view of a snowy landscape through a blurry and wet glass
Jacinda Russell - View through the Salt Splattered Window While in Covid Quarantine (Unfocused)

A Closer Look

Artist Block and the work of Jacinda Russell

Brian Hitselberger

[The following is a chapter from Slender Intuition, a book of essays on the subject of artist’s block by Brian Hitselberger. During the pandemic, Hitselberger became interested in artist’s block as a shared experience, and a condition that might redirect a studio practice in unexpected directions. By way of research, he interviewed other artists on their own relationships to block and used their responses as starting points for each essay. A Closer Look examines the conceptual photographic projects of Jacinda Russell, whose work was recently on view in her solo exhibition Metaphorical Antipodes: Stories of Ice at the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art in New Harmony, Indiana.]

Time is a crucial element to Jacinda Russell, who dramatically shifted her work in 2016 to leave behind familiar, and personal, subject matter. “After the election,” she says, “I really began to wonder why I was creating such autobiographical art, and how I could make a broader, bigger statement. I started thinking about the environment, how that was something that I felt very close to and could [work] with.” It was this turn to the environment that led her to her current, peripatetic practice. She began to rely on research, travel, grants, and years of planning in order to realize conceptually ambitious projects, many of which have taken her to some of the most remote regions of the planet. For her work, she has traveled to the Arctic Circle, Antarctica, Svalbard, New Zealand and all along the US/Mexican border.

Russell’s projects are contingent on a physical engagement with her research – she will literally go to the ends of the earth to make her work. An example would be her ongoing series Metaphorical Antipodes, which involves fabricating a landscape in her Indianapolis studio then documenting that fabrication against the actual landscape out in the world. In this series, a miniature iceberg made from cast glass is photographed against the ocean surrounding Greenland, or a metal globe is photographed partially buried in Antarctic snow. Her vision for this work requires a union – and a tension – between the made and the real, and travel is her tool to manifest it. “If there was any magic to what I do, the part that I really enjoy and that others respond to, it’s the sense of ‘Oh, you really did that thing…. you didn’t construct this in Photoshop, you didn’t dream this up, you did it.’”

Speaking with me from her home in Indianapolis, she defines creative block as “an obstruction of any kind,” and one that, for her, comes more regularly from outside sources rather than internal barriers. 22 months into a global pandemic at the time of our interview, Russell rattles off a list of her current obstructions: “I have the US Department of Interior, I have a tribal council in Alaska, I have a university hold on international travel, and I have the weather.”

In the summer of 2021, Jacinda was slated to travel to the Colorado Ice Core Facility for a project when the Delta variant stymied her plans. Out of COVID-19 compliance, the Denver-based facility supervisors suspended all visits, leaving Jacinda without the external resources her work has come to depend upon – a perfect example of the “outside obstructions” she is constantly negotiating. When I ask how she will move the project forward in light of this suspension, her responses are pragmatic: she can use photographs of the facility online, she can focus on the activity that would have come after her research visits, and she can develop the various new skills required by every new project. Frustrating though this may be, these blocks have the odd effect of clarifying exactly what it is that Jacinda’s practice demands of her. “I might have to make something via my imagination without having the resources to understand what it looks like, or knowing how it's presented in real life first. And it’s not that that’s hard, but I think so much of what I do is based on the experience of being there, seeing that, doing that. If you take that experience away, I’m not sure it’s my project anymore.”

I perk up at this last remark, as it outlines one of my most enduring questions: what is required for our work to feel like our own? For Jacinda, her practice requires “being there, seeing that, doing that,” and I admire the resolve in her answer. All serious creative work demands a self-awareness of this kind, and this very self-awareness creates conditions under which her ambitious projects are realized. In some ways, all the planning, scheduling, budgeting and negotiations required for each of her long-distance projects are an essential part of her creative process. With every email, line item, and request for time-off, a vision for the work becomes clearer – a type of sketch not made with pencil on paper, but by navigating the practical minutiae of travel. But underneath it all is a desire for something that can’t really be spoken out loud, because it has yet to be made and remains inexplicable. And in this I’m reminded sharply of Teresita Fernández’s advice to young artists, when she says those moments when you feel discouraged or lost in the studio,
or when you experience rejection, rest completely assured that
what you don’t know about something is also a form of knowledge,
though much harder to understand. In many ways, making art is
like blindly trying to see the shape of what you don’t yet know….
[it’s] about taking the risk of engaging in something somewhat
ridiculous and irrational, simply because you want to get a closer
look at it.

