Jana Brike is a remarkable storyteller. Narrative is the very heart and soul of her work. Much akin to the tribal folklore of Jana’s Latvian heritage, she weaves her encrypted narratives filled with haunting mystery and dramatic intrigue. Brike’s beautifully crafted oil paintings read like visual poetry. Rich in metaphor and symbolism, they are brimming with tales of growth and transformation. Jana is deeply inspired by her own growth and transformative life experiences, in particular her unique (but simultaneously, in many ways universal) trials and tribulations, which occurred between childhood and womanhood. The characters portrayed in her imagery reside within adolescent realms, where they bridge the gap between innocence and experience, while exuding the essence of flowering maturation. It is through the creation of these characters and the stories they tell, that Jana invites us to join her on her explorations of the self and her search for the true nature of the feminine spirit.
Jana Brike was born in 1980 in Latvia, during it’s Soviet occupation. Having undergone rigorous academic training from an early age, she was already exhibiting her artwork on the international stage by the age of fifteen. Jana’s work now resides in collections around the world.
WOW x WOW is honoured to be able to bring you this exclusive and incredibly in-depth interview with Jana, in which she discusses many of the thoughts and feelings behind her fabulous imagery.
Hi Jana, thanks so much for making time to join us for a chat, we really appreciate it. If you could please start us off by introducing yourself, touching on anything you feel has been relevant to shaping Jana Brike the artist?
Jana Brike is a constant work in progress, as a human and as an artist. All that is relevant to me individually becomes relevant to me as an artist.
My life story, the way I was raised up and taught, all the circumstances and the visual imagery I grew up and got influenced by, were quite different from elsewhere. My home country Latvia was at the time a little occupied country within Soviet Union. I saw the Union collapse during quite a conscious age. Thus, the world views, rules and values I was taught and demanded to comply to when I was 8 were very very different from those I learned when I was 12, and then again very different again at 18, when the illusions about the newly acquired freedom of the country didn’t seem to hold true. It did make me confront the big questions of life quite directly at a very early age (such as: what is going on here? where is the truth within all these contrary teachings? what is it to be a human? what is it to live a life? what is the freedom?), and not trust any ready-made answer I am given by one system or another, but search for my own answers, quite ruthlessly in my own heart, based on my own experiences.
I am telling my life story as something that shapes my art, but at the same time I feel like the real humanness lies somewhere deeper and more profound than that, so it is hard for me to incorporate much of real cultural reference in my art. The way we experience ourselves not as a mental image but as a living breathing body, is one of my focal interests, or rather the tension and contradiction between these two.
You started your formal training at 10 years old. How do you feel that such a rigorous program at such a young age affected your artistic development?
On the one hand, there is never a wrong age for doing what you love to do. On the other hand, it is possible I would have done much better later on emotionally, if I spent my childhood time frolicking around, letting my fantasy run wild, playing games, as all children do, instead of cramming my brain with the chemical compositions and properties of natural paint pigments, and attributes of a well-formed layout of a painting, etc. Primary school education is based on too much disciplined brain-work and not enough on play and discovery, and the art school I went to continued in this direction. It was all about teaching skills, techniques and the correct principles of very strictly academic painting, and not so much about focusing on one’s vision or developing and keeping one’s unique voice strong. I had to un-learn a lot later. Actually, much of what I do with my art is quite against what I have been taught for countless years.
Of course, I also had my periods of doubts. After finishing the professional art high school, at the age of 17, I worked in a publishing house, made ads and did some web page design and programming. I just wasn’t sure I could have made a valid decision for the rest of my life at the age of 10. I needed a break. But I still painted almost daily. Then I went to study in the art academy, and afterwards became a full-time artist. So it is my life, not really just my profession.
How do you approach the creative process? Talk us through how you construct a painting. Do have a concrete idea of what it will look like before you get started? What type of reference do you use?
