Jicky Schnee, Actress & Artist
7.11.15 Lake Hill, NY.
"I grew up in this odd environment in which my parents told me I could do and be whatever I wanted but that conflicted with the restrictions of becoming a Southern belle. I have since discovered that it is really challenging being a woman, in that, every time you seem to get focus on your work you somehow get pulled into the traditional female role. No one ever says to my husband, ‘Oh, how amazing, you have a career and kids and two houses’, but people constantly say that to me, and these are not backwards people."
Interview & Photos: Kate Orne
KO: When & how did you and your husband Matt start to explore Upstate?
JS: Matt and I both grew up spending long periods of time in the countryside. While living in NYC, we both felt a need to get out of the city every weekend to get some nature and space to think. We didn’t have much money then so we used to go to Grand Central on Saturday mornings and look up at the train schedules and decide which train to take by the sound of the names of the stops — because neither of us knew the East Coast. Then we would look out the window and get off when we thought it looked pretty. We ended up in all sorts of weird places. I had a walker’s guidebook and we would hitchhike to whatever nature preserve was closest. Eventually, we came to Woodstock and fell in love with it. We used take walks on the road we now live on and pass what is now our house and just stare. We called it ‘The Magic House’. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would live there. And then, through a long and convoluted but very serendipitous set of circumstances, it became ours.
KO: Tell me more about your 'Magic House'.
JS: The original house was built in 1835 and it has had many incarnations since. It was always a working farm and they used to take in foster kids to help run the place. After WWI it became a convalescent home for the soldiers who were victims of mustard gas. It was thought that the fresh air would improve their lungs.
We couldn’t believe the property had been on the market for 10 years — it’s so special. It has rivers on both sides, a lake, apple orchards, woods …I think it scared people off because it had so many buildings. There is the main house, a caretaker’s house, a large barn (which we converted to a photography studio for my husband), the old livery (which was converted into a studio for me), a stable and a lake house, all on 25 acres.
Our families thought we were completely insane to buy it. Now, of course, it is one of their favorite places; we have visitors all summer long. I remember asking the former owner what she did to manage the woods and her looking at me strangely and saying, ‘Um, nothing?’ That is how much we knew about being the caretakers of a property in the country.
KO: Your intimate and beautiful series The Structure of the Anatomy of a Family is based on memories, and personal belongings from your family. How did your family not lose these things, which so often happens between generations?
JS: I suppose they didn’t lose them because all my female ancestors had a similar need to preserve their history. My mother died when I was 25 and so the job of going through closets began for me at a pretty young age.
At the time, it was a completely horrible and miserable experience but now I see it as one of my most valuable. I learned about my mother in a new way: seeing how she saved things like little pieces of paper we gave her with funny things written on them or an old flamenco doll from her travels as a child or this strange contraption that she used in her teens to increase her bust. It revealed what she valued and for that I am very grateful because, at 25, I was too young to really absorb that my mother was an individual who had her own internal life separate from being the center of our family.
Later, when my sisters and I went through the attic, we found that she had a box titled JUNK and another titled JUNK THAT NEEDS TO BE FIXED. That too was such a great reminder of her —the way she saved and cared for everything and did not believe in any waste, another very Scottish quality.
When my maternal grandmother died I needed to hold onto the things that were special to her like the paper roses that were made for her by her best friend, the doll from her childhood that she kept on her bed and my grandfather’s old ministerial calling cards. She was cremated but did not want a headstone. She said if everyone on the planet had a headstone eventually the world would just be cluttered with headstones. Again, that tells you a lot about my family’s general ethic. For me, preserving these things was a way of honoring her internal life, an even better, more personal version of a headstone.
KO: You describe your work as “personal struggles of womanhood”. What kind of personal experiences influenced this statement?
JS: I was born in Scotland but we moved to America when I was very young, and I grew up in the South, in Texas, and that probably has a good amount to do with the struggles I faced. I attended a very conservative, very old-fashioned school where most of the girls were debutantes. My parents just wanted me to get a good education, which I did, but I don’t think they fully realized the backwards attitude towards women at that school.
So I grew up in this odd environment in which my parents told me I could do and be whatever I wanted but that conflicted with the restrictions of becoming a Southern belle. I have since discovered that it is really challenging being a woman, in that, every time you seem to get focus on your work you somehow get pulled into the traditional female role. No one ever says to my husband, ‘Oh, how amazing, you have a career and kids and two houses’, but people constantly say that to me, and these are not backwards people.
KO: Can one collect memories without being sentimental?
JS: Absolutely. I see preserving or collecting memories as a way of honoring our ancestors. I incorporate materials from my family history in many of my works — old bed spreads and table-cloths make a lot of appearances and I’ve also used letters, my old baby dresses and keys from the old manse where my grandparents lived in Scotland. Not only does this make me feel connected to my lineage but I also use these particular items because they are emblematic of the time and efforts required to be a wife and mother. For me, these objects have an intrinsic power and energy and also honor the effort and sacrifices made.
