A Conversation with Jeremiah Jenkins - What Is Art For?
by Richard Whittaker, Nov 11, 2017
For several years now, John Toki has been pointing out artists to me who stand apart. Here’s an example from a note he sent earlier this year: “I thought you would like to learn about Reniel Del Rosario, a student at UC Berkeley, who I met Sunday at the Cal Conference for the Advancement of Ceramic Art. My friend, Jack, came over and said, ‘Look at this, I just bought a pickle for $25.’ While all of the students, professional artists and teachers were promoting their artwork in a formal manner, mostly in white-walled gallery spaces—and on pedestals—trying to make their mark in the world, there was a sincere young man on the street selling ceramic pickles made from toxic clay sludge. These were carefully packaged in a netted bag with a label attached to a string, making the pieces look like real vegetables. So I got really curious and said, ‘I need to meet this artist.’ He was standing on the sidewalk with a display box similar to a person selling cigarettes. The labels were all handmade with funky, crooked lettering. His artistic environmental statement was pure, as was his presentation.”
I thought the note above was worth including as an example of things John notices. And in that same note, he went on to describe another young artist who caught his attention, Jeremiah Jenkins. About Jeremiah, he wrote, “He put his resume in a bottle and put it to sea. He was looking for a job.” (I could almost hear John laughing.) Two more examples of Jeremiah’s doings followed—there was a photo of an odd grocery cart; it was made from sticks. Toki added, “He said, ‘It induced a lot of questions at the grocery store.’” And there was a photo of a certificate. “The last piece,” Toki explained, “is about a school Jeremiah started where he offered an MFA. He made up the curriculum. The program took two hours! He said about 50 students got the MFA certificate.”
Reading John’s note, I was already three times won over. Here was someone I wanted to meet. Great humor is one of those things impossible to write about, but I felt sure a rare conversation was ahead. And here it is. —R. Whittaker
works: To get started, would you tell me a little about your early background?
Jeremiah Jenkins: Well, I grew up Tennessee in the middle of nowhere. When I was really young, we lived in a singlewide trailer—you know, the whole stereotype.
works: And were your parents together?
Jeremiah: My parents were together. They were originally from the “city”—that’s Kingsport, which is home to Eastman Kodak Chemical Company. It’s where most people ended up working. My dad was a welder, mom was a secretary for a long time. And they went to high school there. They’d met there, grew up together. We lived in South Carolina for the first couple of years, then moved back to Tennessee. Dad was sort of a construction journeyman; he would travel around to different jobs. We ended up back in Tennessee living in a trailer and eventually moved into a house in a valley, where I lived until I left when I was seventeen.
works: Did you go away to school?
Jeremiah: I went to East Tennessee State in Johnson City, Tennessee. To me, it was the big city, but that’s just because it had two Walmarts.
works: Two Walmarts? That’s big! [laughs]
Jeremiah: [laughs] But I mean, where I grew up, there was nothing. There was one kid around.
works: What was the school like where you grew up then?
Jeremiah: McPheeter’s Bend Elementary. There were maybe 15 kids in my class and there was a horse field between my house and the school. I spent a lot of time in the woods alone.
works: What was that like being out in the woods by yourself?
Jeremiah: It was great. If you looked out the front door of my house, you’d see one white house down the road, and then a red house up on the hill. I could ride my bike to the red house, if I was on the road—or the white house—and I couldn’t go any farther. But when I’d go into the woods, there were no borders, so I’d go for miles. I’d cross fences. I’d be alone in the woods with deer. I’d go into fields. I used to go in and play with the horses.
works: What does that mean, playing with them?
Jeremiah: I’d go into the field and I’d make horse noises. Right? [whinnies—very realistically] I could get them riled up, and they’d all run up to me. Then I’d hang my head and I’d go [another horse noise—effortlessly, very realistic] and they’d calm down and let me pet them. I was always little as a kid, but I’d go and hang out with horses and cows and deer.
works: That’s amazing. If I were a horse, I’d buy that. [laughs] It sounds like you really had an intuitive ability to relate to these horses.
Jeremiah: Yeah. And it’s one of those things. Even now, I find it easier to talk to a horse I’ve never met than it is to talk to a person I’ve never met. You know? So that part was good in a lot of ways. Now, living in a city and being around all these people, I find it’s challenging. I feel like a fish out of water quite a bit.
works: What would you say the challenges are?
Jeremiah: Just so many people—and not having space and solitude. That’s hard to come by when you’re in the city. Even if you go to a park or out for a hike, you always run into people. When I was a kid, I was fairly lonely at times, but looking back it gave me a lot of space, which I think I needed.
works: How old are you now?
Jeremiah: Thirty-seven. It’s my birthday today.
works: Really? Happy Birthday! That feels kind of auspicious somehow. I think you’re in a position that’s maybe not so common anymore, of having a deep background, in relation to nature.
Jeremiah: Yeah. With my daughter, when we go out in the woods, I’m always showing her things. I show her what deer tracks look like, and a deer trail. When I was a kid, I’d go into the woods, and there weren’t hiking trails. There were just deer trails, and I’d follow them. And deer trails are interesting because deer meander. They just wind through the woods, so you don’t always know where you’re going to end up. You have to have a decent sense of direction so you don’t get lost. It’s a different experience than being on a hiking trail. You know where you’re going. Right?
Jeremiah: The deer trail wanders, so I always show her that. We go to the woods and hike around. At the Little Farm up in Tilden Park, I let her pet the cows and show her how to scratch a cow’s ears, so they like it. I try to give her all those little pieces, so she can have exposure to that. For me, growing up those things was just super valuable.
works: It sounds like you were comfortable out there by yourself in the woods. [yes] How did you keep from getting lost?
Jeremiah: I don’t know.
works: Maybe it wasn’t a problem.