It actually differs very much from series to series, or even from painting to painting. Normally I will have an idea in my mind of a particular visual image, and most importantly a feeling I want to convey. Then I will start gathering together some visual material, such as the objects I need, along with photographs of models and landscapes. I do use photo reference, but never simply re-paint on canvas just one ready-made photo. When my pre-imagined vision is put on canvas, sometimes I just cannot capture the feeling correctly, and then I paint over parts of it, add new details, glaze over with a different colour, and so on. Sometimes, so much so that almost nothing of the original image is left visible. The main thing for me personally is not to create a pleasing image (which would be so simple), but to get the right atmosphere and feeling into the painting. And in that regard, the process is just never straightforward or predictable. Also, a feeling is such a fleeting, changing, growing thing, that I’m not even sure if capturing a feeling within an artwork as something solid and constant is even possible. And so in that sense, I can agree with the opinion that a painting can never be ‘finished’, it can just be abandoned at one point.
The characters in your art have a childlike appearance and display a definite innocence. However, at the same time, many of them give the impression that they know more than they are letting on. Is the relationship between childhood innocence and the maturity of adulthood of particular interest to you? How do you approach this balancing act in your work?
I very rarely use actual child models, and in those rare occasions when I do, I feel like the paintings lose some of their inner tension. Almost all my models are in their thirties, I distort the proportions of their faces and bodies while I paint.
Innocence is a complicated concept. Viewing innocence as simple-mindedness or naiveness, or being undeveloped and infantile at whatever age, or ignorant in some of the basic ways of life is uninteresting to me. It feels like we live in an odd time of the ‘lost innocence’, where the grand illusions that our forefathers, or even we ourselves grew up with, are shattering and falling apart. Which is wonderful in my eyes. Although I feel there is this longing in society to have our precious ignorance back, as if life was better back then, within the safety of illusion. Such innocence is seen as this rare thing that you can only recognize once you are standing outside of it, from the viewpoint of the one who has already lost it, where you can observe through your own experience, it’s vulnerability and fleetingness, foresee the pitfalls and perils and rapid ending in one way or another.
It is of course sweet and touching, but what interests me is a different thing completely, not innocence, as opposed to experience. I don’t know what it’s called. Let’s call it mature innocence. Goodness, human kindness and most of all love. Also, living with open hearted and spontaneous immediacy, living out your own wild, true nature, unmasked honesty to your own self first of all, as opposed to pretentiousness and artificiality. I see all of this as a mature innocence. And there is a great strength and uncorrupted self-power in it. It doesn’t belong to childhood, or at least not exceptionally. I actually see it become stronger and more touching with age and more experience. When you have seen the worst humans are capable of, but you still believe in goodness, still trust, still fall in love over and over again, deeper and more profound love than ever – it requires insane strength, and it is the most beautiful thing in universe. And I do see it as innocence.
Sexuality is a prevalent theme you like to explore. Please give us a little insight into how you approach this, keeping in mind the fact that your protagonists are so childlike?
What I paint is very, very subjective and emotional. For the most part, it is the self. The self discovery, the self as a free wild-child, the growing pains.
Maybe it is a childhood that I never had, for I as a child, and later as a teen, I almost didn’t feel myself in my body at all, except for the times when I could play in the country house, swim in rivers, run barefoot in forests and roll naked in grass. Most of the education and cultural training was about sitting neatly in my trappings, developing my mind and not expressing my true opinions. I felt shame and guilt about almost everything, my body included. I did everything as required and not as my heart told me to. I objectified my body for the eyes of society and for it’s acceptance, while I myself, could not breathe in it. I grew up with a very distorted body image. I vividly remember when I was about 10 and a teacher casually remarked that I was growing into a beautiful girl. I was sure in all seriousness and with a heart-breaking pain that she must be publicly mocking and ridiculing me.
