How Jocelyn Lee Invesitages the World

Artist Jocelyn Lee uses her home and work to explore her property in Cape Elizabeth
Words By Brian Shuff
Photos By Michael D. Wilson

Architect

Michael Belleau

Builder

Warehouse Builders

Lighting

The Lamp Repair Shop

Cabinetry

Coastal Custom Design

Landscape

Brian Urquhart
 

A bright green bird is squawking in photographer Jocelyn Lee’s living room. “Some type of parrot,” Jocelyn says, taking the creature from its perch and letting it find a grip on the front of her chore coat. She sits again, resumes speaking about Dark Matter, a series of hers in progress since 2015, images made by gathering organic materials—flowers, branches, fruits, buds, insects, anything crying out—placing them in tubs of water, then capturing the natural disturbances wrought by wind, temperature, cloud reflection, light, the water’s moldering influence. Her voice is gentle and deliberate as she discusses the work, certain but curious. The bird finds Jocelyn’s tempo. It toddles from one shoulder to the other, behind Jocelyn’s neck, down her arm, but there isn’t another sound.

Back hall. Gelatin silver photograph by Sally Mann. Painting of dog and girl by anonymous.

Back hall. Gelatin silver photograph by Sally Mann. Painting of dog and girl by anonymous.

Jocelyn photographs Pearl in the Grandmother apple tree, a common and beloved subject.

Jocelyn photographs Pearl in the Grandmother apple tree, a common and beloved subject.

Front entry. Works by Max Miller and Lee Lufkin Kaula hang in the main stairway.

Front entry. Works by Max Miller and Lee Lufkin Kaula hang in the main stairway.

“It isn’t street time,” Jocelyn has said of photography. “It’s a way to slow down…The beauty of photography is when you use it to really look.” Her home, a modernized farmhouse on just under two acres in the Cape Elizabeth suburbs, shares a similar spirit. Its rhythms feel slower, patient, in tune with the long view of time that characterizes the natural world. Jocelyn’s husband, Brian—“a plant whisperer,” she says—began planting apple trees their first summers on the property, before they were even married, knowing the trees would need years to grow. They are a family that discusses variations in light and shadow throughout the day, when planted foxglove begins to naturalize, a wasp nest’s construction and decay. These are the forces with which Jocelyn and her family live (there are also kids: Pearl and Julien), from which they take pleasure—“the material continuum,” as Jocelyn has called it—and which find their way perennially into her work.

Jocelyn and Brian self-designed the interior. Salvage doors from Portland Architectural Salvage. Quilt on couch by Avis Urquhart.

Jocelyn and Brian self-designed the interior. Salvage doors from Portland Architectural Salvage. Quilt on couch by Avis Urquhart.

The home was one of the original farms on Mitchell Road in 1898, before the area was subdivided and developed.

The home was one of the original farms on Mitchell Road in 1898, before the area was subdivided and developed.

t Pearl with Amelia Earhart (duck) and Charlotte Brontë (goose).

Pearl with Amelia Earhart (duck) and Charlotte Brontë (goose).

Jocelyn often shoots in the yard, which spreads off the back of the home then tails down a wooded slope. A few of the large tubs from Dark Matter are still out back. At the project’s peak, she monitored them daily, sometimes hour to hour. Each member of the family made contributions to the evolving contents, tossing in curiosities gathered throughout the day’s wanderings.

“The dogwood went from full bloom to funny-shaped pink blossoms. All of it was material for the tubs. Incredible imagery was being handed to me every day,” Jocelyn says. “I just had to record it and work with it.” Typically, she amasses a great number of raw images then edits them down over an extended period. “It can take years,” she says. “You need time to live with the material before you can make it intelligent.”

Pearl in foyer. Wallpaper by Josef Frank. Bright Deer by Dylan Hausthor. Fawn fresco by Barbara Sullivan. Nature Dome, embroidered and mixed media, by Juliet Karelsen. Accent series five-piece drum kit in classic blue sparkle by Ludwig.

Pearl in foyer. Wallpaper by Josef Frank. Bright Deer by Dylan Hausthor. Fawn fresco by Barbara Sullivan. Nature Dome, embroidered and mixed media, by Juliet Karelsen. Accent series five-piece drum kit in classic blue sparkle by Ludwig.

In the living room, Jocelyn takes a framed example from the wall—a fluid composition of fern leaves, hosta, lavender stems, a rope of seaweed looped and floating in black space. Formally, it is a still life, but there is nothing still. It undulates, has depth, texture. It could have been painted with thick oils. It could be Dutch. Is it a coral reef? A galaxy? One rotting pomegranate becomes a planet, then a mutating cell.