Jeremiah: It just wasn’t. I think you learn pretty quickly. You walk up the hill, and you know your home’s back down the hill. Sometimes I’d end up places, like down the road in someone else’s farm. Then I’d realize where I was because I’d seen the farm from the road or on the way to school.
works: In your elementary school, you said your class was maybe around 15. And they didn’t mix the grades—like first, second and third together?
Jeremiah: No. And I can probably name all the kids.
works: So you grew up with that group of kids?
Jeremiah: Up until sixth grade. In the beginning, it was always rural and then the world sort of started to open up. Like there was a field across the road that was empty when we first moved in. Then somebody bought it and turned it into a trailer park when I was in fifth or sixth grade.
And then, I went off to middle school, and multiple elementary schools fed into it. When I went to high school, I had to travel 45 minutes to get there. So the world kind of started to open up. I would always come home to this rural isolation, but there were more people around—and more undesirable things. A lot of the people living in the trailer park across the street were drug dealers. My mom used to spy on them with a police scanner. She’d sit on the couch and listen to the wireless phone calls. It was kind of weird. There was a lot of crime. Inside a two or three-mile radius, there would be 20 people, and 15 of them were criminals.
works: Wow. How did you manage to steer clear of all of that?
Jeremiah: Well, our whole family, we just tried to keep to ourselves. My parents both worked, and I was a latchkey kid. They would be working and my instructions were to just be at home and to avoid certain people.
works: When you went to high school, tell me some of the high points and low points. Did you go through the same high school for four years?
Jeremiah: Yeah. Well, that’s where art kicked in. In Middle school the art teacher would just give us beads and we’d make necklaces, or she’d give us coloring book pages. Right?
works: Stay within the lines?
Jeremiah: Yeah. Then in high school, I was into comic books, which I had always drawn, and I take this art class. My art teacher walks in wearing all black, and he goes [exhales while saying AHHHHH…] like a vampire. He would call us heathens, all jokingly, but he was just the most bizarre person I’d ever seen in that kind of position. And I just instantly was taken. The education he gave us was very traditional—like drawing perspective.
works: So, in spite of his dramatic persona, he was keeping it pretty conventional.
Jeremiah: He was a traditionalist. He showed us that Kirk Douglas movie of Michelangelo, right? He’s losing his mind and he’s painting the Sistine Chapel. That was sort of the limit of what he taught us.
works: You said that before you had art classes, you were always drawing. Tell me a little bit about your drawing.
Jeremiah: I was really into comic books. I drew up a couple of comic books when I was 11 or 12. And I invented a character.
works: Do you have any of that stuff?
Jeremiah: I don’t. I wish I did. But it was nothing serious. I didn’t give that much time towards anything.
works: What were your parents’ attitudes about your drawing?
Jeremiah: Just kind of blasé. “Oh, that’s nice.” They thought it was just kid stuff. Then in high school, I took all the art classes they offered. They actually invented an AP art class for me and this other guy. We wanted to keep going with art. And I was in the Art Club. We did all kinds of stuff. So that was when I really caught the bug.
works: I see. So tell me some of the things you were most into.
Jeremiah: I just enjoyed painting and drawing, and just making stuff—a big thing that sort of feeds me now is that I started to work with the school newspaper. I wrote an article with a friend. But what was really great is when we made a TV commercial for the newspaper through the school. Every classroom had a TV and they’d have morning announcements. So I made this funny commercial. There was one day where they had this karaoke thing in front of the entire school. I got up and sang “Yellow Submarine.” Then I ran for student council president, and I won. Which is bizarre. I put up these talent shows and did all of these performance things. And I had this moment of realizing that the school wasn’t this thing that I was in, but it was an audience.
So art class was very much about learning technique and how to make things, but then this other side appeared when I realized I could use my sense of humor and my creativity, and I could actually talk to the entire school. That was such a huge thing, to get up in front of everyone and just crack jokes, you know? That was a really big moment. I gave a speech at graduation.
works: You gave a speech?
Jeremiah: Yeah. Full of jokes. It was just a big long speech of jokes. But I was saying sincere things, too. I’d have a joke, then I’d say something poignant. That was a huge moment for me.
works: I bet people loved you.
Jeremiah: Well, people knew me. People would come up and talk to me, and I’d never seen them before. As far as real friends go, I only had one or two who I hung out with and who really knew me.
works: This leads into something we were talking about earlier. You had a serious question about whether you’d go into performance, like comedy—or art. And you went away to East Tennessee State, was it?
works: So how did it go there in terms of these divided interests?
Jeremiah: It was mostly just art in the beginning. But when I moved into the dorms, I got a job at a dinner theater. At the beginning I was bussing tables. And on Saturdays, they had an actors’ workshop. So I wrote up and performed a monologue, and I got to know everyone. Eventually they wrote a murder mystery with a part for me, and it was great. It was hilarious and fun. But that was my job.
So for the first four years in college, I was also working as an actor. I got to this point where I wanted to go to Second City in Chicago and study comedy. I always had this dream of being on Saturday Night Live. But I felt like the acting side of things—it didn’t feel as rich. It felt kind of false. And I felt that with art, I could make more important jokes. I could still make people laugh, but also I could make people think about things in a deeper way. It seemed like it was a richer way of going. I don’t know if that’s true, but I felt like that.
works: I can understand what you’re saying. It sounds like with the dinner theater you were performing in was funny, but nothing serious. But things can get more pointed with Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show—things like that. It could be both things.
Jeremiah: There are people who take it there, definitely. George Carlin was a good example. He said a lot about society. If you watch a George Carlin show, there’s a joke and everybody laughs. Then he talks for a long time, and people are just sitting there thinking. I think that’s what I wanted to do, and I’ve done stand-up since those days. There was a time where I’d go to open mics and do stand-up. And it was great. But with art, there’s something else. There’s this way of getting into people’s reality. It’s a little bit more intimate, and it’s a little bit more personal.
works: That’s fascinating. At what point did it coalesce for you into a fairly intentional decision?
