Jaye Schlesinger: In the Bag

This article on Jaye Schlesinger by Lisa Wurster-Dolan first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

"Party Bags" by Jaye Schlesinger

Party Bags (oil, 16×16) presented countless challenges because of the complicated designs on the bags,” says  Jaye Schlesinger. “I relied heavily on my photo references to visualize the distorted patterns in the creases.”

Shopping bags are a kind of detritus of modern life. With their recognizable logos and brands that reflect our culture of consumerism, they not only feel at home with us, they literally are—living in our closets like the ghosts of shopping trips past. Jaye Schlesinger brings to life these modern-day symbols so we can see them with new eyes and gain a better understanding of ourselves.

Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago as a young girl with her uncle, Jaye Schlesinger was introduced to the finer elements of painting. She became particularly enamored of Cézanne’s Basket of Apples and began to understand the different levels of meaning in a still life. “That experience,” she says, “helped me look at paintings with a critical eye and also a sense of wonder.”

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Recycling at Its Best

Set in a narrow plane and brought to the fore with simple, neutral-colored backgrounds, the bags are carefully posed to give them personality. Some appear quiet and retiring, while others are more outgoing, radiating a sense of humor, as in Have a Nice Day (below).

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"Have a Nice Day" by Jaye Schlesinger

Jayer Schlesinger painted Have a Nice Day (oil, 18×14) as a monument to consumerism. “Technically, it was tricky to make the bag look white since I had to save the very brightest white for the highlights,” she says. “I used many layers to get the balance of lights and darks just right. Of course, I couldn’t resist distorting the smiley face and giving it a furrowed brow.”

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Jaye Schlesinger found the first subject of her series lying around the house and “recycled” it in the most glorious way. Her subjects are instantly recognizable—even while wrinkled and creased. Eliciting that moment of logo recognition from the viewer takes skilled draftsmanship. Schlesinger also has to recreate the bag colors, as well as capture the semblance of the weight, texture and folds of the material, and the reflections of light. For the artist, these abilities came naturally from a background in illustration and a lifelong love of art.

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Drawn to Art

Growing up, Jaye Schlesinger spent a lot of time drawing for pleasure and using it to escape “whatever was unpleasant” or made her feel “uncomfortable.” After pursuing degrees in both art and psychology, she found her interests vacillating and broadening, and she immersed herself for several years in designing and building furniture.

After raising a family, she felt the pull of art again and decided to earn a degree in medical illustration, a move that she hoped would allow her to use drawing to make a living and satisfy her creative urges. Medical illustration was a successful career for her: She illustrated more than 20 books and also taught surgical illustration and anatomical sketching. After being immersed in the field for more than a decade, however, she felt it was time for a change.

From illustration, Jaye Schlesinger drifted rather naturally into working with pastel. Her beloved woodworking tools became the subject for a series (read the feature article on Schlesinger from the February 2005 issue of Pastel Journal) . From pastel, she transitioned to gouache and then decided to challenge herself once more.

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PHOTO PLANES

“I love the way a photograph flattens a three-dimensional image so that the objects become shapes that interact with each other. I’m very aware of this when I compose a painting,” Jayne Schlesinger says. She chooses a narrow depth of field, taking the object out of its normal context. “There’s a simplicity and clarity in this kind of observation,” she explains.

For Schlesinger, the camera has been a major player in her growth as a painter. “Most people don’t like using photos,” she relates. But since her subjects are rather flat, it behooves her to see the logos in photos, which can capture a bag’s position before it slumps. “The photographs are very helpful in preserving the pose, which in many cases is very transient, and also help me see reflected lights.”

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Jaye Schlesinger Dives into Oils

Instead of “drifting” into this new medium, Jaye Schlesinger knew that oils would require a new set of painting skills plus learning about color mixing, solvents and surfaces, but she loved the sumptuous look and feel of oil paint and also liked the idea of having a finished painting that didn’t need to be framed with glass.

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My bag series morphed into a few paintings about packaging. I was thinking about how little of a brand name or logo one has to see in order to recognize the product, and about the absurd number of choices we have for something so mundane. White, Whiter, Whitest (oil, 18x14) presented many technical challenges: getting the writing to conform to the distortions of the tubes, feathering the edges of the shadows, and working with small brushes to paint fine details.

“My bag series morphed into a few paintings about packaging.” says Jaye Schleslinger. “I was thinking about how little of a brand name or logo one has to see in order to recognize the product, and about the absurd number of choices we have for something so mundane. White, Whiter, Whitest (oil, 18×14) presented many technical challenges: getting the writing to conform to the distortions of the tubes, feathering the edges of the shadows, and working with small brushes to paint fine details.

Rather than taking a class, Schlesinger decided to teach herself. This do-it-yourself approach, she thought, would allow her to develop her own style. A self-described introvert, she also enjoys working alone at her own pace and experimenting as she goes along.

With a month all to herself at an artist’s retreat, she set about learning the ropes of oil paint. Jaye Schlesinger doesn’t recommend this approach for all artists. And indeed she herself doesn’t work in a vacuum. She reads about materials and techniques, visits museums and galleries regularly and participates in a critique group. “I’ve been to a number of artist colonies,” she says, “and have taken away a lot of valuable insights from interacting with other visual artists, as well as writers, poets and musicians.”

She’s still getting used to the time spent waiting for oils to dry and, as a result, works on multiple paintings at once. “The process of learning a new medium has been challenging and exciting,” she says.

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"Ziploc" by Jaye Schlesinger

Jaye Schlesinger wanted to pay homage to the iconic branding in Ziploc (oil, 12×12). “For a sense of subtlety and humor,” she says, “I painted the bag from the back. Painting something that’s transparent isn’t as difficult as it may seem. I started with a solid background, then worked back and forth between the shadows and the highlights. It was exciting to see the image emerge.”

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Uncommon Objects

Jaye Schlesinger tends to work in series, based on subject matter that’s connected to some aspect of her life. At some point the series comes to a natural conclusion as a new focus arises. She particularly likes nontraditional subject matter or unusual ways of composing ordinary objects.

While many artists find inspiration in portraiture or scenery, she feels a personal connection to the inanimate. “Most people like to draw natural things, but I really relate to these objects,” she says. Items like her well-worn cabinetmaking tools, for instance, are “precious.” She was recently commissioned to paint a series of antique kitchen utensils, intended as the birthday gift for a patron whose husband is a chef.

Jaye Schlesinger doesn’t like to connect her former career as a medical illustrator to her work as a fine artist—“I think of them as separate,” she says—but it’s clear that those drawing skills have lent themselves to realistically crisp renderings. You can practically reach into a Ziploc bag (see Ziploc, above) or hear the crinkling of plastic in a grocery store bag (see Whole Foods, below).

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"Whole Foods" by Jaye Schlesinger

“The challenges in Whole Foods (oil, 12×12) were to create the look of plastic and also to get the colors for the bag and the lettering as accurate as possible,” Jaye Schlesinger says. “I carefully observed the shiny white highlights, but used them sparingly.”

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While most of these bags are empty, or filled with just enough contents to allow them to stand up, one likes to imagine that they contain some secret that only the artist is privy to. If there is any sort of “secret,” it’s the fierce attention to detail and skilled draftsmanship that make the pictures seem so effortlessly rendered. Most assuredly, though, a trip to the Gap will never seem the same again.

Lisa Wurster-Dolan is a writer and editor living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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