The other thing I felt so hard being in my early teens, during the early years of puberty, was that everything concerning the development of the internal sexuality of a young girl was a taboo subject, that nobody dared to look upon in an accepting and loving way. If anything, the context was just shameful and dirty. So you’re supposed to be this completely asexual thing, until all of a sudden puberty is over and the age strikes 18, and the societal pressure is that you will overnight turn into a healthy young woman who’s suddenly required to be sexy in order to be liked and accepted, and whose body is objectified for the pleasure of others.
Honestly, when men started to see my body as a sexual object, I just felt utter bewilderment, if not shock, if not shame. I just felt so disconnected. The first times I was truly, deeply in love, I would just turn around and run, and never talk to that person again, in complete embarrassment of how they had made me feel.
Through my paintings, in many ways, I have re-lived that growing up time. I breathe myself into the body, feel it’s heartbeat, see it grow into this beautiful, fragile thing, discover it’s inborn nature, discover it’s natural sexuality. Not as an objectified ‘sexy’ thing for another’s again, not even as intimacy with another. ‘Another’ comes much later on when you’re in harmony with yourself. I feel sexuality as a very powerful inborn force that connects us to the land, to nature, and to natural down-to-earth creativity. The relationship to your own earthly body and the forces in it and it’s natural cycles. The self-exploration in the most sacred sense of the word. Every impulsive bodily activity where your heart and guts are present.
I do realize though that my work, as personal as it is to me, will be taken by the viewers and put within a certain cultural and individual paradigm. But I find it somehow very crooked and disturbing that we put such a taboo on a young girl trying to find her own inborn natural sexuality on her own and establish a loving relationship to her own growing body in a very personal way, in accordance to her own nature cycles and in a safe accepting loving environment. But at the same time, we are comfortable with a fifteen year old fashion model posing in adult clothing as this objectified and fetishized sexual fantasy for the onlooker, either for an adult male to drool over, or for an adult female to try to equal. Or, that some so called healthy member of society would look at an image of a playful naked child running around (even if it’s just in a simple, beautiful painting), as this potential sex object, and not just as this little free beautiful wild being that radiates plain love and harmony to be within its own body.
Storytelling and narrative are at the heart of your creative process. In your opinion, what are some of the most important ingredients that go into making a successful visual narrative?
I approach my artworks more like visual poems, not so much as a story with a linear narrative. The mood, the atmosphere and the feeling are my main areas of focus. I am interested in storytelling in a much broader sense. Storytelling as a basic form of how the human experience transpires, how this ‘person’ that we perceive as ‘self’, is for most part, just a story that we perpetually tell to ourselves. About self. About life. About everything. And we can change the ‘person’ through just changing the story that we tell. There is just one step from being a victim of our own life, to being a hero of our own life. That is part of my very, very personal story behind a lot of my work, the children in crushing waves included.
The key elements of any good story involves new experiences, new discoveries, and a definite growth and transformation of the protagonist. A ‘things are as they are’ statement with no solution and no transformation process hardly constitutes a good story in my opinion. So the growth notion is always present, in almost all my work.
The purpose of life as I see it is in expansion into something greater and grander than before, and in your unique experiences in the process. Almost all internal pain comes from this gap, from realizing where you currently stand in relation to where you imagine you want to stand in the picture of a bigger and better version of you. All pain is grow-up pain. Every story, from a myth or old fairy tale to a contemporary drama, is about this expansion into a grander you, or about some step in this process. Everybody just grows differently. Some quietly, introspectively and peacefully, some with a big bang, some with great resistance, fear or just very painfully.
I paint this adolescence – not really a child any more, but not yet an adult – which is mid-transformation point in the growth process, quite literally. I also often paint them frozen in mid action, like a stop-frame, which of course can evoke a fantasy about ‘before’ and ‘after’. But sometimes it is unnecessary. Just one gaze can tell the most profound, rich and deep stories. Just look into a lover’s eyes.
As we move through life we continue to grow and change. In what ways have you seen your work evolve since you started down the path of being a professional artist?