Jeremiah: It was one semester in school. I was throwing some pots. I was making some little horse bronzes. I didn’t really know what I was doing, didn’t have any kind of direction.
works: And this was at East Tennessee State? [yes] Did you go four years there?
Jeremiah: I ended up going for six years. I transferred for one year to UNC Greensboro, just to get out of town. That’s where I started doing ceramics. And then I came back.
works: Okay. And the six years was because you were taking breaks, or you got an advanced degree?
Jeremiah: No. I’d take whatever I felt like. I took philosophy classes, piano, poetry. Marksmanship was a class I took. That was fun. So, I was in this art history class—it isn’t why I came to San Francisco, but they were talking about Bay Area conceptual art, talking about this artist who put blocks of ice in front of a gallery for the duration of the exhibit. And he showed all these microphones around this block of ice.
I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard of, that someone actually did this. That was a breakthrough. I really saw what you could do with art, like where art could go, and where art had been.
Then I made a couple of pieces where it felt like things fell into place. It was almost like once I made that first piece, I couldn’t stop. I just kept producing and producing.
works: What was the first piece?
Jeremiah: There was this old, big funnel from some kind of hopper. It belonged to my sculpture teacher. I asked her for it multiple times and she finally gave it to me. I put it together—it was sort of balanced on this log. It’s not like anything I’d do now, but it just felt right. And this idea of taking a thing that existed and making it into something else, that pretty quickly evolved into taking recognizable things and making these objects out of them—which in those days interactive. I liked stuff people could sit in or could walk up to and something would turn on. It was just like boom, boom, boom, and I couldn’t stop.
They had this little gallery that was maybe 20 x 30 feet, and it wasn’t going to be big enough for my graduation show. So I found an abandoned tobacco warehouse that was actually two acres, indoors. Well, I only used half of it.
works: Only half? [laughs] That’s one acre, I might point out.
Jeremiah: It was one-acre, but everything was big. Everything was something you could walk up to and feel this personal presence with recognizable objects, you know?
works: This was for you Bachelor’s of Art? [yes] This is pretty amazing, it sounds like.
Jeremiah: I felt really drawn to make stuff that would talk to people, and everything had this social bent to it. One talked about religion and what that relationship was like. I made this confessional out of a McDonald’s chair, like the kind where two-people facing away from each other. There was a funnel—so, you’d sit on one side and speak into the funnel, and it would go through the pipes to the person on the other side. And the other person had a funnel. There was a little light switch they could turn and a round fluorescent light over your head. It was a confessional, and people could go and sit in that and confess to one another. Right?
works: I mean, I’m amazed. Do you have any stories around that show?
Jeremiah: Once I put up all the stuff, I just sat back and let it exist. The good thing about having the space is that people could go and interact with these pieces. And everything had a down spot so everything was dramatic and isolated. People could go to one, and then to the next one. It was an experience, you know?
works: It sounds fantastic. What kind of feedback did you get?
Jeremiah: Good. People liked it. I was very—like this was a graduate show. Nobody did that, but I was very ambitious, It’s so funny too, because I had this idea that you could go and make work, work hard and be focused and determined…. My thinking was, “I’m going to go to grad school and be the next Bruce Nauman.”
works: You’d discovered Bruce Nauman then?
Jeremiah: I knew about these people. But I was very isolated. I’d been in New York once. I’d never been across the Mississippi. I’d traveled around the South a little. But then I had two big, leaving-the-nest experiences: une was when Christo and Jeanne-Claude did the Gates in Central Park.
I decided that I was going to drive up there. It was a nine-hour drive, and this was in the winter. I had two days off and I didn’t have money. So I drove straight to New York City through a snowstorm, walked around Central Park for an hour, got in the car, drove down to Philadelphia, stayed with a friend, and drove home.
Jeremiah: It wasn’t that far away, but it felt far away; it felt like something completely different.
works: What was that experience like?
Jeremiah: It was a hard trip. It was a hard drive, because of the snowstorm; that’s a lot of driving straight through. But there was this moment when I got there. I’m not even that big of a Christo-Jeanne-Claude fan. I mean I like their work, but they’re not my favorite artists. This moment came of saying, “Damn it, I’m not going to get stuck!”
People don’t leave where I’m from. People stay there. They end up kind of stuck, and I said I’m not going to do it. I’m going to go. I’m going to make art. Art’s going to be my life. I’m going to make something out of it. And then I got to work with this artist Mel Chin. Do you know of Mel Chin’s work?
Jeremiah: He does a lot of conceptual object sculpture very much along the lines of what I was into—I mean what I am into. He did this project of making this MX Peacekeeper nuclear missile replicas 72, 76 feet long with a class. This thing was like a combo of a single-wide trailer and a nuclear missile, right? You could walk into it. This is during the Bush years and there was this talk about WMDs.
So there’s this idea that poverty is the real weapon of mass destruction. If you want to find a weapon of mass destruction, then take a look at poverty. It’s something I can relate to on a very personal level, like coming from that. Right? That was my reality growing up.
So, we made this thing and we drove it all the way down to Houston. We put a Ford Taurus station wagon underneath it to drive it. We took it to the art-car parade there, and drove it through this big city. Mel is very connected.
works: This thing must have been quite a sight.
Jeremiah: It was insane. You had to lay down to drive it. So you’re laying down and there’s a camera in the nose. You’re looking at the screen, and you’re just driving it. But there was a point, we’re sitting on the front of it, right? We have a police escort on a Houston freeway. Houston is a big city. We’re on this thing, and I just had this moment of like, “Oh, my God.”
This thing that we built in a parking lot in Johnson City, Tennessee, and they’ve blocked off the whole freeway in Houston and we’re just cruising along. We drive it to the parade, and there are thousands and thousands of people seeing this thing. It was just this moment of “Oh, my God.”
It was about so much more than just me. You know? Because before I was thinking, “I’m going to be the next Bruce Nauman, and people are going to like my work and like me.”
