Leah Thomason Bromberg visits the studio of Jillian Piccirilli
There is a sea of blue in Jillian Piccirilli’s studio from quiet grey-blues to deep indigos. Cyanotype after cyanotype on hardy paper covers every surface of her small studio in the loft of a larger studio in Oakland. I arrived at Jillian’s studio in the evening in her last days before she traveled to Denver for her solo show, Robinwood at Hinterland Art Space. I was very excited to be meeting her in the final stretch before her show—I’d be getting a special glimpse of the work right on the edge between “in progress” and being polished.
Jillian and I took many painting classes together during our undergraduate days at Cornell University, where she completed degrees in both art and anthropology. She was the recipient of the University’s Faculty Medal of Art and the Charles Goodwin Sands Memorial Medal of Art. Jillian Piccirilli continued to live in Ithaca, NY until the end of 2012 when she moved to Oakland. She has since shown her work in California, Colorado, New York, and Rhode Island.
Her recent work concentrates on the cyanotype process, but each piece is unique and uneditioned. This series of work has a gum bichromate layer on top of the cyanotype, which gives the image a warm tone. She meticulously paints a portion over the print, and her work lives at the intersection of photography, printmaking, and painting.
Robinwood is a series of painted prints that explores the history of her grandparents’ homestead in the rural outskirts of Cadillac, Michigan. This is where Mae Ella (Carlson) and Jim Baskum King lived their final sixty years. Until their deaths, it was what Jillian regarded as her “home,” a comforting constant. It was always a grand homecoming when Jillian, the only grandchild, would visit each summer. Whenever Jillian talks about her family, I can see her transport herself to that place and time as if she herself were her grandmother. She talks about what it was like “raising the girls”—the girls being her own mother and aunt. I also found myself getting lost in imagining these memories as she shared more about her work.
Mae flipped through the December 1946 publication of Better Homes & Gardens to find an article, “The House that Jack and His Friends Built,” about a couple that ordered blueprints from the magazine and built the house for themselves. Mae loved the house so much that she and Jim bought those very same blueprints for their Michigan home. Jim was a carpenter and, like the Jack in the article, built his own home. These very blueprints were crucial in the development of Robinwood. “Blueprints” were originally cyanotypes, and the replication of the house and its space continues as the memories and experiences of Jillian’s family become replicated. Some pieces are singularly hanging pieces of paper, while others are mounted on wooden panels in a nod to carpentry itself. In her research, it feels very much like Jillian is carefully constructing her own memories as well as how viewers will see this space. She knows the specific history of each place, how it was built, and what family events occurred there.
Jillian’s meticulousness is equally apparent in her knowledge of family history in the photographs she collected. Mae was the photographer in the family with her very own home darkroom, and Jillian has interspersed these alongside other family photographs and photographs that she herself has taken. The images have a grainy feel to them (as can be expected of old photographs). Jillian carefully picks up each piece of paper and tells me about what her great aunt was baking—her mother’s family was Swedish. A photograph of her mother and aunt in college recalls Jim and Mae’s extreme worry as parents for their growing daughters. The image of the ground dug for the house’s foundation and another of her grandfather on a ladder remind me of the hopefulness of building and the coldness of stiff hands in the wind, fumbling over tools.
The road around the homestead became increasingly busier over the years, eventually becoming a highway. Jillian’s mother and aunt both departed from Michigan for more urban settings. Jillian sees her mother and aunt as more bookish, intellectually-minded individuals, working in university settings; while her grandparents were more heart and hands and deeply connected to their land. In the painted portions of some prints, Jillian highlights the physicality of baking and sewing; and in others, her mother’s and aunt’s heads are haloed with painted bonnets. Personally I have always seen being an artist as some sort of hybridization of craftsmanship, creativity, and intellectualism.
With Robinwood, Jillian echoes her grandparents’ handwork in a process with a similar DIY attitude. Better Homes & Gardens encourages its readers to make everything their own, and in adding these details to her images, Jillian takes her family’s space and makes it hers as well. I love how the cyanotype process feels so much more homemade. After mixing some chemicals, the sun itself creates the images. The drought in California actually changed the chemistry around Oakland, causing the hue of her work to shift dramatically and delaying some of her printing. These cyanotypes have the vestiges of Jillian’s faraway home in Oakland, attempting to revisit her family’s locus in Michigan.
Robinwood could easily lend itself to becoming a precious idyll, full of summertime stories and happy childhoods. However, there is an anxiety and starkness vibrating underneath. What happens now that the house has been sold? Where do these memories go now? As the family’s only grandchild, Jillian is the only one left to inherit these images and memories.
This is an especially appropriate moment to be making this work for Jillian as her grandmother passed away in 2012 and the house was sold a year later. The final image inRobinwood is the highway veering toward her grandparents’ mailbox and a sign announcing their name. The highway was once a two lane road that her family could walk on to town. Mae was pulling out of the driveway, and another bus struck her. She passed a few days later. The red details signal the end of the driveway, the end of the safety of home.
Jillian shared that this project is “emotionally solvent” for her. In some way, she feels this project lets her keep this place. There is a certain guilt as the only grandchild when the family lets go of a homestead built by their own patriarch.
Jillian patted the head of her Labrador, Abbey, talking about the trek to Denver for her show. Small tools, bits of paper, paint and brushes, and boxes of photographs surround her. In a few days as autumn sets in, she will hang her show and share with everyone this home in both its summer and wintertime.
Robinwood is on view at Hinterland Art Space (http://www.hinterlandartspace.com/) in Denver, CO from September 12 to October 3, 2014.
More of Jillian Piccirilli’s work can be seen here (http://www.jillianpiccirilli.com).