In Jesse Gray’s recent exhibition Mesomonuments, which took place at Artspeak gallery in Vancouver, Gray displayed a vast collection of collected and archived debris that she began sourcing a few years ago along the beaches surrounding her home on Nanaimo, Vancouver Island. Transformed and unified through bronze casting, the exhibition emphasized the role of ritualized viewership and redistribution as ‘parts of the work left the space intermittently’. The objects bear a striking resemblance to early modernist jewelry, an area that interests Gray, who is also a practicing jeweler. Gray’s practice deals with notions of intensive labor, the anti or ‘accidental’ monument, through the lens of scientific and material histories. She holds an MFA in Studio Art from the University of British Columbia (2009), a BFA in Visual Art from Simon Fraser University (2002), and studied jewellery art & design at Vancouver Community College (2012). In our interview, Gray discusses how she came to art, the making of Mesomonuments and the exhibition’s widespread reception, some of the challenges of pursuing an art career, and her hopes for 2021.
In conversation with Ariana Kalliga
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to the current preoccupations of your practice?
I’ve been working with found materials, mostly garbage and discards, since my first year of grad school in 2006. First it was ripping out the components from electronic equipment (VCRs, old TVs, stereos, computers, etc) I would find while walking around Vancouver and then reconfiguring them into larger works. Then I worked on a series of pieces made from the glass left over from car and store break-ins in East Vancouver. I would see these sparkling pieces of gems glinting on the sidewalk on a grey overcast day and started thinking about ideas of preciousness and value and how they played into larger constellations of meaning, especially in the context of a city like Vancouver, with its stark discrepancies between classes and the ever-increasing price of housing in particular. After a year of gathering sacks of broken glass, getting it back to my studio (usually by public transit), and sorting, organising and working with this material on a variety of smaller projects, I spent 4 months creating an 8-foot high chandelier, using a brass chandelier armature I got on craigslist and replacing all the original glass ‘crystals’ with assembled glass shards.
I realised after these projects that I had been to nearly 8 years of post-secondary art school and still didn’t have any concrete technical skills, so I decided to do a 2-year full-time program in jewellery art and design at Vancouver Community College. In the interim I also had a baby. Jewellery school was great in that I really felt like I got a handle on various forms of fabrication and construction, which in turn opened up new conceptual possibilities for projects.
You are based in Nanaimo, Vancouver BC. Your recent works actively repurposes material found on the Island, specifically debris and plastic waste gathered around the coast on the territories of Snuneymuxw, Stz’uminus and Snaw’naw’as peoples. When did you first start this exercise of gathering fragments of plastic debris?
My partner, our son and I moved to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island in 2014, after we were priced out of Vancouver. Both of us work in the arts and there was just no way to sustainably live there with a young kid and also try and rent studio space, pay for daycare etc. Over here we were able to buy a home with enough space for both of us to have studios in the basement and have significantly less financial stress. Since being over here, we go for walks several times a week, and there are so many easily accessed beaches all around the Nanaimo area. I started picking up trash along our walks and as with other projects, started noticing interesting details about some of the garbage. I’m really interested in the small and overlooked, and am fascinated by how objects can tell the story of their own production and history and cultural context.
The year we moved here was also the year my son started grade school, and he’s really struggled with the education system. So much of my time for the past 6-7 years has been spent supporting him and his education, and working part time gigs to help support the family. There has not been much time left over for art making at all. I applied for multiple federal, municipal, and provincial grants and shows and post-secondary art teaching positions and was unsuccessful each time.
So I decided just to plug away at some ideas I had that could exist outside the gallery context and do what I could with the time and resources that I had. Casting the plastic that seemed interesting was a logical step for me as the majority of my jewellery is based in lost-wax casting, and lost-plastic casting is just another version of this process. In fact most of the waxes used by jewellers is actually a petroleum-based polymer and not a natural wax, and all of the 3D printers used for jewellery create models out of polymer resin so it’s all part of the same thing. Except in this way I could use things that already existed instead of buying pre-made jewellery waxes.
