By Colleen Dougher
As a college student, artist Jackie Tufford wasn’t sure about trying to make a living as an artist.
So while majoring in anthropology and psychology, she continued studying art and eventually realized that the elements that drew her to her majors were the same things she loved about art. “It just boiled down to [being] very interested in understanding people, human behavior and also myself and how I fit into society,” she says.
Against the advice of a college art teacher who deemed art to difficult to pursue as a career, Tufford switched majors and has since earned two bachelor’s degrees (art history and fine art) from Florida Atlantic University and a master of fine arts from Pennsylvania State University. In 2009, she presented Metanoia, her MFA thesis project combining performance, installation and video. “ ‘Metanoia’ is a transformation or a change of mind,” she notes in a description about the exhibition. “The characters in this short experience learn and transform themselves throughout the seasons of spring, fall, and winter.”
Tufford, who’s never regretted her own change of mind, donned alien-like costumes in the video, and when contemplating what to wear to her thesis show, turned to the Romex wire she’d been using to make trees, cornstalks and props for her videos.
“I’m like, ‘Maybe I can make a hoop skirt,’ and I just started to play around and made this dress out of these connected pieces of wire,” she says. “It wasn’t woven by any stretch. It was really pretty simple and so I just made this wiry thing in like two days. I thought, ‘That’s kinda cool. I’ll put a body suit on underneath and there ya go.’
“I just wanted something to wear that was fun and whimsical and would go with all my other pieces. Once I graduated, I thought, ‘That’s a pretty cool idea. I should readdress that.’”
Tufford has since made the dresses, which also include stereo, telephone and fax machine wires, a large focus in a body of work that questions the role of women in an increasingly wireless world where communication is rampant, yet often cold and impersonal.
Sometimes Tufford wears the wire dresses while gardening or pretending to bake cookies in the middle of the gallery. Other times the wire dresses are accompanied by mixed-media-on-canvas pieces in which the artist uses wire, ribbons, thread, paint and ink to individually depict women during quieter moments spent gardening or drinking coffee.
Recently, one of Tufford’s dresses, titled Dinner Is Served, walked the runway at ARTillery, the wearable-art runway show at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach. The fabulously puffy garment, which has fuchsia fabric atop a Romex wire frame, and includes a lace tablecloth and plastic plates and utensils, captured best in show.
This month, Colleen Dougher, who operates the South Florida arts blog Arterpillar, spoke with Tufford, an adjunct art and design instructor at Florida Atlantic University and Palm Beach State College, about her work and her upcoming discussions at Armory Art Center and Palm Beach State College.
Colleen Dougher: You’ve said that everybody knows you now for the wire dresses you’ve been making but your work includes drawing, sculpture, photography installations, performance … Did I leave anything out?
Jackie Tufford: No, I’m kind of all over and that’s really why I became an artist, is that I had these ideas I wanted to express and I’m like “Oh, I can do this, that’s great,” and “Oh, I can [do that]” …
C: When you started making art, what did you make first? Can you tell me how your work evolved?
J: Generally speaking, I started doing performance art and installation mainly first. … I was doing video art, I was performing in my videos, I was making costumes. I realized that I could really narrow it down to: “I was very interested in the materials I used, space — that’s why installation inspired me — and the body, how the body fits in a space.
I realized that the costuming became very important, being able to wear my creation. So even though I was making these costumes and performing in them and videotaping them with a story, I also suggest narratives … My work has kind of transformed from there to ideas of sculpture and fashion, but it really started from doing performances and making installations and performing in a space and making video pieces of that.
C: You’ve said your artwork is a balance of delicate grace and antiquated feminine styles and that it addresses the possible unpsoken expected social roles of women. Can you talk a little about those roles and how they came to be a focus of your work?
J: Well, first I have to say that my art is autobiographical and I suggest these narratives in the pieces that I do. In that way it’s really me, it’s about me, and I also believe, that when doing these works that other people can relate to it. They understand what my work means especially as a female … It came from questioning what it means to be a woman today and the questions come [from] my own experiences … from growing up. I had a lot of stress and turmoil in my home and I became a caregiver for my mom in my mid- to late-teen years so I took on a lot of those roles …
I’ve also dated people from various age groups. I realized that my role as a female changed depending on the person I was dating and how old they were, so that was very interesting as well. Dating someone younger is very different then dating someone a lot older than you, at least for me, so I started to realize that my idea of what it means to be a woman, my idea if how I fit into the home, changes … Each person’s situation is different and it really depends on what other people are used to and what they have [experienced]. For example, a lot of people grew up where their mother works and takes care of the home, or is a housewife … I’m in my early 30s and I have a home and things like that, and I’m living with someone. There are all these sort of unexpected roles that you take, whether you admit it or not. So I like talking about those things and what I grew up with and how it’s different now, and really, I started to question these ideas, I guess … Does this make sense?
