Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Jane Marie Butler

"I have learned that community practice can also be about photography embracing and celebrating differences reflected in a positive form." --- Jane Marie Butler

Last fall Northern Ireland photographer Jane Marie Butler lived and worked in Washington, DC for two months. Under the auspices of ARCH Development Corporation's Artists in Residency Program---which receives grant support from the National Endowment for the Arts---Butler and two fellow Northern Irish photographers engaged with and photographed the community of Anacostia. During her residency, Butler captured the large-scale digital images that comprise Analogue of Anacostia. According to Butler’s artist statement, “[T]he work observes Anacostia amidst changes, with the choice of colors metaphorically representing the positives which are leading to its revival within the District of Columbia.” We spoke with Butler via e-mail about her earliest engagement with the arts, some of the highlights of her capital residency, and the surprising effects of using Chuck Brown as a conversation opener.

NEA: What’s your version of the artist’s life?

JANE MARIE BUTLER: During my final year of academic studies, I majored in fine and applied photography. I also genuinely have a flair for all genres of music and the arts. My affiliation with subcultures led to me furthering my knowledge in this field by including it in my academic studies at university. This led my investigations into further interest in reviewing social phenomenons from our pop past. All of my past research and projects have revolved around the subject area in photographing visual pop culture.

Since I graduated, as an artist, I work very much on a sporadic basis with often months passing without the consciousness of realizing I haven’t picked up a camera, paintbrush, or pencil due to my commitments of work or family or simply life in general blocking my energy to create.The jolt of artistic flair roars back at me, inside my thoughts often, by the lyrics of songs that remind me of where my passion lies and that gives me the enthusiasm to begin capturing images again.

My photography is now more based on documenting the electronic dance music communities through my visual perspective in the style of what I have almost always executed. Eclectic urban areas are my inspiration and my task is to try and visually display an atmosphere through my collage presentations.

NEA: What’s your earliest memory of engaging with or experiencing the arts?

BUTLER: In order to retain information long term I have to sketch in some manner or the other. Whether it is a simple biro [ink] doodle to a poster-sized mind map filled with elaborate links. I remember as a child always carrying a blank spiral notebook, and one of my first detailed projects was of my grandfather’s vegetable patch. The pages were heavily detailed in rows and sections of colored pencils and paints in order to know for the following season what rotation of seeds were needed to keep the soil full of nutrients and gain the best stock in the next planting.

Upon entering my grandparents’ cottage in County Kilkenny, Ireland, I can still see as I am opening the front door an extremely large-scale copy of John Constable’s Flatford Mill. Throughout the house were Byzantine style religious images. It wasn’t until later studies in education that I became aware of the relevance of these images in art history that I had been surrounded by.

NEA: Last fall you had a residency at the ARCH Development Corporation here in Washington, DC. What was that like?

BUTLER: I firmly believe the opportunity to be involved in the residency program was extremely beneficial to combine theory with practical experience and helped develop my professional photography work habits, which will always be both necessary and valuable to have, while I built toward a completed photography exhibit.

I visited the Big Chair Coffee & Grill café [in Anacostia] several times for coffee. Strangely, on my first visit there, after introducing myself to the mother and daughter who work there [I learned] that they were unaware of who Frederick Douglass was, which I found quite alarming. Luckily I had my compact camera on me, which still had images on it from home in Belfast where Mervyn Smyth and I had gone and photographed the new Frederick Douglass mural on the Falls Road, so I could show his relevance still to today as well as give a brief history lesson to the staff.

I also visited American Shottas---Anacostia’s record store. What a way to make your mark on the only commercial strip of Anacostia, blasting beats from all kinds of artists both local to international, reggae, go-go, hip hop, and rap. Most people might be put off by this loud thunderous bass booming through the street, but from the minute you walk in and see the walls adorned with the owner’s own artwork and individually printed t-shirts, you know this is definitely a central hub on all aspects of Anacostia's music scene. Damo, the owner, was an amazing character to talk to, and, after explaining how I came to be in Anacostia, he gave me a tutorial on the community’s favorite genres by playing different samples to teach my ear how to recognize the differences between Caribbean and African drum influences. I asked his recommendation of what CD should I purchase from him to learn more. He sold me a compilation of Chuck Brown’s greatest hits for $10. I hadn’t the heart to tell him I didn’t have a CD player with me in America but [it was] still a bargain for the knowledge I [gained].

One of the artists on residency with me, Paddy Kelly… asked if I wanted to walk up to the launderette with him. It sounds mundane, but turned out to be quite eventful. As we waited on the cycle of clothes I could hear music starting to pick up volume, so out I went to see a group of locals sitting out the front on what looked like park benches within the porch frame of the premises. Not knowing how to involve myself into their conversation, I asked for a light for a cigarette and, after the usual curiosity questions of who, what, where, and how, it seemed like I had been given the silent nod of approval for joining them. To set the scene it’s me, three guys seated, two standing, and a hatchback with the music playing from the car speakers. Suddenly I remembered my CD I had bought from Damo in the record store and scrambled for it in the handbag. So casually I called to the guy in the car and asked him would he play my CD…. The driver opened up the boot and startled my eyes with his innovativeness by hooking up different CD and mp3 player systems to the back speakers in an almost micro dj booth system of mini lead links. Then from under a cover….he produced a pair of fold up patio furniture chairs so that others could sit on the other side of the railings of the launderette and join the group and listen to my Chuck Brown CD!

Before the residency my community practice in photography had always been about recording the concerns of unrepresented or stereotyped people in different communities, but now I have learned that community practice can also be about photography embracing and celebrating differences reflected in a positive form.

NEA: We are celebrating Women’s History month in March. What does it mean to you to be a woman artist? And which women artists---in your own discipline or others---have most influenced you?

BUTLER: I honestly don’t relate personally to the referencing of my gender. I come from an extremely unisex background. I joined the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland in the first year that girls were officially allowed to join at the age of ten for seven years, and I then briefly joined the Irish Defence Forces on a part time basis. Both of these organizations treat you on equal par to your teammate and you excel by ability, not sex. This has all obviously impacted my mind set to be extremely independent and not view any subject matter of life as a stereotypical role of man or woman, just perhaps an area I lack skills in that I have not needed to learn yet.

All of these factors clearly result in my fascination with Tracey Emin who is proudly unapologetic of her work and has been reported as “unfeminine in her approach” for “breaking the boundaries” of what women should be creating as art and how they should appear and behave in public…. [R]eally the fascination with her art is not the fact that she is a woman creating these pieces that are representing moments; the real issue is that no one wants to admit the fear of her ability to present to the public so honestly. [As she has said,] “Being an artist isn't just about making nice things, or people patting you on the back; it's some kind of communication, a message.”

NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?

BUTLER: I see the role of the artist in the community is to create connectivity, to fully recognize that the arts have a central and distinctive contribution to stimulate public interest.

NEA: Conversely, what’s the responsibility of the community to the artist?

BUTLER: To learn the origins of the [arts] project and what its intentions are, to respond and create dialogue, and to engage and interact with the art around them.

NEA: Your advice for young artists?

BUTLER: Not everyone’s passion is their profession!

NEA: Our tagline at the NEA is “Art Works.” What does that phrase mean to you?

BUTLER: Art works as self-expressions, communication, and [is] open to interpretation.

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