Like much of the wisest advice, Fernández’s directive is sphinxlike, hard to put to practice - not least because it casts the artist as a kind of shaman. And admittedly, it can feel that way sometimes. Throughout my own artist’s block, I thought a great deal about that moment when “the risk of engaging in something somewhat ridiculous and irrational, simply because you want to get a closer look at it,” would stop feeling ridiculous and irrational, and start feeling required. I tried hard to “rest completely assured.” This is the resolve that I detected in Jacinda’s answer, this risk and desire to get a closer look at something: a second kind of magic.

Jacinda rests completely assured in her desires because she places a great deal of trust in her process. Indeed, all the preparation and planning for her research trips creates a border of time and access around a place or a landscape, but also an unknown. She knows where she’s going and how long she will be there, but the exact details of what she will make – composition, issues of scale, etc. – are decisions made only in the moment. But she is confident that once inside this border, the work will be made – rest completely assured. I can relate to this; I’ve long seen my own studio – the space of my materials, my notes and my projects – as a physical zone of potential that I move into and out of, and from which my own work emerges. Much of the time, if I just spend enough time there, sooner or later something starts to happen. The difference is that in order to get into my zone, I ride my bike across town.  Jacinda, on the other hand, will travel above the Arctic circle. This is the “magic” that Jacinda’s practice enacts, and what makes the work her own: the lengths that she will travel for a closer look.

In May of 2022, following the now-familiar months of planning and preparation, Jacinda landed in Longyearbyen for a research trip by ship through Svalbard, one of northernmost populated regions on the planet. Shortly after boarding, she tested positive for COVID. She spent the next 7 days, her entire Svalbard trip, in isolation below deck inside her room with glacial views passing outside her cabin window. Mercifully, Jacinda’s case of COVID was mild and did not require hospitalization or urgent care, but she remained ill and in quarantine throughout the entirety of her trip. Personally speaking, I would struggle to think straight between the frustration and disappointment of such a scenario, and to be sure, the artist was “so angry that first day.” But at a certain point during her arctic quarantine, she had the wherewithal to set up her tripod and begin taking photographs, shifting the depth of field to focus not on the landscape, but onto the salt and water droplets of the window of her room.

When I first saw these photographs, I was deeply moved. On the one hand they document Jacinda’s tragic arctic quarantine, but they also speak powerfully to the radical interruptions that the pandemic imposed upon all our lives, and the radical separation between where we have found ourselves and where we desire to be. They also make visual those very obstructions that, for years now, Jacinda has built her work around. In these images, those very obstructions (in this case, the salt-splattered windows) become both subject and literal focus, while the work is made from inside of them.

Although these most recent photographs frame a kind of loss – of time, of energy spent, of resources and plans – I must admit, I find myself oddly elated by them. This is because they capture, with incredible economy, a ghost on film: that moment when one breaks through a block to make the work. Despite very real obstructions and barriers, and through the failure of plans and time lost, one can still make something beautiful anyway. The very existence of these photographs performs and makes visible a capacity for revision, reimagination, and movement through challenge. They mourn, but they also endure. 
two images side by side. Each holding identical bowls. One in a cold and wet environment, one in a warm dry environment.
Jacinda Russell - Disko Bay, Greenland and Westfjords, Iceland. Archival Pigment Print, 24" x 55", 2017.

view of a landscape if icy water through a blurry and wet glass

Jacinda Russell - View through the Salt Splattered Window While in Covid Quarantine, May 30, 2022



Brian Hitselberger

RUCKUS, 2018-2023
Louisville, KY