Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ten Minutes with Jessica Liszewski, Artist and Gallery Owner

In the past 18 months a number of new spaces have opened up in the Twin Ports where artists can display their work. The Ochre Ghost Gallery, created by Calvin Stalvig and Jessica Liszewski, is one of these spaces where local artists have a platform to express their ideas to our regional community, located in downtown Duluth at 22 2nd Avenue East. Stalvig has moved on while Liszewski and a team of collaborators continue to carry the torch.

Ennyman: How did you become interested in the arts and who/what were your biggest influences?
Jessica L: I’ve been involved in creative projects ever since I can remember. When I was young I’d draw a lot and experiment with discarded materials. My parents had an antique shop so I’d regularly get boxes of broken trinkets and scrap wood which I could integrate into my sewing, drawing and sculptural projects. Growing up in the-middle-of-nowhere-Wisconsin before the internet created a challenge for seeking out independent art and music.

As a teen my interests narrowed into the underground art realm. I started an art and literature zine with a friend called ‘Canary Flu’ (before the widely know H5N1 bird flu epidemic of the late 90’s- young prophets perhaps??). At that time I was influenced by the thrill of finding abandoned hideouts, dumpster diving, Rita Ackermann and her cover art for Thurston Moore’s album ‘Psychic Hearts’, the Meat Cake comic by Dame Darcy and the burgeoning alternative to mainstream consumerism: the DIY cultural movement.

I moved to Minneapolis in the late 90’s and gravitated toward non-commercial ways of sharing art and music like artist collectives and independent music labels. I met people who did art in huge communal warehouse spaces, went to shows in basements and scoured the underground section of comic book stores for whatever caught my eye.

Nowadays all of these life experiences have come together to support the development my work and artistic style. I search the Internet for inspiration and keep photo files. I live in a tenant’s cooperative where there is a collection of hundreds of old National Geographic magazines. I attempt to reproduce textures, patterns and color combinations that draw from a lot of different current and historical native cultures. I combine ideas and develop new aesthetics for characters in a sort of unified, futuristic, natural, post-apocalyptic tribe of scavengers. I guess that ties back into my childhood methods of creation, you know, collecting remnants and trash and turning it into something attractive yet awkward, wearable yet uncomfortable.

E: Were you surprised by the excitement the Crim City Collective show generated for Ochre Ghost Gallery?
JL: The Crim show ‘King Ghost’ was a great experience. At that time, not only were we still a new gallery with the ambition to bring something innovative and collaborative to the community, but the Crim City Collective was also just starting out. It was great to be able to provide them with the space to do their work and introduce our gallery through community participation. I really like that, bringing people together to work on art. They had approached us with a proposal to utilize their new style of working, Maximalism, which is heavily based in action and link-think. In the end we created a work that explores ideas of major action, instant information and free association without reservation, thought or planning. People really dug being able to write, draw and paint on the walls throughout the process and during the opening. It showed Duluth that we’re a different kind of gallery, one that you might not be used to, one that takes risks.

E: What is the mission for the Ochre Ghost Gallery?
JL: Ochre Ghost Gallery is an independent gallery space devoted to highlighting local and national emerging and underground art. Founded in September 2010, we’ve provided a commission-free, supportive environment for over seventy artists at the start of their careers or who are developing innovative genres of expression. The mission of Ochre Ghost is to provide non-commercial space in order to show work and try-out different mediums and subject matters. As an independent gallery we have the flexibility to experiment with the art we chose to show.

E: What's your take on the Duluth arts scene and where do you see your place in all of it?
JL: Before moving to Duluth in late 2008 I had the opportunity to come up and check it out quite a few times. I was excited to see a city of modest size offer so many opportunities for its folk to engage in the arts. This was ultimately one of my motivators to change location. On the surface Duluth appears to have a disproportionately large number of arts groups for its size. From performance art to music to visual art, there really is a lot going on here. After a few months of being a Duluth resident I began to notice the mainstream and somewhat tourist-centric nature of a lot of it.

Along with this discovery, however, I was slowly being introduced to some of Duluth’s hidden gems, both artists and venues. I was excited about what was already happening but recognized the potential for more variety, more guts. Since opening the gallery in 2010 I have definitely become more active in the Duluth arts scene, but it seems to me we’ve gained a lot of momentum this past year. We’re at a point now where we’re developing partnerships and moving forward as a city that supports more diversity in the arts. Annie Dugan at the Duluth Art Institute is doing a lot to make this happen. She’s been working really hard to use the support the DAI already gets from the community to help spread the word about lots of cool stuff that’s happening. I just want to say that I’m thrilled I happened to be living here when I could no longer ignore my dream to open an art gallery. Things are going pretty well for us!

E: Thanks for your time and contribution to the Twin Ports art scene.

The original version of this interview appeared on page 37 of the March 15 Reader Weekly. You can see more Reader articles at

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