Jan Hopkins, Artist
The emotional impact, gracefulness, and craftsmanship of Jan Hopkins’s artwork are like a great poem. Her artwork affects you viscerally, and the more you look at it, the more astonished you become at the imagination and difficulty—almost the impossibility—of creating it. And then you discover what it's made of and your amazement begins anew.
Beginning as a basketmaker, the scope of materials Jan incorporated into her artwork grew from traditional materials to include other organic substances such as cedar bark, grapefruit peels, leaves, flower petals, plant pods, and sturgeon skin. While her baskets remain extraordinary, Jan is perhaps most well-known now for her torso, teapot, and shoe sculptures.
An award-winning artist, Jan has exhibited widely across the United States. She also taught basketry for years and lectured and presented on her work. Her artwork is in many collections, including the Museum of Art and Design in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. To view more images of her work and read about her inspiration for pieces, visit her website at JanHopkinsArt.blogspot.com.
Jan spoke with Constellation617 on December 10, 2013, from her home and studio in Everett, Washington. She talked about her path to become an artist, the materials she uses, and told a few stories over a pot of tea before we headed down to what she called her “dungeon studio” to discuss her latest projects. In person, Jan is gracious, warm, and unassuming.
C617: How do you get your ideas to make your art?
Jan Hopkins: I might hear a podcast story on NPR or a current event on the news. If it is a story that emotionally impacts me, a visual will come to mind. Or sometimes I will start a series on a subject that interests me, like the Women Icons series. When I think of how I want to portray the person’s personality, I think of the narrative, quote, and visual. The visual is created in my mind. When you process your own materials, you have a memory of the season harvested, the quality, and the texture of each material. I visually put the materials and idea together in my mind, rather than creating a sketch.
I also have a whole palette of materials that inspire me. For instance, I use hydrangea petals and lunaria (money plant) seed pods when I make a child torso. The texture and light colors create a feeling of innocence. I use leaves in other pieces. Budding leaves are symbolic of growth and renewal and fallen leaves of sadness and decay. I have used leaves that I have collected just as they are turning colors or start to fall. The pieces “Fall Leaves” and “Under Cover” are examples of how I have used autumn leaves.
C617: So you have the vision but then you have to have a practical way of putting it together?
Jan Hopkins: Individually, the materials feel light, but sewn together, they are a lot heavier than you imagine. Over the years, my pieces have changed in that the construction has changed and gotten better with each piece. What I do is very experimental and oftentimes I learn by trial and error better ways to construct each piece.
C617: How did you become an artist?
Jan Hopkins: I’ve always liked crafts. My mother used to knit and thought I was creative and taught me how to sew at a very young age. She encouraged me to do other crafts, too. I had a reading disability and was shy with low self-esteem. I believe she was trying to help me find something that I was good at to help me come out of my shell.
I started out as a basketmaker. The very first basket I made was a plaited basket with reed. Traditional plaited baskets are more symmetrical and mathematical. Because my interest was to use natural materials, my work quickly evolved to a more freeform style that featured the beauty of the material and enabled me to create a fluid motion in the design. I got away from processing materials into strips (except the cedar bark I use) and started sewing and looping the whole materials together.
My interest in basketry began when I went to the Southwest for my sister’s wedding. While I was there, I went to museums and started really looking closely at baskets. I had an “aha moment” when I thought about how they were made out of natural materials. It dawned on me that the Native Americans who made these intricate baskets processed natural materials and figured out how to make baskets out of them. I think it was the first time that I realized that baskets weren’t machine-made. These were hand-made baskets.
C617: How did you learn to make baskets?
Jan Hopkins: After that, I started looking around for places to take classes in basketry. [The baskets I saw] were at the Heard Museum, and they weren’t offering basketry classes while I was there. We lived in Los Angeles at the time. I found it very difficult to find classes in basketry.
We moved to the Seattle area in 1988, and the year that we moved there, the Basketry School opened in the Fremont (Seattle) area. A friend who knew I was interested in learning how to make baskets invited me to sign up for classes with her, and it just clicked with me. I loved it and started taking every class I could. After about a year of being an obsessed student, I was asked to teach there.
A year later I went to a conference on Hood Canal and met Rosalie-Friis Ross who was from L.A. I told her that I couldn’t find a class to take in L.A. when I first became interested in basketry, and she said, “Oh, there are all kinds of basketmakers there.” She taught basketry and was the founder of the L.A. Knotters Group. She later introduced me to many of the L.A.-based basketry artists I know today.
It was probably in 1994 that I started working with alternative materials. I saw that all the natural basketry materials were getting harder to gather (many required permits to harvest), and I thought, if the Natives learned how to find materials in their environment, I could probably do that, too. And so in an urban environment with NAFTA, you can find just about anything, anytime, anywhere. So began my obsession to experiment and find new materials.
