COLA Fellow Jenny Yurshansky Responds to The Los Angeles Press Questionnaire
Why do you make things?
My background is that my parents are Soviet-Jewish refugees who emigrated from the Soviet Union era state of Moldova. I was born on the way to the U.S., in Rome, grew up in Los Angeles, and after college, I lived between Los Angeles and Sweden for eleven years.
Shifting between borders and cultures has been the narrative of my life. This reality has influenced my work, reflected by what I was seeing as part of the growing numbers of immigrants and refugees in Sweden and who I grew up with in Los Angeles. Coming from comparatively diverse Southern California, where most of the people in my inner circle were either immigrants or first-generation Americans, my research for the past seven years has been on the impact that waves of migration have had in creating a transforming idealized landscape, a space for the projection of cultural shifts in values and norms.
I have a conceptual and research-based practice that informs the material qualities of the artwork that I produce. My history and perspective of being a refugee have deeply informed me. I am interested in the psychic and cultural legacies of loss and trauma that refugee groups carry with them over into their new homes, that replay in the continuum of their lived experience. This topic only becomes more pertinent as the lessons of history fade. I use absence and erasure to widen the space for meaning to be dismantled and re-imagined continually. This subtle approach in presentation slows down the time it takes to experience the work thereby creating time for dialogue with the larger issues that each piece deals with.
I explore the empiric and its tension with the poetic. Using these guidelines, I dig deep into the holes that exist in the systems we have created to categorize the world such as time, memory, history and language. These boxes are unpacked and run through the parallel filters of scientific inquiry and personal experience, often by making use of absence so that room is made, to determine that which is known, by first establishing what is not known.
My work is a balance between the hands-on tactile and in-the-field approach that then is followed up by study and research through observation, discussion, and reading. I often speak with experts in the area I am researching and allowing them to open doors of inquiry for me that I was not even aware of and then pursuing those rabbit holes further.
I derive deep satisfaction being involved in every aspect of making. This includes everything from the research side of the process and when it comes to fabrication it usually involves quite a bit of experimenting to come up with new processes that I can manipulate for creating my pieces. By spending time engaged with scientific or archive-based research I often explore unplanned for paths of inquiry with the eyes of an artist who is interested in not only the data-based information that can be found there but also the cultural signs and layers that saturate their structures and overlay meaning onto how we absorb that information.
What impact, if any, do you hope your work makes on your audience?
My research has allowed me to develop relationships with local experts in biology, botany, herbarium specialists, restoration ecologists, groundskeepers, and native plant societies. The conversations I have go both ways and I see them as a way to bridge disciplines. My work has connected me with multiple local institutions that have hosted and aided my research and presented me and my work, the five Claremont Colleges, the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden and Herbarium, the Huntington Library and Gardens, The Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden, The Bernard Field Station, and a number of artist-run spaces and collectives such as Visitor Welcome Center, Summercamp, and Adjunct Positions. Partnering with these institutions and individuals have also offered me the chance to include writing, public lectures, workshops, and panel discussions as a part of my practice. It is important to me that the work that I make lives in dialogue and provides an opportunity to enhance public awareness and discourse. I see the physical artworks as catalysts for discussions. They don’t really come to life until there are two or more people standing in front of them engaged in dialogue. I am often looking for opportunities for artist talks, exhibition walkthroughs, and the like not necessarily to explain the work but to offer jump starts to these conversations and throw myself on my sword in being the first to speak up
What subjects most draw your interest?
In 2010 I moved into a 100-year-old church in Sweden that was situated amid forest and fields. My former partner and I were rebuilding it into an artist studio, residency, and sculpture park. Plants surrounded me on all sides and at all scales. Learning to read the forest became a substantive part of my daily life. Paying close attention to the relationships between the plants that lived nearer to us and those that seemed wilder but once you dive into the particulars of plant life you soon learn the forensics of what they are saying about humans and our impact. It was fascinating and opened a whole new language for me and reshaped the lens through which I thought about what I was making and the translation of my ideas and the form of my work.
Does solitude impact your work?
I need both solitude and interaction with other people to not only make my work but to see that it is supported with public events, discourse, and widening the access the work has with a variety of audiences. I am often at the center of talks, lectures, and workshops to instigate this type of dialogue.
My work is a combination of study and field research through observation, interviews, discussion, and reading followed a distillation of those experiences and information by labor-intensive, hands-on, tactile, craft and. I often speak with experts within the area I am researching and through the doors of inquiry are opened for me that I wasn’t even aware of and then pursuing those rabbit holes further.
For instance, on my previous long-term project involving blacklisted plant species I needed to identify as many plants as possible from California’s blacklist, a group of 600 plants. This all needed to be done in 30 days on the campuses of the Claremont Colleges. My process involved walking those campuses on my own with the aid of 5 plant identification field guides, but my 16 hour days of doing this were also supplemented with a total of 45 walks with various experts who included botanists, conservation ecologists, native plant specialists, invasive plant specialists, the gardeners for each campus, restoration ecologists, and so on. I would then dig up the plants and transplant them into the studio, first verifying that they were indeed the correct plants, offering them a state of asylum for the period of my research. Once my group of 133 plants was fixed (a number that was reached by the time 30 days had passed), I then turned my attention to more classic archive and institutionally based research.
