Jessica Caldas photo: Hannah Miller
Awareness, Empathy, and Change
In Dialogue with Deanna Sirlin
Jessica Caldas, "The Endeavor Funeral Procession", 2021, Performance with soft sculpture, Durational performance 3-5 hours in length, photog: Haylee Anne
Jessica Caldas began as a printmaker but has most recently been making large-scale fabric sculptures in shades of red, rose and pink. These sculptures echo her personal narrative of her life and history as a daughter, a mother, and an artist. Caldas’s works have been carried through the streets of Atlanta in a kind of procession; her performances are both street art and a happening, an event that fills the viewer with pathos. Caldas’s sculptural works have been attacked, revered, and put to rest. In these works, “the viewer is met with bodily experiences that mirror the complexities of the stories she shares, with a focus on shared knowledge, awareness, empathy, and change.” Though Caldas’s relationship to the art of the 1960’s--happenings, performance, street art, and soft sculpture—is compelling, her ideas are highly pertinent to the social status of women in this century. -- Deanna Sirlin
Deanna Sirlin: How do you describe your artistic process and journey?
Jessica Caldas: My artistic process has become a slow one. Where once I worked quickly, and almost frantically, I have learned in the years since completing my graduate work that a slower, more methodical approach serves me and my work much more completely than the ways I used to create. I spend an inordinate amount of time, months and sometimes longer, reading, writing, and researching ideas, stories, and concepts that inform the work I am creating. I probably spend more time thinking about the work I will make than actually producing it, because by the time I have gotten to the point of making, I have a lot of knowledge about where I am going and what I want from the work. This is not to say that I create without reacting to what is happening, because that is another important part of my practice. Much of my production is also organic and reactionary as well. I like the ability to respond to change, materials, problems, and other things that happen in the studio as they happen, rather than strictly adhering to a plan. I find that flexibility has produced far better work than rigidity ever does. It is more real and more realistic.
As for my journey, I am one of those fortunate people who have been creating my whole life. I was privileged enough to be surrounded by art from a young age, and to be surrounded by people who took art seriously and supported my desire to practice art professionally. So going to school for art was never an issue.
After that, it became about finding what I would make work about. In that regard, there were two major influences on my practice. The first was my family and close relationships which were very diverse and complicated. My father is Puerto Rican from a Catholic family (though irreligious) and my mother is queer, primarily dating women since she and my father split. I grew up in a home with divorced parents who managed to raise my siblings and me together, in a shared space partly out of the necessity of our socioeconomic status. But rather than understanding that the reality that we lived with my divorced parents in one house with their partners occasionally living with us as well, was due to my parents’ income, I understand that time as one of love and caring and generosity. We wanted for nothing and my parents, though I’m sure it was not without its difficulty, made us feel whole and loved despite whatever difficulty their separation and financial status entailed.
The second major influence was my eventual volunteer and advocacy work. After school, I began working with my stepmother at the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation as a volunteer for their domestic violence project. Eventually that led to a full time role coordinating the project, where the meat of the work was in helping survivors of intimate partner violence obtain protective orders and other measures of safety and security. This work had a profound impact on me and the kinds of stories I wanted to tell through my work, namely, the kind shrouded by stigma and misunderstanding, the kinds of stories that most people were not talking about in a real way. This lead to more and more advocacy and activism work in the field of gender based violence, which grew the studio work I was doing in relation. This investment in community storytelling and story sharing, as well as in family and community ties, both born and built, is, I think, the common thread through the various kinds of work I have been making for the past 10 years.
Jessica Caldas, "The Endeavor Installation Procession," 2021, Performance with soft sculpture, Durational performance 5 hours in length, photographed by Haylee Anne
DS: What is the relationship between form and content in your work? Which comes first?
JC: Content really does come first for me. As I mentioned, I spend months reading and writing, collecting stories, research, literature, and other texts and objects that can support my work. It is through and during this process that I begin to envision the form the work will take, what materials I will use, and how they will work together to convey a story or experience. Obviously, an ongoing body of work, like Tired Bodies, has history and a visual language that will inform the choices I make about form, but it is still the content that ultimately dictates the choices.
DS: Can you tell me about your color and fabric choices?
JC: In the series Tired Bodies, I use primarily red, pink, and purple hues for the figures. When I started making these figures, I wanted them to feel human but also not be too representational or too specific. If I had chosen true flesh tones, the choices I made for each figure might be limiting in terms of who would be represented. So many of the stories I am telling, while attached to something specific, are also the kind of stories that a large number of people experience. These exaggerated tones, these deep reds and purples, these bright pinks, are so much more fun than flesh tones but also hint at some of the deeper crevices of the human body. They aren’t too foreign, so there isn’t an immediate sense of “alien” when looking at them, but they aren’t too specific either.
Similarly, I wanted the fabrics to have a kind of fleshy familiarity about them as well. I use, almost exclusively, found and thrifted house linens for the Tired Bodies. This is important, because we know that materials and objects retain a kind of history from their use. House linens, sheets, curtains, tablecloths, and the like, are objects that are used with exceptional frequency and so have an even greater sense of intimacy about them. There is also something a little gross about that, and I enjoy the way they mirror the human body: it is beautiful and gross and intimate all at the same time. The history gives them some power as well as their association with the home. The one major exception was the piece from the Beltline in 2021, The Endeavor. She was made of hundreds of used military parachutes which I hand dyed. For her, in particular, I enjoyed the parachutes as a material that had been repurposed from a kind of violent life to one of care. They are objects of safety and security, but also objects of war and so to take them and recontextualize them into this large scale monument to care was important to me.
