We spoke with Vanessa Jean Speckman about how art is a continuation of vulnerability, the power of staying creative in a romantic relationship, the acidic properties of her personality and why understanding others is conducive to understanding herself.
I don’t want to wait until I am dead for my work to find new life outside of myself and the walls I create it in, so I have a somewhat desperate urgency in my message.
You describe yourself as a “jane of all trades” online, and judging by your body of work, this would seem to be so — I’ve noticed a prolific amount of illustration, clothing design and other forms of visual art coming from your camp. For any readers unfamiliar with your work, can you describe the scope of what you do and the message you intend to convey with it?
Vanessa Jean Speckman
I’m a textual and visual artist and I do a lot of nomadic pop-up style shows. I’m not trying to convey anything other than what I am and what I hope to be in my work. Art is my space to continue my vulnerabilities. By not compartmentalizing them and putting them away, I have found this radical beauty in expressing them and then taking that a step further by sharing it, which I have found in this touring style of showing my work. When my grandfather passed away, he had over 300 oil paintings in his basement. They were neatly stacked and organized, but just collecting dust and cigarette smoke. He was brilliant and prolific. My family has gone on to share his paintings with relatives and friends and to see that spark of connection between the viewer and his art is so fulfilling.
I guess I don’t want to wait until I am dead for my work to find new life outside of myself and the walls I create it in, so I have a somewhat desperate urgency in my message and my medium. It’s raw, unrefined, honest and the medium is ever-changing. I paint large poems onto old pieces of lace, I pound words into leather to make wearable art, I inherited a bunch of tossed USGS and aviation maps that I use as my canvases — I don’t really work within one medium or style. I enjoy constantly learning and having to figure things out. I guess that’s my snarky patriarchal nod to my self declaration of being a jane of all trades.
I’ve noticed that some of your work is based on slogans or pithy sayings. In our current culture in which messages are increasingly condensed into tweets, memes or macros, what do you think information can do when it’s thrown like a dart into a room rather than an long oration, as it were?
We’ve grown accustomed to quick and convenient and multitasking input while outputting. But I also don’t think that means that length is qualitative. I’ve written four-word poems and I have hand-stamped, letter by letter, a 450-word poem into a hide of leather.
It’s like when there’s a quiet singer playing in a loud bar and you can’t hear the lyrics and the reaction is to play louder over the noise, but you can steer the crowd sometimes by playing softly and making them become self-aware of their volume and their surroundings and bring it back in. That’s how I view my work. Anybody can make a stencil and paint an old map, but it’s what’s painted on there; the words are honest and unadulterated. I want to shake people up. Make them stop, turn around, and come back to it again to find comfort and discomfort. Honesty is universally relatable and it can be ugly and it can be beautiful.
Can you describe the last time you wandered an unfamiliar city at night in as much detail as possible? Why were you in an unfamiliar place? How did it make you feel?
Two weeks ago, I was on tour with Micah Schnabel and we were in Chicago traveling in a rental car. We were coming from Madison, Wisconsin, and had been skating around really bad winter weather all tour. It was waring on our morale, as the drives had been stressful. There were some sweet super-fancy four-star Hotwire hotel deals within a mile of the venue and we landed a snotty downtown hotel across the street from Trump Tower and the waterfront for $60. The plan was to check in, unload the luggage, relax and head down to the venue to load in.
The GPS could not recognize the difference between Upper and Lower Wacker Drive, and for one hour and 45 minutes, we were routed and re-routed in downtown Chicago navigating rush hour on Friday evening. We finally found our hotel and we switched turns double parked in the taxi zone getting honked at and flipped off while one person ran upstairs to drop off luggage/use the bathroom. We hustled to the venue and loaded in, found some food, did the show, loaded out and drove back to the hotel very carefully as to stay on Upper Wacker.
Overnight parking was more than the hotel room, so we drove and found a semi-cheaper parking lot and got lost in the parking garage going back to the hotel. By the time we got back to our room, it was after 2am and the hotel bar was closed so we had a cocktail in our room and I googled the closest Stan’s Donuts for breakfast and passed out watching Law and Order. You don’t get late checkouts at fancy downtown hotels like you can at airport extended stays.
I struggle with fighting stereotypes. Micah and I work really hard at tearing down labels and spaces and trying to redefine how we interact with art and audience.
Speaking of, I understand plenty of your work has been done in tandem with Micah Schnabel. Can you describe the benefits and cautions of having a creative relationship that may be one and the same as a romantic relationship? Do you see it as requiring some compartmentalization, or is that unnecessary? I guess, since I’ve artistically collaborated plenty with my fiancée, I’m curious as to how it plays out on a day-to-day level.
I am incredibly fortunate to have the type of relationship that Micah and I have built together over the past six and a half years together. There is such ease in speaking the same work/art/life language as your partner that you know what coming home from tour looks and feels like — we have a rule that you get a day off for every week that you were gone. That common language of knowing what the day-in, day-out looks like when you are apart or together really helps because of that foundation in understanding. We are able to bounce off ideas, insecurities, questions and concerns and collaborate with one another.