Then I realized you can say things to people, whether or not they agree with you or believe it—all those people at that parade. All the other cars were fun—“Oh, there’s a dragon car! And a cupcake car!” Everybody was enjoying it, and then they saw us coming. It was this moment of, “God, this is deep. It’s scary, and it’s real!” It was kind of funny, too, because it was ridiculous. But it was this real thing. That was huge. I’m getting goosebumps even remembering it.
works: That’s amazing. It sounds like an amazing-looking thing, to begin with.
Jeremiah: It was a huge moment. I left for grad school pretty much right after that.
works: And grad school was where?
Jeremiah: The San Francisco Art Institute. I applied to four grad schools. I got into the School of Visual Arts in New York, and SFAI. The School of Visual Arts needed $1,000 by the 15th of the month to hold my spot. SFAI only needed $500 by the 30th of the month. I mean, that’s not the only thing that influenced my decision, but it was a huge factor. That was a lot of money for me.
works: Looking back on it, how do you feel about passing up New York City and SVA?
Jeremiah: With everything that happened in grad school, just on a personal level, I think that New York would have eaten me alive. It would have made me a different person. And I always liked the idea of California. Like growing up in Tennessee, I listened to the Beach Boys. That was my idea of what California was.
works: You and hundreds of thousands of other people, too. Right. See, I came to California from West Virginia when I was 12.
Jeremiah: Where in West Virginia?
works: Bluefield. It’s down at the southern border across from Virginia..
Jeremiah: I know Bluefield. It’s near Tazewell.
works: Right. But even to a 12-year-old, California was magical. My family headed out on Route 66 and landed 35 miles east of LA. So I can relate to what you’re talking about.
Jeremiah: It was bizarre. I sold everything I had. I sold my car, sold everything, except for a bag of clothes and a box of tools. I was like Jed Clampett, but a Jed Clampett who knows about art.
works: But without striking oil.
Jeremiah: Yeah. I brought $2,000. It was gone in a week.
So, I get off the plane (and I’d seen pictures of Deborah Butterfield’s stuff. My sculpture teacher was a big fan. (Whenever someone would come to class and say “I couldn’t afford materials,” my sculpture teacher would always say, “Look at Deborah Butterfield’s work and go get some sticks.”) So I get off the plane. I walk into the terminal and there’s a Deborah Butterfield.
I’d been to two or three museums in my life, and in the airport, there’s a Deborah Butterfield. I was like, “Oh, my God! What is this place that I’ve landed in?”
I remember getting out of the airport, and it just felt so gigantic. Here I was with my duffle bag and my box of tools, and I’m here to live. My friends were living in the Tenderloin, and they let me stay in their place until I found my own place. They’d moved out from Tennessee two months before me.
works: I love Deborah Butterfield’s work, those beautiful horses. Seeing that piece must have really meant something to you.
Jeremiah: Well, I’m a believer in signs. That, to me, was definitely a big sign. Not just because there’s this famous artist, but also because she represented something for me of this idea of ingenuity and self-reliance. Like it doesn’t matter if you don’t have anything. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you’re doing. Because I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had no plans for grad school. Even the first year was just kind of playing around with materials. So that was a big moment.
works: I’d be interested to hear something about your experiences and some of the confrontations for you in the MFA program at the Art Institute.
Jeremiah: Well, in the first year I realized how naïve I was. A lot of the students I went to school with there had already had professional careers. They knew things about the art world on a different level than I did. I knew what I’d learned in Art History class, and from my teachers, and from things that I looked up. I didn’t even have access to the Internet that often. For me, the idea of owning a computer when I went to grad school was like owning a private jet. I was very small-town, and that kind of hit me pretty abruptly. There were students who were very wealthy; they were going to school kind of just for fun. And my idea was, “I’m going to buckle down. I’m going to make it so I can teach,”—because I really wanted to teach. And “I’m going to work on my craft, work on my art.” And it was hard to find people I could really relate to. I mean, I found a few. I just spent all my time in my studio.
works: Your studio? That would be a space at the Art Institute?
Jeremiah: Yeah. It was down on 3rd Street, this big industrial place. We had bays where there were maybe 15-20 studios in a place. Most of the time, I was either the only person in there, or there was just one other person there. And there were people getting free rides who were never there. I was just constantly in my studio. I didn’t go to Oakland until two years after I graduated, because all I did was focus on making work and exploring.
I had to move a few times. Then I started to get into a groove in my second to last semester. Then my mom died over the winter break. That sent me into..., I mean that was huge.
Everyone told me, “You should take a break. Go do what you need to do and then come back and finish.” But I just felt like I needed to finish. I needed to push through, and I was crazy. I would just break down crying all the time. I was in my studio all the time. People were like avoiding me because I was hard to be around. That meant I was alone with it, because I had no family here. I had no one, except for a couple of friends who stood by me. And then, I had my work.
works: When you say you were crazy, do you want to say more about that?
Jeremiah: Well, I had this thing. When I went for the funeral, we were in this little like flower shop to get the flowers. I was pretty despondent. I didn’t want to talk to anybody, so I just walked off. And I saw one of those cheesy ceramic Bibles with the hands praying, and it had a Bible passage, something like, “He who overcame death.” And I had this moment where I was like, “I’m going to do that. I’m going to overcome death.”
And that one semester, I was skateboarding a lot and I would—it’s called “bombing hills”— I would just haul ass down hills in traffic. I was very angry. I would hit cars. I would cut in front of them; I was taking a lot of chances. Then I got into this space where it all sort of cleared out. I felt like I’d done it, like I was over death, like it wasn’t going to happen. And I kind of got into this weird, magical time in my life, where things just started happening. Fortune tellers would show up, like people would tell me things. And it would lead to this whole other situation. It felt like a magical time. That’s when I was working in my studio all the time, just producing, producing, producing.
