Artist Faith Scott Jessup’s latest work has a poetry to it. Her paintings speak volumes, but with skillful visual thrift.
Jessup, who teaches art at Guyer High School, is drawn to a particular piece of all the paintings she selected for a recent exhibit at Dallas’ Norwood Flynn Gallery, which represents the artist.
That piece is Compendium. The piece could be a random collection of objects and scenes. Or it could be an accounting of things the artist considers vessels.
Compendium is an eloquent meditation on the artist’s heritage, prompted by the death of her mother in June 2011. Her father, who was born and raised in India, died in 1988.
“My father was an Anglo-Indian,” Jessup said. “And my mother was very, very English. I was born in England, and we immigrated into Canada when I was 8 years old.”
In the last year, Jessup has used her art to re-examine her heritage, a marriage of East and West, as well as a tangle of memories about how family can braid reality into the ephemeral to create personal truths that — if one is lucky — grow deeper instead of dimmer.
“My family goes back to the 1700s in India, so the place and the culture have been a big part of my family’s life,” Jessup said.
Jessup calls Compendium a summary of memories jogged by eight weeks spent back in Canada, settling her mother’s affairs with siblings. When she and her husband, Robert, returned to Denton, she began working through her memories in her studio. Faith Jessup’s mother died just three months after she was diagnosed with cancer.
Laying her mother to rest prompted a summer of contemplation in her studio. It was as if bidding her surviving parent farewell was a tectonic bump to her art.
Jessup painted 36 panels, each 6 by 6 inches, then assembled them in six rows of six. She said she’s has done plenty of similarly sized paintings before, pouring meticulously edited detail onto small square surfaces.
“But this way of working, working in a grid, was new for me,” she said.
Jessup worked consciously, considering which objects in her paintings cast shadows and which didn’t. And she considered how the panels themselves would cast shadows on the walls.
“I did pretty much a painting a day. That was my summer,” she said. “This piece is inspired by the Indian cremation ritual. When I researched it, it read like a recipe. You need to have incense, clay pots, chunks of bone. It’s done by the seas. When a man dies, a white cloth must be there. Red cloth for a woman. You need to have banana leaves and matches.”
The ritual also calls for a bowl of cooked rice, jasmine, candles, basil — an herb considered holy in India — and, if mourners are cremating a child, milk and spices.
There are other objects and scenes in Compendium that are personal: a silver brooch with a lion in the center; Indian coins; shells and stones; a green birdwing butterfly. Each of the personal paintings weights the work with memory.
“My father collected butterflies,” Jessup said, explaining the green Malaysian butterfly carefully painted in the center of one panel. She couldn’t resist painting the image of one of her dad’s blazing blue morpho butterflies in another piece.
There are scenes that suggest the passage of time: the topmost limbs of bare-branch trees, where birds roost in the morning light, and in the evening darkness in another. A red tulip burns above an elegant green stem in another painting. In another, a marigold bloom — a flower used in Indian weddings — resembles a hot ember on a dark hearth.
“These are all meaningful, but I wanted them to be universally accessible,” Jessup said. “And if it was going to be about life — which it is — there had to be ashes and bone. As I was working on it, I realized that the piece was becoming a more all-encompassing summation of my attitude to life, death and transcendence.”
Compendium was therapeutic for the artist.
“There’s a sense of me sitting there, trying to get that gray, or that little bit of white. Some of these I labored over. Some of them came right out,” Jessup said. “I pretty much dive into it. I don’t even draw on the panels.”
Whether consciously or not, Jessup seems to plug into the rituals of an icon painter. She uses walnut oil paints, a la Rembrandt, and tends to paint panels that are mounted flat on a wall. As a realistic painter, Jessup’s steady hand portrays a vivid imagination.
“As an artist, I really like holding onto memories, and then putting them together and reinventing them,” she said.
Beautiful Dreamer is a good example. A Brahma bull dozes under a striped awning in the painting, which Jessup says is an amalgamation of two memories from her family’s years living in Singapore.
“We had Brahma bulls roaming around all over the place there,” she said. “He’s sleeping at our house. This is from a photograph of us there, all wearing our white bonnets. I took us out and put the bull in there.”
A collection of more romantic paintings have been shown along with Compendium. Travelers features the “clunky metal bed” Jessup and her husband shared when they were first married, and the pillow linens, too. A sailboat ventures off into the stars in the night sky enveloping the bed. There are some small landscapes, and parts of trees and plants in blue.
When she’s not in her studio, Jessup teaches art at Guyer High. She began teaching art to children involved in outreach with Denton County Friends of the Family, a local agency that works with families affected by relationship violence.
“I really like teaching,” she said. “I like teaching them the techniques and the history and to think critically. I think it’s important for the children to have someplace to go that’s inward.”
Jessup has been painting seriously for 10 years. She took her portfolio to the Norwood Flynn Gallery, a converted cottage on the shores of Bachman Lake in Dallas, and presented her work to the curator, Mabel Peck.
A few weeks later, she learned by e-mail that the gallery would represent her. Norwood Flynn represents Denton painter Pam Burnley-Schol and Texas Woman’s University graduate and painter Sunny Jacquet.
“I come from a long line of late bloomers,” Jessup said.
She applies some of the same lessons she learned while trying to be patient with oils, which can be fussy and take a long time to dry, to her students.
“I tell them that it’s OK to make some ugly paintings,” she said. “It’s just mucking around with the paint. That’s how you learn. That’s how you make beautiful paintings.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.