“Our dreams are a second life.” ~Gerard de Nerval
By Jami Mills
On September 9, claudia222 Jewell’s Spirit installation closed after a spectacular and much-acclaimed 7-month run in Second Life, so this seemed a good time to reprint Jami Mills’ enlightening interview, first published in the July issue of rez magazine.
I’ve waited patiently to incorporate the word “phantasmagoria” into one of my articles, but nothing I’ve ever come across in Second Life has warranted its use. That is, until now. Claudia222 Jewell’s latest mesh installation, “Spirit”, which occupies an entire sim, is now open to the public at Art Screamer. This ambitious work, sometimes garish and disturbing, but always compelling, is packed with forms reminiscent of her earlier work — a multitude of shifting phantasms (replete with self-referential images of Claudia herself) and sensuous alien plant forms populating a dream-like, primordial and seemingly hostile world. If you haven’t yet experienced the fully-realized imaginings of a 3-D installation artist at the height of her powers, then I urge you to drop what you’re doing (please finish this article first!) and take just one little peek. I know full well that, as with my last visit, a peek can turn into hours of blissful exploration.
The fine textures and attention to detail that have earned Claudia a well-deserved reputation as one of the most technically proficient 3-D installation artists in Second Life are on full display in “Spirit”. Claudia is doing things with mesh technology that are simply breathtaking. And the fantasy–laden imagery filling “Spirit” represents a continuing evolution of other themes first sounded in works like “Parallel Worlds” and “The Path”. I’m as curious as you must be to know what makes this brilliant artist tick. So, let me introduce you to the artist herself and let her words illuminate her unique work.
Jami Mills: Thank you for joining me today, Claudia. I know our readers will enjoy this opportunity to learn something about the artist behind your dazzling and original work. To get started, please describe for our readers your childhood and how and when art first enchanted you?
Claudia222 Jewell: I was born in Melbourne, Australia to Swiss parents. We traveled around the world when I was three and a half. I have a strong visual memory. I always drew a lot, and not so much looking at things while I did. I remember my teacher asking my mother to come in because she was a little disturbed when she saw my drawing of me and my family. She expected that we would all draw squares with stick arms and legs, but I drew everything – even what they wore that day – the hair and shoes and real arms and legs. My mother was laughing for days. She was worried that I had done something wrong. So for me to work with my eyes and hands was always my world – the creating. No other thing ever got my full attention. I have been to many places, but I stay mostly in Amsterdam, Melbourne and Zurich. It’s my personal Bermuda Triangle. But I have other places I always go time and again. I call them stopovers 🙂
JM: So you’re a city girl at heart.
CJ: I think I like the idea of being in the more natural places now. It’s just common that when we are young we want to live fast in cities where we have all we need. To make a storm – and money too.
JM: You wouldn’t miss the stimulation of the city?
CJ: Yes. I like both, like we all probably do. Apartment in the city and a nice house in the country shared with loved ones. I think that’s a very basic dream we all have for the balance.
JM: One commentator has likened your work to that of another Swiss surrealist artist, H.R. Giger (of Alien fame). What were your earliest influences and do they still find their way into your current projects?
CJ: I think he was one. I used to love to draw with just a single pencil for hours and I came up with very similar shapes, I think due to the fact that the pencil is so small. It would have been different if I would have used markers, but the creaminess of pencils was just super to set the tone of things and go surreal and let intuition move me. H. R. Giger is very well known, but still somehow many say he’s no artist. Maybe because he is just himself and doesn’t really care much to fit in the scene of acclaimed artists there. I like that about him.
JM: He goes his own way.
CJ: He used cutouts from the metal industry to make all the patterns. It was an ingenious way to make details with whatever was around. In the end, for me creating should be a straight line from your mind and heart to the object we make. I am also more into just doing what I have to do, yes. I never really liked the ‘90s art scene. It was a weird time and I didn’t want to be connected to art. There was a lot of money around. Many just used connections and did work in 20 minutes, talked about it a lot, and in the end, sold it to a friend of your parents, who invested in us like we were a pony in a race.
JM: Smiles. Like a commodity.
CJ: I can’t say I admire that time. Now I think with the economy depressed, art is still a good investment, but people do buy things more because they like it, just in case it never makes money 🙂 I think I spend too much time on paintings to sell them to a heartless person that puts them in a vacuum box for later.
JM: Art needs to be exhibited and enjoyed every day, I think.
