Contortions on Canvas, With Jillian Evelyn
The experience of the modern woman, or a woman of any era for that matter, is anything but comfortable. Jillian Evelyn fits that warped experience onto canvas with her paintings of contorted female figures. By marrying the sensation of stretching oneself to society’s expectations with her own personal experiences, Jillian creates beautifully bold paintings that stir reflection through personal discomfort. Listen to this episode of The Cultured Podcast to learn how Jillian’s previous career in shoe design still finds its way into her work.
Read the episode transcript below.
Michelle Khouri 0:00
Our guest today is a contortionist, but not the kind you’re thinking of. Today, I talk to Jillian Evelyn about her stunning paintings that feature the female form in some pretty painstaking positions.
Michelle Khouri 0:21
Welcome to The Cultured Podcast. I’m your host, Michelle Khouri. And together we’ll journey into the unknown reaches of the art world.
Michelle Khouri 0:39
Hello, my dearies! Today we have a wonderful conversation with Jillian Evelyn. I’ve been following her work for a very long time on Instagram and I have been inspired by these bold colors that she uses and by these female figures contorted into crazy shapes and positions, the kind of stuff that bones quiver at the sight of. But all of those representations of crazy positions mean something to Jillian. And they’re actually her form of expressing her own anxieties with the world around us and the pressures that we all feel on a daily basis. I’m not going to give away too much, but spoiler alert, it’s a pretty pretty interesting interview. So stay tuned, because first we have to talk about my inspiration for the week.
And that inspiration is self care. And y’all, let me tell you, most of the time I actually roll my eyes at the level of self care speak there is in the world because it’s like almost a bit much. There’s like clubs surrounding napping, which I’m, like, all about if you have no other ambitions, but I’m building a company so, like, I don’t nap often because I’m building a company. I am not throwing shade. Does it sound like I’m throwing shade, Enna? Okay, she says it sounds like I’m throwing shade. Forgive me. I’m not throwing shade. All I’m saying is that there’s a time for napping and there’s a time for working on yourself and on your dreams.
But I will say this has been a particularly crazy couple of weeks where I have been non-stop and pushing myself for very long hours every day. And frankly, it’s moments like this where I’m, like, preaching that self care gospel. That’s when I get on board. Because at a certain point, I have to know when to slow down. I have to know when to stop. And I have to realize that sometimes when I’m rolling my eyes at people… they’re right. You know? It is an investment in myself. And it’s even an investment in my company and my team for me to slow down and stop, breathe, meditate, take a bubble bath, whatever my form of self care is. So I want to apologize to all self care advocates out there if I’ve ever rolled my eyes at you. It’s because I’m in beast mode. And thus, I can’t see through the fog of that. But the reality is right now I’m about to go into the weekend looking for some serious rest and some serious nature time. So cheers to self care. Today? I’m about it. Tomorrow? I don’t know. No promises.
Alright y’all, without further ado, I don’t want to sleep on this interview. It’s time to talk to Jillian.
Michelle Khouri 3:34
Jillian, welcome to The Cultured Podcast. I’m especially excited to have you on the show today.
Jillian Evelyn 3:41
Thank you for having me.
Michelle Khouri 3:43
You are…I would actually categorize you as one of my favorite artists because of the subject matter, because of the playfulness, because of the seriousness underneath. But I just want to share with the Cultured Crew who you are and what kind of artwork you make. So go ahead and introduce yourself and give us a little synopsis of your work.
Jillian Evelyn 4:04
So I’m Jillian Evelyn and I’m a contemporary artist and I paint minimalist, abstract females. And they’re focusing mostly on being kind of contorted and bending and fitting into whatever canvas that they’re on. And it speaks to just my experience in life. And for a long time, I spent a lot of time trying to live by the shoulds and what I should be doing and really conforming and bending to other people’s expectations without really actually asking if that’s what I want it to be doing. So and also just like beauty standards, and there’s so many things, especially as a female that get put on you. And you’re kind of always trying to fit into that box.
Michelle Khouri 4:53
So what life experiences have you endured that have brought you to this place where you really found your voice in exploring that ongoing ever present discomfort of womanhood, which is how I see it.
Jillian Evelyn 5:07
Yeah, so well, I mean I grew up in the, like 90s, you know, early 2000s. I graduated high school in 2005. And so during that time, there wasn’t that much body positivity. So I grew up on magazines and all the diets–Atkins or whatever random thing was in. I struggled with eating disorders. And then went to college and I felt like I was doing the rebellious thing by going to art school and following my dream, but then I easily, you know, like after school, you’re so scared of, you know, being able to afford to live. So I took a job and I ended up working in footwear for eight years as a footwear designer and textile designer. And I, kind of, got myself stuck there because I was so scared to leave. And I knew it was a good job and I shouldn’t risk leaving. And I should continue to pursue that career even though I wasn’t super happy in it, and I knew that I was meant to be painting and I had something else in me.