I actually sometimes feel as if I as a human, change much faster than my self-expression in art can keep up with. Especially lately. I try to take time off work to synchronize these processes.
My work has grown to be much lighter in mood and colour, more beautiful, more harmonious, and so have I. Not because I would deny the hardships in life or by engaging in some escapism, which is often attributed to an artist’s work. I have just grown to love life, see beauty in small simple things, appreciate what I have over crying over what I don’t, make decisions from the point of love over the point of fear, and overall appreciate the time of my experience in this life, every single second of it. I don’t want to waste it on things that are pointless, worthless and personally hurtful to me.
You know, in many ways I see the human mind as a garden. Many things grow there – breath-taking flowers, cannibal weeds, and delicious fruits. Our attention and time is the fertilizer and the watering can. Nobody else is responsible for what flourishes there. If I once used to water and fertilize whatever falls in my hands – because it’s ‘truth’, it’s there! – then now I’ve become terribly picky and feed just what is worth growing, and worth living for. So that is the main change, my point of focus.
Maybe my work has lost some of the literal environmental contrast. The juxtaposition of much pain versus a little beauty. But right now, as it has changed, to me it is much more like personal icons, it is much more conscious of both, light and dark. The dark is still there, it’s just getting illuminated now.
The characters in your work often appear within rural settings. Can you talk to us about this side of your art and your relationship with nature?
I grew up in rural surroundings, it is simply my life. I grew up in an ugly Soviet scientist village with research institutes of Biology, Chemistry and Physics, where my parents worked, with a botanical garden and a wild forest right behind the house. That forest is where I played, and it lives in me in some archetypal way. I dream of it often.
My most favourite memories are from my time with the grandmother in the summer in the actual countryside. I didn’t put on any footwear for weeks, and washed in a river in a forest. Granny taught us a lot about the ways of nature and it’s cycles. About wild plants, about their healing properties, how to collect food like berries and wild mushrooms in the forest and how to prepare them. I felt magic in these things. Getting acquainted with the planet with all my senses wide open in a highly perceptive way, quite unlike just cramming my brain with bare facts in school. I felt this magic, although these were just pragmatic survival lessons from my grandparents who survived world wars, occupations and more.
It has also taught me values. Maybe my values are a little naïve, maybe those of collective consensus are, but I cannot see how the wealth of a place can be determined by its capacity to drill oil mid-desert and by exterminating everything living all around. Or how the wealth of a place on some rocky cliffs mid-sea can be determined by its ability to transfer virtual money from computer to computer multiplying its amount in the process.
The wealth of a place in my eyes is in it’s clean air and it’s abundance of clean water. In it’s ability to grow clean food in natural fertile soil. The fertile topsoil growth can take up to thousand years per inch in thickness, yet for us, it takes less than a decade to deplete and destroy it completely. This is value in my opinion. I do not want to live to a time when a lab grown biomass that hasn’t seen the sun rays and felt the touch of rain, is consumable to humans. Rural environments are the most precious, most beautiful, most vulnerable and valuable thing.
I have tried to paint the feeling of a big city once or twice. I do admire the energy and pace of big cities. I like to visit them with my exhibitions. But I really dislike that feeling of overwhelming collective consciousness and often crazy irrational mass consensus that seems to rule there. It is hard for me to breathe. It is hard to distinguish my own thoughts from those of others. Also, I am not a fan of the super fast experiences and connections to other people that are simply junk-food for the heart. I naturally immerse on a sort of hypersensitive ‘telepathic’ level with another. I read feelings more than listen to the actual chatter. In a bigger crowd I get a perceptive system overload and shut down, literally. I’ve been handling it a little better lately, and have been more aware, with less social anxiety. But still, overcrowded cities will never become my love and interest.
As a Latvian native, what impact has your home country had on shaping your art?
Latvia is a tiny country with the population of less than 2 million. My first language is Latvian, which is quite distinctive and ancient.
