Cyra Jane’s Art is Exploration

Cyra Jane

by Rasmus Rasmussen on October 12, 2010

Cyra Jane has an eye for textures and patterns. Intricate spirals, abstracts of lines and shapes, most are paintings but some incarnations manifest themselves as sculptures both large and small. Examining the perfectly placed pieces around her home studio in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, feels almost like a tour through Cyra’s own mind, heart and soul. Seeing her work, older pieces mixed with new work, a few recurring themes and designs begin to show. There are stories there that want to get out, and in the process they draw their audience in.

During our meeting, we talked about Cyra Jane’s work, her involvement with Burning Man, art as healing and more. I wish, I could share all the tangents, details and side notes that came up during our conversation, but the following interview is a great starting point for getting to know Cyra Jane as an artist. From there, I can only urge you to seek out her work in person and explore her website.

AP: In November you are putting together your first large, solo steel sculpture, resembling DNA torn apart by human hands. What’s the story behind this piece?

Helicase is about the dangers of playing god. The idea was borne in the painting, Helicase, in which two human hands are tearing apart a DNA strand. In early 2007, midway through working on Three Quarter Turn, which is an unapologetic study of the gradients of reality surrounding a particular romantic relationship, I stopped to paint Helicase. The playing god reference was a commentary on my own hubris in painting the story, a fifth and external level of the perceptual recognition that was otherwise uncovered and encapsulated in Three Quarter Turn. I tend toward using universal symbols that strike at multiple levels, leaving room for various personal interpretations. The picture of man deconstructing dna applies not only to me as an individual artist here, but to mankind (consciousness) meddling with nature (truth) and various other interpretations.

This last year I’ve been expanding into metal and stone sculpture. Part of the initial process of retraining my brain to think in 3d was to start visualizing my prior works as sculpture. Helicase was one of the first to form itself and will be the most technically ambitious piece I’ve worked on so far, plus I like the juxtaposition of construction/deconstruction in my first large piece. I drew up the plans for the sculpture, consulted with a professional metal artist and an engineer, and then set about to make it reality. The James Washington House granted me an artist residency that includes use of their shop for one month and a stipend for materials. I am very much thankful for the opportunity and looking forward to the work.

AP: After moving to Seattle in 2002, you began using art as part of a healing process, following grad school. Could you share a little more about what this process was about?

Sure. I spent graduate school in a co-dependent, abusive relationship, watching a man consistently trying to kill himself and, sometimes, me. For two years, I was nurse-maid and provider, enabler and provocateur, and the object of daily emotional, physical, and verbal abuse. I lived through stories I will never tell and by the end of the relationship I was a raw, beaten down, broken shell of a woman. In college, before getting into that relationship, I painted for fun. I was extremely active in student organizations and a top student in the Honor’s College, attending on a full scholarship. I studied creative writing and singing, but kept art for my very own. During the course of that relationship, I lost my connection to art, along with my connection to everything else including my friends, family, spirituality, and self-trust. For about a year after it ended, I couldn’t leave my apartment without being accosted by vibrant visions of my own death and did little more than play video games and cry. I couldn’t make sense of much of what was going on inside my head. To cope, I distanced myself from my emotions, put on a smile, got into a loveless relationship, and basically stopped feeling.

At some point, I began to paint again and discovered that when I opened up the door to my creative stream, my emotions tumbled out onto the canvas with it. I saw stories and truth putting themselves onto the canvas. I watched ideas that I couldn’t articulate form themselves into pictures I could no longer put off dealing with. So in a way, it became the primary method of recognizing and expressing my feelings. In 2009, I embraced the process fully, pushing out in fairly quick succession Anew (better known as the Guerrilla Gasworks installation which was very much about my final break through the repressed state I had lived in for seven years), The Elephant on my Stomach (a 30-painting series for the Forgotten Works challenge attacking and exposing all my underlying demons from having grown up an overweight child), and Meconnaissance (the first and only painting of the aforementioned abusive relationship that acknowledges him, and my part in letting it affect me for so long).

After that, I was a little… oh, burnt out with that level of exposition. And with finally having put Meconnaissance onto canvas, I was finally freed to begin pursuing art on a different level.


AP: You are involved with the Burning Man art community. Why is community important to you, what do you contribute and what do you get in return?

