OA: What music are you currently listening to and why?
Jem: Mostly, when I am in the studio, I listen to a lot of classic Jazz-Fusion from its seventies heyday, my favourite period in Jazz. There were so many visionaries pushing boundaries and experimenting. If not that then, I also find inspiration in certain classic “Prog rock” bands because they tended to very creative with their written imagery along with ambitious musical arrangements. I discovered long ago that whatever I listen to while painting, shows up in the work, whether it be in influencing the piece in boldness or muting of color or shapes favored in the work or in the level of complexity or simplicity of the composition. When not in the studio, I try to listen to all the new music I can. The discovery process is very much its own reward.
OA: Which living artists do you most admire and why?
Jem: I have always liked Peter Max. It was his work that I discovered in books as a child, which greatly inspired me to first begin to think of drawing as a serious activity, especially the things he did in the sixties. I admire the way he has adapted and grown over the years. I also really like the works or Roger Dean, which I discovered in the form of album cover art. His style is compelling and unique and he too has adapted and developed over time, as Max did. Also I have always admired the work of Peruvian painter, Boris Vallejo. He too is a versatile artist who has grown and evolved throughout his life. All three enjoy commercial success and yet are still producing compelling fine art, fetching top prices and continued praise.
OA: Which deceased artist do you most admire and why?
Jem: I have to admit that it is a toss-up between Salvador Dali and H. R. Giger. Both surrealists, they worked at different ends of the twentieth century, with a small window overlapping. Salvador Dali inspired me to begin explorations in surrealism with his masterful image manipulation and metaphorical compositions. He was ground-breaking and his persona was as extreme as his art and he was completely authentic, not contrived, though many thought otherwise. H. R. Giger was fascinating to me. I first discovered his work in Album cover art, as I did Dean. I followed his career through his award winning set and character designs in the first “Alien” Movie to his controversial “Penis Landscape” poster found in a Dead Kennedys Album, to the works done through the end of his life. From his work, I learned that one could work in a very limited muted color palette and still create mind-blowing thought provoking work. There was a shallow depth of field and claustrophobia in his work that spoke to the isolation I felt most of my life growing up and even recently in my transition “adventure”.
OA: Which exhibition that you have visited made the greatest impact on you and why?
Jem: When I was in my twenties, I had the opportunity to see an exhibition of the work of Norman Rockwell in Washington DC. I was mesmerized by the photo realistic look he managed to capture, not unlike the works of Vermeer. At the same time as achieving this level of technical excellence, there was a strong narrative aspect to his work. This idea of storytelling through drawing and painting was not entirely new to me, as I grew up using visual imagery as one of my “go-to” forms of communication and this seemed to validate the action for me and though he did not necessarily ever work in series, it set me thinking of working in series, where an exhibition or a specific set or body of work represented a book and each individual piece represented a chapter in that book.
OA: What is the question you get asked most frequently about your work and how do you answer it?
Jem: Usually it is something like “what was your intended meaning” or "can you explain it to me". It may not appear very nice but, most always, I don’t answer such questions because I feel that my intended meaning is far less important than the question of whether they derived any meaningful interpretation of it at all for themselves. My thinking is that any meaning they ascribe to it is every bit as valid as my original thoughts which led to its production, as art is highly subjective. Plus, if I have done my job correctly and achieved my objective, they will get its meaning and place into a context to the other works which accompany the work in question.
OA: What / who inspired you to be an artist?
Jem: I suppose it was self motivated since my command of the spoken and written word lagged behind my use of written imagery to convey complex ideas which I lacked the vocabulary and language skills, due to dyslexia and an apparent inability to match audible sound with thought to articulate my thoughts. Over time, I developed the language skills I had lacked earlier but, at a slower pace than average.
OA: Can you tell us about where you make your art and what if any the significance of this location is?
Jem: The only requirements for a suitable studio work space as privacy and room to set up an easel and work. Over time it has been a basement, a garage and currently it is the large dining room of my home. I ditched the table and chairs in favor of art supplies. If one is compelled to produce, the setting is not so important, I feel, as long as I have those two requirements met.
OA: What do you like most about being an artist?
Jem: The freedom to become lost in the process and be entirely self directed. I must admit that I never enjoyed the title or felt myself special since I have been more compelled to draw and paint than I have had any dreams or desires to do so. It seems that the question of “liking” it was mostly irrelevant, as I never felt that I actually had a choice and if and when circumstances make it such that I am unable to paint, for whatever reason, I suffer emotionally in a way that I find difficult to explain.
OA: What is your greatest achievement as an artist to date?
Jem: I suppose it has been having my first one person exhibition. Though it was a commercial bomb, I was able to show in series, which was important to me. Since that time, I have heard from some who attended the exhibition that the work was not well suited to the tastes of the patronage of the area in which I reside, that if I had opened in a larger more metropolitan area, the reception might have been more favorable. Of course there is no way of knowing that now.
OA: What are your plans for the coming year?
Jem: To continue to produce work on the series marking this time period in which I am currently engaged and to continue with my graduate studies.
JoEllen Electra Mays (jem)- Bio:
I faded into existence and slowly became conscious and self-aware during a block of yesterdays as I was being raised male. Then finally, I willed my second and true birth to outwardly become the woman I had been inwardly for the whole of my existence. I spent years searching for meaning and some reason for the false manifestation of my earlier life. I examined nearly every philosophical and religious discipline and found nothing but the hollow echo of silence.
Since my earliest memories, it has always been far easier for me to illustrate my feelings in visual form than to articulate them using the very limited palette of words, feelings being the complex abstract that they most frequently are. Speaking in metaphoric imagery, I have kept the journal of my life. Countless years on the therapist’s couch, initially left me still wanting and then, over time some things began to become more tangible and meaningful truths. Always, I was mindful to keep a visual journal of them.
Choosing a career proved to be a bit more difficult than I had imagined. My pursuit of an undergraduate degree turned into an odyssey as a 128 credit hour degree ballooned into 240 credit hours in a myriad of visual art forms in everything from painting and sculpting to film and animation and several semesters of art history, photography, graphic arts, printing technology, ceramics, printmaking and screen printing as well as a lot of “dead end” filler material. Finally, when I had nearly exhausted my funding for undergraduate work, I chose the degree I was closest to completing, which was fine art.
The decision of what path my graduate studies would take was made over time as I realized how highly instrumental visual imagery had been to me in sorting my own feelings and philosophical views and in keeping me reasonably sane. Added to this was the fact that, as a transgender female, when it became necessary to seek out a gender therapist to take me to the next level in transition, after an exhaustive search, I was only able to locate one in the entire State of West Virginia, where I currently reside. To me this was inexcusable and a sad statement of how little this little corner of the map had advanced with the times. I decided to pursue my Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and to incorporate heavily, the use of Art Therapy in the capacity of a Certified Gender Therapist and Trauma Counselor for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. I have yet another year and a half to complete my degree. I continue to produce work but, I have had to compromise my pace to accommodate the pursuit of this graduate degree.
Recently, I had a bit of a serious health scare which seemed to kick-start a whole new focus for my work. It will not dominate my thoughts forever, just until I sort out what it all means, which will reveal itself to me through the work that comes out of this avenue of thought.
Connect with Jem