Then I graduated, and the bottom dropped out. There was nothing else to think about. I stopped making work. I was living in this really small room. I ended up without a bed, so I slept on the floor for a year—which was actually really good for my back. So, it was pretty dark.
works: Where was that small room?
Jeremiah: It was over in North Beach. And I was working at the Exploratorium at the time. I was doing a lot of machining and welding, and I was always cutting my fingers. I was still always breaking down. I don’t really know when it stopped, but it just eased off a little bit, you know? I still struggle with it. But, I started making work again. Actually Paul Kos, he’s the artist I saw in that Art History class with the blocks of ice—I ended up working with him.
works: That sounds good.
Jeremiah: I took a class with him at the Art Institute. I had no idea he taught there and after I graduated, I saw him sometimes. He actually hired me to paint his house. I was doing pick-up jobs. I was depressed. I was very depressed. Not really making any art. He was like, “I can’t believe that. I really thought you were going to be one of the ones who kept going.” And that kind of lit a fire under me and I started making little things, getting little ideas. This was in 2008. Then I went to help the friends who I first stayed with in San Francisco, they had moved back to Tennessee.
Jeremiah: They were making this bus tour company. So, I flew to Tennessee to help them turn a school bus into a mobile speakeasy, because their idea was about the speakeasy history of Tennessee. When I came back, I moved to Oakland into this artist warehouse. The guy who ran it also ran Hatch Gallery in Oakland, and he gave me and a friend of mine a two-person show. I just produced all this work, and I think that’s where I kind of came back to myself. It’s hard to know what to tell you, because so many things happened during that time period. I hit my head one day.
works: It was an accident of some sort?
Jeremiah: I fell skateboarding. A voice in my head said I was dying, and I felt like I was leaving my body.
I had this whole experience. Then I sold everything and moved to Hawaii for three months. Then I left Hawaii abruptly and ended up back in West Oakland at that warehouse.
I was kind of lost for a while, until I started making work again. This in was 2009. I started to get shows here and there and I was doing some preparator work in galleries hanging shows. It all settled out for a while and was almost like an extension of grad school.
works: When did that shift into something else?
Jeremiah: So I had a few shows, and living in the warehouse started to get to me. There was actually black mold in there and, looking back on it, I think I might have had mold poisoning. I was angry a lot, and I was frustrated really easily. I was getting more and more tired of the situation, which was insane, because it was a great situation—cheap rent, I had a studio, we had a gallery. I could do whatever I wanted. But it started to get to me. Then I had this two-week period where I broke my collarbone skateboarding. I would usually skate in West Oakland from BART to my place. But because I had the broken collarbone, I was walking. And these three kids came from around the corner. One of them had a gun and said “Give me everything!”
I grew up around guns. My parents gave me a gun when I was five years old and let me shoot it. They laughed when it blew me to the ground. That’s like where I grew up, so I wasn’t, I’m not afraid of a gun. But I’m afraid of an idiot with a gun. And this kid was maybe twelve—there were like two 12-year olds and an 8-year-old.
works: Oh, my God.
Jeremiah: So, I’m afraid of a 12-year-old with a gun. He’s right here. From my first instinct, I say, “It’s okay,” and I just push the gun away. I said, “Just don’t point the gun at me.”
So he cocks it. He’s saying more stuff and he points it at my face.
Then I kind of push it away again. And at that point, he puts it up to my head.
I have this moment of time slowing down feeling the gun barrel on the skin and I’m having this internal conversation, “Oh, that’s what it feels like to have a gun to your head.”
So they took everything, and then jumped on their bikes and rode away.
I got really angry. I went home and was just inconsolable for a long time. I actually thought, “I wish there was a spirit healer,” because back in my dark days, after Mom died, things like that would happen; people would just show up and give me some kind of insight. Then it turns out there was a guy staying there with a friend, who did energy healing. He does a thing with me and I have all these visions.
Then my friends with the bus contact me and say, “We’re closing the tour business down.” They never paid me. I did the bus for free, and they said, “Do you want the bus?” So, I say, “Yeah.”
I fly to Houston. I move into the school bus. My thinking was, “I’ll convert this 36-foot bus into my home, my studio, and I’m going to travel around making art.” So I picked up the school bus. I had 15 minutes practice driving it in the parking lot, and then I left Houston and drove to El Paso.
Jeremiah: It’s funny. I had this moment of peace for a second, where I’m just driving. I ended up spending the night in a place called Comfort, Texas. It was nice. And then I went to El Paso. I have some friends there, and they had a little gallery. I spent a few weeks there and drove to LA, there was this art fair. Then I ended up going back to San Francisco just to make a little extra money.
works: You’d learned how to drive the bus by then, I take it.
Jeremiah: I could parallel park it! [laughs]
works: That’s pretty cool.
Jeremiah: It was good, in a way. But when I got back here, all of a sudden, I was just a guy in a bus. It wasn’t freedom. It was just isolation. And it was cold. I parked by Golden Gate Park, and the cops came and put stickers on my window threatening to tow my bus in 72 hours if I didn’t move it. I’d only been there that night.
Jeremiah: Then I parked in front of this guy’s house, this cranky old guy, and he ripped the lights off the front of my bus. Stuff like that, you know?
works: Jeez. That’s terrible!
Jeremiah: I was working for this older couple, and they’d invite me in and make food. It was warm and nice, and I realized I didn’t want to be a lonely guy in a bus. So I sold it and moved into an apartment. About a week after that, my now wife, Natalie—we were really good friends for years—I just got in touch with her and said, “How’s it going?” And now we have two kids. The time with the bus was this moment of trying to make life something that wasn’t real.
works: That’s quite a journey you’ve described. So, you got married when?  It’s not that big of a jump from 2013 to now. How is it going for you today, in terms of your art?