C617: How did you figure out how to preserve the materials?
Jan Hopkins: I took classes from Holly Churchill, a Haida basketmaker. She comes from a family of generations of basketmakers. I was also fortunate to learn Chilkat weaving from her sister Evelyn, and learn traditional techniques gathering spruce root with Holly, her Auntie Merle, and sister April. I was invited to assist her mother, Delores, at a workshop, which was a great honor to me, though I am not sure how helpful I was as an assistant.
Holly taught me how to gather cedar bark. I had learned how to split cedar from other teachers, but she really got me in touch with the seasons, the best times to gather and process bark. You have to let it cure for a year. I learned that you need to get bark just as the sap starts running up the tree. The key to using natural materials is paying attention to nature. Each material has its season, and it's very important to know the best time to harvest. So that’s why I’m particular about the materials I use.
I gather and process most of my materials myself to “know” them. I develop a memory while gathering materials. Even if I have boxes and boxes of stuff, sometimes I’ll remember a particular harvest year, and I’ll go to that bundle of bark and know it's perfect for what I need. I think it’s important to be in touch with your materials. People always ask me, “How do you do it?” It’s such a long story. It takes me so long to process certain materials or even know visually whether they are good, by feeling it or knowing how it should smell.
C617: So you learned these techniques through some of your teachers from The Basket School, and some Native teachers, and just trial and error?
Jan Hopkins: I learned traditional techniques in gathering and processing, but I took the basic concepts and experimented and created my own ways of working with the alternative materials I use today. They’re not all the same. I’ve spent years working and experimenting, and I am constantly finding new and better ways of working with all the materials.
C617: When you think of how you want to sew on a piece, does that come early in the process or later?
Jan Hopkins: Sewing is the only way I puzzle my work together. I use two different styles of sewing, a buttonhole stitch and looping. And then I figure out variations to those two simple techniques. I learned looping out of a basketry book that showed the technique Guatemalans used to make looped bags. I like the simplicity of looping. It is a basic technique that you can do many variations with to create texture and designs.
C617: Where do you think your sense of sculptural shapes comes from? They are so elegant.
Jan Hopkins: I can’t take credit for what nature offers. The materials have their own beautiful elegance. As far as the torso forms, I’ve always been interested in fashion. As a child, I wanted to be a dress designer when I grew up. My mom said I didn’t play with Barbie Dolls, I dressed them. I am also influenced by the Art Nouveau style, which includes designs that are stylized images from nature.
C617: How did you start showing your work nationally and with a gallery?
Jan Hopkins: Not knowing how to get into the national market, I entered the first exhibition that had “national” in the title. It happened to be a show in Seattle called “Muse of the Millennium” sponsored by the Seattle Weavers Guild. I was juried into the show and received an award. I had no idea what I was doing. I think it may have been dumb luck. Lloyd Herman was the juror and by chance he mentioned the exhibit to JoAnne and Libby Cooper of Mobilia Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who were planning on going to the SNAG Metal Conference in Seattle while the exhibit was showing. They invited me, and a few others, to show at their gallery. Then the next show, Mobilia Gallery took us to SOFA [Sculptural Object Functional Art + Design Fair] Chicago. So, ever since 1999, I’ve been going to SOFA Chicago and SOFA NYC.
C617: And that was with your baskets?
Jan Hopkins: When I started working with Mobilia, they encouraged me to do the best work that I could do and also challenged me to make larger-scale baskets. It was an incredible opportunity. Shortly after that, in 2000, I made my first torso figure.
C617: And that’s when you saw making your artwork as a career?
Jan Hopkins: Jane Sauer asked me to be in a basketry exhibit in Santa Fe and it was a real turning point in my career. She sold everything I made for that show and continued to sell most everything that I could make, and eventually, I worked almost exclusively with her because, as my pieces became larger and more complex, I could only make nine to twelve pieces a year. Jane was able to presale most everything I made. That was when I realized I had a new career. Prior to that, I was serious about basketry, but I wasn’t thinking, this is going to be a great career for me. I was managing Chris’s [Jan’s painter husband] business.
C617: She just knew the people who would be interested?
Jan Hopkins: She was a very successful artist herself. She is knowledgeable about basketry and fiber art. I think the stars aligned for me. When someone changes your life, things like that don’t just happen randomly. I was very fortunate to work with Jane.
C617: How did you move from basket making to sculpture?
Jan Hopkins: In 1999, I went to SOFA, New York. It was the first time my husband and I had ever gone to New York. Our friend Ted gave us “Lion King” tickets. After the production, I was just thrilled. After I saw that, I thought, “I’m going to have to figure out some way to be a costume designer.” [Laughs.] Because I just loved the costumes! And we went to MOMA and made a beeline into the indigenous area, and I thought, “This is where they got all their ideas for those costumes.”
