Interview with artist Jeanne D’Angelo

What do you do when you read an old ghost story, and you let your mind create the chilling visage of the main ghoul? Do you shut your eyes and attempt to erase the thought, or do you get to work? Artist Jeanne D’Angelo seems to prefer the latter, using folk lore and old wives’ tales as a fuel for her creative process. We sat down in her South Philadelphia home to chat about monsters, myths, and mayhem. (Well, not really mayhem.)

Denis: How did you get started as an artist?
Jeanne: I guess I always drew. When I was a kid I used to read a lot and I would draw things I thought were interesting from stories. There was a while in high school where I thought I was going to be an artist when I grew up, but I came to terms with the reality of art education and dropped it for a while. Then I took a class in college and realized I wanted to do it. I wasn’t at an art school so I just made the most of the general education I got there and took a lot of classes that I thought were interesting so I’d always have content I was interested in to make art about. It took a bunch of years after college for me to really get started.

Denis: How many years?
Jeanne: From when I graduated at 22 until about 26 I wasn’t really actively doing much. I always kind of drew in my spare time, but I didn’t really feel like I had an audience or knew what to do with my art so it didn’t really go anywhere from there. Then things just suddenly started picking up when I pushed myself a little further and took a screen-printing class and found that there was some interest in what I was doing. It sort of encouraged me to do more.

Denis: What else other then the screen-printing class did you do when you were 26?
Jeanne: I think that was it. I think I just needed to have something to focus on and to be forced to carry out a project to completion. Because it was a screen-print and because I could make multiples, people had an interest in them. I sold some of them. I felt like I was starting to come into a style that I really liked doing and I wanted to see how I could develop it further. It’s kind of weird, the lost years where I didn’t feel particularly motivated…I just didn’t feel like I was ready to show anyone anything or that there was anyone to look at it.

Denis: Your art definitely has a focus on the macabre, and it’s influenced by horror movies and odd folk tales. How did you first get into “spooky stuff”?
Jeanne: I guess I’ve always been into “spooky stuff”. I think specifically the first strange stuff I got into was the folklore and the mythology. From elementary school age, I’d go to the library all of the time and take out the D’Aulaires’ books of Greek and Norse myths. Those were my absolute favorite books and I would stare at the pictures forever. Then I had a copy of Bullfinch’s mythology and a copy of “The Odyssey” for high school kids that I was obsessed with when I was younger. I don’t know, I’ve always been interested in strange things. My aunt said that when she used to take me to the art museum all I wanted to look at was the mummies. Every single weekend she would take me and I would beg to see the mummies. I guess I started watching horror movies when I was a kid too. My dad likes them a lot, but mostly the classics. I got into the other stuff in middle school and high school. I think it’s just the stuff that every weird kid likes and every kid that likes punk likes. Not every kid, but they’re pretty related things. I was also really into comic books that have a lot of the same type of imagery. There are a lot of things, a lot of the aesthetics of horror movies, which I like a lot. Not just the stories, but also the way they look. The imagery that’s in them, I’ve always found really exciting and interesting to look at.

Denis: What are your specific influences from those genres? Like movie directors or artists?
Jeanne: I guess I got a lot of influence visually from comic books like the EC comics, the horror comics and their stable of artists like Ghastly Graham Ingels and Johnny Craig and also from artists like Frank Frazetta, or the illustrations in the D’Aulaires’ books, and people like Arthur Rackham and Ivan Bilibin. I had a lot of books that had a lot of really interesting illustrations, like folklore and fairytale books. As far as movies go, it’s harder for me to say because it’s not as direct to think about how they influenced me visually, but I really like horror movies that have a lot of atmosphere. I like a lot of the movies from the 60s and 70s that have a lot of bright color and really garish stuff, but also dark contrast, like Suspiria and a lot of supernatural Asian movies and Hammer stuff where everything is filmed on a fabricated set on a sound stage. I prefer creature movies and ghost stories to violent or slasher films. Not like I don’t watch those, but I’m not as interested in them. I really like the Godzilla movies, the monsters and creatures in those, and all the Universal stuff.

