Many of the young artists in the Fine Arts program at Penn dream of being able to sustain themselves through their art. It’s a seductive fantasy, says painter Jane Irish, and one that she was able to live for more than a decade after getting her graduate degree from CUNY’s Queens College. At a certain point, though, she says she had to “bite the bullet and get a day job” to support her studio practice. After stints at various community arts organizations and foundations, Irish found herself at Penn, where, since 1999, she has coordinated the graduate Fine Arts program under department chair John Moore.
For Irish this is a reasonable compromise. She finds the work—bringing visiting artists to campus, coordinating thesis exhibits and generally shepherding the students (42 this year) through their two years at Penn—rewarding, and she has enough energy at the end of the day to take up her brush and put in some studio time.
With a recent one person show at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on her resume, and work in two Philadelphia galleries this month, Irish has clearly kept her art on the front burner. She describes herself as a “conceptual artist who’s also a painter,” and her work has ranged from whole gallery installations to mock Sèvres porcelain vases. With an abiding interest in politics and class struggle, Irish last year organized an 80-artist exhibit based on a Vietnam Veterans Against the War protest march. Irish drew on her experience at Penn to put together an oral history panel and organize a poetry reading. Since then Irish has helped coordinate a monograph of artist Bill Walton designed by Laurie Churchman, an assistant professor in the Fine Arts department. “It’s really great. I feel like I’m part of a community,” says Irish, “and if you’re working on a project you can tap in and talk to people.”
Q. Running the MFA program sounds like a busy job.
A. We’re really fortunate in that we have a wonderful support network. There’s our own registrar and finance department so you’re not doing everything. I came from community arts organizations where you sort of had to do the whole animal yourself. Here it’s great. I’m coordinating a certain amount of programs but not having to do the fundraising for them too.
Q. As well as the visiting artists program you also bring some really big names to Penn.
A. Yes, I coordinate the Locks Foundation Distinguished Artists Series that’s kind of like the grand visiting artist program. It’s sort of more theatrical. We have it in Annenberg and it’s really cool to do something so large scale. We’ve had Chuck Close, Eric Fischl, Alex Katz and Robert Storr in the past, and Robert Hughes the writer from Time magazine. So those are busy times.
Q. Other crunch times?
A. The thesis time for the graduating class. There’s a major exhibit off campus. It’s just an exciting time when the students are mounting this huge exhibit and having a major curator involved with it. We have an exhibitions person but I get involved because of my experience with PR.
Q. Do the students look to you as a mentor or role model?
A. I like the fact that John Moore has purposely had practicing artists in all the positions here and I think it’s really cool for the students to know that artists aren’t just teachers—we’re doing all kinds of things. Once in a while I do critiques with them because I have a master’s degree in art and I’ve been a practicing artist all my life. I think they see me in a different light and they can relax around me in a different way. It’s great for them to see someone older who’s still doing [art] and has an enthusiasm for it. I’m really connected with the arts scene in Philadelphia and I can connect people. I often hear of openings or whatever and I can give advice, if people want to stay in Philadelphia, especially.
Q. When do you get the time to paint?
A. You hear of writers squeezing in writing. They get up at 4 o’clock and write for four hours before they come to work. I work at night and on the weekends. I enjoy this position in a way because I’m not running a whole arts organization so I can just go home and do my work. I like to think of myself like Kafka. You know, the office worker. That’s what he did for a living.
Q. Where is your studio?
A. I live where I work in a building in the Northern Liberties that used to be a lingerie factory. The community development group in the Northern Liberties bought the building and renovated it for artists. It was subsidized by the William Penn Foundation. There are six artists in the building and we got it for a third of what it was valued at because William Penn and the Redevelopment Authority pitched in. It allows me to work in a position I enjoy but isn’t necessarily like this huge careerist position, because I’m secure in my studio and my home.
Q. What kind of work are you showing in the current exhibit at Locks Gallery?
A. It’s a body of work I did in 1995. I did a series of vases that depict scenes. I’ve always looked at French porcelain as an inspiration for my work and I taught myself how to make Sèvres porcelain, the highest style of Rococo porcelain. [The vases] are painted with pictures. One side might have images of high art from the ’70s and some have pictures of poverty like soup kitchens. It’s taking a genre scene forward, not necessarily happy peasants dancing but poor people shooting up.
Jane Irish currently has work on display at the Locks Gallery (600 Washington Square, Philadelphia, 215-629-1000) and The Galleries at Moore (20th St. and the Parkway, Philadelphia, 215-965-4027).
Originally published December 7, 2006.
Originally published on December 7, 2006