C: Yes. It’s interesting that roles are such a fluid thing affected by so many outside influences, I guess, right?
J: Absolutely, yeah.
C: When did you begin exhibiting, and was Showtel [the installation art show once held annually in the unoccupied rooms of a West Palm Beach hotel] one of your earliest venues?
J: I would say Showtel was one of the earlier … I knew [Showtel founder] Kara Walker-Tomé before she started doing the Showtels. I would say that was my first real experience, especially with installation and performance and having an audience, because there were people always coming in to look at your work or look at you depending on what you did. … I learned a lot from it, actually. It was a big challenge, too. …I guess the biggest thing I realized is that as an artist, I am responsible for the emotion or the feeling I evoke in somebody else. I can give them a happy feeling, I can give them a sad feeling, I can give them a playful feeling, things like that. I didn’t really realize that until I started doing Showtel performances, like one piece I did really kind of freaked people out. Another piece I did really made them laugh. I’m like, “OK, I have the ability to make people feel a particular way.”
I realized that that’s not necessarily just about my pieces and what I say about myself but it’s really about other people too, and how they respond to my work and that’s very important as well. I don’t like making people feel bad. … I think [for] a lot of artists, it’s all about how “I feel this way” or “I’m talking about this,” but then I’m taking responsibility for the fact that you have responsibility for how the viewer feels as well, and it’s not just what you’re doing. So that became a really important part of Showtel during my early work — taking responsibility for what you’re creating.
C: Your most recent focus has been the dresses and accompanying mixed-media peces.
J: Yes, the dress pieces.
C: Your wire dresses make me think about the many ways we now have to communicate but how instead of making our lives easier, these multiple forms of impersonal communication can bind us and weigh us down. Is that one of the things you try to communicate or is that just my own interpretation?
J: No, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. It really does talk about the connectivity. I look at wire as a connective energy and I use it as a symbol of connectivity between people … There are so many technological devices that we have and it’s so easy to connect with people and I feel like we are so isolated at the same time. …
Actually the main frame is made with Romex, and Romex is the main wire that’s in the walls of houses for electricity. So there are actually some domestic elements there … connectivity in the house and then mostly using fax machine wire or other wires that we don’t even see. So when you wear the dresses, because they’re wearable sculpture or wearable art … they’re heavy and they’re awkward and it deals with space and the body. You can’t just walk through a door with them on. You have to be careful and walk sideways or you can’t sit down and all this crazy stuff … It’s awkward. You have to be aware of your body and of your space, your environment. It’s like you kind of have a cage on where you’re protected, so it’s still dealing with the fact that we are isolated. Even though we’re connecting with other people, in a way we’re really not, so all of that is in there.
C: Have all of your dresses been wearable sculptures?
J: Not all of them. There have been some that are just sculptures … I had a piece [Undulated Opus] that was pretty much a commissioned piece for Whitespace, Elayne Mordes’ space in West Palm Beach. … It was for an opening night, They were having a special event at the gallery for the [Palm Beach Opera], and the first opera was Madama Butterfly. So she asked me, “Can you do something?” … I said “OK,” so I made [a dress] out of the libretto, all of the paper music sheets from Madama Butterfly. It took forever because all of the sheets were sewn together and I had dyed all the sheets in tea and then rolled them up. … It’s like rippling waves, and I dyed them in tea to look kind of dated …
Madama Butterfly was a woman who was waiting for her lover by the shore and he never came and she had his child … Eventually she dies and he comes with his wife from America and takes her child, so it’s a really sad story about a woman whose lover never comes and that kind of thing, so I wanted [the dress] to go with the rippling waves like her waiting by the shore which she would do every evening in the opera … So that piece isn’t wearable, mainly because it’s paper and ribbons and things like that, so that piece is just sculptural.
Also I kind of stopped [making wearable art] for about a year. The reason is because people started to think of me as a performer, where I would make costumes and perform in them as an entertainer. I’m like, “No, I’m not an entertainer, I’m not a performer in that way. I’m an artist and I’m showing my work … So with the wire dresses I kind of stopped for a little while, like “OK, done with that,” and made some art pieces so people remember that I’m an artist and not a performer because people would be like, “Hey, we need a performer for a party.” I started getting these calls, and I’m like, “Well, no,” you know? I started to feel more like a clown. I’m like, “No, I’m not that.”