Denis: Is there something about folk art or folklore that influences you a bit more because you feel like you have to do a bit more research?
Jeanne: That’s definitely a part of it. I get really excited learning about new things and obscure things and forgotten things and I’ve always kind of liked the reading aspect of it. Most of the time the reason that I make a painting is because I read about the subject and just instantly thought, “that would be really cool to look at, I want to look at it, so I’m going to have to make it”. Researching a little about the culture it comes from and the kind of art and visual representations they made is really interesting as well as finding ways to adopt those things without copying them. I am definitely very interested in many things and I try to bring all of these things into art whenever I can, because it makes it way more fun for me to make it if I’m excited about the idea. And the reason I pick specific ideas is because I had a strong visual picture of them in my head when I read about them and see them described, or sometimes I see illustrations of them and I think that I could do better or put a different spin on it that would be interesting.

Denis: So you’ve been doing art for a while, do you look at your collected work and notice how you’ve improved as an artist? Is that something you pay attention to?
Jeanne: Definitely. The bulk of the work that anyone would look at now is from the past couple of years. There’s stuff that I did in college that’s floating around out there because it’s attached to projects that I don’t even like to think about. I try not to be really hard on myself and there’s stuff that I did even last year that I think I could do better now, but I still appreciate the way they look and I still understand they have good qualities. It’s kind of interesting, I feel like I don’t have a lot of time because art is not what I do full-time. I don’t have a lot of time to practice and try things and sketch and really consciously develop so I guess any development that’s happening is just natural. I’m naturally getting better because I’m doing more or possibly just because I look at a lot of stuff and pick up little ideas without even thinking about it. I have been settling into the style that I primarily use now, which is the full color paintings with the flat matte paint. It took a little while to master my medium and figure out what kind of paints I wanted to use and what kind of brushes and what kind of lines and gestures I wanted for certain things. Once I started to settle into those I feel like things started to get a little better. I assume that I’ll look at stuff I did this year, next year, and start picking at it…it’s just the sort of natural thing that happens, I think.

Denis: Even looking at your blog that you put some of your art on, you can tell that there seemed to be a point where your pieces became more detailed and more colorful. Was that a conscious effort?
Jeanne: Well for years I thought that my thing was just doing black & white, and that’s what I liked to do. I was really interested in the idea of making books and making work that was easy to reproduce so black & white lent itself really well to that idea. I still really like black & white work and it’s some of my favorite stuff but something happened…I was doing these prints so I had the option of adding a color to them and I didn’t really have a lot of confidence in my ability with color just because I didn’t use it a lot. When I was getting ready for my last show, the first color piece I did was the king vulture. I was looking at pictures of it and I was thinking it was so interesting with the color that it had naturally, I guess I wanted to reproduce that somehow. That’s when I started experimenting with full color stuff. I’m getting a lot more comfortable with it. It took a while to work out how to choose color, since before that all I thought about was how to put light and dark together in a way that you could read it really clearly. You have to make some of the same decisions with color. I think I’m getting better at it and it’s really fun for me. It seems kind of ill-fitting for my personality and personal style, but it is kind of fun to use every single color. I definitely remember when I was a kid my M.O. was to use every single crayon, so apparently I’m doing that as an adult now.

Denis: But now you’re getting paid for it!
Jeanne: Yeah, sort of.

Denis: Back to your blog. You recently started doing something new, where you’re publishing pictures of your art in stages of completion, and you’re also talking about the types of tools and brushes and colors and paints that you use. Why would you let people into those aspects of your creative process?
Jeanne: On a practical level, I wanted to keep the blog active even though I was really busy making work. I wanted to still be posting content and keeping people who were interested, if they were, involved. I also realized that it’s really interesting for me to see other people’s stuff in progress stages. I was a little nervous about it at first because I don’t think they’re much to look at in their earliest stages. Basically, it’s like a coloring book. You have an image in your head of what it’s going to look like finished. It’s a little weird to show someone that first step and assume they’re going to know it’s going to turn into something worthwhile. I enjoy seeing other people’s progress and talking to other people about their process because everyone’s is completely different. They have different mediums they like, different qualities that they like about their mediums. I think it’s kind of interesting that everyone has some picky little thing that they’re obsessed with that probably no one else notices, so I thought it would be interesting to talk about that more. I try not to be a shill for products at all in my blog, but I also think that if I find something I really like working with I might as well tell other people because maybe there’s someone out there that has been looking for something like that for their work.

