In conversation with Jamie Romanet — This interview is a complement to Jamie Romanet: All the Hemispheres. Comprised of works on paper, the exhibition considers the coalescence of paint and poetry, beginning with its title, which was informed by a poem attributed to the 14th-century Persian mystic Hafiz. Through her portraits and maps, Romanet explores the infinite self, the geography of humanity's well-being, and the mysteries of our interconnection.
What does "the infinite self" mean to you, and how does it guide your work?
I believe we are infinite. I believe we go on in some form after this life... here, elsewhere or within something else—I think there is continuity. I also believe we are deeply connected, and I have an endless interest in our shared humanity. This is why I am drawn to portraiture and creating faces that represent our multifaceted selves. It is hard for me to imagine doing self-portraits, and quite honestly I actually view my portrait paintings as a kind of self-portrait. I feel the 'you' is me, and the 'me' is you. And for me, the belief in this, and the access point into this mystery of our infinite, interconnected ways, is the human face.
I want to stay open, and to learn and change, so presently I seek other avenues to return to this theme within the framework of the personal and the universal. That is why in this exhibition, All the Hemispheres, you find the map work as a complement to the portrait work. The map Pulse is my favorite piece. The 'personal' is in the stitching. The 'universal' is the pulse lines, which are different illness pulses stitched over the hemisphere map. I believe we are all sharing this right now. We do not feel well, we are not well.
Jamie Romanet, Pulse, 2020
How do material and process connect with your subject?
With watercolor and ink you play a fine line between control and loss of control to get to the unexpected good parts. I think the surface of all paintings is really important. I have developed a process that enhances the luminosity and haze of my paintings, while also freeing me from being too attached to the image itself. It is a sort of erasure and rebuilding.
All experiments lead to unexpected discoveries. When I let go and just paint is when I create my most satisfying work. I try to think about how I can disrupt myself in the studio to bring myself new challenges and pleasures. This is how I was driven to use household materials (since I work at home) like salt, spices, bleach. All acts in the studio—washing away, ripping, rubbing, scrapping, pounding, sanding, stitching, building—these processes are a gateway to the personal and the sacred, for me.
Using large grain sea salt in my work references my experiences as a scuba diver. Though I haven't dived since my father's passing, it was something I shared with him. In the ocean we experience another world, full of beauty and dangers, and we are dependent on breathing for balance and well-being. The ever-changing quality of the sea, and the ups and downs of the waves that relentlessly batter and shape the body of the landscape, speaks to our emotional lives.
With stitching we are repairing, but it is also an act of destruction since we are piercing an object. For me recently, the object is maps—and maps are always a political statement. In these pieces, I am processing not only my hurt for our world, but also my anger. The piece Mount the Hidden Tide II has what I see in its center as a phallic-like symbol. As a woman, I am quite fed up with the governing political world primarily consisting of men. One of the ways I have come to see this painting is that it is my way of saying fight—fight the patriarchy.
There is also a family line in my decision to stitch. My grandmother, who I was very close to and who was also an artist, embroidered wall pieces, pillows, our clothes. She was a painter and mainly worked with portraiture. Her influence on my life is in these works, as well.
Jamie Romanet, Mount the Hidden Tide II, 2020
How does story appear in your work?
I am not a great storyteller in my day-to-day life. I stumble with my words a lot. The will to tell a story or write a poem is there all the time for me. Poetry was my first attempt to express myself as a child and was my first love. What is more, the work of other poets remains a great source of inspiration, motivation and comfort to me. And I definitely want to say something with my work. So I search in my painting to make poetry. Whether I will get there through color, material or subject, this is my aim and hope.
Are you visually translating as your create, or do you find poetic ideas after you have already made your work?
Both occur, but often it is after I have made the work. I think all artists are best when they have let go and are following their creative intuitions. But the point of reflection and analysis after working is very important to building style and honing voice. When I find a poetic idea within the work that excites me, I tend to follow it for a while and see where the iteration will take me.
How has your own geography impacted you?
Being a foreigner is a never ending struggle to feel at home. Then at a certain time, when you do go and visit home, you don't feel at home there anymore either. This displaced feeling is rather bizarre to live with permanently. At some points it is liberating and strengthening, and at other moments quite difficult.
For the last 11 years, I have lived in France. Learning a language is beyond humbling, especially at an older age, but also so gratifying of an achievement when you begin to understand nuance and subtleties, culture. I like the idea of being a global citizen, adaptable and open. I have such an appetite and curiosity for the world, but equally I long to feel rooted and fully embraced by my community. No doubt all of this enters my work.
How do natural elements figure into your work?
The ocean and water in general, trees and birds are the main symbols that appear. I love them and reflect often about them. They give me peace and leave me feeling open. My father was a boater and scuba diver, so we spent a lot of time on the water. I like to examine the inherent qualities of water—its dual destructive and healing characteristics, how it plays with light, and the fact that it possesses an otherworld within it. Birds seem to relate often with freedom of course, and trees with home and grounding, even motherhood.
From where do the faces in your work arise; who are they inspired by, or are they known to you?
To be with the subconscious mind is to be connected to the otherworldly realm, and thus more in tune with this one. I enjoy when the portraits are mysterious and seemingly arising out of nowhere like a ghost was speaking to me, or a past self. I find that very similar to when you make up people in your dreams. Who are those people? A passerby on the street that your memory stored away? Or an old friend from another life? Or just a made up image your mind put together? The not knowing is intriguing.
Why do you see this exhibition, All the Hemispheres, through the lens of Hafiz's poem?
Four years ago, when I first read Hafiz's poem, "All the Hemispheres," translated in the book The Subject Tonight Is Love by David Ladinsky, the poem really struck me. In particular, the imagery of the last four stanzas where all the thousands of other forms/people inside of us are sitting around a fire chatting about the great circle within us. I see my paintings as a portal into the other dimensions of myself and would like the viewer to have a similar experience. If someone is to look at the grouping of my work, I hope they could see themselves or identify somehow with each of the portraits.
I do not have the answers, but I contemplate this idea which again goes back to the infinite self and our interconnectedness. I think, in this very wrought moment, these questions deserve reflection: How do we relate? How are we the same and different? And how can we honor and respect each other better across cultures? Is it possible through language and art?