To organize the plants that I found, I followed the agreed-upon botanical method of organization. I had to do it this way to be able to speak the lingua franca of botanists and be able to confer with them about the plants and details of my list. This also allowed me to efficiently conduct my research within the combined Herbarium of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and Pomona College. The plants are organized by major categories and then subsets within those. Each subcategory then follows in alphabetical order. A quick side note on this herbarium: It takes up three stories of the building that are only accessible by stairs. Safely carrying stacks of these fragile dried plants to my camera rig was nerve-wracking. There are 1.2 million specimens in the collection and is the tenth-largest herbarium in the US. For every plant species, there could be as little as one pressed example of it or hundreds, which meant looking through dozens of folders that filled 7 feet of cabinet space or more in some cases.
I have also traveled to Harvard’s Natural History Museum to research and study The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants. These are just some examples, but I think it was necessary for me to be among the material of the plants along with the people who actively research them and not only have an abstract relationship to them in order to successfully conceive and produce each element of this project.
The preparation and research phase of my projects is deeply connected to and involved with other people. However, when it comes to fabrication, I am often by myself in the studio. This is a very contemplative period in the process. The labor-intensive and often repetitive nature of the work I make creates a period of meditation and deeper analysis which I use to synthesize and formulate the way to speak about the meaning of the work and the connections it makes to the larger concepts and issues it speaks to. This is often the time during which future pieces are conceived that relate to the current body of work that I am engaged with.
Does art matter?
Yes. I say this as an artist and life-long arts educator. However, I think in the U.S. there is a serious dearth of institutional and cultural support for its value. Valuing it as a necessary component of cultural life on both the national and local level. We need to find more avenues to support artists and really understand that our contributions make a society that much more interesting and richer. Public access to the arts also creates a deeper understanding of why it is a fundamental component.
I think that there is often a divide of class or a feeling that the general public has where they do not believe they have the knowledge or ability to understand art that keeps them out of museums and public opportunities for engagement. Arts education from the outset and outreach go hand in hand with the general public’s belief in art’s value, the meaning it creates in their own lives, and the need to support artists through publicly funded programs.
What do you want to make as a COLA fellow?
The works I will produce deal with the history of the massive 1970’s exodus of Soviet Jewish refugees, of which I am a legacy of the wave that left in 1979. Nearly 250,000 Jews were traded for wheat, as part of backroom trade deals with the United States, SALT I and II. I am interested in the gaps of memory and information that were experienced within the Soviet state where these people were second-class citizens. How have the losses in cultural memory been manifested in both the refugee and the original “home?” The elements from this body of work that I will present for COLA will utilize visual elements of absence, loss, and erasure, through sculptures and installations involving glass, steel, embroidery, and photography. In the summers of 2016 and 2017, I took my mother back to Moldova for the first time since she left as a refugee while heavily pregnant with me (I ended up being born in Rome as my parent’s fled to the United States). This was the first time for me to experience this place that she does not often talk about, because of so many painful associations that exist for her during her time there. Without my knowing about its existence, we by chance happened to visit the cemetery where her grandfather is buried, she had never been allowed to go inside. We walked into it for the first time together and as we walked through the narrow path cleared through the undergrowth for us by the groundskeeper we came upon the 12 foot high headstone of my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother, my great aunts and uncles whose passing during and just after WWII are memorialized. The headstone is sculpted out of limestone in the shape of a limbless tree, it is the tallest thing in the cemetery, and very much feels like it is part of the trees that it is surrounded by. All the more so because the groundskeeper, without anyone’s knowledge, had painted it bright green, as a way to camouflage it and protect it from vandals. Seeing this monument was a shock and a turning point for me. I came back the next year once more with my mother and made a rubbing of the surface on a 9-foot square piece of dressmaker’s muslin. I have been embroidering the entire surface of marks on this piece of flimsy muslin with my mother in the same shade of green which the headstone was painted with. It will be displayed as a floating veil, simulating the form of the original headstone within it.
Along with this piece will be a number of charred steel armatures which each carry 60-80 pieces of varying shades of slumped green optometric glass, called precision blanks. These pieces of glass are used by optometrists to create the lenses for prescription glasses. The contradiction of a lens that is meant to help one see more clearly, being precisely blank is a foil to the difficulties with memory that refugees have, such as the blank spots that exist in what is shared, remembered, and distorted a result of trauma. The steel armatures resemble tree branches so that the installation mimics the feeling of being within a disembodied tree canopy via the shadows being cast on the floor. The metaphors of lineage, family, diaspora, and lives being cut short are a translation from the first interaction with my great-grandfather’s headstone. This was my first opportunity to see and understand the place my family originates from and to also reflect on what it means to return to a state that was eager to be rid of an entire ethnic minority. The aim is to better understand and analyze the re-entry of the ejected/rejected body from a social, political, and cultural landscape. What does it mean to come back to a place that did not ask for one’s return, that fully supported a population’s evacuation, and that the refugee refuses to discuss or remember? This expulsion was a final push in the ongoing process of writing out, suppressing, imprisoning, and disappearing from the historical record. What is home when it is a place that both formed and traumatized? What does that mean for the relationship to the new home that the refugee has sought asylum in.