Interview: Jean Wender

Jean Wender“What I’ve been pondering lately is the whole idea of connections: humans connected to each other, humans connected to nature, the present connected to both the past and the future, and how fragile those connections can become. And I’m not sure how but I’d like to explore that idea more deeply. Maybe in the forming, maybe in the firing, maybe revisiting some techniques I used to enjoy.” — Jean Wender  4/17/21


Who is Jean Wender?

Jean Wender is an artist who lives in Kansas City, Kansas. She currently focuses on ceramic art, and also has worked extensively in painting, which was her major at the Kansas City Art Institute. She participates in shows and exhibitions throughout the U.S., and if she ever gets her website fixed, I’ll provide a link to her work. I met Jean quite a few years back when we both worked in marketing communications… Jean in graphic design and me as a writer/producer. I also play long-distance chess with Jean’s husband, Kenny, a fine furniture craftsman, who beats me almost every game. Jean is funny, smart, creative, and kind, as well as being a great home chef.


The Interview…

John: Where are you from originally… where’d you grow up and what was it like growing up?

Jean: Some people would probably say I never did grow up, but where I formed my first memories was in Illinois. My parents relocated from the South to suburban Chicago. This was in the 1950’s, and in a lot of ways, I remember my childhood pretty much the way life was depicted in TV programs like “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”. Besides my two sisters and brother, there were TONS of kids to play with and we were always out and about — making tents out of old blankets, riding our bikes, playing Red Rover, 3 Feet in the Mud Puddle, Kick the Can, etc. But there was a lot of unacknowledged ugliness, too. A lot of things happened that just weren’t discussed…

John: Growing up in the 1950s myself, I feel like I know exactly what you mean about life being very similar to, yet somehow different from, the shows we watched. In my case, since I grew up on a farm, my life more closely resembled the show “Lassie,” except without Lassie and with far less understanding parents. But all joking aside, it does seem like the 50s focused on maintaining a perfectly maintained veneer that finally began to crack with the social upheaval of the 60s. I know my life began to change during the 60s… did yours?

Jean: Sure, my life changed during the 60s, but how do you separate cultural forces from changes inherent in adolescence? I have to say that I was not one of those socially conscious teenagers, passionately protesting the war in Vietnam and advocating for Eugene McCarthy. This despite growing up outside of Chicago, home to the 1968 Democratic Convention and where police broke in and killed Black Panther members as they were in bed, sleeping. Hard to admit how shallow I was then, just embracing the symbols of the counterculture, the clothing, the music, etc., and not the heart. A superficial rebellion at best.

John: I kind of think being a shallow teenager is actually pretty normal. I was a shallow teenager. Every teenager I knew was shallow. When I think about it, it seems more likely that the passionate socially conscious young people we all wish we were as teenagers were actually twenty-somethings… college kids or early career people we looked up to who were themselves mentored by teachers and activists. And the teenagers who were politically active weren’t qualitatively better than other teenagers… they were literally trend following just like the music, art, literature, fashion, etc. trend followers. Each one of those trends was producing really amazing stuff at that time, and they all were shaping our teenage selves by merging cultural forces with adolescent biology. I’ve always been deeply reflective in my thinking, and I suspect you have, too. Reflection creates a lot of inner dialogue, and for me, writing has helped me make sense of that dialogue. Has your art offered you any similar support?

Jean: I haven’t created anything substantial in a long time. Between my feelings about the last presidency, and then the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been in stasis, or trapped in a cocoon of my own negativity. Fear and anger drowned out most of the joy I habitually felt. I suppose there are those who are able to use any strong emotion to make art, but that isn’t my nature, damn it. I think in my case, joy is necessary to be able to hear the prompts that lead me to create, and in creation, the joy is replenished.

Right now, I am consciously working on trying to starve the bleakness and feed the hopefulness. Because you’re right, art is a dialogue that starts within and leads outward. I want to change my inner dialogue to one that puts me back open to the beauty that surrounds us. Because it’s such a simple desire, to leave behind something of beauty.

John: You’ve already given the world a great deal of beauty, and I hope you can take some comfort in that, but I do understand your need to continue on a beautiful path. And I agree that the days have been pretty dark for awhile now. From an emotional standpoint, I’m like you in that my creativity is selective, because anger, for example, just shuts me down completely. But for me the thing that works, the thing I need most, is tears. Anything that brings me to tears wakes me up. So joy, loss, hope, longing, love, grief… any of those emotions speaks to me. But my inner dialogue never takes the form of words. It’s pure feeling… I feel the world more than I analyze it, and it’s the process of turning those feelings into words that brings the tears. It’s actually kind of bizarre I think, but hey, you know, I am who I am. So as far as your dialogue goes, how does that happen for you? How can you shape, or help to reshape, that dialogue?

