Artist: Jan Talmadge Davis
Exhibition: To Hold a Letter to the Light
Media: Paperclay porcelain slip, underglaze, string
Gallery: CSULB School of Art, Merlino Gallery
Website: Artist has no website
Instagram: Artist does not have a public Instagram
About the Artist
About the Artist
Jan Talmadge Davis is an artist who started off working in ceramic sculpture, and has since returned to school for an art degree. Now, she has been trying to do different types of artistic work. This exhibit is an extremely personal work featuring thoughts of the artist and stories she has personally experienced, which was described as being new for her. Jan Davis said that she often writes notes or lists on the envelopes one uses for letters or mail, which is what she used to express her ideas on. Many of the envelopes and letters feature commentary on political or gender norms that Jan has noticed throughout her life.
The exhibit is in the smallest, most narrow gallery of the art exhibits. The artist figured she would probably end up having her exhibit in this room because of the size of it, but preferred it to be there. She chose to have very dim lighting, and felt that the combination of dim lighting and a narrow room helped make the exhibit much more personal. She also felt like the room’s size allowed her to hang up the letters in a way where admirers could calmly read the content of the letters as if on a journey through a person’s mind, while also not being overwhelmed with the need to keep moving in a very structured path.
The envelopes were covered in clay that was heated so that they could be written on, and then heated again so that the writing would not smear off. The envelopes felt hard, but were clearly fragile enough to be able to break if slapped together. There was writing inside of a few of the envelopes, with the writing on them only readable when holding a light on a side of the envelope. According to the artist herself, this was done to purposefully make these harder to read. There are some secrets that are harder to uncover or take more work for one to gain the trust to learn, and the effort required to read the thoughts within the envelope’s insides were meant to reflect this. She said that if she wanted to tell someone something directly, she would hand them the letter with the writing on the outside and tell them “hey, this is what I think of you.”
There are a few crumpled up envelopes at a far, dark corner of the room, and a few at another corner placed on a pedestal. Both of these respective groups of paper are stuck together and difficult to read, with even the bits one could read feeling incomplete. During the artistic process, ideas are scrapped or rethought and reworked. To the artist, these were ideas that she initially felt she wanted to share but then felt she would not want out in the world on display.
The envelopes and letters feature the inner thoughts of the artist and retellings of events from her life. The letters explore a wide variety of topics about the society that the artist has lived in. One letter is about the artist having a problem with her car and going to get a repair, only to have the people who are supposed to help her try to perform a scam by telling her that she needed a part for her car that she knew she did not need. The men assumed that she would be clueless about cars because cars are considered to be for men. Women who are into things that are “for men” tend to be thought of as an outcast, “a poser,” or “too good to be true.”
This aforementioned letter was a response to comments made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, where Trump insisted that Hillary was using her gender to make an attempt at sympathy and votes. This letter serves as a political statement about how women are scrutinized and seen as not capable of being equals. The ridiculousness of the situation was used to mirror the ridiculousness of a man with no political experience and no policies claiming that a woman was only beating him because she was using her woman status to gain favor. The letter ends with the artist sarcastically remarking that perhaps she should use her women card more to get her things, like how Trump claimed Hillary does.
Another letter looks into the differences between how boys are treated and how girls are treated. This letter starts by pointing out the one difference that the artist had with her mother’s appearance, and indicates that her brother was the one who does share that trait with the mother. That trait is the mother’s blue eyes. The letter then says, “I wished I was a boy for years. Things seemed easier.” When asked about this, Jan Davis said that she had at a point in her life thought that her life would be easier as a boy because she noticed how boys were not scolded for many of the same things that girls were for scolded for, and less was expected of them when it came to seeking approval or behaving in a certain manner.
These letters are all exploring things that Jan has experienced and thought about. Each one of them comes with a story that has impacted the way she thinks. The artist statement in the exhibit says that “private thoughts that become public, even for a short time, bring the viewer an opportunity to spend time looking inside a person’s mind, thoughts, perceptions, life, journey, and experience.” I felt like this exhibit really allowed the viewers to see the world through the perspective of another person. I thought it did a good job showing that life is full of a variety of experiences that help inform our worldviews.
Synthesis / My Experience
The lighting of the room made me feel like I was in an area meant for one to explore in a calm manner. I sensed that this exhibition was meant to be personal, a feeling that was reinforced upon reading the letters. At first I felt frustrated with reading them because I believed we could not touch the letters. This forced me to follow the pieces as they were swung by the wind, or wait for them to come back around. I followed the pieces, which I felt really showed how much I was intrigued by the stories shared in the letters.
Reading them felt like reading a good book, or binging on a thrilling show, I wanted to keep going and would not be satisfied with waiting for it to come back. This was easier to do upon learning that we could hold the hanging letters. Walking through the exhibit and reading the letters helped me see the perspective of another person and left me trying to answer the reasoning behind certain thoughts or words. The letters left me so curious that I had to return the day after our class visited the art exhibits, as the artist would actually be present then and I wanted to get more knowledge about her reasons and process from her directly.
I found myself experiencing a range of emotions when reading the letters. Some, like the woman card letter, had me laughing at the irony of her seeing right through the man’s lies and the sarcasm of the writing while also being disappointed at the predatory and demeaning way the guy had about trying to scam her. I felt disappointed that this man was a symbol of a much larger problem, a failure to see others as capable of being equal in knowledge or ability. It also left me wondering if I had ever done anything similar, and telling myself that I would not stand for anything like that. As a fan of movies, comic books, and professional wrestling, I see men being the predominant group talking about or participating in these things. I have often witnessed women who express interest in these things be tested in ways that male fans never would be, expected to know things that no one would know or otherwise be considered a poser who is seeking approval. Though I knew that the artist and I did not share the same life experiences, I felt like we were able to find some common connection in our disappointment at things like this, but also in our hope that things would continue to get better.