When I got my first batch of castings back from the casting house, one thing that struck me was the similarity of the forms and shapes to early modernist jewellery. Many of the plastic trash objects still clearly read as utilitarian, mass-produced, full of grids, right angles, perfect concentric circles. Early-mid twentieth century artisan jewellers sought to embrace more ‘democratic’ forms that mimicked those of mass-production, echoing the aesthetics and socialist-utopian aspirations of their contemporaries in Modernist/Brutalist architecture.
So I’ve been working on this jewellery series since around 2016, emulating this kind of modernist sensibility using bronze-cast beach plastic, but I never wanted it to be a ‘one-liner’ or made from too obviously recognisable objects as I wanted the pieces to stay conceptually open-ended. So I was left with all of these familiar objects in bronze: cigarillo butts, tampon applicators, bottle caps, stir sticks, toys, shotgun wads, that I didn’t want to use for the jewellery project, so decided to start bringing them back to the beaches where they were originally found. Sometimes I’d post GPS coordinates on my Instagram, sometimes I’d just leave them. My hope was that even if someone didn’t know about this project, they might still pick an item up or spend some time with it because it was at once recognisable and made strange by its transformation into bronze.
How did your work evolve from there into your recent exhibition at the artist-run Artspeak Gallery in Vancouver?
I worked on these related projects piecemeal, as I could afford to cast and finish the pieces, bit by bit, without having any institutional support. This way of working was basically my practice from my last gallery exhibition in 2013 until this current show in late 2020. There were a lot of years in there where I was pretty discouraged about art making and the art world in general.
Some curator friends came to visit in 2019 and I started talking with Bopha Chhay from Artspeak Gallery about working with them on a project. Having a guaranteed exhibition in an artist-run space helped me get substantial financial support from the federal and provincial art councils. These were my first large grants as an independent artist, and allowed me to sustain myself and help support my family with my artwork. It also allowed me to ramp up my production capacity, and cast large amounts of plastic at once. I actually got the grants at the end of February/beginning of March 2020, and was all set to dive right in when the pandemic shut everything down. My kid is already homeschooled but we lost our other supports and childcare when everyone went into quarantine, and I had to put the exhibition work on hold for 4 months while I was the primary caregiver and homemaker.
This is the time period where I started working on the Elza Mayhew-inspired sculptures. My casting house was closing during lockdown and I couldn’t do any work on the Ex-situ pieces (the labour in these works is mostly post-casting). So when I was able to snatch an hour here or there to work in between taking care of the kid and house and pets, I started assembling these little figurative sculptures at my bench. It was a way to feel accomplished in small ways, as I could build the figures from plastic scraps and melted beeswax, and feel like I had made something.
It was also a really playful process and it felt like I woke up one day and had suddenly made 55 of them. I hadn’t realised that this had become a fully-fledged work separate from Ex-situ until then. I was thinking about it more as a way to keep busy and feel like I was creating, but it really blossomed into something more. And I think the two projects have a lot to say to one another and each add new ways of looking at the other.
The title of your recent show is Mesomonuments. How do you define a ‘mesomonument’?
The word ‘mesomonument’ came out of my readings on plastics. The prefix ‘meso-’ means ‘middle’ (mesozoic, mesothelium, Mesopotamia etc), and in marine plastic studies ‘mesoplastics’ refers to a particular particle size, approximately 5-10mm (whereas microplastics are <5mm and macroplastics >10mm).
So while the pieces I collect are not, scientifically speaking, ‘mesoplastics’, I did like the idea of there being this middling category of object that was neither small nor large, and which could not have superlatives attached to it. And I’ve been thinking about these bronzes as a way of highlighting how plastic debris in ecosystems has become a kind of incidental monument to the present and indefinite reach of capitalist excess. Plastics in the environment don’t reintegrate into living systems, but rather just break down into smaller and smaller discrete bits, entering the food chain at lower and lower levels, often bringing with them increasing concentrations of persistent organic pollutants and other toxins. Transforming plastics into bronze replicas aligns them with the history of monuments, statuary, and art history, and creates a different sort of material and conceptual longevity. They are neither monument nor anti-monument but in between.