Denis: Is this something you wished some of your favorite artists had done when you were starting out? Maybe if you knew their processes and tools it would have been helpful, or at least interesting?
Jeanne: I think so. I think that the advent of blogs, and just generally the Internet, has allowed people to express all of the stages of their work and show their work to people across the world. People have a lot more access to these things that used to seem inaccessible, which I think is cool because I don’t really like the idea of art being something that only professional people can do, like it’s something mysterious. I like the idea that people have access to how these things are done and could maybe see what it’s like when someone is working out problems with their work or working past problems. I always liked seeing the sketches that the master painters would do. A lot of the time I liked their sketches a lot better then the finished works. It’s really interesting to see that they go through some of the same stages of development that other people do. Whenever people I know post progress shots or whenever I hang out with friends and get to see their work in progress, it’s always interesting to me. There’s always something relatable…you can talk about a lot of common experiences you have trying to work through a problem with a piece, or trying to work out the best way to do stuff. Then at the same time there’s always something about the way they do things that is totally different from what you do. It’s interesting to hear about it.

Denis: You were saying that you didn’t like art to seem like only something that professional people can do. How does “do it yourself” ethics play into your career as an artist?
Jeanne: It definitely affects me a lot. I think that in general, being introduced to punk and DIY when I was younger made me feel like a lot more things were possible and it’s one of the few things I get idealistic about when I talk about it. I think it’s definitely important, especially when people are younger, to understand that you don’t need to do everything right the first time, and you don’t need to go to school to know how to do something. This is new to me, having a blog and being able to talk to people about what I’m doing. The fact that you can make art at home and you can put it on the internet and people that are interested can see it is a really big deal. I always looked at artists that were associated with punk, things that were self-published, and records that were put out on people’s own labels and was very inspired by that. Especially the punk artists, just the idea that a lot of them didn’t go to school or they weren’t going about an art career in a very conventional way helped me realize there were a lot of ways of doing this.

Denis: Do you think that the Internet has a positive influence on art?
Jeanne: My experiences have generally been positive. I think there is a negative side to all of it as well. The idea of images being constantly reposted without context, they start to lose some of their meaning. I’m becoming aware of the world of Tumblr, and the idea of an image you put out there being reposted and reposted and reposted…on one hand, I like it, it fits with my general philosophy of art that people having access to it is really important, but at the same time I wonder what it’s like to just constantly see images with no context and not really have an understanding of where they came from or who they came from. It’s interesting though, since it also means that it is being taken completely on its own merits and people are identifying with it in a personal way without having any idea how they’re supposed to look at it or who made it, and if that person is important.

Denis: Tell us about your upcoming show.
Jeanne: It’s called “Unclean Spirits” and it’s going to be at Benna’s Café on September 10th. The general focus of the show is encounters with unclean spirits from Slavic folklore. I fell into it as a topic. There was a Nikolai Gogol story that I read a long time ago and had wanted to do images from for a really long time. I was trying to find a way to segue that into my next show. Originally I was just going to do illustrations from that story and then read a lot more of the folklore. I took a couple classes on Slavic culture & folklore in college and was really interested. I started thinking and reading about that stuff again and decided I wanted to make the show a little more broad so I’m basically just picking an area of concentration. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever have enough time to do all of the stuff I want to do, but I’ve managed to pick a lot of images from stories that I really liked to illustrate.

Denis: What’s coming up in the future?
Jeanne: More stuff! There are a couple of people that have approached me about doing illustrations for things. There’s some personal projects, like a ‘zine, and trying to figure out how to paint on bones. Then next March, [Philadelphia-based illustrator] Michael Bukowski and I will be having a show at the Part-Time Studios, so I’ll probably have to start working on that really soon, because I have a full-time job, and a lot of these paintings take a really long time to make, especially on any large scale.

Denis: Well thanks, that’s it.
Jeanne: I did it!

Denis: You did it!

Check out Jeanne’s blog here: Wandering Genie (http://wanderinggenie.blogspot.com/)

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