Jeremiah: Well, I’ve had these situations that have put pressure on my work in certain ways. Right out of grad school, I lived in a small place and all my work was small and portable. And then, I lived in the bus, which made it really hard to make art. But I still had shows. I would accept pretty much every opportunity and do the best I could. And now my time is hard to come by because I’ve got a four-year-old and a six-month-old. So time is the issue. But I work at a school, Diablo Valley College, now and I’ve got access to a ceramic studio and foundry, welders and a workshop. So that’s really made a big difference.
I can do stuff now that I couldn’t before. For a long time, I was just kind of assembling things and sort of figuring out ways to make things work. And now my craft and materials can be a little bit better. For most artists, it’s about working within the constraints and the restrictions of your own life.
works: Right. I have this impression of your journey to the big city and encountering all kinds of different levels in the artworld, and then going through these difficult life circumstances. And you’ve encountered the real difficulties of the artist. The questions have to be there—like originally, you had this inspired vision of what art could be. And now it’s not like being in Houston in that parade. Can you relate to what I’m saying?
Jeremiah: Yeah. In those earlier days, I was very political. It was kind of easy to be political during the Bush years. Now my questions are more existential. I feel like that’s the real core. And what draws me is thinking about these questions, like you’re saying.
After grad school, I sold a couple of pieces, and I started to think about what does it mean to sell art? Instead of thinking about “How can I make stuff that’s going to sell?” I started to ask “What is a valuable object? What is a successful artwork?”
My most recent show was a lot around “What is a valuable object? How can I approach that idea on a deeper level?” I got interested in the commemorative plate, a collectible thing. And it was by breaking it and bringing it back into something new—by showing the cracks and highlighting the fragility of it—I thought maybe I could get people to think a little differently about these ideas.
I love selling artwork because I’m usually broke. Right? But it’s never been a motivating factor at all. Having an art show—that’s nice because then you get an audience. But that’s also never been the motivating factor. When a show comes up, or a gallery wants to work with me, the thing I like about it is that I get to talk to people. For me, it’s all about the message.
Back when I moved to Hawaii, I got mixed up with this art crowd for a second, and they were going to do a show. They asked if I wanted to put some pieces in and I said, “All right. Great.” It turned out the show was in a nightclub. There were no lights on the work, and I got this corner, right? I put my little conceptual objects there. Everything else in the show is palm tree paintings and Hawaiian touristy-art. And I’m just kind of, “Man, this is not what I signed up for. It’s not what I’m into. No one’s going to be thinking here.”
So I’m there and I notice this guy walk up to my little corner. He’s like a Hawaiian version of my dad—like he just got off of work. His pants are dirty. He’s got rough hands. He’s that kind of guy. He takes this moment and he looks at my pieces, and then I see him go, “Yeah.” Like he gets it. That was a moment where I said, “That’s it!” Forget about whether a show gets reviewed. It’s great if someone comes in with an art degree and they can reference the work to all these things. But it’s that guy. My goal is to get someone who hasn’t thought about things in a certain way to think about things.
The Tenderloin Institute of Art
works: That reminds me of TIA. Were you still in the MFA program at SFAI when you created the Tenderloin Institute of Art?
Jeremiah: No. This was in 2015. The whole reason I went to grad school was because I wanted to teach. And afterwards, I found out how hard it is to actually get a teaching job. At that point, we’d just had our first daughter. I was struggling to try to get on my feet financially. My friend at Ever Gold Project was doing this series of temporary installations at a site in the Tenderloin and he let me use the space. So I figured I’d make my own school. I’d make myself a professor. I was the chair of all the departments. I was the dean. I was the PR department. I was everything. [laughs]
works: There must have been some underlying things that led to you create this. Would you say?
Jeremiah: Part of it goes to my own frustration. I told you how when I came out here I quickly learned how naïve I was. I thought if you go to school, if you study, if you try to master your craft and if you work really hard, you’ll get somewhere. And it’s pretty obvious that’s not how things are.
There were some people who were very dedicated and there were others who were just going through the motions. At the end of the day we all got our MFAs. Today, getting a job is just ridiculously competitive. And a lot of schools are opting for adjunct teachers. Even at my alma mater a lot of the teachers’ employment is essentially “at will.” I work with some people who have been teaching adjunct for twenty years. I think there’s a trend in higher education of running it like a business.
works: That’s part of what you’re keying into?
Jeremiah: That frustration is part of the commentary I’m trying to make. If you watch the commercial I made, I’m telling it exactly as it is: it’s a free, non-credentialled, non-accredited university [laughs]. Right?
Going back to Black Mountain College, for instance, art education was something serious and important. Now I feel like there’s this rush to get degrees, and rush to hand out degrees. There are so many levels to the problem—administrators get paid more than teachers… In grad school there were times they’d tell us that 90% of us were not going to be making art after two years. What were we going to school for then?
works: I guess whoever was saying that, at least was honest enough to put that reality out there. From where I sit it seems that art schools are accepting a lot of money. And what do they deliver? Here’s what I think. “We will teach you a certain kind of expertise and you’ll understand subtleties of contemporary fine art that regular folks won’t understand. You’ll be an expert!” But in realistic terms of making a livelihood, that’s of little or no value. What do you think of that?
Jeremiah: I think that’s the illusion they sell. Absolutely. I’m not going to blame anybody because I made the choice to go to art school. But like I said, I was naïve. I thought I was going to go and learn things. What I learned came from the relationships I formed both with the teachers and with other students. But as far as the actual program, it’s not like I would take it back, but it’s not worth what they charge. It’s certainly not worth being in debt for the rest of your life, which I will be.
So this is part of my commentary, too. Because once I was out of school, I realized that a lot of things—people were just doing them. My friend, Andrew McClintock, and five of his friends started Ever Gold Gallery on their own. They rented this old jewelry shop in the Tenderloin. Now he’s shown all across the country with Ever Gold, and he started SF Arts Quarterly.
works: That’s quite an accomplishment.
Jeremiah: He just dug in his feet and built it from the ground up.
works: So getting back to your institute, you came up with a curriculum.