Michelle Khouri 6:08
I find the way you use contorted really interesting–in the way that you use it like contorting yourself to society’s image of yourself or what your parents might expect of you. I find that such a powerful word to use. And then couple that word and that sentiment with your artwork and the contortions of these female forms, or of these women’s forms, contorted into these very angular, uncomfortable, harsh positions. It’s a really powerful sentiment that you’re actually alluding to and it went totally over my head for most of the time that I’ve been following you. I didn’t even draw that conclusion. For me, I saw, like, oh, there’s this homage to Cubism but also, like, classical Greek figurative painting, but it’s also very contemporary and bold. And then when I started reading more and more about you and you mentioned this contortion and how your work really alludes to the anxieties that you’ve suffered from or suffered with or through, I was like, holy cajoli! And all of a sudden your art became different for me. It became more nuanced and darker but in the best of ways. So at what point in your life did you find that voice? That’s a tough thing to find.
Jillian Evelyn 7:25
So, it was definitely later. I’m a little bit of a late bloomer, let’s say. So yeah, so I was in footwear for eight years. And on the side, I was always doing a much more like whimsical, cute-like–for a while, I thought I do children’s books. I drew a lot more animals. And then I moved out to LA and I worked for another footwear company out here for two years. And during that time, I took like a year break. And then I was just going through a lot of things and I actually finally started drawing from a very raw place. Yeah, so I just became just very honest and I didn’t think anything was going to come of it. It was just more of me being like, “I need to get this out because I’m so frustrated in my life.” And,
Michelle Khouri 8:07
How old were you?
Jillian Evelyn 8:09
28 or 29.
Michelle Khouri 8:11
Mmm, yeah. I mean, that’s also a particularly angsty time in life because you’re finally on this verge, I found, of like, “Okay, I’m legit. I’m solidly an adult now, like solidly.” But I don’t feel that way. I still feel like a baby, you know? So there’s this weird discomfort in that metamorphosis. It’s like busting out of the cocoon. But the cocoon is a brick wall.
Jillian Evelyn 8:36
Yeah, well, I think in your 20s there’s a lot of you trying to figure out what you’re doing and you’re trying to follow a path that has been laid out. It’s hard to go off that path and, like, not listen to those things and be like, “Oh, I should be doing this…” You don’t question it as much. It’s like, I need to do this because I need to do this to survive.
Michelle Khouri 8:56
You also think the consequences of breaking out of that are going to be like the worst, like, the highest stake thing in the world to do is break out of that when the reality is just not that. Once you break out of that you realize that, right?
Jillian Evelyn 9:10
Correct. And how I fell in my body is exactly how I started drawing the full-body figures. It was exactly how I felt. I just felt trapped. And really like I was, I don’t know, making myself smaller in a lot of places in my life.
Michelle Khouri 9:27
Like collapsing in on yourself.
Jillian Evelyn 9:29
Which happens a lot. Exactly, exactly. So it was natural and organic. But it also took a long time as well, because I think that I needed to go through all of those things in my 20s and have those life experiences that brought me to where I am.
Michelle Khouri 9:44
Right. Well, absolutely. And it’s such a personal experience. It’s such a personal expression. And that’s not always the case. I think we all see art and I certainly do for the most part as this very singular expression of the artist’s self. But sometimes art is made because it’s fun and expressive and bold. But then you come across artists whose work is very clearly a very raw expression of their own experiences. And that’s where I think yours fits into that category for me. And that’s why I think it’s so compelling. So tell us about, you know, you said how it was rebellious, you considered it a rebellion to go to art school. Why was that?
Jillian Evelyn 10:28
I come from a blue-collar family. Both of my parents, they met at GM factory because I’m from Michigan. So everyone in my family, all my aunts and uncles, all worked at either Ford or GM.
Michelle Khouri 10:40
Jillian Evelyn 10:41
And me being an artist, I was definitely the odd one out. Finances were always difficult because too, with my dad, like with the car industry, you get laid off. It was just up and down. So I wanted a job that was more secure. So I stopped drawing for a while and I was set on going to, going into pre-med or something. Like, I wanted to be a dermatologist, which is completely random.
