Jean Blackburn: Artist & Professor at RISD

My NativeAdVantage:


Jean Blackburn has been teaching at RISD since 1982 as a member of the Illustration department. In 2014 she was awarded the RISD’s John R. Frazier Award for Excellence in Teaching.  Her work, both painting and sculpture, addresses the domestic setting and its power to shape or reflect our understanding of the world. She has exhibited her work throughout the US and abroad, including the DeCordova Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Aldrich Museum, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, the Neuberger Museum, and the Ierimoti Gallery in Milan. Her work is in collections of the Mint Museum, the RISD Museum, the Tang Museum and many private collections. Her next solo exhibit is scheduled at the Rafius Fane Gallery in Boston in March 2017.  

Blackburn has a strong interest in ancient civilizations and our processes of interpreting them. She has worked as an archaeological illustrator on excavations in New England, New Mexico, Petra, Jordan and most recently in Tuscany on an 6th century B.C.E. Etruscan dig.

(Template (Windsor), 2015, 42x18x36", wooden chair.)

What do you do best?

I try to stay open.  As an artist and as a teacher, being willing to consider possibilities is essential.  The problems my students are trying to solve often require elastic thinking.  I love helping them brainstorm.  It’s a form of play. I think play is one of our most important activities.  It requires abstract thinking and allows us to suppose, or try things on.  It’s weird but some of my most creative thinking time is when I’m driving on the highway.  It takes most of my focus, but not all of it, and frees my mind to float.  I can make associations I might not get to otherwise.  I think of it as a half distracted state.  Knitting works well too.

In the studio I stay open because my way of working is very improvisational.  That’s by choice.  I modify existing objects.  I enjoy that the object gives me something and I respond to it. I push my materials hard. Often things break or do something unexpected, so I’ve learned to fold mistakes into my process.  Dealing with a flaw forces me to rethink my approach and gets me to a resolution I could not have predicted.  It also makes the process richer, more metaphoric and more universal.  

What makes you the best?

You have to write that in boldface red caps.  Actually I am suspicious of anyone who says they are the best. By whose yardstick?  What I can say is that I put my whole self into what I do.  There is no point going part way.  There are too many artists and life is too short for that.  I try to convey to my students that what they are doing is important and they need to be dedicated.  Exploration is essential, doubt a frequent companion and failure likely, but that may be the only way things move forward.

What are your aspirations?

Very simply, I’d like to contribute in a meaningful way to that very human and cultural conversation that is the arts. It has the power to change peoples’ inner lives and help us see our connectedness.  Everyone needs that.   And back to the concept of play.  I’d like to keep doing that.

Biggest Success?

Finding a way to do what I love.  Some how I’ve been able to work as an artist and share my passion for it as a teacher. Being an artist is an indulgence and an absurd way to spend time in many ways, but it fosters empathy and integration. It has enabled me to transform what I learned during hard time into something positive. When I was in my twenties, my mom and I both had cancer. While I recovered, she did not survive. Losing her was so painful and frightening. I had to confront mortality at a young age.  But the experience gave me insight into our fragility and the mutability of things. Cancer seemed an important metaphor.  It gave me something powerful and universal to speak about in my work. It freed me to take more chances and push myself creatively.

Most Challenging Moment?

I would have to say raising a teenager and recognizing how hard it is to be a teenager now.  The worst moment was a couple of years ago when my daughter said she didn’t care what happened to her.  That is heartbreaking for any parent.  But it made me double-down to show her that I love her every day, that I will always have her back and that we are all so interconnected and need each other.  Though it’s still a work in progress, things are much better now.  She is thriving and I have so much respect for her and the journey she has made.  

(Arachne Installation, 2013, furniture, household fabrics, paint, variable dimensions.)

Favorite Motto?

Don’t make bacon in the nude. No, actually I don’t know.  I don’t have one.  There are lots of worthy sentiments in mottos.  I just can’t settle on one.

Favorite People?

Italo Calvino is one of my favorite people. I wish I’d met him.   He’s the catalyst for insightful thinking and he is certainly still relevant.  I’ve structured a class around some of his writings.  Another person would be my High School biology teacher.  He was an ex-Marine.  It was crazy, but he took us rock repelling- something no school would allow these days. We walked off the edge of a 100-foot cliff, roped in and trusting each other.   He helped us to measure ourselves against something, which is so important when you are an adolescent.   He somehow convinced a bunch of high school students to go out at the crack of dawn, collect water samples and test them for microbes before school started.  He inspired in a number of us a life long fascination with biology and science.

Favorite Places?

Besides my studio, I’d have to say I’m a big fan of the National Parks.  I went to Acadia in Maine for the first time last summer.  At night the spill of stars across the sky at night was breathtaking. This spring I plan to visit Zion and Bryce Canyon.  I’ve been to the Southwest before.  The vastness of the landscape and the time it represents is humbling. It’s a great way to put things into perspective.

Favorite Products?

Sharp chisels, Schmieke gouache,  Sriracha sauce, lavender soap.

Current Passions?

I am really interested in how we put things together and understand the world.  Several years ago I was in my studio, I glanced at the window and saw a small grey mermaid on the sill.  I stopped and savored this delightful moment before I looked back.  Of course it was a pigeon.  What fascinated me was how my mind had filled in and resolved the incomplete information.  I’ve come to realize we only really observe about 3% of what surrounds us.  The rest we fill in from what experience has taught us to expect.  We see what we expect to see.  I think this is at the root of why children and grownups see the world so differently. It’s also why travel is so important.  We are constantly bombarded by experiences we do not expect.

(Untitled, 2010, 40x52", acrylic on digitally printed canvas.)