Interview with Local Artist and Designer Jessica Fontenot

Art, Austin, People and Place, Atlas Interviewsann armstrongComment

Through the randomness and serendipity that is Facebook, I had the luck of meeting local artist + designer Jessica Fontenot at the April Austin’s Atlas event. When I learned about her recently completed One Year of Buildings project, I wanted to dig a little deeper. And so we have our very first ever Austin’s Atlas interview! Many thanks to Jessica for the inspiration and willingness to discuss her work and process. With a little more luck, I hope these interviews become a regular addition to Austin’s Atlas.

First things first--the work described below will be exhibited on May 19th, 6-9pm @ Lewis Carnegie/ 1312 B East Ceasar Chavez. Find the FB invite here.

Project title: One Year of Buildings
Date Range of work: April 2016-April 2017.
Media: Paper, watercolor, ink + text.
Cities it encompasses: Mostly Austin, with a bit of NYC, Chicago, Seattle, Richmond, and Tulum, Mexico
Project Origin: It began as a part of the annual 100 day project started by Elle Luna, an artist out in CA. Near 100 I was so excited about the change and progress in my hand skills that I decided to push it to a year.
Project Website:
Jessica’s Website:

How long have you lived in Austin and what inspired your move here?
I grew up outside of Houston and rowed crew during high school. We came to Austin for state championships and I fell in love with the city. Once I graduated college in West Texas I found a job in Austin and moved down here. It's been five years! I'm enjoying living in East Austin right now, during this very transformational time for this neighborhood. It feels like something that needs to be documented and so for now I plan on staying and making work about the area. 

As someone who is obsessed with learning about and documenting the city, your project carries a lot of personal resonance for me, so I’m curious, how did this project come about?
Whenever I travel the buildings are what I can't get enough of. And even here just driving around Austin, I'm constantly noticing and taking photographs of buildings. I stare at all the patterns and the details that are unique to each one, noticing what objects are next to each other, and the overall feeling of the place. I hadn't attempted the 100 day project with Elle Luna the previous year so in 2016 I knew I wanted to give it a try. Made sense to draw a subject that I'm already obsessed with, so buildings it was. 

The visual content of the work has a consistent form: most often singular buildings, typically--but not always--cropped out of context, loosely rendered in ink and watercolor. However within that format, the range is great! For me, one of the memorable runs of images on the Tumblr shows the Ideal Soul Mart, the Mark de Suvero sculpture @ UT, a Hobby Lobby, followed by the Capitol in succession.  How do you chose/find your subject matter?
I once heard an illustrator say that a way to be successful in a long-term daily practice is to build rules around it. The composition of a single building, with some surrounding objects included and others left out, was my main rule. At the beginning when it was only going to be 100, I mostly took pictures of buildings around me, from my car on my commute or while I was out. As the project went on, I took pictures whenever I saw something to have a bank to choose from all the time. When reserves were low, I made intentional trips around town to get the ones I wanted. I like representing all buildings, from places of worship to a MetroPCS. Those places, like Hobby Lobby, are a part of our landscape. Not our idealized landscape, but our reality. Whenever I did one like that, of a Subway or a Verizon store, people really responded. It instantly hits everyone. And it's grounding in some way (maybe?) to see a place like that portrayed through an art medium, which is making it more appealing than we all know it really is. Or not, I'm not quite sure haha.

Were there things you discovered through this project/practice that you wouldn't have otherwise? 
My interest in architecture, the idea of place and who it belongs to, has all grown immensely while I was working through the year. Those interests were already there, but now they're concrete parts of me and what I make work about. City planning is something I recently have delved into as a result of the project. I've been attending city debates on gentrification, panel discussions of gerrymandering and similar things to listen to informed, engaged people talk about these topics. There's so many underlying currents to where people live and how it affects their entire lives that I am trying to learn about and am thinking on how to convey.

What is an impactful personal aspect of this project?
Another huge learning curve from this project has been: just do it the way you'd do it. Meaning, whenever I go to tackle a new project or a new medium/style, I used to think I needed to look to how others are doing it (stalk artists on the web, read all the articles about it, take a Skillshare class on it) before I start. This project helped cement the idea that I should just start and try. And adjust as I go, as I learn. That's how I create my most original work that people respond to more because it has this intangible characteristic to it. I didn't watercolor before this project. I learned by trying it every day, over and over. I was allowed to make mistakes because the next day I'd start all over again. And it didn't matter to anyone but me. 

Whose work inspires you?
This spans across lots of different people and mediums. Top of mind I think of: Rackstraw Downes, Berthe Morisot, Kerry James Marshall, Gemma O'Brien, Walker Evans, Magnum Photographers in general, Christoph Niemann, Mark Rothko, Kaethe Kollwitz. Smart, creative individuals who are thoughtful in their work and have a strong belief in their work.

What places inspire you?
Almost any place. That sounds ridiculous, but honestly even the pipes to the electric meters in alleyways gets my camera out. I like unique details, interesting patterns, random compositions, etc. Places with a history are also inspiring. I want to capture it in a way that helps deliver the story to more people. It's kind of like I find out something and get so excited about it I just wanna tell everyone I see about it. 

When I think about Paul Madonna's india ink renderings of San Francisco neighborhoods and Wendy Macnaughton's watercolors in Meanwhile in San Francisco, I am in awe of the work as is, but it makes me fall in love the San Francisco even more. I feel the same about your work, and Austin. Of course, I spent most of my formative years in SF, and have lived here for the last 11 years. So I have a deep care and appreciation for these places, and the work reinforces that. Along those lines, place based projects get me pondering about how someone who lives here and sees and experiences the project, versus someone who is from elsewhere. How do you think the work changes or augments peoples’ perceptions and feelings about a place?

I should've listed Wendy earlier as inspiration!! I love her work too, and actually finally got the Meanwhile book the other week. I think work resonates so much deeper with people very familiar with the place in the work. Your question is sorta about the flip-side of this thought, which is the work changing the viewer's perception of a place they are already familiar with. Tough question! For the drawings in this series, I think they force people to slow down a bit, and take in more than what they think they know. Most of the time we're zooming by the places included in this series, and there's no time to take in the details, or notice it's beauty. This series is about noticing places and realizing that we're all surrounded by these things that we don't pay enough attention to since we're always looking ahead driving or down at a device. 


I had a funny experience recently that relates to this question. I went on a short artist residency in Seattle earlier this year. I had never been there before so I was someone wholly unfamiliar, trying to take in a lot and decide what was important/exciting enough to put to paper. At the end of my residency, on the last night, I sat down with the couple who run this residency and we slowly went through all of my drawings I had made during my time there. Many times, as they were going through the daily drawings from that period, they would exclaim or laugh when they turned the page because it was a building they knew well, either doing business there or what have you. I had chosen things with no background knowledge, and I got to watch someone who knows the city intimately be surprised by the things I chose. It was so interesting and thought provoking to me about what it means to make work about place, be it known or unknown. And how place affects how people react to the work. 

Can how someone documents a place affect how you feel about it? Come to the One Year of Buildings opening on May 19th to find out! Or at the very least, get lost in Jessica's instagram feed for a bit.