Michelle Khouri 11:05
Right. But again, this idea of contorting yourself into, well, the one thing I know I want is going to be this education that gives me stability. It reminds me of the immigrant mentality. So you know, my parents are immigrants and it’s very much the same thing, where it’s like, do whatever job is going to land you the most money. And it doesn’t matter what your passion is, you know? And that’s, for passionate people, kind of torture.
Jillian Evelyn 11:31
They just wanted me to get by and I think with me going to art school, it really worried them that I would struggle in life.
Michelle Khouri 11:38
Jillian Evelyn 11:39
And so I think it was just, they worried. And then it took them a while, like me getting the job at Converse and whatnot, I think they started to see that I could do something with it. And then my dad would still call me and be like, “How’s business?”
Michelle Khouri 11:54
Jillian Evelyn 11:54
And “Are you doing okay?” And it’s funny. I think it’s just like a different world for them where they are still surprised that I’m able to make a living from it.
Michelle Khouri 12:03
Totally. And I get the same from my mom, you know? I feel like a parent’s number one job is to worry. And so I get that, but hey, what a happy medium right? What a happy compromise that you were able to actually go to converse and design for a living until you realize like not even this is going to satisfy me. Right?
Jillian Evelyn 12:24
Michelle Khouri 12:25
So what did you do at Converse? And you know, when you talk about shoe design, what does that actually mean and entail?
Jillian Evelyn 12:33
It was really fun. And it was a challenge because it was something… designing product wasn’t something that I was familiar with. So, you know, I got to travel a lot. You know, we’d go on inspiration trips and set the trends. I got to learn a lot about color through the job. It was a really great experience. But after a while, you know, when you’re surrounded by people that really love sneakers, you realize like you don’t. Yeah, it’s like, man I kind of feel like imposter syndrome. Like I was just in the wrong place and I knew it after a while.
Michelle Khouri 13:06
And so that’s when you took the leap. Finally, you were like, okay, I proved to myself that I could make a living as something other than a full-time artist, but it all continues to leave me unfulfilled. So you took the leap to become a full-time artist. Is that right?
Jillian Evelyn 13:21
No, no. Well, sort of. So I was at Converse for a little over four years. And then I tried to make the leap to do illustration. I did like toy packaging and different stuff and it was more illustrative, which I thought was the path I wanted to be on. And I end up not loving that job. I left there and tried to be freelance and it just wasn’t working. And my style was completely different then. You know, it was much cuter, whimsical. And, you know, I just hadn’t found my voice.
Michelle Khouri 13:52
I feel like unless you’ve actually gone through the process of finding your voice artistically, whatever your art form or medium is, you don’t really fully understand how somebody could land there. You know, like I look at your work,
Jillian Evelyn 14:04
Michelle Khouri 14:04
And I’m like, “How in the hell did she get there?”
Jillian Evelyn 14:09
Yeah, I think it took me to stop trying to find my style to find my style.
Michelle Khouri 14:13
Right. Yeah. It’s like love, right?
Jillian Evelyn 14:17
Michelle Khouri 14:18
Okay, so talk to us about your process. Because, you know, I feel like we could have hours long conversation just about your art. Why don’t you describe one of your more recent paintings in detail? And then tell us about the process of actually sitting down and painting it.
Jillian Evelyn 14:36
I always start with sketching. I think that’s, for me, one of the most important parts. So it’s always like really playing with shapes and figuring out a composition that is going to work. Shapes and negative space–that excites me. And then once I figure that out, I pick out a color palette. And I have a problem where it’s like I need to perfect the drawing for some reasons? There’s so many times where I’ll, like, go over and go over it. And if I like mess it up and there’s something weird…and like, I don’t even sell the drawings. The drawings are on cheap paper, but it’s more of like, I just want it to be right before I bring it to the painting stage. Some people like sketch books. I’m not a sketchbook person. I like loose paper. Like I’m always trying to get myself to work constantly in a sketchbook. But I use this Canson recycled sketch paper and I love it. And I have it in multiple sizes. You know, it’s more that you like, rip out. And like, I don’t ever keep them in that book. It’s like, I have a folder where I’ll put in, you know, my drawings and I just keep them that way.
Michelle Khouri 15:41
I’m the same. Yeah. I like loose paper because it’s just so freeing. You can just like grab a piece of paper and switch from, you know, sketching or brainstorming on the couch to the kitchen table to the bed and just take a little paper with you everywhere.
Jillian Evelyn 15:56
Yeah, exactly. It doesn’t seem as precious.