Jean: That is really interesting, how your process moves back and forth between the emotional and analytical, and if I’m understanding correctly, tears provide a release that lets you express your feelings. And unlike what’s stated in the Bible, in the beginning is not necessarily the word. (John 1:1 – I’ve always been intrigued by that verse – what the hell does it mean? It’s so beautifully open to interpretation.

But you asked a question. It’s hard to articulate how I work, but I know I’m at my most successful when I treat studio time like a job and assign hours to work. That overrides my inherent laziness and leads to actually doing – and physicality is my first step, the repeat actions of working with clay, the prep work involved, and the steps performed to work on the wheel. (When I painted, the physical process of stretching canvas and the feel of paint brush pushing on the canvas did much the same thing.) And the “doing” quiets the negative yammering that clogs up my brain, which unlike your inner dialogue, often is in words, and not very kind ones, either. But once I get going, the yammering stops and becomes more of a happy hum…so the productive dialogue is between mind and body and creates a relaxed cooperation between the two.  So, to get back there, I have been looking at yoga classes online, and there is a stress management program that has a short Qigong segment that I really enjoy. My plan is to retrain my body into outward, expansive gestures and get rid of the clenched, inwardly constricted muscles that anger and fear provoke. I’m hoping that priming the physicality will lead me back into my studio.

John: What a wonderful description of process. And it makes perfect sense because of the physical aspects of your form of creative expression. Also, I find it interesting that you mentioned yoga and qigong as ways to reharmonize yourself. I’ve been practicing tai chi for somewhere around 25 years now, which is related to qigong. I do believe it helps pull in positive energy. And this is a little off topic, but tai chi and qigong grew out of taoist thought, so it struck me when you mentioned John 1:1, which says “In the beginning was the Word…” because in the Tao Te Ching, the first verse says “The Tao which can be named is not the true Tao.” In Taoism, there is the thing and there is the name for the thing, and those are two different things, but it was the nameless thing that came first, because the process of naming… of using language to interpret life… is really kind of delusional because humans tend to view life in the context of their own ego, or as being centered around them, rather than in the context of life being everything, of which humans are simply one very small part. So if we carry that idea into the creative processes we’re talking about, do you think it’s possible that what we’re doing when we awaken our creativity is to consciously step away from delusion and attempt to capture life in its own terms?

Jean: “The Tao which can be named is not the true Tao.” I have been thinking about that a lot, and your explanation of how human ego colors and distorts existence. I’m wondering if the way humans process what we see, using both visual input and tying it to previous experiences, contributes to this. Interesting how so many different things seem to be connected… But I don’t think I can say that I “consciously step away from delusion”, or the naming of things, when I create. Can you really strip your perception of personality? I’m more about trying to find a balance between that which I can control and that which is beyond my influence, the naming and the being. (Which would be a really good name for an exhibit, by the way…) I’m after that moment when conscious intent meets spinning clay and is seduced into a happy hum. Living with duality…

John: Can I strip my perception of personality? I can’t, but I believe it may be possible. Would I want to perceive without my sense of self? Not really… I mean, I love melodrama and nostalgia, and the emotion that feeds those particular addictions derives from my interpretation of my lived experience, right? So it would be hard to quit. I love your comment about finding a balance between that which you can control and that which is beyond your influence… the naming and the being. When can I hope to see that exhibit, by the way? And speaking of exhibits, where all have you exhibited your ceramic art?

Jean: John, you are full of surprises! You, a fan of melodrama; I never would have guessed that. Nostalgia, yes, I can see that in your writing. But could be I’m not using the same definition of melodrama that you are – I think of movies like “Madame X”, “Dark Victory”, or “D.O.A”, or books like “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights”… or maybe it’s a lack of imagination on my part that tries to keep you in a narrow framework. Perhaps the John I’ve been naming is not the true John…

