my body smells like the dull wonder of being: Artist Spotlight, Jocelyn Hassel

Editor’s Note: Boilerplate Creative is pleased to announce our new series, Artist Spotlight, through which we hope to highlight some of the amazing artists (including musicians, writers, performers, and more) in the Vassar community. In our first spotlight edition, we feature an in-depth interview with poet and collage artist Jocelyn Hassel ’16, alongside some of her most recent work.

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homesick

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How do you understand yourself as an artist? Do you align yourself with any sort of artistic communities, movements, etc.?

I’ve always found it difficult to conceptualize myself as an artist. I don’t know why – I still don’t – but I believe a lot of that comes from equating being an artist to being explicit about what you create. I keep, or at least have kept, to myself a lot with what I write and create with my hands. I find those processes profoundly intimate, perhaps even too intimate to the point where I would find sharing them to be a jab at my vulnerabilities. It took me an incredibly long time to move past that sense of discomfort, and to find a sense of power in being explicit about my personal means of self-expression.

As cliché as it may sound, I do think that anyone who is able to be so brave as to feel and create anything in response to that feeling is an artist. I think my ambivalence with understanding and labeling myself as an “artist” comes from years of internalizing art forms as inaccessible to the intersections of my identity, especially regarding race, gender, and class. I found the Met rather dull in high school, I found a lot of pieces in the  high-end galleries of Berlin incredibly pretentious – and I would think to myself, “Well, if I can’t appreciate these art forms, then I don’t have the aesthetic or stomach of a real ‘artist.’” But I became critical of why it was that I didn’t conceptualize myself as an artist in comparison to those spaces, and of the exclusionary factors of those spaces. I met a lot of people with similar intersections of identity to mine, both here at Vassar and elsewhere, who are some of the most brilliant (and bravest) artists I’ve ever met. All of us have never formally placed our works out in the open – but seeing how we create our own spaces where we share and embody our narratives in visual, aural, and written forms has been a fulfilling part of my own conceptualization of myself as an “artist”. So it is safe to say that I align myself with artistic communities and movements rooted in portraying identity-based experiences in a way that is accessible, cathartic, and empowering. We don’t quantify our mediums of expression, or measure them based on scenes and spaces that have been so overwhelmingly white and male. That has been such a stunning and empowering realization to have, and it is so exciting!

When did you begin to understand yourself as a writer?

I started writing at a very young age. I remember writing this innocent saga about a cat and mouse—definitely unoriginal, and a bit embarrassing looking back at it now. On a more serious note, I think my passion for writing began more as an outlet for little things going on in my life, particularly reflecting on hardships that I didn’t know how to process fully as a child. In keeping a diary, I found ways to articulate emotions that I was beginning to understand – or at least, maybe finding the vocabulary for what I would try to eventually understand through growth. But I never really called myself a “writer” until high school, when the label was given to us in a classroom elective setting.

The first class that I formally took purely based on poetry and writing changed my life forever. It was about ekphrasis. Ekphrasis specifically brought me closer to other mediums of art, which also sparked the beginnings of my collages. Defined roughly, I think ekphrasis is a way of embodying pieces of art into written form, letting the writer infuse their own narrative or interpretations of a visual piece into prose. Throughout the class, we kept chapbooks and journals filled with knick-knacks and postcards our teacher brought for us as writing prompts. That particular journal was everything to me at the time, and I guarded it as the first symbol of me as a “serious writer.” I still have it today.

 

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Who (or what, or where) are some of your influences? What is a work that has left a mark on you as a writer/artist?

I think in general, most of my influences for writing and collaging come from the spaces and bodies that have crafted me. I think a lot about my mother, memories from the Dominican Republic, the little mannerisms of the bodies that have had such a profound impact on me. I grew up as a shy observer, and I think my writing and collages are a testament to how all of the small details of those interactions and interpersonal relationships have informed my work.

Throughout my time at Vassar, Nayyirah Waheed has also left a huge mark on my writing. Each of her poems is almost like a breath, a whisper – but done in a way that packs an enormous punch. They touch on a lot of themes that mean a lot to me, particularly the meaning of my body and the implications of how this body interacts with space and place.

How do you situate your art and yourself as an artist at Vassar? How has this environment impacted your work?