Michelle Khouri 15:59
Ooh yeah. That’s a really good point because then it’s not part of this like, you know, formalized collection of papers.
Jillian Evelyn 16:07
Exactly, exactly. I mean like, yeah, you can’t mess it up. You’re just having fun. Yeah. And I’ll also use my iPad that’s been…like Procreate has been a game changer which is nice like if I’m flying a traveling.
Michelle Khouri 16:20
And playing with colors I imagine becomes a much easier task.
Jillian Evelyn 16:24
Yeah, totally. Like sometimes, I’ll even draw everything on pencil then bring it on my iPad and do Colorway options before I paint.
Michelle Khouri 16:32
Do you have like a signature palette, of like, Jillian Evelyn always uses these and you pull those in?
Jillian Evelyn 16:39
No. So I feel like I’m one of the few artists that constantly changes their color palette. And I think that comes from me working in footwear. You know? Yeah. Every season, it was very exciting when you got a new color palette because by the end of the season, you were so sick of the same color palette, like you wanted something different. I think eventually I’ll land on one that I’m super happy with. And there’s colors that I always bring back. Like they’ll always have like, some kind of dusty pink.
Michelle Khouri 17:10
Oh, yes, I love that pink you use. So you sit down. You do your sketching You flush it out. You pick a color palette. And then where do you go from there?
Jillian Evelyn 17:23
Yeah, I’ll redraw the drawing on the canvas or wood, whichever I’m choosing to work on. And I’ll block everything out and then do the line work. So it’s like on the painting. But too, while I’m painting, there’s stuff that I’m still figuring out like sometimes I will change the colors as I go. Or I’ll take away or add on. Like, a lot of the shapes and graphic elements I don’t add to the end. Like there’s some stuff that I don’t have figured out, you know? And it’s more of a feeling that I just have to go with and instinct of how I want it to be. I allow space for the pieces to change while I’m working on them. Something will just feel different and need to change. And yeah.
Michelle Khouri 18:07
It won’t land as strongly in your, in your instinct? Is it sort of an instinctual feeling that you feel like, let’s say, in your stomach? That this isn’t right. I don’t like this anymore.
Jillian Evelyn 18:18
Michelle Khouri 18:19
I get the sense from you that you operate a lot from that place in your belly, right? That there’s like this, this space in your belly that your gut, right? There’s a reason people call it following your gut. Is that what the experience of art-making is like for you? A very instinctual sort of gut driven process?
Jillian Evelyn 18:38
Definitely. I have trouble separating myself from that. It’s a mix of gut and personal experience. Everything that I make has some of what I’m personally going through. And then yeah, a lot of its gut instinct when it comes to what I know I like and don’t like. And sometimes I can’t figure it out. Like, you know, it’s frustrating if I’m working on a piece and like, recently, I just had like a big breakthrough of how I want my work to change. And I feel like I was constantly like running into a wall of: I knew something and the pit of my stomach was wrong with my pieces. But it was nothing that someone could tell me. Like, no one could point that out.
Michelle Khouri 19:15
Jillian Evelyn 19:15
It was I had to just keep pushing and trying and eventually, you know, like, break through that wall and it will feel right.
Michelle Khouri 19:24
So you just recently had that breakthrough. What was it? Where has it led you?
Jillian Evelyn 19:29
I’m trying to simplify more. So I’m cutting out lines where I don’t feel like they’re necessary. So recently, in the newer pieces, if a face is butting up against her shoulder, I won’t draw that line. I want the viewer to put that line there themselves. Like it’s not necessary.
Michelle Khouri 19:48
Those two spaces end up merging together.
Jillian Evelyn 19:51
Yeah, but your eyes will correct it. At least my eyes do. Maybe other people’s don’t. But in my head, I’m like, okay. I’m trying just to have a more of a minimal view when I work on my work. And remember, like, less is more.
Michelle Khouri 20:05
Right so describe a recent painting. You just did a shared show, a collaboration with Kristen Liu-Wong.
Jillian Evelyn 20:14
Yeah. A duo show. Not A Flower Alone at Corey Helford.
Michelle Khouri 20:18
Yeah, so describe one of your favorite pieces that you exhibit in that show.
Jillian Evelyn 20:24
So one of my favorite pieces doesn’t even have a flower in it. Like our whole show is based on florography, which is the Victorian language of flowers. But I did this girl…also during the show was going through…my partner left took a job in Baltimore and moved out and we like broke up. So I was going through a lot of personal stuff during it and I’m not a smoker, but whenever I definitely have that, like, angsty art school kid in me where sometimes I’ll randomly pick up smoking. And I made this piece because I had one of those nights where I was just like, chain smoking for no reason and I don’t really smoke.
