Internationally renowned artist, Grace Hartigan, has dubbed me the “Lewis Carroll of Baltimore”. Hartigan wrote that my paintings “like William James (have) a gift for psychology in her depiction of children. Damen’s use of paint is both sensual and tough.”
Indeed children are both sensual and tough. And it was while I was a child drawing in a sweltering sleeping porch I found art’s healing and my strength.
It was the summer I feared my mother could die from back surgery. Because of my fear and despite the humidity and heat, I was suspended within a magical escapism imagining myself to be the ladies whose costumes I copied. Love of painting and drawing deepened through my high school years, until finally after many detours and decades, I was able to complete a post baccalaureate at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a MFA from the Hoffberger Graduate School of Painting, (MICA) in 2001. Grace Hartigan, (1922- 2008) then Director of Hoffberger helped me to rediscover magic in my art.
In 1999, my work had been technically good and even a bit intriguing but also, too cautious and contrived. Grace wanted to break me out. She spied a photo of a school age girl, uncomfortable in a floral blue bathing suite. “Paint her and use your imagination.” Heard as both an invitation and a command, Grace helped open a door to the child in me who had once found timeless wonder inside a sweltering sun porch. Then the school age girl’s floral blue bathing suit was painted as implied armor, an imaginary protection from her soon to erupt adolescent sexual awakening. “My Private Garden,” a breakthrough painting, combined my daughter’s image with the magic of my memories, anxieties and imagination.
Later, Grace Hartigan anointed me the “Lewis Carroll of Baltimore”… “Remember, terrible things happened to Alice – falls, chases, beheadings. I think Jessica is talking about things that happen to children who are both menacing and being menaced.” (McNatt, Glenn. Baltimore Sun, 11/29/04)
My work has changed during this past decade. Found snapshots from forgotten family albums, dolls and other paraphernalia, as well as poems, music, myths and fairy-tales inspire me. I imagine the meaning and feelings of bygone times and peoples, even as the Internet assaults with ever more real and fake images and text. I am pulled by the past because as in the immortal words of William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (Requiem for a Nun)
I was awarded a full resident fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center (FAWC) in Provincetown, MA, by Elizabeth Turner, then Chief Curator at the Phillips Collection, Washington DC and met at the FAWS Maj Ragain, a poet whose work as been a pivot from where I have spun many pictorial narratives. I won awards from Jay Fisher, Senior Curator of the Baltimore Museum of Art, George Ciscle, Curator in Residence, MICA and Joann Moser, Senior Curator of Graphic Arts, National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC, among other respected curators. My artworks have been selected for invitational shows at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Art, Wilmington DE, Maryland Art Place, Baltimore and Capitol Arts Center, Rockville MD. More recently, my rotating scroll, “It Is Rumored, Bloody Point, MD” was included in the exhibition, “Emergence 2014: International Artists to Watch” at Galerie Myrtis, Baltimore, MD and “Raised With Walls – Bad Education” was included in the Biennial Maryland Regional Juried Exhibition, University of Maryland College. 2017 saw my paintings included in Zenith Gallery’s nationally juried exhibition “Resist” and its invitational “Femina” exhibition. "Launch" the inaugural exhibition of a new Baltimore Gallery, Co-Function featured twenty of my paintings.
During June-July, 2018, Kent State University School of Art Collection and Galleries and the Wick Poetry Center with support from the Ohio Arts Council presented “Home to Sargasso Sea: A long journey of loving collaboration, poetry, Maj Ragain and paintings, Jessica Damen” This exhibition represented the culmination of our eighteen year collaboration. My friend and colleague, Maj Ragain passed away in May of 2018. His insightful, challenging and beautiful verse lives on in his books and I will continue to dip into his well of grace filled thought for inspiration.
My artwork is found in private and public collections including:
• IIT Research Institute of Fairfax, VA
• Sunwest Communications, Inc., Dallas TX
• Peter J. Sharp Foundation, NY, NY
• United States Department of State, Art in Embassies Program, 1990-1994
• Zuckerman, Spaeder, Goldstein, Taylor & Kolker, Vienna, VA