The Burning Man community is made of some of the most solid, tuned-in people I’ve ever met. I’ve found, especially in the local community, an unprecedented celebration of self-expression that provides open avenues for creativity. What do I mean by this? Well, for instance, Ignition Northwest puts on Critical Massive, a regional burn (or week-long art festival/camping trip) oriented around workshops, portable dance clubs, pyrotechnics, and, mostly, large scale outdoor sculpture. The event funds over $10,000 in art grants and is attended by about 1,000 people each year. Over the course of the week, up to fifteen large sculptures are erected, almost entirely built as labors of love by groups of volunteers and individual artists. This year and last, I was both part of a group bringing large scale pyrotechnic sculpture and an individually granted artist, working first in paper mache for Anew and this last year in copper, stone, and cotton for Filaments. They have given me the venue, inspiration and support to explore conceptual public art as an art form. I have been working on providing meditative spaces for participants that promote reflection on the relationship between the self and our environment. So far, it was worked out beautifully. I feel that I cannot adequately express the impact these opportunities have had on me both personally and professionally.

AP: Your academic background is in writing. How do these two forms of communication compare to you? What can visual art do for you, that writing can’t?

Writing is my craft. Visual art is my art. They come from different places. Steve Martin wrote a fantastic play called “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” that is essentially a study and discussion of the link to the muse. In the play, Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar, meet, and proceed to have an intense and amazing discussion of that moment of inspiration when you turn off your conscious mind and let the ideas pour through you as though they come from somewhere else. It’s about inspired visualization, and how it feels raw and uncontrollable. The Ancient Greeks called this a Genius, and described it as an outside entity that took over an artist’s body and controlled their hands or voice.

I studied persuasive writing and rhetoric in college, and can still spend hours crafting a finely tuned letter, where every word is chosen to emphasize a particular tone, or environment, for the underlying message. Though very fun to play with, language is still an extremely limited tool of communication; even the most carefully schemed nuances of phrasing pale in comparison to a shrug or hand gesture in getting a point across. Visual art works on this same level of emotional cues. It strikes your audience below the conscious mind – somewhere language cannot reach without first striking visual images in the reader that hit deeper senses. It is communication directly from one subconscious into another.

I’m actually very interested in the intricacies of interplay between written language and visual art. Percolating into my conscious have lately been images of stories as sculptures – taking words and interpreting their inflections and lilt in a static visual format rather than animated retellings. I’m currently visualizing this as a mingling of stress dreams, cigarette smoke and steel.

AP: Exploring different forms of expression is in itself a recurring theme in your work. In your own words, you’ve moved from one to another (eg. from expressionism to realism) when it “was necessary”. How does this necessity manifest itself? Is it ambition or curiosity that drives it? Or something different?

It is necessity. What I mean by this is that my need to communicate visual continuously surpasses my skills, and so I must learn new ones. When I moved from abstract emotional expression into more complex story-telling, I had to move into figurative painting. I recall at one point sitting in front of a canvas realizing that I had to paint a hand, and a realistic one at that. So I took some pictures of my hands and then painted my first realistic one. It was kind of a terrifying move – as I mentioned earlier I didn’t study art. I’ve never been a doodler or sketch artist and have only the occasional class under my belt. The first hand was terrifying enough that I put it off for a couple of months and just sat there, scared to ruin what I’d painted so far; once I finally started painting, it was easy.

I’ve gotten to the point now that I’m pretty fearless with trying new media. If I have a vision, I consider it doable and so I learn the media and make what I need to. For instance, when I had the vision for Anew, and had found a small grant opportunity, I simply researched very quickly how I could make them on that small of a budget over the course of a month by myself and then did it. At that point, I set a five year goal to create a permanent field of men in various stages of breaking through and so began to learn and study metal work. While I find myself exploring many tangents in the meantime, as practice I suppose, that vision is what is driving me.

I guess the operative word here is drive. I don’t necessarily have any control over this drive, over my artist, over my muse. The best I can do is give her the skills and opportunities necessary to do what she wants and then move over.

Be sure to check out Cyra Jane’s website and blog, The Spaces In Between.

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Deluxe Y. Truly November 2, 2010 at 4:01 pm

I have been a big fan of the artist since her early film “Tornado.”

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