Mixed media artist Jada Fabrizio is an insatiable story teller. Her appetite for narratives covers wide grounds and results in dioramas and photographs ranging from a domestic scene of a hen with a fried egg at hand, to a melancholy rabbit sprawling on an armchair. Fervently surreal and underscored with dark humor, these sculptural sets and photographs offer open-ended stories that tease us and draws us in. Jada Fabirzio shares with Art Spiel a bit about herself, her approach to art making, and what triggers her narratives.
AS: You studied creative writing at SUNY New Paltz and photography at SVA and ICP. It seems like your work combines the two by using a form you describe as “surreal visual fables.” Please tell me a bit about your background and what led you to this form.
Jada Fabrizio: From age 6 to 14 I attended Catholic school in Far Rockaway, NY. There was a lot of violence at the hands of nuns. Nothing felt as satisfying as escaping into a favorite book. I would also make stories and act them out with my dolls, writing myself into better scenarios. It worked out for me psychologically.
I went to New Paltz to study and write poetry, but I was lost academically. I really blew it. Then I moved back in with my parents and worked on Wall Street as a clerk, which was really boring, so I began painting in the attic as a form of therapy. Eventually a friend suggested I try classes at SVA. The professors were inspiring, and it was a totally different academic experience. It clicked with me. That’s when I got my first camera, a Minolta X7.
I still write flash fiction from time to time and attend workshops, but I think I really hit my stride as a storyteller between 2006 and 2012 when I began to make self-portrait stories. The image below is called “No One Falls in Love Halfway”. I liked using my body and inserting myself into the story. It felt very personal. I began working with toys and sculptures around 2016 after taking classes at ICP. It started out as a need to see and control light better and then I fell in love with sculpting and building sets.
AS: In the first part of your process you build dioramas made of your sculptures and sometimes repurposed found objects such as toys or vintage objects as well. Tell me about this initial phase – what prompts you create a specific tableau and what is your process.
Jada Fabrizio: I love to shop at estate sales and will pick up just about any object that is visually interesting or that I have a history with. The sculptures are fun to make and I can customize the story with them. I usually start with a figure or figures, and build the set around them. As far as the stories, it is my intention to confuse the viewer in a way that makes perfect sense. I create an average environment and find a way to flip it on its side, but there is usually more than one interpretation to an image.
AS: In the next phase you are working on the lights and getting into the roles of not only a photographer, but also as you say, “a director, stylist, stage and costume designer” for your own invented world. What is your mode of thinking / operation in this phase? Let’s take for example a closer look at one of your “Imagined Worlds” images. Can you tell me about the genesis, idea, and process behind “What’s for dinner? “
Jada Fabrizio: From the start, I know what I want the set to be, but have to figure out how to make it. From the little radiator in the corner to finding just the right knobs for the stove, attention to detail is very important. Sometimes the figures required clothing or hair, so I taught myself to sew and make wigs. Lighting changes the mood of an image and it is the single most important component. I went to ICP and studied with Robert Meyer; it changed everything. In “What’s for Dinner” I have a chicken cooking eggs and looking worried. The camera angle is slightly high so you are looking down on the chicken. I used split lighting on the face to give it dimension but backlit the set to flatten it out. Believe it or not I was thinking about climate change and how humans are “cooking their own goose”
AS: I am drawn to the images where you have a world within a world and an intriguing relationship between in and out. Are you referring to these ideas in your work and if so, can you elaborate?
Jada Fabrizio: That’s exactly correct. What I am doing is taking a commonplace moment and twisting it. I like to focus on small moments or established ideas about a situation and change them. The images transform grit into something that hints positive, but the viewer must decide which they will see.
AS: As in many fables, animals are central in your visual world, but it seems to me that there is a deeper connection to animals. What is your take on that?
Jada Fabrizio: I have always loved companion animals. It goes back to the shepherd/husky dog we had growing up. She was the one real constant in my life. Presently I live with a couple of great cats. I am active in animal rights and volunteer at local animal rescues.
AS: Talking about animals. What can you tell me about your series “Animalia”? Let’s look at “Shortness of Breath” and “Fragile” as examples.
Jada Fabrizio: I believe art has the power to inspire people to consider their ethical stance towards nonhuman animals in the modern world. In “Animalia”, the images portray play creatures set in incongruous circumstances. I use toys as a way to soften the subject matter when depicting animals as objects to be collected, bred, farmed or tortured simply for our entertainment.
The set up is simple: the toys are minimally lit and placed in antiseptic tableaux. The background colors are choices based on my personal history with an animal or animals.
Art and animal rights have not always been perfect bunkmates. On the wrong side of history, artists have displayed animals suspended in formaldehyde, killed thousands of butterflies, had dogs run endlessly on treadmills, cats thrown up stairs and videoed, and countless other offences. We do not allow animal cruelty in the movie business, so why is it allowed so enthusiastically in the art world?
It is my hope that in some way this work will inspire others to advocate for animals, whether it be in the form of volunteer work, donations to shelters or advocacy groups or just eating less meat.
AS: We first met at Governors Island Art Fair in 2018. There, you were working on a site-specific installation and I was fascinated to see how your work evolved. Tell me a bit about your experience with site-specific work and how is it different than your other work?
Jada Fabrizio: The Governors Island/Portal art fair poses a unique opportunity for artists to have their own room and no rules. I like the idea of an immersive experience. I tried to make my work wear the room, so I would not say that the work is different; it’s just a bigger interpretation.
AS: There is humor in your work – mostly dark. Is humor important for you and how do you think it works in your art?
Jada Fabrizio: It’s like laughing at a funeral! My work really rides the edge of solemnity, its one of the reasons I use the sculptures and toys. I like the distance created by the fictional character. Take a look at “The Exile Prince”, The camera angle and the room are menacing and I was thinking of Edgar Allan Poe and how he was exiled in the arena of public opinion, sad stuff, but the figure makes the image feel playful.
AS: It seems that you are working in an “in-between” art zones – Where do you see your work in context of contemporary art
Jada Fabrizio: I love photography, but I am not solely a photographer. I don’t think I really fit into any specific genre. When I was making the self-portraits, I would get a lot of Cindy Sherman references and I hated it. I wanted to do something photographically but I wanted to make it bigger and build on the idea of the photograph. Lori Nix is a photographer whom I admire. She builds and photographs amazing dioramas of desolate surroundings. Gregory Crewsdon is a lighting master. I love Francesca Woodman’s interpretation of the world and the poetic still life photography of Lilliana Porter.
AS: What is in the works now?
Jada Fabrizio: I wake up every morning and ask myself the same question. I am thinking a lot about insects lately and how they will inherit what will be left of the earth.
I have been working on getting the images published. Here are a few upcoming pubs: The Ear, Literary Journal of Irvine Valley College; Waxing and Waning, Literary journal, Split Rock Review, Issue 13, 805, Lit and Art, Chaleur magazine, The Dollhouse Magazine.
AS: When I look at your photographs, I enjoy the moment they capture. But sometimes I am also curious to know what happened before / after – have you been doing or thinking about animation?
Jada Fabrizio: I like the idea of you being curious. I thought about animation, I even bought a few books on how to do it, but ultimately, I am much more interested asking the questions than providing a solution.