As to where I have exhibited my ceramic work, I have had shows here in Kansas City at the Kansas City Artist Coalition and at Gould Evans Art Space and at galleries in Prairie Village, Topeka, and Hays, KS. Juried shows have included Tulsa, OK, LaGrange and Decatur, GA, Tieton, WA and Portland, OR. As to the future? I think I’m coming out of artistic hibernation. I’ve spent the past few days cleaning and organizing my studio. And just quietly thinking… Between our conversation (which I thank you for initiating), getting the COVID-19 vaccine, and the beginning of Spring, something is stirring that feels like hope. Don’t see any feathers yet but you never know…

John: John by any other name still would love Jane Eyre. I remember a time in college when I was taking a “Female Novelists of the 19th Century” class, me and ten girls, and Jane Eyre was one of my favorites. That was an early feminist experience for me. In fact, I should probably say that nostalgia, melodrama, and feminism are strong within me. And it makes me happy to know that within you, the seeds of hopeful expression are once again beginning to germinate. Now I’m wondering… at what point does the idea for what you are going to create begin? You’re feeling things beginning to bubble up… do you know what you want to do yet, or are you waiting for the seed to germinate to see what kind of a plant it wants to be?

Jean: I love “Jane Eyre” too, also Charlotte Bronte’s book “Villette”. Strong women rebelling against society’s restraints. Love their impassioned speeches… You make we wonder if the early feminist experience for you was the reading of those authors or the ensuing discussion with 10 young women? Though I imagine all of it was fueling the person you have become.

So what I’ve been pondering lately is the whole idea of connections: humans connected to each other, humans connected to nature, the present connected to both the past and the future, and how fragile those connections can become. And I’m not sure how but I’d like to explore that idea more deeply. Maybe in the forming, maybe in the firing, maybe revisiting some techniques I used to enjoy. I like your plant analogy — at this point my seedling of an idea could lead in many different directions. Soon I’ll need to grab a pencil and start trying to organize some thoughts. Drawing not only helps narrow a direction to pursue but it’s a joy in its own right.

John: Without a doubt, my feminist journey has relied more upon discussions with bright, free-thinking women (both young and old) than anything I’ve read, but the reading has helped a great deal also. And I love the idea of connections! Everything is connected, and I’m looking forward to seeing how you work with that idea. It’s fascinating to hear you speculate in physical terms… the forming, the firing… it must be a wonderful feeling to take an idea into your hands and shape it. Thinking about that makes me wonder if making art… shaping art… can feel like trying to shape your own life. You have a vision of what you’re going for, then you do the work you believe will get you there, knowing all the while that unforeseen variables… in the clay, in the kiln, in the air we breathe… can lead to something different than originally imagined. But maybe the surprise outcome can be even more beautiful than the original vision. What do you think… am I reaching too far with this notion?

Jean: I’ve been thinking that making art, for me, is a lot like cooking. You can heat up a Swanson’s pot pie in the oven and that accomplishes getting food on the table. And some days, that’s all you need. Or you can challenge yourself, and read a bunch of recipes, and try to imagine, based on your existing knowledge of techniques and spices, what a certain dish will taste like. And sometimes it’s delicious, and worth every minute or hour or dollar you spent in its creation, and sometimes it’s either a total failure or so far from what you had hoped that you never make that particular dish again. But either way, you learn from the experience and you take that knowledge with you on your next venture.

I don’t consciously equate making pots with shaping my life, almost vice versa. I choose to smoke fire my pieces rather than glaze them as a rebellion to my almost pathological need to feel in control. The control freak in me is satisfied with working on the wheel and pushing myself to throw larger, thinner, fatter, or joining different shapes to overcome my skill limits. But I need to acknowledge that there is so much more in life totally outside of my influence. I’ve learned to embrace the mystery and unpredictability of smoke firing. You can have an intent, you can hope for a certain effect, but as you say, the unforeseen variables are going to have their way. And if you’re too focused on what you THINK is going to happen, you’re going to be extremely frustrated. Like the Yiddish adage “Man plans, and God laughs.”

John: I identify with your need for a sense of control. I’ve always been that way too, in spite of near continuous episodes throughout my life that demonstrated quite clearly that control was not achievable. I guess I’m a slow learner. So based on your experiences, what might you say to a young artist on the subject of planning and control… someone who’s just getting started, looking for the medium that feels right, and wanting to be in control of their art and their career?

Jean: The best advice I can offer is some that I need to follow, too: don’t confuse self-discipline with control. Be open to a variety of influences, have fun and experiment, but have the discipline to put in the hours and do the work. Ultimately, control is an illusion that can break you; self-discipline will get you through the inevitable setbacks.