C: Is that why, in ARTillery, someone else wore your dress?
J: Partially. I knew it was going to be a juried show. I wasn’t exactly sure who was jurying it. I knew one person that was and I didn’t want to be in the dress because I didn’t want that person to know it was me in that way. I wanted to be more anonymous. Also, when doing a fashion show, the designers never wear their dresses or their outfits. They get models to do it … So I was trying to also think at a more professional level and say, “Yeah, as a designer, I should get a model and have them wear my piece.” Now I have to say, I did have a problem with this because it’s like someone wearing my piece, like it was really weird for me because that’s never happened and also I’ve never been in a fashion show either. So [with] those two things, I was freaking out. But it went wonderfully, like better than I could imagine …
C: It must have been interesting to hear feedback from someone else who wore your dress and how that felt to them.
J: Mmm-hmm. it was really great because it’s funny. I had my friend [Summer Beaumont] wear it and she has always wanted to be a model. It was one of her dreams. I’m like, “OK, well, here’s your opportunity, perfect.” It was awesome, so she had a chance to work out her dream and I always wanted to have my work in a fashion show. I’ve always been interested in that, so I had a chance to live out my dream, too. We had a chance to live out our dreams together in the show. So it was a really amazing night. Everything went well and I hope to probably come up with another design at some point. It will probably be a bit because it took me a while.
C: So that was your first wearable art fashion show and you took first place. Congratulations.
J: Thank you very much! Yeah, I was excited.
C: With the exception of the Madama Butterfly dress [Undulated Opus], all are your dresses from the wire dress series?
J: Yes, most are from the wire dress series. There are six wire dresses.
C: I also wanted to mention Baby Steps, which I saw at Rip Her to Shreds, the show held last fall at The Projects in Fat Village [in Fort Lauderdale]. Baby Steps isn’t a dress but is made from electrical wire and ribbon around a walker in a piece that resembles a bassinet. You exhibited it along with three wire dresses … That piece was about caring for parents when they get older and the whole role reversal that takes place?
J: Yeah, that went along with being the caregiver for my mom, and that’s actually my mom’s walker that I used. It was about mother-daughter relationships … It’s not wearable sculpture but I have the wire kind of lifting the walker up, being the support for the walker itself.
C: You mentioned the different-color wires you use in your work and things like that. Can you tell me how you go about collecting these materials?
J: Oh, it’s quite simple, actually. I’m really kind of boring in that way. I love Home Depot. Home Depot is my friend. It’s where I get all my wire, and Michael’s or any other craft store has ribbons. I don’t use recycled materials or anything like that. I have shown [works] at shows of recyclable stuff because I’ve transformed the material into something else, but generally speaking I’m not that kind of artist. It’s hardware stores and craft stores mainly.
C: On your talk coming up at Armory, will your works be present, or is it a PowerPoint presentation?
J: My work is really a pain in the butt to transport, so I’m going to do it strictly on PowerPoint.
C: Do you have anything else on the horizon after this salon?
J: I’m participating in a panel discussion at Palm Beach State College in April and I am going to North Carolina as a visiting lecturer to give a talk to grad students … so I’m kind of preparing for that. That’s exciting.
C: As a teacher of art, what do you think is one of the most important things for students who want to pursue art to consider?
J: I think most students who have an interest in art and want to create art are scared to. The main concern they have is “I’m not going to make a living doing this,” or they don’t have their parents’ support or they’re going to die a starving artist blah, blah, blah, and I usually tell them there are ways to make money … If this is what you love, there are well-known wealthy artists out there who make a living doing their art every day … My suggestion is: If this is what you love to do, go do it. Take the classes, figure out what you enjoy, and you can always teach, or maybe you’ll work for a company depending on if you are interested in graphic design or something like that. There are ways around it.
Jackie Tufford will present and discuss her work at the Art, Women and Culture Salon coordinated by fine art photographer Elle Schorr, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday in Studio 101 (the two-story building behind the garden) of Armory Art Center, 1700 Parker Ave., West Palm Beach. Admission is $10 and guests are welcome to bring snacks or drinks to share. Call 561-832-1776 or visit Armoryart.org.
Tufford will also participate in “Living a Creative Life!” a panel discussion that includes artists April Davis, Amy Gross, Chris Riccardo and David Alan Sincavage, 2-3:15 p.m. April 3 in the Bio Science Center (SC 127) at Palm Beach State College’s Eissey Campus in Palm Beach Gardens. Admission is free. Call 561-207-5015.