INTERVIEW: JENNIFER SAMPSON
Absolutely any materials can be shaped to break your heart, make you sigh in awe or laugh out loud.
As always first things first: could you please introduce yourself a little? Where did you grow up, and what were some of your earliest art experiences?
Hello, and thank you for reaching out to me! I grew up in Stillwater, Oklahoma which is a small college town in the United States. Beginning in elementary school, I had many failed attempts at visual art. I wanted so badly to be an artist, wearing a perfectly distressed smock, beautifully tussled hair, surrounded by paintings which throngs of people were just dying to purchase. The only problem was, I had zero talent. Even my stick figures were pathetic. Not even Bob Ross’s happy clouds would form for me. Fortunately, I found I was very talented at strolling in art galleries and buying postcards.
I know your background is in theatre. Would you like to tell us a little about this part of your life?
What I’ve always loved about theatre is the architecture of storytelling. How does a director shape each tiny moment in a play to create the arc of the story? How does she orchestrate, inspire and commune with the actors and designers? How does the director make sure the audience breathes with the play and is ultimately transported?
At eleven years old, I played a blind girl in a small community theatre play and from that moment on I knew the theatre would be my life’s work. I was painfully shy and terrified of the world, but in the theatre, in someone else’s story, I was free. I was fortunate to attend very serious drama schools for my undergraduate and graduate education - working with professionals at the top of their field.
I didn’t care for the flashy side of performing or the vanity. I loved the hard work in the rehearsal room. The rehearsal room is like the art studio. It’s where the ideas spark, materials are explored and hopefully, magic happens. I’ve worked as an actor, teacher and director in schools, theatres and found spaces. As a director and collage artist, my goal is to honour the story, honour the audience and be as inventive as possible- to surprise and delight.
How did you discover collage? Was it a medium that spoke to you from the beginning?
I’ve always played with collage as a way to unlock my imagination when it came to studying characters and plays. I didn’t fully dive into this art form though until February of 2019. After two years of battling what is now a chronic illness, my hands began to shake and I knew I needed to tell stories. Once I started cutting and pasting, it became an obsession and a blessing. I found that for the moments I was able to sit at my art table, I recognized myself again.
I can’t describe the relief of finding collage. Those who are hit suddenly with illness understand the shock and grief. You lose not only your health and your work, but your dreams for the future. I’ve found incredible solace in working with materials, creating collages and connecting with this community.
What exactly appeals to you about collage?
Anything can tell a story. Absolutely any materials can be shaped to break your heart, make you sigh in awe or laugh out loud. There are no rules and there are no limits.
I work with traditional paper collages but also 3D, impermanent Theatrical Set Collages – a term defined brilliantly by Laurie Kanyer of the Doug + Laurie Kanyer Art Collection.
Some of my work is glued down but most is staged, photographed and carefully titled. The collage is shared and then like a play, the materials are struck. They are either stored for future use or as in the case of my husband’s bow tie and daughter’s playhouse furniture, returned to their rightful owners.
How would you describe your style in your own words?
Cheeky. Irreverent but not crass. Playful but not flippant. Heartfelt. I care very deeply, and I hope that comes across in my work.
You very recently published your [first? - Yep!] collage book called Cut It Out. Congratulations! I haven’t had a look at it yet. Could you describe what exactly your book is about and how it came to be?
Thank you! This book is all thanks to a gift grant from the Doug + Laurie Kanyer Art Collection. CUT IT OUT: Theatrical Set Collages is a 73-page collection of my works divided into three acts- Comedy, Soliloquy and Drama. Laurie Kanyer found my work on IG and reached out to me. I was nervous to speak to such an accomplished artist and someone who is doing incredible things for the collage world. She immediately allayed my fears with her kindness and enthusiasm. After our first conversation, we knew we wanted to work together. She said, “I’m a collector and I want a book!” It was music to my ears.
You hinted at a lot of trials and tribulations, or was it obstacles and detours, during the creation of your book. Would you like to share some of them?
Well, when I’m excited about something, I can get ahead of myself. I accepted the generous gift grant and took off at full speed, before I really knew what I was doing. I worked with such joy and fire; I actually made a full book which was divided into ten acts. It included traditional paper collages along with the Theatrical Set Collages and a wide variety of themes.
Laurie was incredibly patient, slowed me down and showed me how to define my process and my work. She encouraged me to focus solely on the Theatrical Set Collages, and I began the process over again. Focusing the book on this unique method was absolutely the right move, but I had to break the news to my husband who had put in many hours on the layout of the first book. Luckily, we are still married.
How long did you work on your book?
I was offered the gift grant in April of this year. Five months later, we have CUT IT OUT: Theatrical Set Collages!
Was this a personal project that you worked on alone? Or did you collaborate with anyone?
I love collaboration. Theatre is a team sport- I believe life is a team sport, and so was the making of this book. I was incredibly fortunate to receive guidance from Laurie Kanyer. She was thoughtful with her guidance but gave me the freedom to create a book that I felt was truly mine.
My husband, Jon Sampson, is brilliant with layout, editing and all the details that I skip by. We worked side by side every weekend discussing each choice in the book. He is that rare unicorn who can see the artistic and analytical side of things. He’s also a computer wiz. If I had to learn the software and create the layout alone, we would be looking at a book release date sometime in 2022 or 2023.
I know first-hand that big projects like this can be one rollercoaster ride after another? What are some of the things you learned throughout the process, practical as well as personal?
I learned to trust my aesthetic instincts and how to articulate my process. I learned to stop apologizing for not being a trained visual artist and to trust my work. This community is full of generous people supporting each other’s unique work, and I’m so grateful to be a part of it. I also learned that joy can appear in the midst of illness and hardship, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Jennifer Sampson: Instagram
Interview: Petra Zehner
first published on Glacial Collective Prose, our old online magazine, on October 16, 2020