I’ve met some incredibly brave people at Vassar, people who always push me to be a better person. I think a lot of my desire to become a part of artistic spaces came from pieces like “blu” and “Not Anonymous.” They were two pieces of theatre that engaged with marginalized narratives quite explicitly, and did so in a way that incorporated their own forms of visual dialogue. Since projects like those, I’ve found this invigorating desire to continue navigating similar artistic environments, to meet and work with other students who also want to use narrative as a means of catharsis and healing. Not necessarily creating works and narratives to have it be consumed by a gaze, but really to just create for the sake of our own healing and growth.

What do you turn to when you have a creative block?

My number one source of procrastination is creating playlists of artists who inspire me – when the creative block hits, I usually resort to listening to them to ground me in a productive work state. Going for walks has also been a great way to clear out the gunk from my brain, and finding forms of self-care and communication with my housemates (or, when not at Vassar, close family members) has also been a great source of inspiration and restorative creative energy.

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to my mother

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Can you talk to us a little about your process? Do you have a routine?

My writing has almost always been a process of stream of consciousness. I write down images that are on my mind immediately, stretch that image, then try to ask myself: “Why this image?” It almost becomes a road map or blueprint of sorts after that. There is almost always a reason why I’m writing about this image, usually a general theme or emotion that I want to articulate (or a memory that I’m still processing, even years later). I eventually trim down that stream, organize it a bit – or sometimes just leave it the way it is. The routine always involves coming back to it about a week later if I can, or cutting it up into fragments to combine/collage with other written pieces.

Collaging is very similar, just in a different medium. I think what I love about the first time I collaged is how it illuminates the same process I use when writing, but the product is almost always unexpected for me (maybe even reversed). I don’t even realize that I already have a theme or emotion or memory in mind, yet somehow when looking at the ways I combine image and text (from magazines, old book covers, etc.), I find that it is already a finished blueprint of what I haven’t totally grasped in words. It is such a wonderful experiment to do, almost like emptying out the contents of your brain and arranging the scattered pieces. That is why I find collaging such a cathartic and empowering process for me – I learn so much about myself in that short amount of time. It is an inner monologue I’ve never had with myself, a process of me getting more in-touch with the hazier parts of my subconscious. Most importantly, collaging is a process of producing empathy for myself! There is a lot that I have yet to understand in terms of producing self-empathy – I learned that through the way my collages inform my awareness of my own body. Yet, I’m always in awe of the fact that I have the intuition to gain or grasp at least the core of what I’m slowly discovering.

What kind of work would you like to do in the future?

I’ve recently started collaging sounds together in the form of soundscapes. It’s also just as visceral and fascinating of a process as visual collages, and I’d love to work with other musicians on campus to play around with aural collaging. As always, I’d love to continue using theatre as a means of self-expression and narrative, and I think that a lot of prose and poetry have often become such powerful monologue-based pieces in experimental theater here.

What is the responsibility of the artist?

I haven’t really thought of this before. I think whenever I am navigating spaces like Vassar, when I’m home, when I’m anywhere really – I remind myself: “Never forget where you came from, and where you are going.” Building new foundations on top of the older, stronger roots that have made me the person I am is important: remembering my intersections, remembering what my body means on this campus, and constantly reframing the way I see the spaces around me. I guess the artist should always be conscious of those foundations while producing new ones, and of remembering and constantly incorporating the bodies and histories that made those foundations possible. Forming new narratives using old ones – crafting the self with a sense of love and patience.

 

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Would you consider collaging a kind of meditative practice? Where is your favorite place to write?

Oh, absolutely.

I think, if anything, I’ve only collaged when I wanted to sort of initiate a “formal” meditative practice. I often get frustrated with not being able to find vocabulary to use on paper, so the visual elements of collaging helps me. It is almost like a reverse ekphrasis, which is why I appreciate the ways that my poetry informs my collages, and vice versa. I think the cluttered nature of my collages, especially when looking back at them days later, almost always reflect anxieties – the ways in which the physical “crampedness” of collages reflect other inner-workings of my brain is so important to me. It continually reminds me of the need to take care of myself, and to stand back and process what is making me feel vulnerable, overwhelmed, etc. I think there is a tendency for many to discuss the mind and body as a dichotomy (especially when we talk about issues like mental illness), and I think if anything my collages continually remind me that my mind and body are in constant conversation with one another – and it is okay to be overwhelmed by that conversation, to not know the content of that conversation, and to be forgiving with it.

