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Interview: Jamie Luoto's Origin Stories

Interview: Jamie Luoto's Origin Stories

Lives and works in Healdsburg, California

Tell us about yourself, how did you become an artist?

I didn’t become an artist so much as discover that “artist” was the name for what I knew myself to be. Expressing myself artistically has been a cornerstone of my identity and how I’ve survived in the world for as long as I can remember.

"I Believe in Ghosts," oil on canvas, 60 x 40 inches, 2018

What is your background? and how did it inform the focus of your creative exploration or the medium you're currently working with?

I am a conceptual portraitist. I grew up lacking any sort of parental guidance. By necessity I looked to other people and the media to understand and learn about myself, how the world worked, and how I fit into it. This was intensive observational training.

My current series, “I Believe in Ghosts,” explores the aftermath of sexual assault and relates the tradition of silencing survivors to the historic exclusion of women’s work and themes in art.

"We Hunt the Doe," oil on linen, 42 x 49 inches, 2020

I realized that while I was taught that the main feminist battles had been fought and won, my generation was in many ways being culturally groomed to accept that it was normal to be sexualized and that a female's true worth was decided by how desirable a male found her.

The messages were confusing and dangerous, to say the least. It took me a long time to learn about and unravel the implications of viewing myself and others through a male lens, and further, to recognize the significant influence European masterworks and their use of the Male Gaze and romanticisation of rape have on contemporary popular culture.

Swarm of Ghosts from the “I Believe in Ghosts” series

What ideas interested you in the beginning of your practice, which ideas have you continued to explore, and where have they led you?

Exploration of identity has always been at the core of my practice. Topics like parentage, ancestry, gender, origin stories, myths, and erasure and reclaiming of cultures have invariably fascinated me. My work has always dealt with identity to some shape or form and probably always will.

In the case of “I Believe in Ghosts,” exploration of identity takes the shape of analyzing my psyche and experience with complex post-traumatic stress disorder to bring to light the unseen injuries of sexual trauma that invade and haunt the mind and body.

(work in progress) - Painting lemons in “Familiar”

Who were and are the biggest sources of your inspiration?

When I was 16 and started to seriously study art I was heavily inspired by Frida Khalo, Alice Neel, and Dorothea Tanning. They helped me feel comfortable and at home in my exploration of self and identity.

Self portrait captured during exploratory photo session

Where do you find inspiration?

I am inspired by brave and courageous people who turn their vulnerabilities into strengths and tell their stories in compelling ways that resist and fight back and ultimately empower others. For example, I’m always moved by Hannah Gadsby’s comedy special, “Nannette,” and seeing performances of the protest song and the accompanying dance “Un violador en tu camino” (also known as the “The Rapist is You”)  by the Chilean feminist group Las Tesis. 

In the studio with a blank canvas

Is there are a single work, project, or series that is pivotal in your current trajectory?

My painting “I Believe in Ghosts” (2018) is the most authentic self-portrait I have done to date. It has provided the jumping off point for the visual language and themes you’ll see in all the subsequent self portraits in the series.

Spirit of the studio

How did it begin? and how did it evolve?

I actually appeared to myself in a dream and told myself what I was going to paint, including the ghost condoms and what the title of the work would be. When I awoke, I had to prepare to do the work, but I was ready. I knew I had to do it because I told myself I had to.

It was clear to me that this piece needed to be expanded into a series, but the evolution came as I began planning to make additional works. First I came to terms with the work being about sexual trauma; then, although it was difficult, I got comfortable calling myself a survivor; and lastly, I recognized that the first portrait represents the emergence of a fragmented part of myself returning home.

“I Believe in Ghosts” (detail)

What were important lessons in the process that you’ve carried forward with you?

Two things come to mind.

1)I’ve learned that for work that is layered and complex it’s essential to begin with a solid foundational plan -- that is to say understanding the figure, the space it resides in, and some guiding truth that’s driving the work is essential. This is especially helpful when working on larger canvases.

2) We’re standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. It’s important to know those artists and their work to understand what one is building upon, as well as to be aware of the work by contemporary artists with themes that overlap with our own. This knowledge helps define and strengthen our own work, as well as expresses support for the community to which we belong.

“I Believe in Ghosts” (detail)

What are you working on now?

I'm currently painting two large self portraits for my “I Believe in Ghosts” series and preparing for the next three pieces. I share a lot of work in progress photos from my studio on Instagram.

In the studio with “I Believe in Ghosts” for scale

If you could go back in time to the very beginning of your art practice and give your younger self a single piece of advice what would it be?

I would simply tell myself that everything is going to be okay.

 "Familiar," oil on linen, 34 x 28 inches, 2021

About the Artist

Based in Healdsburg, California

Jamie L. Luoto’s painting “We Hunt the Doe,” which is part of her series “I Believe in Ghosts,” is a semi-finalist for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, 2022. She has exhibited in solo exhibitions at the Napa County Library and City Hall of Santa Rosa in California. Her group exhibitions include “Identity Spectrum” at Susquehanna Art Museum in Pennsylvania and “Defining the Art of Change in the Age of Trump” at The Center for Contemporary Political Art in Washington, D.C.. Luoto is currently working on her series “I Believe in Ghosts.”

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