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Jeanne Willette


I was born an artist.  To ask me when art became important in my life is like asking me when I started breathing.  Alas, when I started serious art school training in college, I was unable to find faculty members who understood the kind of art I was making.  I was caught in an aging program with very good teachers whose vision dated back to the sixties--about two decades too late for me.  As a result, I was able to get only good grades but never good feedback.  Had I been in another program, my teachers would have recognized that I was a conceptual artist involved in cultural critique.  As it was, in recognition of my intellectual concerns, I was advised to go into art history.  Saddened that my own artistic output was out of step in this traditional institution, I took this advice, obediently morphing into a grad student and earning the nickname “Miss Bibliography.”  I had long since subdued the aching in the palms of my hands that had once propelled me to make and to create art, and embarked on the path expected for art historians trained in the UC system.  But I was delivered from this downward path and back into the hands of art.

Two key events, completely unexpected and unsought, rescued me from a future I did not desire.  The first event was a one-semester part time job at what was then the Claremont Graduate School, now University, in the art department.  My art history class was wonderful.  Kim Dingle was one of my students and has remained my great friend ever since.  To my shock, the class forced their way into my well protected art history psyche and reminded me that I was an artist.

Kim Dingle, "Black Girl Dragging a White
Girl," 1992, oil/charcoal on canvas, 72 x 60".

Marcel Broodthers, "Nineteen small canvases
in a pile," 1973, stretched canvases,
paint, 91 1/2 x 104 1/4 x 83 3/4".
After many studio visits (I wrote an account of one of these in Artweek a few years ago), I left Claremont for my first full time, tenure track job, now an artist masquerading as an art historian.  Dropped into North Carolina, onto fallow intellectual ground, I found the local art community incredibly receptive and welcoming.  I was invited into the inner sanctums of all the art establishments in the region and socialized with all the artists (even “discovering” a local artist I sent to New York where she became almost famous before she lost her nerve).  I began to write as I made art--conceptually.  I was allowed generous latitude by local press when I designed texts to look like the object or concept I was discussing--rather like a calligraph.  Caught up in the defense of art during the assault on the NEA, I rediscovered my art voice and began to learn how to write like an artist. . .but I felt I didn’t have much to say.

My last summer vacation there was 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.  It was then that I had my life changing experience.  Having been in East Berlin a few years prior, I was anxious to go back to experience Berlin open and free of the tanks I had seen at the Brandenberg Gate.  During my stay in Berlin, I went to the Dachau concentration camp.  Two years later, back in Los Angeles for good, I gave a performance at a Foundation for Art Resources (FAR) event about my experience at Dachau.  That day in the Camp changed my life, turning my writing into an art project that was dedicated to critiquing culture.  I left the world of Alexandrian scholasticism behind forever.  Yes, I finished my theoretical dissertation, which was as Byzantine as they come.  But I no longer cared about art of the past.  Having spent endless hours photographing crematoriums, it seemed obscene to dedicate one’s life to getting published in Art Journal, to fight for tenure--which would mean staying in the same place doing the same thing for the next 30 years--and to spend one’s life writing about the writing of others.  I wanted to produce my own writing, not rewrite someone else’s work (that’s what art historians do).  Despite my PhD., I had returned to my own art as a writer.

"Dachau - the significance of this name
will never be erased from German
history. It stands for all concentration
camps which the Nazis established in
their territory."--Eugen Kogon

Jeanne Willette, text
art, 2 page layout.

Jeanne Willette, text art,
detail of 2 page layout.
Given that I had not only made pictures but that also I had been writing everything from comic books to movies to novels all my life, writing was as important as making visual art to me.  Now I don’t see the difference between word and image in my work.  Like most artists who paint in their studios, I work in private, writing long articles: essays that may never be published and remained stacked in my computer, like sculptures in a warehouse or airplanes circling an airport.  This accumulation is the fate of most art.  But what makes an artist is the drive to continue to react to the world, whether to celebrate, critique or copy it, in one’s own voice.  Art lives on the hope that someday, someone will look.  

Like most artists, I have to earn a living, expending much time and energy on trying to do a good job to justify my continued employment.  Sometimes, I can bring creativity to my job, but I could not continue as an art historian if I were not in the company of artists.  They keep me grounded in who I really am.  Many people have pointed out to me that I am actually a performance artist, and I must agree.  I define the writing I do for myself as a text-object that must be looked at as much as read, or as a text-performance that needs to be experienced.  Looking back, I am certain that if it had been a more au courant faculty when I was an undergraduate that is the path I would have taken. . .performance art and text objects.  Perhaps that road would have been harder.  I sincerely enjoy teaching: I learn so much from my students.  Art history is what I do for a living.  But art is what I do with my life.