There is something special about seeing an artist create a self-portrait. Through a self-portrait you can analyze what an artist finds valuable, what they overlook, and how they wish to be perceived by their audience.
For this month’s issue, I interviewed Jordan Ismaiel Ramsey (they/them), an artist committed to self-portraiture as a form of self-reliance. We discuss their painting practice, the ethics of figurative painting, and their pursuit to study art and academia.
Jordan: I’m really into painting. I guess that shows. My life is also centered around academia. I saw that education allowed for access, and it was going to grant me access into the world.
What specific things would you say education has granted you access to?
Jordan: Thinking of painting as a physical and conceptual practice, queer and feminist studies. A lot of who I am involves interests surrounded by and looked at through an academic lens. It’s given me to tools to look at phenomena in my real life and understand it with a critical eye.
Have you always studied art?
Jordan: I started undergrad majoring in Wildlife Biology and Studio Art with the idea that I would illustrate textbooks. My parents wanted me to go to school and get an education for a traditionally “practical” profession. They wanted me to end up being a lawyer or a doctor where you got a large salary. Unfortunately, the fields they were pushing me into weren’t interesting to me.
I graduated high school in a small town called Hastings, Nebraska. I wasn’t exposed to any critical teachings about art. When I entered undergrad and decided to study art there were two professors that invested a lot of time in me. They gave me a crash course on, “this is this, this is that, what to do, what not to do.” I was fortunate in having that time and mentorship.
Was there a definitive moment that made you make the switch to just being a Studio Art major?
Jordan: I said to my Biology professor, “I don’t think Biology is for me. I think I’m gonna take a break from it.” We would assume he’d be encouraging and cheer me up, but he said, “no that’s a good idea for you to take a break.”
Ah! Well, I’m glad you made that decision!
So now I’m wondering how did you get to solely depicting yourself in your work?
Jordan: It started with the idea of “I have access to myself and can use my image readily.” Another part of it is thinking about the ethics of figure painting. Painting myself came from a lot of conversations I had regarding agency and control. I saw that in figure painting there’s this relationship between “the painter” and “the sitter.” There’s a specific power dynamic in play where the painter has a contained level of power and ownership over the sitter’s body. I didn’t like that interaction where there’s a potential to “claim” ownership over a person’s body or portrait. I didn’t like the idea of asking someone to sit or take their picture. I also didn’t want to wait around and wait for someone to offer to sit for a painting.
By using myself as the sitter, I’m able to manipulate the image in the ways I see fit. I’m able to create a certain level of fantasy and utopic image. Something I don’t have to root in something being “physically” possible. With this flexibility I’m able to do things like duplicate, distort, and delete myself. It just gives me more agency since I don’t have to worry about someone else and how their image will be received.
What contextual or storytelling elements are there in your paintings?
Jordan: It goes back to being a first-gen college student where I had to do things entirely on my own: file my own FAFSA, apply to school, learn how to write a cover letter, complete forms for scholarships. Things that come with generational wealth and education that I didn’t have access to. Coming to realizations about my gender, identity, and sexuality feeling as though my family couldn’t be there to provide support and I had to support myself.
I’m playing this figure of being both the person figuring things out, but also simultaneously helping to solve the problem. These things really altered my life. That’s what prompted this concept of duplicating myself and using myself as a reference. Through this, I’ve been able to investigate personal questions like what are my desires? Hopes? Dreams? Understanding painting and artmaking through a deeply personal experience.
I noticed this trend of one figure protecting the other in your work. Some clues are one figure is slightly eclipsing the other, an arm over the shoulder, one figure’s gaze a more assertive to the viewer than the other. I was touched by this idea of safeguarding. I think it’s indicative of how this concept has stemmed from you relying on yourself.
Also, have you also painted on such a large scale?
Jordan: I’ve recently been working large scale. Anywhere from 4-8 ft. I was making work about utopia and utopic environment and wanted to understand how to paint an environment. That came with this need to have a physical scale that assists in that delivery.
These paintings also act as “reflections” of myself both literally and figuratively. Since they’re 1:1 “recreations” so this size is necessary. The paintings are this big because of my height and size and I’m needing to explore a specific expansion of the environment that needs to occur with me being able to fit into the frame.
I like that idea. In a way, you’re declaring, “this is the future and world I want to exist in, and it involves me exactly as I am!” I think the world could use more outright declarations like that.”
Jordan is currently wrapping up their first year of the MFA Studio Art program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Their work can be found on Instagram @jordanramseyismaiel and their website www.jordanramseyismaiel.com.