Artist Talk: Ally Fouts & Jovan C. Speller

Eulogy | Installation Image | Photo by Avery Campbell | © Engage Projects, 2021

Esthetic Lens presents another installment of Artist Talks. Ally Fouts visits Eulogy, an exhibition featuring the work of Jovan C. Speller, at ENGAGE Projects.

Ally Fouts: Can you provide us with a little background surrounding your practice? 

Jovan C. Speller:I’m a photo-based artist and trained photographer. I went to Maryland Institute College of Art for photography, and through that received an introduction to fine art in general. I transferred to Columbia College Chicago and graduated with a fine art degree. My love is the darkroom, that is where I’m most comfortable and where I’m most creative. I love working with alternative processes in photography. Mixing chemistry makes me feel like a mad scientist. Though the darkroom is where I’m at my best, my practice has expanded over the past three to five years. The ideas that I’m working on have led me to other avenues of creative expression. I work with telling really complicated stories, including everything from family histories to trying to dissect myths within culture. Because of that, I discovered a singular image, or even a photographic series, does not fully convey the depths of the stories that I’ve been told and am trying to relay in this visual medium. So I began to add aspects of film, audio, and installation in my series, to try and deepen the relationship to the stories that I’ve been told, and to deepen the experience the viewer has with the work as well.

Passage and Transformation | 2021 | fiber print on archival photograph | 24 x 22 in 61 x 55.9 cm | © Jovan C. Speller, 2021

AF: Will you share with us what the viewer would see if they were to have come to the show? Additionally, where did the title, Eulogy, generate from?

JS: “Each series that I work on leads to the next one, as I work in a linear way. The series that I just finished is called Relics of Home. That is an exploration of origin stories where I explore family history, specifically of land ownership within my family, including our relationship to that land, and what took place on that land. The way that I defined “origin story” was focusing on finding the first place that I could trace my family having a presence within our history. It ended up leading me to Windsor, North Carolina, a place I’d never been. I’ve now met relatives there, generations of cousins that I had never met before, and elders I’d never spoken to before. When I checked into the only hotel there, I found employees and other guests with the last name of Speller.

There are Spellers located in pockets of the country, and one of those pockets is Windsor, North Carolina. I did a lot of research into not only the land but also relatives and the people in that region. When I finished that series, I felt like I had finally reconciled the idea of an origin story, and come to terms with the idea of a starting place as one’s memories, rather than a physical location.

The work that I’m creating right now is more about the future. I’m creating a body of work about nurturing. It’s a large photographic series about what I call “scenarios of protection,” that demonstrate how I envision nurturing, protecting, and covering Black communities.  Within my linear thinking, moving from origin to futurism, I couldn’t ignore the present state of things.  I was raised in the Buddhist faith – my belief about death is that there is no end, but rather that life exists in cycles. I wanted to explore that a little bit.

The Body Remained | 2021 | fiber print on archival photograph | 24 x 22 in 61 x 55.9 cm | © Jovan C. Speller, 2021

I have a one-year-old, so I don’t get a lot of sleep, but rather I fall in and out of sleep all throughout the night. There was a period of time last summer when I kept waking up and having these phrases, poems, fragments of sentences, and fragments of thoughts, vividly popping up in my mind. I began writing them down and would read them the next day.

This interesting story started to unfold in these poems that I was writing in the middle of the night. I started having dreams about the ocean and waking up at the bottom of the ocean floor. The writing and the dreams started to come together, and that is how Eulogy was born. The main character in the story is this woman who has woken up on the bottom of the ocean floor and is now transitioning and floating from one life to the next. It is about reincarnation and cycles of life, passing from one body to the next. If you were to go to the exhibition, you would see almost two bodies of work. There’s the photographic series of this main character who’s floating through the river and through the woods.” 

Bury Me Within | 2021 | archival photograph | 22×22 in 55.9 x 55.9 cm | © Jovan C. Speller, 2021

In the back of the gallery space, there is mixed media work. Those works are more symbolic of the life that this woman has left behind. This is the past life and has a heavier, thicker weight to it. You might not immediately notice, but they use photographs in them as well as black latex paint on wood paneling with resin. The resin is used as a preservation element, as if I am making an artifact, there’s movement that got stuck. It is the past life of the girl who then wakes up at the bottom of the ocean within this new body. It’s a personal body of work about my beliefs surrounding reincarnation and my experiences from past to present. I consider them self portraits, though not specifically my body, as I use another figure as a stand-in for myself.