Jeremiah: Everyone had a program to complete. There was 2D, 3D and New Genres. They could choose two out of three. Or they could do all three. Then there was also art theory and art history, which everyone had to do. I provided supplies for 2D. I had paper, pens, pencils, everything…
works: Did you have paint?
Jeremiah: No, I didn’t have paint.
works: Too expensive, right?
Jeremiah: [laughs] Actually Dick Blick gave us a lot of materials. Andrew arranged it and I just went in bought everything we needed. The instructions for 2D were something like: “Draw something. Then draw something else. And draw a third thing.” [laughs]
For 3D I had three bins full of found objects under a table— stuff I got from thrift stores and from the Center for Creative Re-use. I had some hot glue guns and next to that I had photo backdrop set up. The instructions were, “Glue two or three things together and take a nice photo of it.” [laughing] That was sort of making fun of myself, because sometimes that’s what I do. For New Genres I had a selfie-stick and nice lights, so people would stand in front of the backdrop and do a video performance piece. For the art history part, I made a seven-minute video of the entire history of Western art beginning with cave paintings and going up through contemporary work.
works: Is that video available?
Jeremiah: It’s all on YouTube. Just search for Tenderloin Institute of Art and you can find a lot of things, including the commencement speech and the commercial I made.
But I think my favorite thing was the Art Theory part of the requirement. For that I made up a mad-lib style artist statement. Mad lib is a thing written out, but there are key words missing. Where the key words are missing it says “noun,” adjective,” “verb.” Like one blank requires a noun, for instance. And I had three dartboards with art-sounding words on them. So people would throw darts and whatever word the dart hit, they’d incorporate it into their artist statement. And they all sounded great! [laughs]
works: [laughs] I love it. So I’m going to guess. You have your art statement with these random arty words and you glue three or four things together, and strangely enough… but I’m putting words in your mouth. Did the artwork relate to the art statements?
Jeremiah: You could find a connection. Absolutely. I mean, that’s what I found in grad school. By the last semester, I was so burned out, and a lot of my friends were, too. We created a game for the critique classes. You had to fit in certain things. For instance, you had to put in a reference to a classic rock group. Like, “Oh, with this piece I like the way it ascends, almost like a “stairway to heaven.” Right? [laughs] We entertained ourselves. There was so much of trying to sound academic and intellectual. And the reality is that the heart gets lost.
After school, I found my peace with that. But a lot of the TIA project came out of frustration. I just wanted to make fun of the whole thing.
works: And it looks like you had quite a bit of fun doing it.
Jeremiah: It was fun. One of my favorite moments was the commencement address. But let me back up. Some people came and were taking it seriously; they came in to get their MFA, like “I never went to grad school. I saw this advertised, and it’s free!”
I advertised you could do it under an hour. I don’t think anyone took longer than two hours, and that involved a lot of hanging out [laughs]. And we advertised there was going to be a graduation. I had a speech prepared. I thought some people would come back for that, but just one person came. We set up a camera anyway, and I gave this commencement speech like I was addressing thousands of people. As I was speaking, the camera slowly pans out and there’s just one person clapping in this empty room. I thought it was so funny—because that’s what it’s like.
Going to grad school was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. Finishing was even more challenging. At the end, I put my work up. I had a few good moments, and then it just sort of fizzled. I didn’t have a place to go. For the first two years I was borderline homeless. I couldn’t find a job. I was hauling stuff to the dump for people. And supposedly, I’ve got the highest degree possible for my profession. What does that say? [laughs]
works: Right. I’m going to guess that there were some poignant moments in all of this. [yes] What were some of those things?
Jeremiah: A lot came from the people who really put themselves into it. And this goes to where I am now with my philosophy around art education, because I’m a teacher now, and I believe in art education—absolutely, 100%, for everyone.
Some people were intimidated by the idea of going to grad school and never went. And for some of them, this silly idea I had gave them a moment to pretend. There were people who came in with sincerity, and that hit me deep. Here I was doing this joke. It’s fun, and you walk away with a certificate. But there were people who took it as an opportunity to get something out of it. And something had stopped them before.
Now I teach at a community college and a lot of these kids are trying to move forward. I always have honest conversations with them. I say, “You’ve got to think about how you move forward. Is grad school the path you want to go?” Because there’s an assumption it’s the path you have to take. I don’t think that’s necessarily right for everyone. But that doesn’t mean that education should stop, or that they should stop as artists. I think that’s difficult for a lot of people.
works: True. And it was an inspired project. And you’ve done a few things at art fairs, right?
Things Could Be Better
Jeremiah: Yes. The first one was in 2011 during “Occupy Wall Street.” I made a tent-thing out of wood and put a little square of fake grass in front, and a little picket fence. The fence was actually made out of picket signs. I was “occupying” the art fair. I wore a tuxedo, and was there for three days between all these fancy galleries selling art. And I had a petition I asked people to sign; all it said was, “Things could be better.”
Being at an art fair, I was expecting to run into open-minded people who have some relationship with ideas and spirituality, and all these things. But in reality I was in the art market. And people would come just short of spitting in my face.
The next one I did was in 2013. For that one I had about a quarter of a cord of redwood logs and an ax. I started chopping them up into firewood. I had a wood burner and I’d sign each piece of wood. Each piece was $20, reasonable, and each one came with a certificate of authenticity. It was a limited edition; whatever didn’t sell I was going to burn. So your piece was going to go up in value [laughs].
Again, I was trying to make a statement. One woman walked up to check it out. She was processing, and when she got it, she turned to me and shouted, “This isn’t art! You need to go to back art school!” I got mostly really negative reactions. But every now and then I’d get a positive reaction and these always came from art students and artists.
For the last one I did I had a moonshine still. I got water out of the bay and distilled it and put the distilled water in jars. Then I sold them as limited editions. It was the same thing. Sometimes people stopped and looked at what I was doing and I had meaningful exchanges with them. But then there were other people there to spend money, maybe $30,000, for a painting to go over their couch or embolden their collections. They didn’t even try to get it.
