in whose obit I found the quote (here: HDM [MT]). In art school, I was told to not use paint straight from the tube but to mix it with other colors to supply nuance. So I use three strands of DMC cotton thread (here: 434, 435, 780). Each length of thread is composed of six strands so I separate them out and pre-thread the needles with one strand from each color. Rather than tying a knot in the thread on the back, I use small pieces of Scotch Magic Tape to anchor the ends on the back (the box says the tape is “*Photo-safe determined in accordance with ISO Standard 18916”). 

A snapshot of every evening’s stitching set-up, beginning another “Remember me” piece | Computer designed pattern, studio portrait with holes already punched, DMC embroidery thread, Scotch Magic tape, trifocals, Rachel Maddow program on MSNBC

I usually stitch in the evenings for ±4 hours, listening to Rachel Maddow, Chopped, Law and Order, Golden Girls, and a few other shows. A couple of hours of news is about all that my equilibrium can handle these days. Trifocals allow me to see the stitching well and easily glance up and down at the TV. This refocusing keeps my eyes from getting too tired.

Jane Deschner on the road. Photo credit: Mai La Thai

Jane Waggoner Deschner is a mixed media artist based in Billings, Montana. Found photographs have been her medium for 20 years; she works from a collection numbering ±70,000, primarily vintage snapshots and studio portraits. Recent professional highlights include being a 2019-20 Montana Arts Council Artist Innovation Award recipient. She was chosen to represent Montana in “Her Flag,” a collaborative project celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. A solo museum exhibition of her “Remember me” project has been rescheduled to fall 2021. Her work was included in Kris Graves Projects publications, “On Death” (2019) and “Solace” (2020). She has been awarded artist residencies and fellowships across the US and in Canada; participation is important to her practice. In conjunction with being an artist, she works as an exhibition installer, graphic designer, photographer, instructor, curator, and picture framer.

The Humble Arts Foundation site offers a wonderful interview with Jane:
“Jane Waggoner Deschner Stitches New Narratives Into Found Photographs,” conversation with Robert E. Jackson, HAF New Photography

You can keep up with Jane’s work on her website or Instagram, or send her an email if you’re interested in her work.