I always laugh when people ask me who drives when we’re on tour together. It’s 50/50 in our camp, from day-to-day responsibilities to finances. We each hold down our own, and I think that’s really crucial as to positive ownership of the situation and keeping us both happy and healthy together as partners and as tourmates. He sets up and sells his merch and I set up my merch and sell my own. We help each other out too, obviously. We have a running agreement on tour that whoever sells the most at the show buys coffee the next morning. Most mornings, it’s me.
The biggest negative for me that I struggle with, touring with my partner doing these types of shows together, is fighting stereotypes. I get so many “merch girl” labels and pats on the ass for “going on a road trip with my boyfriend” while Micah and I work really hard at tearing down labels and spaces and trying to redefine how we interact with art and audience. I work really hard to be conscious of including all the players — we want the venue, staff, artists and audience to all have a radical time — and we are well aware of that responsibility and privilege. I work really hard at my autonomy. I don’t go on tour with Two Cow Garage because that is his band, his work, his thing and most people assume they’ll see me selling their merch at the next TCG show. But that is not my work. And those lazy romanticized patriarchal notions don’t do anybody any good.
I remember learning at some point in the public school system that all solutions has a pH level, somewhere on the spectrum of being an acid or a base. If you were to break your life down to chemical reactions, would you see your personality as being acidic — temperamental and biting — or basic — genial and cleansing?
I’d consider my personality to be acidic. I am very emotionally sensitive and I know that I react that way. From customer service interactions and communications online to personal relationships, I filter everything very personally and emotionally. That’s when I wish I had an assistant or some sort of HR department and I could filter shit that matters and shit that doesn’t matter through them and not take on weight that does not need to be mine.
You’re pretty active with managing an Etsy store for your wares. Makes me think about how the world would be so different if we all populated each others’ mailboxes and Christmas trees with records, books, clothing and other items that our friends or community made, rather than just Amazon Prime-ing a bunch of crap. Since we’re both in communities where people we know are struggling to get their stuff in others’ hands, I think that almost might change the world. Any thoughts?
Yes! I totally agree! As I mentioned above, that is something that I am really interested in incorporating with my work — the “how” of connecting those things together instead of the mindless Amazon Prime sourcing of things. That you can have a pop-up art show anywhere and anyone can do it and you don’t need much to do so. That you can blend going to see bands play with artists showing their work in alternative spaces. For the past few years, Micah and I have been throwing a “holiday office party” at our hometown venue and we have musicians and bands from different Columbus scenes play sets and we invite a variety of makers to set up a pop-up mart of jewelry, paintings, vintage clothes, a florist, a metalsmith, printers and more.
We create a space where you can shop, check out bands, enjoy a cocktail and connect all of these nomadic-type makers in a space and showcase that to our community. To destroy stereotypes of how we are supposed to interact in different creatives settings. I believe that it’s important for us to raise our consciousness and our self awareness while we continue to be inundated with convenience and rapid development that seems to turn into another shade of whitewashed, mindless gentrification.
Personally, I find beauty in the struggle, and that’s why on my hardest days I write a note to myself for the next day’s to-do that says, “Try again.”
What do you think about the concept of protesting your own life? Do you think people have the right to question why they have to be born and be in life, following the rules of human civilization? I guess the thread of this topic would naturally lead to whether people have a right to end their own life, too.
I think everybody has the right to lead their life however they choose, whether that’s how they live it or if they choose to end it. We are all just navigating the cards we were dealt and projected upon us. By the time the norms of society “allow us” our autonomy, we are already so engrained with our “growing up” environment that finding our own path is a difficult one. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. Personally, I find beauty in the struggle, and that’s why on my hardest days I write a note to myself for the next day’s to-do that says, “Try again.”
Finally, one of C.S. Lewis’ most intriguing arguments for the existence of a higher power was that no matter who you are, you’ve got an instinct by birth that bad things are bad and good things are good. The rest is rationalization, nurturing and other factors. I’m definitely not putting this idea in my own words as he does with his, but what’s your understanding of your own moral compass? What does your compass tell you to do, or not to do?
I don’t believe in God. I think it’s a bad comparison story that has gotten out of hand in explaining our morals instead of teaching the responsibility for our actions and thus consequences. I am a product of the environment I grew up in. I can’t help that. But I am also composed of all of the personal and individual life experiences I have had. I can’t hold anyone else accountable but myself for them. Not my family and not a fictitious character in the sky. By better understanding other people, I believe I can better understand myself and vice versa. And that involves putting in work, education, empathy, radical and difficult self-love and most of all, accountability. And it’s really fucking hard. But that’s where true communication with ourself and our neighbor begins. My moral compass is myself. We have to be willing to show up and do the work. But I can’t find comfort in finding acceptance and forgiveness from the concept of a character.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: February 28, 2018
Total questions: 8
Word count: 2175
Reading time: Eight minutes
acceptance, accountability, acid, art, assistant, audience, autonomy, base, beauty, canvas, cigarette, civilization, clothing, cocktail, Columbus, communication, compartmentalization, compass, condense, donut, elongated, environment, Etsy, experience, fiancee, florist, forgiveness, gentrification, GPS, grandfather, HR, individual, jewelry, Law and Order, leather, macro, Madison, meme, metalsmith, Micah Schnabel, Ohio, painting, pH, qualitative, stencil, struggle, tweet, Two Cow Garage, Vanessa Jean Speckman, visual, vulnerability, waterfront, Wisconsin
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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