Michelle Khouri 21:02
Jillian Evelyn 21:03
So the next day I was like, “Ugh, I feel awful!” but,
Michelle Khouri 21:06
Very French and moody of you, you know?
Jillian Evelyn 21:08
Yeah, I know, right? Very predictable or whatever. But, uh, so yeah, I made this piece called “Wallflower,” and it’s this girl. She’s sitting crouched and she has, like, three cigarettes in her mouth. Yeah, there’s just some line work that I really love. Like on her leg. Her leg and her breast share the same line. That felt really right to me, where I was finding ways to simplify but, like, tell more with a line. And that’s one of my favorite pieces.
Michelle Khouri 21:41
Man, tell more with a line. I mean, if you aren’t an artist. That is something only an artist could do. You know what I mean? Tell a story with either the omission or inclusion of a line, or placement of a line.
Jillian Evelyn 21:55
Michelle Khouri 21:56
So you know, there’s a lot of feminine symbology also. Well, I perceive there to be a lot of feminine symbology and also a lot of feminism in your work. Something as simple as showing pubic hair and underarm hair in a figure that’s contorted uncomfortably. And perhaps her eyes are wide, showing that she is like really uncomfortable, but trying to hold still and trying to do this contortion thing. All of that, to me, speaks volumes about the woman’s experience. So what does femininity mean to you?
Jillian Evelyn 22:30
So I think that when I draw the figures, I try to come from a space of what it actually feels like to be in a female body and a lot of times, as you know, women are sexualized. But you, as a woman, you don’t feel sexy. And when you’re bent in these places, it’s like you feel very much the opposite. Like you are going to get bulges in weird places. And yeah, maybe you forgot to shave. Like you’re not in the space of presenting yourself for someone. You’re being like your authentic self and what it is to be in this blob of the body.
Michelle Khouri 23:08
That’s powerful. You know, foreseeably, you’ll look back at all of your work and it will be sort of a memoir. It’ll tell the story of how you felt at any given time in your life.
Jillian Evelyn 23:20
Oh, definitely. Yeah. Even the show was really funny since I was going through the breakup. All of the flowers that I did are wilting. They’re kind of like drooped and not…
Michelle Khouri 23:30
Jillian Evelyn 23:30
Yeah, for the most part. And when I looked at the show, I was like, well, that’s very telling.
Michelle Khouri 23:36
Jillian Evelyn 23:37
Michelle Khouri 23:38
And it’s very real. It’s very raw. Those are the seasons of life, right? We do. We feel wilted sometimes. And then we come back to life. And then we’re sort of in this in-between space. And depending on how woo-woo you are, and if you are woo-woo like me you’re pretty woo-woo, then you believe that these artworks carry the energy of their creator. So I do think that your work comes off as powerful because you are zoned into it and you’re feeling through it. It’s almost like you can feel that person’s spirit through their work. But let’s not dive off the deep end too far. Jillian, this has been such a pleasure. If our Cultured Crew wants to check in with you and see some of your work and find out where you’re going to be showing at next. Where can they find that information?
Jillian Evelyn 24:29
Mostly my Instagram. That’s where I keep things updated the most. So it’s Jillian_Evelyn.
Michelle Khouri 24:36
Jillian Evelyn 24:36
Yeah. And I have shows coming up. I’ll be in Australia in January. And then I have a solo show next year in LA in the fall with Subliminal Projects.
Michelle Khouri 24:49
Oh, that’s amazing. I’m so excited for your success and I can’t wait to keep watching out for you. And of course, you can see Jillian’s work on culturedpodcast.com. Thank you so much for spending time with us today. We really appreciate you, Jillian.
Jillian Evelyn 25:04
Yeah, of course. Thank you so much. I had a great time.
Michelle Khouri 25:14
I mean, wow. That was really fun. I especially love hearing about someone’s process when it’s such a personal form of self-expression like Jillian’s. So you know where to find her and I hope that you end up loving her work as much as I do. And until our next journey into the unknown, keep it classy. Keep it curious. Keep it Cultured.
Michelle Khouri 23:45
Visit CulturedPodcast.com for show notes and subscription links. The Cultured Podcast is a production of my podcast production company FRQNCY Media. I’m the host Michelle Khouri. Enna Garkusha is our fabulous producer. Becca Godwin is our wonderful associate producer. Our sound engineers are Cooper Skinner and DonTae Hodge. And we’re recording at ListenUp Audio in Atlanta, Georgia.