My favorite place to write is usually outdoors, surrounded by people. I am such a people-watcher, which is usually my doom in an academic context (but is a great setting for creative works). Of course, that isn’t exactly the case when it’s cold. I also do find solace in isolation when it comes to writing poetry and collaging, since I still do find those processes very intimate. I think it depends on the prompt, the content, and the context.

Do you see your collaging and poetry as distinct works? How do you connect to them differently, or similarly?

I didn’t start collaging until maybe my sophomore year at Vassar, so I usually primarily see poetry and prose as my first art form. I’ve come to appreciate collaging more and more – I think the only reason why I don’t do it as much is out of a lack of materials and time to craft. Collaging is more of an elusive way to measure my growth, but sometimes the products could be “hit-or-miss” for me. I often get frustrated with the sometimes-physical logistical errors of some collages (one image won’t fit with another the way I envisioned it, the piece doesn’t fit my vision, or something literally as simple as not having strong glue!). I can see a huge potential for growth in collaging, and for me to continue learning how to translate the image in my mind into a physical, tangible product. I’m learning how to trust my hands with crafting and artwork, and I think collaging allows me to keep in touch with the “crafty” part of me that I neglected as a child. It’s also so soothing. I don’t think I’ll ever turn down an opportunity to collage if I’m given the right materials, and I can see myself finding new ways to reinvent what my collaging looks like (the process and product).

Poetry is a process that grows with me, and I have a deep reverence for how my writing transforms over time. Since writing preceded collaging, I think I will always ruminate on how I can improve/extend my writing (as opposed to how I can create more collages). I connect with poetry more profoundly than I do collaging, mostly because it comes directly from me. Of course, collaging does come from me too – but it is also a borrowing of images from other mediums. I like to think of my poems as also “borrowing” from memory, but those memories are mine. There is a sense of satisfaction when I write a poem that hits the nail on the head with an emotion that has taken me days, months, maybe even years to articulate – and sometimes those poems are so unexpected. Creative writing classes here at Vassar have allowed me to do so much self-work in terms of self-empathy and writing. I’ve grown as a writer, but also grown in understanding of the intersections of my identity that have made my writing informed by experience. Poetry is and will always be my form of growth and healing, and it is an entity I know I can rely on in terms of self-discovery (and measuring my growth).

Your art explores a lot of deep & touching themes—diaspora, motherhood, travel, identity, trauma, self-contemplation. Can you talk a little more about what drives your work?

There is a quote from a book by Chuck Palahniuk that I read in high school that I always loved:

“…I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.”

This quote captures why I love collaging, why my poems are collages of memory and history. Everyone I have ever met has informed my understanding of myself in some way, and I am always so mindful of the ways that these histories intersect at different points in my life. My self-contemplation comes from figuring out what those memories mean to me. A lot of pain comes from those crossed memories and interactions, too. Just as I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known, I think there is a concept of “inheritance” that also informs my healing, particularly when we talk about legacies of diaspora and decolonization. I’ve inherited my mother’s pain, my family’s pain, and I’ve spent a long time carrying that pain without even realizing it. That is a source of trauma that comes with diaspora, also a source of trauma that comes with identities based on race, gender, and class. But most importantly: I have inherited my mother’s strength, my family’s resilience, and a pride for becoming. My self-contemplation comes from a place of contextualizing what my body means when it travels, what it represents. I think my process of decolonizing and removing internalized –isms that have been informed by spaces of hegemony have been my most difficult challenges, but also my most rewarding. I am always a work in progress, and forgiving myself and loving myself for my struggles has been one of the most illuminating realizations of my life.

My work is driven by different forms of “knowings,” whether from bodies or from memories that informed those bodies. There is a hurting from some knowings, a healing from others, and a reverence for almost all of them. Regardless of the context of these knowings, and whether or not a body has negatively impacted the way I perceive my own body, I have grown so much stronger from those places of fierce contemplation. I am still growing, and it is so incredibly exciting. I can’t particularly gauge where my poetry will go, but I know that it is an effort that produces a lens of self-love that I’m so grateful for.

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