The country as a political entity has been a variable thing, even through my not so long lifetime. I was born in an occupied country in the Soviet Union, then there was a separate independent country Latvia with suddenly raging capitalisms and now it is a part of the European Union. The subconscious of Latvia has been so full of stories about occupations and victimhood for hundreds of years. The values and identity are still stored in the weirdest of places.
What I see as valuable goes deeper than occupation stories though, and is in the language and the tribal folklore that has been passed on from generation to generation for hundreds of years, in the form of visual sign language or little cryptic poems, for example. It offers a very distinctive and different world view, which is very motherly, grounded and soothing. Where there is no competition for a better place under the sun, where there is no hierarchy, where everybody and everything is quite equally in the very, very centre of their own life, not as an ego but as a beingness. Where every experience binds body, mind and soul. Where you do not split your life and actions into profane on working days and spiritual on Sundays, but every single minute (either you work, play, rest or celebrate) is spirit infused. Even the hard work, which is seen as very grounded and tied to nature cycles, lasts from sunrise to sunset, and is done with a song. I cannot even begin to give you the smallest of insights. But it all resonates with me very strongly.
Do the interpretations viewers offer about your work ever end up influencing what you produce? What are your thoughts about the dialogue and conversation cycle which is created between the artist and viewer?
A painting offers such a very broad range of possible interpretations, as it is just one still frame, and all the rest of the story is up to the viewer, and I cannot be responsible for everything someone would project upon it. A work of art, any work of art in my opinion, is to give the viewer a seemingly external trigger, a cause to emotionally relate. The way people relate or not, is just so very much based on their own experiences, cultural paradigms, belief models and so on. And sometimes the emotional reactions are equally strong but completely contrary, even about one and the same painting. It just feels as if I create mirrors for some inner being of the viewer. So the auditory becomes a very integral part for the meaning to reveal itself. The paintings where I have my creatures play on their own, have their own subjective emotional or bodily experiences – it is all me, all my internal world and I cannot even theoretically employ the position of an external voyeur when I work on them. How could I? So I cannot know what the reaction will be, and often it surprises me very much. There is a part of viewers who approach an artwork the same way I do while I work. They relate emotionally, look at my creatures subjectively and incorporate them into their own world as internal symbols of certain experiences of their own life. But some on the other hand take the position of this remote objectified voyeur, as if they are participating in the scene of a painting as someone external, staring at something outside of themselves, a position that is impossible for me. So in that way, the little child-hero archetype character I have painted is not playing and exploring on its own, but it now has a dark faceless auditory following it around. And some part of this auditory occasionally gets rather disturbed by what they perceive. I on the other hand find myself quite disturbed by their perception and presence, for I never set an intention to challenge or disturb anyone.
What I observe is that we are using any means of conversation (either a talk, or art, or anything else) to reflect back to us just what our beliefs about life already are. A conversation with another cannot literally change those beliefs, unless we are internally already halfway to changing them. I felt it so keenly for a long time, so now I don’t argue with anyone any more.
I honestly try to be as sincere in my work as I can and touch the subjects that are important to me personally. Even with this approach I cannot convince everybody, and it is foolish to try. I do realize I am not able to stand on my head in as many ways as to please everybody who passes by and offers a comment on my life and work. I could bake the most delicious and juicy cakes in the universe and beyond, but there could still be people who lack any kind of sweet tooth at all. So I will always paint for ‘my’ people, who I love very dearly. The ones far or near, the ones I know and those I don’t, all who can relate. And I don’t care much about the rest.
What’s next for Jana Brike?
I have been, and am working on some little animated visual poems. I have made some sculptures and installations. I wish I had more time for that. For I love my gallery exhibitions of paintings dearly, too, and my painting process is very very time consuming.
Right now I am working on a solo exhibition that will open in Copro Gallery in Los Angeles this November. It will be all about love. Awkward, genuine, fragile, keen, clumsy love on a hot summer’s day.