My installation The Structure of the Anatomy of a Family came out of looking at a shelf of keepsakes that I have in my closet upstate and wondering, ‘When I die, how will my daughter know what these things are and why they were important to me?’ My collection reveals what my family truly values. I revealed the skeleton and the structure of my family. That’s why I chose the technique of the rayograph to document each object: to me they look just like an x-ray. Preserving history is as much about what you keep as it is about what you don’t keep.
JS: As I talked about before, my mother died when I was 25, out of the blue and very suddenly. Shock is difficult; it takes years to find a way to make sense or have some mental order to your experience. I tried to fill the gap of her absence — an obviously impossible job which created its own sense of impotence and futility and suffering. I can see, now, that being so focused on my family of origin was my way of trying to remain close to my mother, my way of honoring her. This took over my life during a time when one is generally encouraged to focus on oneself, to create and navigate the beginnings of a career, so I was torn. I missed and still miss her but it has also forced me to examine my true feelings on the nature of reality and death and this has been a huge gift. So, in answer to your question, shock, duty and a sense of total loss were the source.
KO: I was struck that you where not allowed to wear nail polish as teenager. Are rules of importance in your work? If so, how, and what are they?
JS: The nail polish thing was my Dad. No makeup, no earrings until 18, no Barbies because he thought they were a poor example of the female form — which they are. I was encouraged to view myself as just a human with a brain who was of course capable of the same as any man. But this didn’t give much credence to what it meant being a woman. Our natural emotional flux through the month, our biological urge to procreate, the draw towards running the home — whether you like it or not, all can be real distractions in regards to work.
In regard to rules, I have always been a rule breaker: not in a loud and attention seeking sense but more like, as long as it’s not hurting anyone else, I’ll just do what I want and I don’t think about it.
I start my work from a highly personal place but once the piece is in progress it has to stand on its own, as a work with visual and psychological impact. I will not allow the personal, the impetus of my work, to overtake my determination of whether the piece has enough impact to exist. If I feel a work fails, I just gesso right over it and start again. But I will never give up on a piece of canvas. On some pieces I have started over 8 or 9 times. If I gave up on that particular piece of canvas it would be a defeat.
KO: Those are pretty violent dreams in your Dreams series. What were you going through at the time?
JS: Matt often looks at me in the morning and asks the same thing, ‘What in the world happened to you that you have to have these terrible dreams?’ It is curious because I don’t watch or read violent things. I will read headlines but I will very rarely read the specifics of some horrible event. Those pieces were made mostly after my mother’s death, when our family went through a very hard time. I would describe it as the center of the wheel falling out and then all the spokes falling in upon each other. I cried every day for a year. My family, on the other hand, did not cry at all. I think I did the crying for the whole family because, with that Scottish upbringing, they couldn’t.
The Dreams works are very violent but I actually find them very funny. Like the dream I illustrated where ‘I had to slay lions and butcher them…. but it was nice to be back in an office environment…’ It’s so preposterous that it’s hilarious but as with all dreams it was also very revealing; I have always been a freelancer and was obviously feeling overwhelmed, and on some level I was yearning for more structure and wanted to follow someone else’s rules. But, as I said, I am very bad at following rules. This might be one of the reasons my work exposes so much of myself; to reveal the personal goes completely against that Scottish moral code and ethic to keep all attention off of your self and reveal nothing.
KO: Despite having this extensive body of work, you haven’t shown a lot. What held you back?
JS: I have painted formally since I was 18. When I got married, I told my husband it was imperative that I had a space to paint. We couldn’t afford to pay rent for a studio so I used our NY living room and he was kind enough to live with the mess — it was a 500 sq. ft. apartment. But I went to highly competitive schools and had very exacting parents, so I suppose I never felt the work was good enough. Then, for 10 years I was more focused on trying to hold my family together than my own career.
KO: In addition to being an artist working in various mediums, you have done well in your acting career. In ‘The Immigrant’ you play Clara, the good friend of Marion Cotillard’s character, both of you portraying prostitutes in 19th century NYC. The film reminded me of your series The Victorians. Did you experience any crossover between the two projects?
JS: Not for ‘The Immigrant’, although I have found this has happened with other film and acting projects. I recently wrote and performed a play in Provincetown. That show made me realize that I can do performance and visual art together, as one installation, which is a very exciting prospect for the future.
KO: Now that you’re pregnant, are you considering future acting projects or is creating art more present on your mind?
JS: In general, making art is always on my mind and always has been. Some of my first memories are sitting with my mother and making things from what she called the ‘Special Box’, which was really just a box of construction paper, glue, clothes pegs and art supplies that she would bring out if it was raining. I always wanted it to rain so that she would bring out that box! But, if I read a good script I can get carried away for a week, living that other life, until the audition has passed.
KO: Has living upstate had any influence on you as an artist or on a personal level?
JS: Living upstate, at least part time, has given me the mental space to expand my perception of what I can be or do, which can be hard to do when living in a city. A thought that used to plague me was, ‘Oh, I can only be one thing; I have to choose which one or I will never be a virtuoso in either’. Now, I just see myself as a creative person and however that chooses to take form I am open to it.