From My View | 2021 | fiber print on archival photograph | 22 x 22 in 55.9 x 55.9 cm | © Jovan C. Speller, 2021

AF: Using someone outside of yourself to represent yourself sounds like an interesting experience. Thinking back to this experience of directing someone else, were there any specific challenges or triumphs that emerged? 

JS:This is somebody that I know and already have a relationship with.  

Directing her was fluid and simple. She was fearless walking into the middle of a river and me asking her to float and not get swept away. I think because of everything that was happening in the city and because of the isolation that everybody was feeling, it was also a moment of healing for her. She loved being on the beach, being in the water, and being connected to nature in that way. That level of comfort, calm, and peace came across in her face as well. The feeling of oneness was necessary for the series: How does it feel to come back? Are you comfortable with that transition? Do you feel like you’re at home? Do you feel disappointment, sadness, mourning for your past life? Where are you? Her being so at peace and so serene is exactly how I imagined that transition, with a sense of knowing and a sense of oneness. She needed to be in that space for herself, and that came across in the way that I needed for the photographs.

The original thought of this series was not autobiographical.  It was going to center what other people wanted to be remembered for and as. I had a list of interview questions and sent it out to certain folks for them to answer. I was going to choose the location where I photographed them and the natural elements that I would include based on their answers to interview questions. Then COVID hit, then the uprising here in Minneapolis, then the verdict for the Chauvin case. I wrote to everybody and explained that now was not the time. Especially because not everybody has the same relationship that I do with ideas of death. We were already dealing with so much real-life death and asking people to consider the end of their life and how they want to be remembered, was too much.” 

I found myself in familiar territory in an unfamiliar state | 2021 | archival photograph | 22 x 22 in 55.9 x 55.9 cm | © Jovan C. Speller, 2021

AF: Is the chosen body of water important to the body of work, or could it have been any body of water?

JS:I don’t think it could have been any body of water. It would have been nice if I lived near an ocean because that was conceptually what the dream was about. I’m originally from Los Angeles and I have memories of being in the ocean.

Given the circumstances, I thought, what can I accomplish? Can I have waves? Can the water feel like there’s movement and not stagnant? That’s why I chose the river over a lake, as there is more opportunity to get that feeling of flowing. We shot at the St. Croix River at Afton State Park.” 

Eulogy | Installation Image | Photo by Avery Campbell | © Engage Projects, 2021

AF: Let’s talk about the specifics of the photographs. Are they digital or film photographs? What about your paper choice?

JS:I shot this series on film, but then I didn’t have access to a darkroom at the time because of COVID. I still wanted to do the series, and there was an opportunity to work with a printer in a really intentional way.

We tested out different vellum and fiber papers. I knew that I wanted to layer them, but I didn’t know how different papers were going to interact because I don’t typically work with digital prints. I had to do a lot of testing and playing around to see what was going to come across the way that I wanted. Rather than collaging, I cut a line in the background image and then slip the figure into the background, so the smaller fiber print is slid into the archival cotton paper. If you flip them over, you would see a little corner of the fiber paper coming through on the back. It worked somatically with Eulogy because the whole concept is about passing through time; one image, literally passing through the other image. 

I wasn’t originally convinced about the fiber paper because I thought that the threads were too distracting. But, the fibers do call on these natural elements, oneness with nature and cycles of time. It is also depicting this in-between moment, and it makes sense that it’s a little bit murky, fuzzy, and not totally clear. It’s a transitional moment, so being sharp and fully clear was not necessary.

Eulogy | Installation Image | Photo by Avery Campbell | © Engage Projects, 2021

AF: From my understanding, you didn’t necessarily know that you were working on your next show with those writings right away.

JS:No, not at all. The thought that I did keep having was that I need to include more writing in my work. There is a piece that includes writing in vegetable oil and wood ash. “If the ocean were a coffin that I swam across, perhaps the fact that mattered most of all was…falling down a shaft” was the first phrase that I woke up and wrote down. I knew that would somehow become a piece, but I didn’t know what medium or material. 

Up until two months before the show opened, I didn’t know what material to use. Ash became a big part of my life at that time. I was intensely reflecting on how Minneapolis had been burning just the year before, and we lived about a mile away from where the city was burning. 

I embraced the idea of burning and ash. When I pass, I would like to be cremated. The body burning and remitting the remaining  ashes back to the earth, writing the “if the ocean was a coffin” phrase, somehow made sense and encompassed all that was swirling around in my mind.

Jovan C. Speller | Photo Credit: Laura Vale

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 Engage 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 can be found online at her Website and on Instagram.