Past and present converge on canvas in Jessica Bartoe's 'Graphein Excerpts'

For her current exhibition in the Grand Lobby of Stuart's Opera House in Nelsonville, the Columbus painter places old memories in the here and now

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Three paintings from Jessica Bartoe's “The Graphein Excerpts and Current Works,” on display at Stuart's Opera House in Nelsonville, Ohio.

From the second Jessica Bartoe set foot on the campus of Berea College in Kentucky, she fretted over the looming senior-year artist talk required for her 2018 graduation as a fine art major. Bartoe had an intense fear of public speaking, and she also had no idea what paintings she wanted to make for the senior show.  

Yet, despite all that anxiety, Bartoe lobbied for a solo show, separate from all the other seniors. She bought a 30-foot canvas, hung it on the gallery walls, and for four weeks straight she painted in front of a live audience on the enormous canvas. “I was there after hours. They had to give me a key that I could use to get in,” Bartoe said recently by phone from her South Side Columbus apartment.

Though it wasn’t a conscious decision, Bartoe began thinking about her nomadic childhood as she painted. She bounced around among parents in Arizona and California and grandparents in Southeast Ohio, leading to geographic and emotional whiplash.  

“My grandpa was a Baptist preacher, and my Nana is from West Virginia. And my dad is a DJ,” she said. “When I left my grandparents’ house to live with my dad around the age of 10, I'd been so heavily inside of this Christian world where it was church three times a week, and traveling for church because my grandpa was preaching all over the place. So it was a little bit of a culture shock to then transition into my dad's lifestyle, where he was a DJ throwing house parties [in Arizona].” 

Bartoe’s dad was also the one who introduced her to art at a young age, gifting her a sketchbook after she expressed interest. “One of my earliest memories is watching my dad and my uncle drawing,” she said. “I remember watching my uncle drawing a rose, and I thought it looked real — like I literally thought he was making an actual rose on a piece of paper. And I remember I told my dad, ‘I want to do that.’” 

Bartoe took a year off between high school and college and lived with her mom in California, but on her first day working behind a cash register, she knew she had to find something else to do, so she took some community college art classes and then applied to Berea. And while Berea provided Bartoe with a supportive, tight-knit (and tuition-free) community, she often felt out of place. “Everybody at Berea has this very strong tie to a holler in Kentucky or some Appalachian place, and I don't have that," she said. "I don't have these ancient familial roots that dig deep into the mountains. I just kind of blew in from California.” 

At one point, while working on the giant canvas for her senior show, Bartoe took a step back and looked at what she’d painted so far. Suddenly, her whole life came into view. She saw sharks and coral from a scuba diving adventure one summer. She saw written meditations that felt almost scriptural. Her life in the Midwest, Southwest and the West Coast — it was all there. It just needed a finishing touch. 

“The first thing that came into my head was the big red flowers that pop up on barrel cacti. So I just covered the wall with these huge, 6-foot-tall cacti with big red flowers on them. And that was it. Done,” she said. “It's vulnerable. It's like an open wound. But here it is.”

A close up of "Cathedral" from the "Graphein" excerpts (44" x 38").

After the show, which she titled “Graphein” (Greek for “to write”), she kept the canvas rolled up in the garage for about two years. In fact, she barely painted at all after graduating. What does one do after such a monumental undertaking?  

But in preparation for an exhibition on display now in the Grand Lobby of Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville, Bartoe took the canvas out and began cutting it into smaller sections, excising pieces of the memory-scape and propping them up around her apartment. The weight of the work hit her anew. "To be surrounded by all these pieces of work that I had done as I was preparing for the show at Stuart's, it was kind of an emotional moment,” she said. “It was like, OK. Art block gone.” 

The Graphein Excerpts and Current Works” at Stuart’s contains pieces from Bartoe’s “Graphein” installation (including the flowering barrel cacti), plus early academic works, a watercolor and two paintings from 2020. One of the recent works, a floral painting titled “Memories of Summer Jackrabbits and the Southside Water Tower,” began as an autobiographical piece.

“Memories of Summer Jackrabbits and the Southside Water Tower" (2020, 32"x42")

“Underneath all the flowers I have this form of a jackrabbit. … I remember seeing a jackrabbit one morning while I was waiting for the school bus to come get me in Tucson. It's one of those animals that I feel a personal connection to,” she said. “They're lanky. They're weird. They're kind of out of place.” 

Bartoe depicted the jackrabbit underneath a South Side water tower she can see from her living room window near Parsons Avenue. But then she kept painting, layering more colors and flowers until the jackrabbit disappeared underneath. Still, she knows it’s there. “I’m always trying to take the idea of a memory and disconnect it from its time and place, and then layer it over something that I can see now,” she said. 

Just as they did back at Berea, the present and the past converge in beautiful ways on Bartoe’s canvases. “There are times in my childhood where things were hard. I helped my parents take care of my baby siblings a lot because they were working or partying. I was sort of the full-time babysitter for a long time. And there's a hardness to being 13 and suddenly having two infants to take care of. That was my reality for a long time,” she said. “But by taking elements of the landscape from where those things were happening, and putting them into the here and now with a water tower, for instance, helps me digest them and place them into the context of where I've been, but also where I'm going.”