Interview by Ruth Grim, Chief Curator and Gary R. Libby Curator of Art
Exceptional: The Art of Jill Cannady
Open at MOAS February 20, 2021 - May 2, 2021
Artist, Jill Cannady
Jill Cannady has had a long and successful career in Florida, beginning with thirty years in Miami followed by decades in Central Florida. One of our state's most preeminent artists, her work is truly "exceptional" in subject matter, exquisite technique, and her unique ability to intrigue viewers and pique their interest. Her works are often funny or ironic and always full of movement and life and never fail to evoke a response from the viewers. We are honored to be able to bring her works to the Museum of Arts & Sciences.
RUTH: Jill, You have moved between different media throughout your career - from painting to sculpture, to ceramics and even textiles. Can you speak a bit about this desire to express your pieces in different mediums?
JILL: I never met a medium I didn't like. Encountering a new medium can be so exciting and the possibilities so wonderful that I begin thinking in a whole new way.
There is no perfect medium, they all have their pluses and minuses but experience with so many different mediums allows me to choose what is best to express an idea. The idea should take full advantage of what each medium has to offer.
A medium also needs to fit the artist's way of working. Does it promote a thoughtful or spontaneous handling? That might have to do with fluidity or drying time. Is it versatile etc.? I may push a medium in all directions to test it and myself.
RUTH: You seem to prefer figuration, be it human, animal, still life, etc. or more abstract ideas. Can you speak to that and also some of the artists from the past who have inspired you? I see something of Rembrandt and other Dutch masters in your technique and approach. Am I wrong?
JILL: I consider myself a figurative artist and because most of the time that is what interests me. However, I have a wide range of ideas and if something doesn't fit that definition but feels compelling, I do it. I want to express the way I see things and the way I feel about the experiences of living.
Although I drew and painted from life at an early age and have developed a fairly accurate eye, at the art academy and in my graduate work I was an abstract, even a non-objective painter. At the age of 10 or 12 years, I first became aware of the limitations of descriptive painting. There was an exciting wind, the kind that occurs after a heatwave as the weather is changing and I wanted to capture the feeling of wind, on canvas. A description of things blowing was not enough, I wanted the brush strokes to be the wind, I wanted it to be direct. I couldn't do it and after a day spent trying, I gave up, but the idea of non-descriptive painting remained interesting to me.
In college, I was introduced to Abstract Expressionism and I embraced it, learning a great deal in the process. Willem de Kooning's wild expressive brush strokes and the strength of the black and white paintings of Franz Kline impressed me the most through my work was, of course, nothing like theirs. I painted mostly in acrylics, trying my hand with a variety of other drawing and painting mediums and techniques. The works I produced were shown in a number of group exhibitions winning a few awards but as I worked the figure began to appear in things I wanted to be non-objective. Finally, I realized that my work was demanding that I returned to the human figure, so I did.
I started with self-portraits (a model always available) then friends and family. Several portrait commissions followed. Although I love looking at people (there are no ugly people, only ugly expressions) I didn't want portraiture to define my work.
Masks, dolls, manikins, commercial images of humans (discarded and marked by use) as well as casual objects, including packing materials that happened to be in the studio, become non-traditional still-life paintings.
I began to make small, sculpted images of people and the animals associated with them to use a models to work from. These eventually grew into full scale sculptures after I received a SAF/NEA grant for sculpture in 1991.
Art history is known to me through books and museums. As a child, my family visited the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio where I was fascinated by The Architect's Dream, a painting by Thomas Cole from 1840, and The Oath of The Horatii by Jacques-Louis David from 1784. I may have been influenced by the stage like space of the latter and the imaginative use of architectural history in the former. There are not any specific artists that I am conscious of directly inspiring my work. Seeing good art always makes me want to work. Actually, even seeing bad art makes me want to work.
RUTH: I'm amazed at how you can move from such a polished, tightly composed, and stunningly beautiful painting such as "The Understanding" - a major self-portrait from 1973 in the Norton Museum of Art - to many of your other works which are highly animated with expressive brushwork. You seem to want at times to challenge yourself - get out of your comfort zone, so-to-speak - and create in new ways. Some many say all artists do that. But I would have to disagree because I have seen many artists who find a comfortable working manner and stick with it. Can you speak to your need to branch out in style... push the envelope?
JILL: I create by exploring an idea over a period of time, maybe a year of so, and then I am ready for a change. The change has usually been in my thoughts for some time and may have been prompted by a path suggested but not taken during the current work. These changes can seem drastic and may involve scale, medium, or idea, sometimes all three.
The work that I create is usually well planned and thought out. First comes the general idea and composition with the collection of information, choosing and preparing the medium and the surface then doing preliminary drawings. I do all this because in the end it saves time and it gives me the freedom to concentrate on my use of the medium which is being explored and taking advantage of opportunities as they occur to me while working, especially if the idea involves something I haven't done before. This is the fun part! Challenging myself is what makes working exciting, even with all my preparations, not knowing how it will turn out.
RUTH: I see a strong sense of narrative in your works - often the pieces seem to cry out to tell a story. Did you ever think you might also be a writer or a filmmaker inside?
JILL: Narrative is not something I think about, but some of my work does depict a moment of arrested movement which suggests future consequences, a little like seeing stills from a movie that shows you the good parts.