Jovan Speller, ...and her serenity was appalling, 2017, silver gelatin print
Jovan Speller, ...and her serenity was appalling, 2017, silver gelatin print

In this interview Jovan Speller discusses her love of darkroom photography, the unnoticed, and the many hats she wears.

Describe the work that you make.

My work is about memory, reflection, curiosity, exploration, and storytelling. I use traditional and alternative techniques in photography as a means of capturing phases of time that memorialize fleeting moments and stories often overlooked as insignificant. My work is influenced by nature, women, childhood, and the land; the juxtaposition between their beauty and deterioration; and the beauty of their deterioration. My work is very process oriented and primarily connected to the land and to experiences immediate to me. As a result, my images are often quiet references to themes like place, history, family, and identity.

Those who know me would rarely classify my personality as “quiet.” However, my photographic and artistic practice has always had a meditative quality. Though the subjects and concepts I examine are broad and simplistic, the images themselves and the impressions they conjure are pointed and clear, denoting feelings of searching, dissatisfaction, impatience, and deficiency.

Currently, I’m working on a series called Black Quiet that captures the subtleties of relationships and individuality in black culture.

Jovan Speller working in darkroom at MCAD, 2017, digital photograph.

Jovan Speller working in darkroom at MCAD, 2017, digital photograph


Why photography? Why darkroom photography when most artists are using digital photography?

When I was about twelve, my father enrolled me in an art camp while I was visiting him for the summer in Texas. I was in the theater and photography program. I fell in love with the darkroom before I fell in love with photography. Taking pictures using film was not a thrill at that age. Point and click. Point and click. But the chemistry and process of developing the film was quite a mystical experience for me; I was creating something tangible from an intangible moment by printing pictures in the darkroom. It represented nostalgia, control, and individuality. My campmates and I could snap a photo of the same subject but no two images ever came out the same.

There are certain art forms to which I am drawn, but I focus on photography because I can accomplish subtlety and effortlessness in this medium more successfully than in any other. I use darkroom over digital photography because I am intrigued and inspired by the presence of the artist’s hand. There is a quality and texture that the darkroom print has that cannot be mimicked with digital photographs.

"Success for me is a matter of consistency and overcoming daily obstacles. If I am able to produce, be creative, and work toward my vision then I feel successful."

What advice has influenced you or your art making?

My art making evolved out of regret—a need to recreate and redesign what was possible. My mom is a huge influence in my life and in my creative expression. She fostered in me a sense of strength, power, and freedom that allows me to be not just an artist, but also anything else I really desire. She has always told me “Jovan, you are entirely too creative to settle for ordinary.” I live by these words. 

How do you know when you have been successful?

Success for me is a matter of consistency and overcoming daily obstacles. If I am able to produce, be creative, and work toward my vision then I feel successful. Artistically, I find perfection in imperfection: soft focus, blurred faces or warped edges, specs of dust in the background. I am always trying to tell a story. And stories, like life, are imperfect. My image is successful when I have represented the story I want to tell in a way that reflects truth.

How have your varied experiences as a curator/consultant/entrepreneur influenced your artistic practice? Do you think working as an image producer is different than your other areas of interest? If not, how do you keep them separate?

They are very, very different. My work as a curator and creative consultant requires me to focus my energies and skills to understand and interpret ideas beyond my own. I’m constantly in collaboration with the other artists or creatives—listening to, dissecting, and interpreting their needs, goals, and vision and working to find creative and accessible ways to assist them in execution.

My artistic practice is different in that it is very personal, quiet, and meditative—looking beyond ego and assertion, to subjective commentary. It is an effort at unity, between personal reconciliation and global observations. Keeping it separate is not the difficulty—managing my time and energy to do both is a skill I am still developing.

Is there another media that you’ve always wanted to try, but for some reason haven’t?

I love filmmaking. The idea of it at least. This past summer I was an associate producer on a short film and really enjoyed that. I would like to work with moving images. However, I need to learn to use the equipment first.

Jovan Speller, Farmscape #3, 2016, silver gelatin print

Farmscape #3, 2016, silver gelatin print


In your artist bio/statement, you mention memorializing moments that are overlooked as insignificant. Can you talk more about recognizing that which is often unrecognized? Has it always been a part of your art making? When did you first realize that is what you were doing?

Nonverbal communication is essential to harmonious community. I believe the artist’s role in community is to be the example for innovation in execution of nonverbal communication and expression. Nonverbal communication is also emotion, and communicating ideas and sentiments past existing planes of common manipulation.

Art making and critiquing art are, of course, very different practices. When I started having studio visits and writing artist statements and grants where I had to explain and describe my work past the practice, I began summoning language that described the work I’m doing. For me this language is a necessary evil. Words can only convey so much. There are limits of meaning and interpretation. In looking at my work I tried to take a step back and look more critically at the images as a whole body of work. The language I use to describe my work is designed to equip viewers with an entry point of understanding and intrigue them enough to make them stop, look, and draw their own conclusions. 

Can you talk about how the fellowship has been going for you so far?

This fellowship has been an incredible infusion of energy, inspiration, and accountability. It has been exactly what I needed at this point in my career. I have really enjoyed the support from [Director of Gallery and Exhibition Programs] Kerry Morgan and the MCAD staff as well as my fellow cohort. I am also obsessed with the MCAD darkroom and am already dreading the day my fellowship ends and I don’t have access anymore. 

"I believe the artist’s role in community is to be the example for innovation in execution of nonverbal communication and expression."

What’s it like having a Jerome Fellowship cohort of all women? 

In the aftermath of the November election, being notified that this cohort would comprise only women was in some ways reassuring, hopeful, balancing, necessary, timely, and overdue. I’m so grateful to be part of this cohort and understand the significance of the moment as well. It drives me to be even more thoughtful about the work I’m producing.

If you weren’t an artist or involved in the arts, what would you be doing?

I have an organic soap and lifestyle product business called WildRoots. I started it back in 2008 when I left New York. It began as an organic gardening business. I would like to restart that arm of the business and am still looking to purchase some farm land. So I guess I would be an organic vegetable farmer if I wasn’t in the arts. It will likely still happen. I just hope I can find a way to merge both my art and my love for the land.