“This was made here,” Jocelyn says, holding the image and gesturing to the room and beyond. “That is very satisfying to me. The work from Dark Matter is so much more interesting than what I could have set up in a studio, which is so constructed. But this yard—there’s always something changing and shifting.” Brian remembers some of his roses in the tubs. “The water held them together as they decayed,” he says. “Rather than falling apart, all the little pieces were briefly suspended.” Long enough for Jocelyn’s shutter.

Jocelyn’s third mono - graph, Sovereign, will be released this fall by Minor Matters. All the work featured here was made at her home.

Jocelyn’s third mono – graph, Sovereign, will be released this fall by Minor Matters. All the work featured here was made at her home.

An open-design bookcase provides sight lines to the south garden.

An open-design bookcase provides sight lines to the south garden.

Now the parrot—Delilah—takes a nip at Jocelyn’s hand. Again, her temperature doesn’t rise. What else would a wild animal do? She hands Delilah to Brian (he calls the bird a “pocket Napoleon”) and for a moment studies the blood on her finger.

Delilah has company: two doodles and a spirited mutt, three cats, a standing cage of society finches (Blue, Peep, and Zephyr), a floppy-eared rabbit named Winter loping about, and a pen outside for chickens and ducks. (Pearl studies the crested gene in ducks. Last year, she kept almost 30 hatchlings to chart dominant and recessive patterns.) Still, the menagerie doesn’t overwhelm. Its balance is that of an ecosystem, and aside from an occasional cat swipe at one of the finches, everyone seems to live and let live.

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, Riding the Apple Tree, 2016. 

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, Riding the Apple Tree, 2016.

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, July Burn, 2016.

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, July Burn, 2016.

“I want the house to inspire everyone in the family to find their own way of investigating the world,” Jocelyn says.

Over several self-designed renovations, Jocelyn and Brian widened the farm home’s narrow rooms, elongated sight lines through and across the space, opened the north side of the home with a wall-size sliding door that acts as a proscenium to the garden and elevated deck. In spring, Brian hangs orchids from the rafters. “That’s Brian’s studio,” Jocelyn says of the outdoors. “And for Pearl it’s the animals. They go wherever they want. We live with them inside and out.” (Julien, their son, isn’t able to make it, but apparently he’s a pretty serious basketball player.)

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, Pomegranate and Hosta, 2016.

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, Pomegranate and Hosta, 2016.

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, Forsythia, 201. 

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, Forsythia, 201.

They have plans for more—another sliding door to the south, spilling onto a kitchen garden and birdhouse neighborhood—but for now, they are content to anticipate. In the more immediate future, over 400 bulbs are waiting in the ground, planted on hundreds more already buried.

For Jocelyn, the future looks fecund as well. This fall, Minor Matters Books will publish her new monograph, Sovereign, and a corresponding solo exhibition will premiere at the Flatlands Gallery in Amsterdam. The book contains images from Dark Matter but also several portraits from an ongoing study of women’s bodies at various stages of life. The current images focus especially on women of advanced age. “The body has an incredible narrative,” Jocelyn has said of the work. “These images are about expanding ideas of beauty but also about our shared arc from blossoming into fragility.” Again, her hope is to freeze that arc long enough for a more considered gaze.

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, Apple Tree at Night , 2016.

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, Apple Tree at Night , 2016.

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, Winter Venus , 2016

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, Winter Venus, 2016

There will also be plenty to occupy her at Speedwell Projects, the Portland-based gallery Jocelyn founded in 2015 after leaving a teaching post at Princeton. Speedwell aims to “redress the art world’s commercial and institutional lack of attention to the work of women, people of color, and queer artists.” Much like Jocelyn’s work, Speedwell holds the societal eye in places it has not efore lingered.

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, Raising the Cherry Tree, 2016.

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, Raising the Cherry Tree, 2016.

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, The Embrace, 2016.

Jocelyn Lee archival pigment print, The Embrace, 2016.

Jocelyn goes to the kitchen and returns with a Mason jar of sliced peaches. The segments are plump and floating together like items in Jocelyn’s tubs, or the rolling, living flesh in some of her portraits. Both Jocelyn and Brian seem tickled by the peach tree’s yield. On her phone, Jocelyn shows a photo of all the original jars stacked on a table, glowing in sunlight. “It’s so fun,” she says. “On less than two acres there’s so much happening.” Brian recalls the apple trees planted before their marriage. “There’s something about the sense of time,” he says, “of being rooted in a place. I do think we have a good chance of apples this year.” Jocelyn smiles. “Oh, I hope so,” she says, “I really do.”