I also really liked the fact that they are small enough for people to hold or put in a purse or pocket. These objects started out as human-adjacent in one way and the bronzes end up forging an intimate relationship with their collectors. The casting process also facilitates a close observation of the objects; where a discarded bottle cap or stir stick or shotgun wad is just garbage, the bronze objects really cry out for a kind of close reading or examination. And the absurdity of many of these objects is really foregrounded when they’re taken out of context and transformed into bronze. A monument to our era.
While you were working on this show did you consider the current reckonings taking place surrounding Confederate monuments in Canada? Are ‘mesomonuments’ introducing a new vision of monumentality?
I guess I was thinking more generally about monuments and how and why our culture memorialises certain things and how that operated historically. There’s clear connections and overlap between capitalism and colonialism and land exploitation and world views based on ‘objectifying’ the land and creatures and natural systems. I definitely think we need new monuments but more than that I think we need to reexamine the whole notion of monumentalization. Monuments as we know them are so bound up in a damaging and exploitative world view of conquest and deification.
The argument made by those in favour of keeping confederate/colonialist monuments is that we ‘erase’ history when monuments come down; of course what they mean is that without these monuments it becomes more difficult for their cultural dominance to continue unquestioned, extending into both the past and future. A rethinking of monuments generally is underway for sure and with it will hopefully come more ways of parsing history that isn’t so rooted in Western hagiography and teleology.
There is an element of preciousness to all the different pieces in the show’s collection, entirely cast in bronze. Simultaneously, I read that visitors were encouraged to take a piece home. That’s an exercise rarely practiced in galleries – to allow visitors to keep the ‘art’ at the end.
What led to this decision?
Originally, I conceived the exhibition as a kind of large horde of ‘treasure’ that would exist in the gallery and then be re-dispersed back onto beaches in Vancouver and on the Island and people would be welcome to collect them then. The exhibition was also supposed to open in early summer, but ended up being pushed back to the end of October due to Covid.
I reimagined the distribution of objects as taking place during the exhibition run for several reasons. Partly it was a response to the late fall weather, partly as a way to create community and connection during Covid, partly because I started thinking about how setting up a kind of ‘shopping’ experience for gallery visitors complicated the project in interesting ways, and partly it was an aesthetic choice where the work itself would change through the course of the exhibition run as items trickled out the door.
The idea of distributing the pieces has been a part of this project since its earliest iterations. I really like the way this plays with our value systems and the ideas around preciousness and commodities, and figuring out different ways to pull objects in and out of the stream of mass production and consumption. It’s also been a really interesting way to connect with people – when individuals collected things off the beaches their choices of which objects to take home were somewhat pre-determined by what I left at that location and what they managed to find. In this exhibition people have really connected with objects in a different way, and many of them have stories about why they chose one piece over another. A lot of these personal histories have been shared with me over the course of the exhibition and beyond, and it has expanded the work in unexpected ways, thinking about all the different pathways that led to the same place and time. Sharing and generosity are also really important to me and I’ve always tried to create work that has multiple entry points – everyone can find something recognisable or familiar in the pieces and feel competent or empowered to engage with the work exactly where they’re at.
Do you think museums can do more to face up to the climate crisis?
Definitely. More urgent I think is a remaking of these institutions from a foundation of decolonization, and true financial and professional equity.
Can you tell me about what’s upcoming for you in 2021?
I’m continuing to work on my bronze beach plastic jewellery, and still scouring beaches for trash and also continuing to work on the Elza Mayhew series. Fortunately/unfortunately there is no shortage of raw material! After 7 years of basically working on my own in my basement it’s been a real surprise how much this show has resonated with people, and subsequently how much attention it’s garnered! I would love to be able to continue making work and that be my actual job. There have been so many moments where I’ve wondered if it was worth it to continue making art, or whether it was always going to be something more akin to a hobby or pastime then a career, so generating a bit of stability that way is really all I can really ask for.