Here I am at SOFA NYC. What could be better! And suddenly I’m thinking about changing careers? I thought, “What’s wrong with you?” And I said to Chris, “I just have to figure this out; I want to do this!” Still thinking and roaming the museum, I turned the corner and there’s a mask, like the one I have here, the Asmat mask. They’re from New Guinea. It was labeled as a “Basket Mask.” And I thought, “Okay, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The first “basket mask” I created was very ethnographic-looking, very traditional looking. I had it on a stand in my studio and it literally scared my granddaughter. So, I decided that I’m going to contemporize it and make it more feminine and more literal, but keep it a basket. Because in my head, I’m still a basketmaker, so I’m going to keep it a vessel, which is symbolic of the feminine. To me, they are like the embodiment of the soul—that’s what a vessel is and that is what we are.
Most of my work is narrative, like the Women Icons series, celebrating iconic women. I was inspired to do a series about women who face adversity. Many times the adversity makes them stronger and oftentimes heroic. I try to encapsulate the souls of women. I am inspired by these types of stories and believe they inspire other women as well.
For example, the sculptural shoes titled “Tolerance” have the words, “Judge her when you’ve walked in her shoes.” The shoes were based on a story of a woman who chose a career as an exotic dancer. She had kids, and it was a career she felt she could do that would allow her to stay with her kids during the day. When I first her heard her story, I thought “Oh my gosh, what are the kids going to think when they grow up and find out their mother was an exotic dancer?” As the story continued, it was revealed that her husband just left her and she no longer had financial support. In a way, it made me ashamed of myself for judging her, and the shoes were a response to that epiphany.
I just feel like the luckiest person alive since I’ve been able to do what I do. I took a break in 2011 because there was so much going on in our lives, it was just too much. I am catching up and now and trying to accumulate. Because these two pieces here I’ve just finished are the only pieces that I own. I don’t own any of my work.
C617: Because it all sold?
Jan Hopkins: Yes, [Jane Sauer] presold most of my work to the very end of my relationship with the gallery.
C617: That must feel incredible to know your work really resonated with people.
Jan Hopkins: I was very humbled and honored, but honestly, the experience was scary at first and then overwhelming.
C617: Your work must take a very long time.
Jan Hopkins: While I was with the gallery, I made nine to twelve pieces a year, working fourteen hour days. One day it occurred to me that I didn’t have time to have a life outside of making work and meeting deadlines. I’m so appreciative of the opportunity, but on the other side of it, there’s that extreme. The whole thing was really overwhelming.
C617: What are you doing now?
Jan Hopkins: I’ll take you down. My studio’s in the dungeon. I’m kind of experimenting. [We go downstairs to Jan’s basement studio.]
I’m working on two-dimensional pieces. The reason for the experimentation in two dimensions is for a future exhibit with my husband and our son. We’re going to start working toward creating a group exhibit on the Japanese Internment camps. My parents were sent to Minidoka Relocation Camp when they were young, during World War II. My part in the exhibit will be my personal experience and how it affected me as a child whose parents were interned and also stories I remember my mom and dad telling me when I was growing up.
I will continue making sculptural pieces, and I plan to do a couple for our exhibit. I am currently working on a couple of future exhibits. One is a group exhibit called “Considering the Kylix: Contemporary Interpretations of a Classical Form” opening in April 2014 at the Peters Valley Craft Center [in New Jersey]. The other is a group exhibition called “Extreme Fibers: Textile Icons and the New Edge” at the Muskegon Museum of Art [in Muskegon, Michigan], beginning August 2015.
[She takes me into a side room walled with shelves.]
This is all my materials. I just got these [gingko leaves] from Bruce Hoffman, who mailed them from Philadelphia, and I usually don’t take things from other people but when I opened the package, they were beautiful and bigger than the gingko leaves I gather here.
And my friend Carie Collver got me obsessed with these tiny acorns. I’ve got all kinds of creepy things in here, too. Here’s a skate fish egg pod. I found those on Haida Gwaii. The pod looks like a skate, don’t they? They’re sort of like shark egg pods. They look like plastic. You think you’re finding something plastic and it’s really a pod that encases the egg.
C617: Anything else to you’d like to add before we finish?
Jan Hopkins: I guess I feel lucky. My favorite quote is, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Paraphrased from a quote by Thomas Jefferson. It’s true. I think if you work really hard and you’re really passionate about what you do, then you are lucky. But it’s hard work. I feel lucky to be able to do what I do. Chris and I are both artists. Both unemployed, self-employed, feast or famine artists. Go figure. Who’s bright idea was that? [Laughs.]
Watch an interview with Jan Hopkins (below) (it's worth the wait through the commercial!).
View a slider of more images of Jan Hopkins' work (below).