Could you tell me a bit about your professional life? I understand that you work in architectural conservation in addition to being an artist.
For the past six years, I have worked in architectural conservation and preservation. I work independently and for a company called Johnson & Griffiths. For the past few years we have had contracts to restore several buildings of the PA Capital. We have worked on projects such as 1616 Walnut St. Philadelphia, Old Main in State College, PA State library and Forum Murals, and Rittenhouse Plaza among others. If I am not up on a scaffold I can also be found in the studio conserving paintings, objects and clock dials. I most recently conserved twenty-six Rolls Royce paintings by Melbourne Brindle for the Rolls Royce Foundation. Growing up I had always been interested in the history of spaces and archaeology, so I feel very fortunate to have my job and get to live out my childhood dream.
How does your architectural conservation work inform your artistic installations?
My job has been to examine time in objects, suspend them in their present state or remove the effects of time. It allows me to question what we value, want to hold onto for the future and are willing to let go. By translating these historical references into contemporary porcelain objects, a new layer of questions can be asked. I think it creates a practice of investigation and connection to the spaces and hidden structures around me. I am always walking into a space and considering the time frame and the hands that made it as well as its materials and how they resonate with the spirit of past people and events. There is great reward in looking up when walking around Philadelphia because that is where a lot of unique decorative elements are that can often be overlooked. I enjoy finding the faux finishes in a space, whether it be a plaster cornice wood-grained to look like walnut or a canvas panel wall painted to look like Italian marble. Sometimes I feel like a detective at work since part of my job is to perform microscopy of paint chips taken from a site and examine the layers of finishes and materials and then try to place them in their historical context. This practice influences the way I make my art and the desire to explore and locate oneself in time and place. History can be a layered sensory experience full of questions such as how to get from here to there, and art can often be a marker of that.
Can you tell me about working in clay, and why you often use clay as your medium?
I use clay as my medium because it offers me the chance to learn each time I make something. It is a material that I have been connected to since I was a child, making mud pies and finding ribbons of clay in the dry New Mexico soil and trying to make bowls. My choice to use porcelain embodies time and change, as the material itself goes through different thresholds of form, color, and temperature. Porcelain has a “memory,” and while it goes through various stages of form and temperature, it retains evidence of previous actions in its particles. I keep my fingerprints visible and allow the clay to reveal the imperfect human nature of the work as it warps, cracks, and changes. I choose to work in porcelain because of its cultural context as a material often reserved for fine dining or figurines.
How did you choose the space within the Mansion to create your site-responsive piece?
Other than the interpretations of the decorative finishes like the beautiful faux woodgraining through the house, the Steiff piano was what left the biggest impression on me. I loved the elegant inlay and I wanted to be in the parlour because of this piano and wanted to highlight it. The 19th century was replete with musical evenings, and no parlour felt complete without a piano. This is where guests would gather and sing and perform. The industry for music began to flourish during this time and the domestic sphere became a primary place for music to be performed by amateur musicians. Music during this time was a tool for recreation, edification, amusement, and for expressing political views . I wanted to look at the role of music right before the days of recordings, radio and digital technologies by looking through the lens of Victorian drawing-room ballads and parlour music. For this installation, I chose to activate the Steiff piano by replicating popular sheet music out of porcelain in order to explore intersections of musical and cultural traditions, as well as modes of transmission and consumption. As the 19th century brought the rise of machined perfection, my work pulls back to the production and quality only achieved by hand.
What was your research process for this installation?
I spent most of my time for this project researching and talking with the archivists at the Philadelphia Library. They were extremely helpful and generous letting me look through hundreds of sheet music covers from this era. I kept notes and listened to the songs as I painted each note. I also worked with the musician Kobi Davidson to gather information about the history of music. I spent a lot of time deciding the context that I wanted to put my work in within the historic environment and how I could add to the discourse. I enjoy the research portion of installations and see it as part of the process. The book I referenced most was The Singing Bourgeois: Songs of the Victorian Drawing Room and Parlor.
What was the most interesting thing that you learned through the process of researching and creating this installation?
I think the thing I found most interesting was the role of women and the relationship to music. There were a lot of changes in the late 19h century as women’s rights became a social issue. Since I was drawn to the piano as the environment for my installation, I read a lot about female composers that were breaking the social conventions of the era and finding their place in history through music. Women’s space in music was often to entertain and sing songs that supported the ideology of polite entertainment with lyrics that furthered the expectations of the time. Women during this time were restricted to a private sphere and their education was often in the home. Many parlour type songs were wholesome entertainment for family and friends and supported the idea that women should be innocent and chaste before marriage and a devoted wife and caring mother after marriage. Several songs compared women to delicate flowers, so I added some unfired porcelain flowers to my piece. Women are generally depicted as romantic objects or placed in the context of the family, so I wanted to find songs that spoke to this timeframe and expectations. Derek B. Scott, Professor of Critical Musicology, said:
For women to take to musical composition in any numbers, three conditions needed to be satisfied: they had to have the opportunity to develop the relevant musical skills, the opportunity to have their music performed, and examples of successful women composers to help them achieve. Middle-class women had leisure time they could spend on music.
Many of these parlour songs of the day tended to be a representative of bourgeois values. With this project I was interested in female composers and songs that were inspired by writings and poems of female authors. Even today I think social inequality and gender inequality is an important discussion to continue to have.
Some female composers of the 19th century:
Claribel (also know as Charlotte Alington Barnard nee Pye)
Miss M. Lindsay
-Interview by Zoë Browne
More of Jacintha's work can be found on her portfolio website: https://www.jacinthaclark.com/