At one art fair I just wore a t-shirt that said “Free Art Advice.” People would come up and, “Oh, free art advice. Well, what do you think of this?”
I gave everyone negative advice, like “Why would you buy a painting? What’s the point?”
Or some people asked, “Do you think I should work on my art career?”
“No! Look at all these artists! Why would you do this?”
Just with that simple action of having a shirt people will start to engage you. You really see people when they think you’re something else. It’s an interesting thing. I’m kind of over it now. For the last one, I was out in the cold and getting all these negative reactions. It was pretty exhausting.
works: It’s amazing you’ve done them. It reminds me of something I’ve thought before. See what you think. In our culture we have no career path for becoming our real selves.
Jeremiah: Not at all.
works: I think that, probably on an unconscious level, people who get into art are moved by the hope for an authentic life—let’s put it that way. I remember reading about an art student in LA. This woman would look out her window and see the smog. Some days she couldn’t see the hills at all. Other days, the hills were clear. Then she wondered how far away the hills were. And she wondered about the differences in visibility—something like that. So she decided she’d investigate just by walking and having a direct experience of that distance. What struck me is she decided to rely on her own experience—and what better way to learn something? Then this was labeled as “an art project.” That’s where it gets confusing.
Your stories from the art fairs bring this up. You had your own real experience, which is priceless. You can’t put a dollar value on that kind of thing. And I think people feel an instinctive hunger for having their own real experience.
Jeremiah: I think a lot of those artists who are making stuff and selling it and actually living on their art, it’s that same thing. They’re trying to have a life that’s authentic to themselves. But we live in this market, and I like it when I sell a piece of art. Money makes my life easier.
Jeremiah: But I’m horrible at selling things. So when I make art it’s not just about having an authentic life, but trying to make an authentic world and trying to have authentic interactions with people.
So much of our world is not real. It’s like that Socrates thing in the cave where they’re talking about how being an artist is one of the worst professions because they only sell illusions. They don’t sell reality. But today our entire culture is an illusion
Today kids have all these illusions from day one. I taught middle school for az year in East Oakland. These kids are told they need to go to college. For a lot of these kids, their reality is that people in their families are in gangs or in jail, or they’re dead. So they’re supposed to just shoot past that?
I’ve had moments with kids in a class I was teaching called “Making,” and it’s this beautiful thing, just about what you were saying. It’s about seeing a problem, approaching it and fixing it—even if it’s just something like making a thing out of cardboard. How do you make this work? Why didn’t it work? Learning how to deal with that mechanism in yourself (cont. on p.55) is something can take into life and make your life better.
If you’re really surviving in the world, you have to solve your problems, you have to be aware of the environment and yourself, and that mechanism is the only way I see to break out of it. Otherwise, all we are is producers making enough money to be consumers. And that’s pretty shitty.
works: It is. Earlier you mentioned being in front of some existential questions. Can you say more?
Jeremiah: So there was one time I went to a psychic. I asked him to explain my art to me. He said, “You go out and you take two things and you bring them together.” On a very basic level, that’s what I do, and over the years I’ve discovered that those two things have more connections than I realize. I’m working on a piece right now where I melted a meteorite into a sewing needle. The idea is that you take something that has this power—people have taken meteorites and made samurai swords out of them—but I’m taking it and making this insignificant object. And then I’m asking, “Well, what is that connection?”
I used thermite. I melted it—and it dropped. So that’s like when the meteorite fell to Earth. But I’m using this powerful moment to make this thing that’s really just about pulling a thread. And I’m going to use it to make a tapestry of space. So I started to think about that, and this phrase appeared, “Fabric of the Universe.” Okay. Then, what does it mean to pull a thread through the fabric of the universe?
I start to go on these long tangents in my mind. A meteorite crashes into an asteroid, or asteroids crash together and then send a piece down to Earth. It crashes through the atmosphere and for millions of years it sits there. Then it gets found; it gets transported to a shop and I buy it. I turn it into this needle. And through the journey of that object, of that material, there are all these things I can think about—about existence, about randomness and happenstance, about power and steel and fabric.
As this piece is developing, I’m finding things I didn’t expect to find—and I’m still probably going to find more things. Then when I show it, people might see two or three of those things. They might see something I didn’t see. But it’s about posing the question and about inviting the conversation.
works: I’m really touched by this. It reminds me that when I was in college, a common phrase was, “Art, philosophy, and religion.” I never hear that phrase anymore. These were avenues for exploring the deep existential questions: Why are we here? Who am I? Is there meaning? And listening to you, that comes up.
Jeremiah: Absolutely. I teach a class called Art Appreciation. It’s a basic art class for people who have no idea what art is. With people who come to the class, the first question I ask is, “What is art?”
There are always different answers. People say, “It’s how people express things.” Or, “It’s painting. It’s sculpture.” And I think that, yeah, art can be moving media around. But I’m always reminded of my own art history class.
There was this one section about the painting guilds. Saint Luke is the patron saint of the painters. He was supposed to be the first person who had a vision of Mary and Baby Jesus and painted it. So he saw beyond and brought that vision back. Even with the cave paintings, it’s like they see beyond and translate it into the world.
For me, that’s always what art has been. It’s about seeing beyond the surface, and trying to bring something back into a place where people can access it. It’s not about pretty things. It’s not about matching couches. It’s about something deeper.
Being in the art world working in galleries and stuff like that, is disheartening sometimes. I’ve had people come in looking for a painting, and I ask, “What kind of painting are you looking for?”
They say, “Blue.”
Well, like, blue what? Do you want to feel good? Do you want to feel deep? Do you want to be taken somewhere else? Even a painting of a bird can take you somewhere—and it should. To me, that’s what art is supposed to do. I don’t know what it is that’s made people forget that. Hopefully, we can find our way back.
See more at http://jeremiahjenkins.com/