Jessica Caldas, "The Endeavor (prior to birth)," 2021, recycled and hand dyed military parachute,
85 feet in length, courtesy the Artist
DS: Your current work is composed of large-scale pink biomorphic forms that fill the gallery or studio space. What is your physical relationship to them? Are the sculptures references to your body? Does your physical engagement with the sculptures shape their meaning?
JC: I began Tired Bodies in 2018. They began with small drawings of figures that couldn’t sit upright which I titled with the kinds of “encouraging” phrases and toxic positivity that our culture is overflowing with - “Lean in” and so on. I was exhausted when I began drawing them and I suppose they were a reference to my own body. When I began translating these drawings into soft sculptures, I wanted them to be larger than life, “They should be even bigger than my own body, because this feeling of exhaustion, this need to produce, this hustle is something so much bigger than me, "it is destroying me,” is probably along the lines of what I was thinking. In the beginning that was the extent of it. I was resistant to thinking about how they related to my own position of motherhood and instead of focusing on my own relationship to them, I began asking others about their failure and fatigue and thinking about how I might represent that in the work.
I eventually discovered the Nap Ministry (founded in 2016 by Tricia Hersey) and other texts, writing, and literature that talked about ideas of rest and labor that seemed crucial to the direction the Tired Bodies were moving in. I started complicating their environments, creating installations for them that spoke to different ideas around fatigue, failure, social norms and expectations, and more.
The largest shift in my thinking about how other bodies could interact with the Tired Bodies came with The Endeavor. Rather than a static installation and built environment, she would be in the public. I wanted to invite others to help me birth her, to help bring her to life. She is really the first Tired Body that came to reflect my own body the most directly, where I fully embraced my role as mother in relation to the work, especially after her destruction, and once I had to readapt the work into the funeral processions.
DS: Do you see your work as related to performance?
JC: Even though I work less directly in performance than I used to, I still consider myself a performance artist. Outside of actual performances I am developing for new work, and the performances I used to create, my practice is filled with performance. I stepped away from performing for a few years because once I had my daughter and attempted to perform, I realized I needed a new understanding of my relationship to my own body before I could successfully perform. I used to torture myself, my body, through my work to tell the stories I needed to tell. That work was valuable to me then, but in my new role I knew that kind of labor would not be possible. I wanted to care for my body in ways new to me and I spent a lot of time thinking and practicing that. The pieces I conducted as a part of the Endeavor were my first real performances since then. While they were still labor intensive (hauling tons of soft sculpture through a public walkway, followed by hours of reading to the public), I relied very much on a community of others to be there with me, to join me in the labor. And its intensity was also bellied by a kind of gentleness and indulgence I allowed myself through the work, when I let things fail or function as they would without attempting to exert too much control.
Jessica Caldas, "The Caretaker (Elizabeth),"2019/2022, used house linens, poly fiber fill, cinder block, rope, and antique family rocking chair, dimensions variable, roughly 8 x 8 x 8 feet
photo by Brian Bates
DS: Your sculptures have a very physical, tactile quality. Do you want people to touch your work or interact with in other ways?
JC: I do want to find a way for soft sculpture to work as something that can be enjoyed in a tactile way. For now, the environments I create are serving as much of that purpose as they can, but it’s not quite the place I want it to be at yet. Some of this is my own skill, some of this is my own desire to make the Tired Bodies more and more elaborate and intricate which makes them more and more delicate.
DS: What kind of emotional response are you hoping to create in the viewer?
JC: This question feels like a trap! I can’t conceive of trying to control the emotional response someone might have to my work, but I can hope they have some kind of response. I think the Tired Bodies are kind of funny and emotional in a sad way at the same time. The Endeavor made me have same feelings I had as a sexual assault survivor once she was destroyed, but she was also full of joy and community while she lived, and many folks communicated that to me. There is also confusion and derision. I think, that if people feel something, if they become more aware of their bodies in relation to others and the world, then that is what I am after.
DS: Are your works related to Feminism? Do they reference the work of Louise Bourgeois with her stuffed and knitted pink bodies/sculptures?
JC: I think it's impossible to escape the legacy of feminism in my work, especially given my own history of advocacy and activism. I adore the works of Louise Bourgeois, but I find the humor and crassness of Sarah Lucas’ soft sculptures more appealing in some ways. In addition to everything I have said so far, it is important to me to note that the Tired Bodies, while sort of androgynous, do really cue a female form, and I often refer to them in she/her or they/them pronouns. My own positionality makes me hyper aware of the gender norms women and women identifying folks face, the expectations placed upon our bodies and actions by society, and how they affect us physically and psychologically. Ultimately, Tired Bodies references those demands and forces. I think they resist those demands with their weirdness and refusal to conform.
Jessica Caldas,"The Dilemma (Rachel)," 2019/2022, used house linens, poly fiber fill, bricks, rope, and round mirror, dimensions variable, roughly 8 x 6 x 3 feet, photos by Brian Bates
DS: Does the current political atmosphere change the urgency in your work?
JC: Yes and No. This is the work I have been making for so long because this work has been needed and continues to be needed. Tired Bodies are fantastic vehicles because they expand on ideas and work that I have been doing for ten years, while also taking on new meaning based on their environments and contexts (both physical and not). But I would be making these works even if we didn’t live in a country actively challenging the rights and existence of marginalized folks because this challenge has existed for much longer than it has been so blatant.
Jessica Caldas is a Puerto Rican American, Georgia and Florida based, artist, advocate, and activist.
Jessica Caldas photo: Haylee Ann
Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia.
Deanna Sirlin photo: Marie Thomas