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Jess Johnson



Jesse Marlow


Jess Johnson



Jumping at the chance to temporarily inhabit a studio at Gertrude Contemporary, Jess Johnson is subletting when we visit. After injecting her surrounds with home comforts, she has recommenced her painstakingly detailed drawings.

Interview by Toby Fehily. Photography by Jesse Marlow.

Jess: This isn’t actually my studio. It belongs to Adele Mills, and I’m just subletting it for three months while she’s away in America. I’ve had three different studios at Gertrude Contemporary: my own one while I was a studio artist from 2012 to 2014, and two others I’ve subletted for short periods while artists have been away on residencies. The studios are incredible here, so I’ve hung on as long as I can!

I always tend to try to make my studio a domestic environment.

There are limitations as to what I’ve been able to do in here, though, because it’s not actually mine. But I always try to make everything super comfortable so I don’t have any reason to leave. In my old studio I had a kitchenette and a lounge area with a flatscreen TV (I like to watch reality TV shows during my lunch break). But everyone’s got their own style. A lot of artists like a pristine, stripped-back environment, whereas I go for homely.

I usually put carpet down because I go barefoot in the studio in summer and it’s nicer standing on carpet. The carpet here is left over from an installation I did for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Primavera in 2013. These are recycled carpet tiles, which I cut up then rearranged into new patterns. I also generally have two large transportable wood tables: one for the drawing I’m working on and the other for spreading things out. I tend to just focus on one work at a time – it’s easier to get absorbed into one work instead of splitting your attention between a few.

My time at Gertrude has been really rewarding. In the past, I thought I worked better in isolation, so I was apprehensive about coming here initially. I thought there might be too many interruptions! But everything has turned out to be a positive. Getting to know the community of artists has been great; so has making friendships and having people to talk to about work and ask for advice. The organisation and staff are really supportive too. They facilitate studio visits from curators, exhibition opportunities, educational programs, et cetera. When left to my own devices I tend to just burrow away and not interact much with people. So being in this environment has pushed me in ways that I might not have sought out but have proved really beneficial.


I try to get in here by 8.30 or 9am and I’m usually here until about 7pm. I walk from North Melbourne and go through the Carlton Gardens on the way here and back, so that’s a little dose of nature that I get twice a day. Otherwise I’m pretty much in here all day drawing. I work six days a week and take Sundays off. Sunday’s the day at home where I read the paper and do market shopping and laundry and don’t think about art at all.

Most of my drawings take place in this alternate universe that I’ve been developing over the last three years. It’s gradually become more complex and there’s this internal logic that has organically emerged over time. A lot of the imagery and characters and symbolism are quite self-generating now. It’s kind of like a dredging process. It’s got to a point after three years where it feels quite rich and developed.

There’s an element of ridiculousness to the labour involved in drawing these. Sometimes they get mistaken for being made on a computer. But if I were to make them on a computer that would take me out of the process. What would I do then? There’s something about the labour and the time it takes to do them that gives me space for my mind to wander and the imagery to rise to the surface. It’s like the drawings are actually a by-product of spending long hours in the studio putting pen to paper, which is my preferred place to be.

I’m not interested in digital images because I like seeing the presence of the human hand. If the world were created digitally it would be a really cold place to me. Making the human hand visible in drawing adds this Frankensteinian touch where it gives it life. I make a myriad of mistakes throughout the drawings and those mistakes act as mutational directions that I have to integrate into the work. If I could digitally erase my mistakes, I wouldn’t necessarily get that organic growth in the world. I like that it’s a little out of my control.

– November 2015

Jesse Marlow

Suggested Reading

Art Guide Australia

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