Jen Urso is a Phoenix-based multidisciplinary artist whose output — no matter the medium — is layered and compelling. Continually challenging herself, the processes she engages in to create work are intricate, intense, and often laborious. We caught up with her to find out more about her past and present, as well as what’s in store for the future, and of course, how COVID-19 is affecting the creative process.
Who are you and what do you do?
Yikes, I do a lot of things! I’m Jen Urso and I’m an artist, small business owner, mom, mapmaker, gardener, runner, and cactus-lover. In my artwork, I utilize interventions, performance, writing and drawing to try to pick apart the conventions we use to experience artwork and also to focus on subtleties in behavior and environments. I really like all the things that we tend to ignore and any time I’m told something is a certain way, I want to investigate if that’s true or not.
How did you get your start?
It’s hard to say. I’ve liked drawing and making things for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I liked playing alone and I remember one time trying to figure out how to make a movie without any camera equipment. I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. So, I set up a blanket with a light behind it, made cut-out characters that I stuck to popsicle sticks and then staged story. I remember wondering why it didn’t seem like a real movie and feeling kind of disappointed. I still feel like that’s how I work on projects: having an idea of how I want something to be and then fumbling around through a bunch of different processes until it feels right.
What inspires you?
The infinite complexity of life and how our assumptions are almost always wrong but lead to way more interesting ideas; people who throw all of themselves into their passion and don’t listen to others who think they’re nuts (I wish I did); the concept that nothing is ever static and everything down to the most minute level is also in a state of flux.
What do you like about AZ?
The unbelievable tenacity of the environment and everything that survives within it.
Where can we see you(r) work?
In my studio! Kidding. But I mean, yes, it’s there. Right now, nothing is up anywhere but Practical Art carries some of my multiples like prints and my Phoenix Cactus Map. Wasted Ink Zine Distro still has a few of my zines (I think?). I have been trying to focus for the past year or so on developing one strong body of work that carries a continuous theme. Even though a few of those works have shown around the country, I really want to have them all together in one show. There are also two aspects to a lot of my work: public, ephemeral, intervention-type work and other work that can show in an art space. I end up leaving a lot of pieces out in public to be discovered or stumbled-upon so… they could be anywhere?
What would you like to accomplish before you die?
Being able to focus fully on a body of work to the depth that I know is possible without having to do 5 other things to earn a living and writing a book.
What is your mantra?
I say this to so many people, including my 6-year old: Figure it out.
* What’s been your most challenging project to date?
It is this paper that I just finished co-authoring with artist/dancer/choreographer Eileen Standley about our collaborative performance work Close Distance. We’ve literally been working on this paper for two years and it is FINALLY being published (after multiple rounds of intense edits) in Choreographic Practices (Journal). I can’t believe it’s actually happening! The process of writing and especially writing about your own artistic practice has got to be one of the weirdest and hardest things I’ve done. It’s like you have to first step outside your head and then climb back in to look at it.
** What are you doing during the COVID stay-in? (are you finding it harder or easier to create?)
I had already been wanting to develop a piece in public that looks at mundane spaces at microscopic levels so being at home all the time has caused me to start collecting, analyzing, mapping and drawing my own front yard. I’m especially focusing on the “weeds” or unintentional plants at multiple levels of magnification to develop a layered piece that will be placed back into the environment it references.
*** What else might you want people to know about you / your work?
Even though I tend to incorporate drawing into a lot of my work, I see myself as material agnostic. I’m just looking for the right method and material to work out the idea I’m having. My biggest exception is that I don’t believe in using materials that add to the endless waste stream that we produce. After past experiences of having to throw out materials and older works and imagining them languishing in a landfill for thousands of years, I started to work with mainly ephemeral materials like paper, ice and wood, material-less platforms like video, websites and online data or by creating work that functions at the moment as a performance or which utilizes the environment itself, like leaving marks in pencil on the side of a building. If I do use a more permanent material, it is very intentional, and the nature of that material is part of the concept of the work.
You can see her work at:
*Additional questions brought to you by Amy Young who organized this feature.