These days, the view from artist Danielle De Jesus’s window is a rare Alexander Calder mural and the clean lines of Marcel Breuer’s architecture. It’s an idyllic, if temporary, setup for the artist, who usually works out of a packed space in Ridgewood, Queens. This summer, the recent Yale University MFA graduate is the inaugural resident at the Beecher Residency, housed in Breuer’s historic Stillman House in Litchfield, Connecticut.
De Jesus is used to taking inspiration from her surroundings. The primary source material for her rich portraits comes from her native neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn. Her photographs and paintings—which she sometimes does on dollar bills and tablecloths—trace the individual stories of Bushwick’s displaced residents and members of the Puerto Rican diaspora to crystallize broader truths about gentrification, migration, and how place informs who we become.
De Jesus’s work is currently on view as part of the MoMA PS1 exhibition “Life Between Buildings” (through January 16, 2023). This fall, she will be included in the major exhibition of Puerto Rican art opening at the Whitney Museum and will be the subject of a solo show at François Ghebaly in Los Angeles.
The Stillman House, where De Jesus is currently spending her days, was commissioned by art collectors Rufus and Leslie Stillman in 1950. It has since been taken over by John Auerbach, the CEO of art-storage company UOVO, and Ed Tang, a founder of the art advisory Art-Bureau, who began the residency this year.
We spoke to De Jesus about residency life, how she stays inspired, and why dogs are essential studio assistants.
Send us a snap of the most indispensable item in your studio and tell us why you can’t live without it.
The most indispensable item in my studio is my dog. He’s my favorite thing in the whole wide world and he keeps me company. When I’m in my full-time studio, it’s still my dog, but also a handmade Puerto Rican flag.
What is the studio task on your agenda this week that you are most looking forward to?
Completing a self-portrait that I began here during my time at the Beecher Residency. I haven’t made many self-portraits; in fact, this is only the second one I’ve ever done, but I’m especially proud of it.
What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?
I actually love painting with people around. I love the sounds of the city through my window, and having friends over while I paint is never a distraction. I know that’s not very common with many artists, but I find myself focusing hard on what I’m doing when someone is talking to me because my mind isn’t free to wander elsewhere. I guess that’s why I really enjoy podcasts if I’m in the studio by myself. It makes me feel less alone while giving me someone to listen to. Specifically, I like a podcast called “Stuff You Should Know,” as well as the “Week in Art.”
Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?
There are so many, but I have to say that some of my favorite artists, curators, and thinkers of the moment are Wayde Mcintosh, Jordan Casteel, Elmer Guevara, Aaron Gilbert, Francesca von Rabenau, Ebony Haynes, Marcela Guerrero, Jody Graf, Jasmine Wahi, Blaize Lehane, and Nicole Calderón. These people have all inspired me in their own way through the work they are doing—whether in galleries, on canvas, or in institutions that are facilitating the change we need to see.
Is there a picture you can send of your current work in progress at the studio?
When you feel stuck while preparing for a show, what do you do to get unstuck?
If I ever get stuck, I walk around my neighborhood. New York City, and more specifically Bushwick, where I was born and raised, are my muses. They are the driving force behind what I do, so seeing them, hearing them, feeling them around me motivates me to keep pushing my work forward. Our story deserves to be told and to hold space in future historical conversations.
What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?
A trait that I most admire in a work is how a story is told. I enjoy a painting that says something without uttering a word. A painting that teaches me about something. I don’t know if I despise any traits in a work of art, or maybe I’ll just keep that answer to myself as to not offend anyone!
What images or objects do you look at while you work? Share your view from behind the canvas or your desktop—wherever you spend the most time.
I look at images of home. My paintings are based on images or, like Barkley Hendricks once described them, “photographic sketches” that I’ve made over decades in New York City. I’m still an image-maker, as I do photography, but there are photographs that I make with the intention of being a photograph and there are images that I make with the intention of converting into a painting. It all depends on how I feel about the image and subject.
What is the last exhibition you saw that made an impression on you and why?
“Faith Ringgold: American People” at the New Museum. Her ability to tell a story and express her experiences as a Black woman in America was incredibly inspiring. The work was beautiful, but it was also nice getting glimpses of her thoughts and process through the work.
What made you choose this particular studio over others?
Well, currently I am working out of a studio provided to me by the Beecher Residency in Litchfield, Connecticut. I am here for six weeks and the studio is conveniently placed right next to a beautiful pool at the historic Stillman House, which makes for great swim and paint sessions!
Describe the space in three adjectives.
Beautiful, calm, quiet.
How does the studio environment influence the way you work?
I don’t know if the studio environment influences the way that I work, or if it is more of a reflection of where I am in my work. If I’m fully invested in a painting or hyper-focused on a group of paintings, my studio usually looks like a storm passed through it. But if I’m in a more relaxed mode, I take the time to reset it and clean. That allows me to start fresh before tossing tubes of paint and oil-plastered cloths and paper all over the floor. This happens about once a month. One time, it was so bad that I had a studio visit and the visitor thought it was part of my work. That was funny.