CJ: I believe so too, when we count all sorts of art. I am more visual but many have music, dance, theater or other ways to express creativity. Some write. Without it we would be left to watch soccer and drink beer 🙂
JM: *Laughs* You seem particularly enamored with the natural world, and especially with its various flying species…butterflies, dragonflies and your own fanciful airborne creations, some newly emerging from their cocoons. Does winged flight have a particular significance to you as a metaphor?
CJ: Haha! I tried to make creatures like plants and insect mixed together. We overlook them, squish them, feel almighty, superior. But when I grew up, I studied them so closely. I crawled through forests and looked at them all and saw such beauty in them. Not many ever try to imagine how life would be in their position. We need to understand how life is for others in order to develop a personal bond. We don’t care much as long as it’s peeled and finely chopped on a plate. It’s horrible for me the idea that we just raise animals in the most inexpensive way, just to eat them before they even reach maturity and never see nature. All this has a price. Our need for things that are cheap is a handicap. I hope we don’t have many more scares and worries where we get sick eating cows that were fed dead ground up sheep. Quite sad, when we do not look closely. That’s why animals are very welcome in my mind. All of them. Even the ones that make some scream when they see them.
JM: Your work has an almost prehistoric quality to it, as if we’ve witnessed the very origins of some fantastical world. The forms are primordial and elemental. Almost everyone notes their “organic” nature. Some of the enormous dangling plants resemble the carnivorous Nepenthes (tropical pitcher plant) and others resemble its meat-eating cousin, the Venus Flytrap). Still others appear to have vaguely sexual cravings. They all compete for attention in a miasma of other animal, vegetable and mineral offerings, including the occasional green-scaled dragon. You create a world both menacing and seductive. Should we be afraid as we wander around your art? Will the plant tendrils caress or strangle?
CJ: Haha! I think I never considered it art. That’s more what others say. I prefer to say I create and learn. SL is such a neat world, filled with secret desires of people. I think for me it’s quite natural to go in the opposite direction. I can’t stand everything nice. I like to have the ugly parts and the beautiful parts mixed. It’s a much stronger sensation we get from it. We remember it much more than just beauty. I avoided always making things that fit the wishes of people here. I would much more love it if they opened up and experimented here, instead of buying things they can’t have in RL – if they went into their subconscious minds and let go of conventions – experienced things where they can be sure no damage would happen to them. Sure, some will think I make scary things, but I maybe showed with the plant what most people fall victim to in SL. It was more a kind of parody. I base all I do on organic shapes. It’s like an inner drive. I can’t fight it. I am very into anatomical forms and organic shapes. No geometrics ever interested me or caught my eye. That’s just a cheaper way for us to build in RL.
JM: There is little that is technological or “modern” about your worlds. Do you herald the digital revolution as a true advancement or a threat?
CJ: Good question. I never touched a computer until 2002, and I am still a social misfit. I refuse to use social platforms (besides here). I do worry about it, but I also embrace it. I try to understand how to use new media, like 3-D software to create. I am addicted to it. But deep down I think we can live in both worlds at the same time – be into nature and have a computer at home. It’s always the way we use things. Like money, power, love. All can be potentially bad.
JM: Many of the characters populating your works are composites of humans and animals….centaurs and other half-human, half-animal creatures. Are they metaphors for the tension between our baser appetites and more civilized behaviors, or do they represent for you the harmonious union of humankind and the natural world?
CJ: I think I’ve always done that. It makes me see creatures. I see loved ones in my paintings. I’ve done it many times. There is a lot of mythology also. It’s hard to say the specific reason. I just wish we would associate more with other inhabitants in this world and understand we all need to make it work out. Like bees. See? We need them. I know they sting – I am even allergic to them – but I love them for that. I know without them, nothing would be fertile. There’d be nothing to eat for the animals we eat or us. It is a huge challenge to do their job 🙂
JM: The giant bumble bees scare me too.
CJ: Haha! Yes, they’re loud ^^, but I find them kind of plump and cute. Haha ^^
JM: You created another world altogether in your segment of “The Path”. Your structures reminded me of the Cambodian temples of Angkor Wat. For those readers who missed this amazing collaboration, “The Path” was an “exquisite corpse” work by some of SL’s most prominent artists, Bryn Oh, Rose Borchovski, Desdemona Enfield, Douglas Story, Colin Fizgig, Maya Paris, Scottius Polke and Marcus Inkpen. How did you manage being part of a collaborative process like “The Path”, and would you do it again?
CJ: I think I would. The group of people that did it was for me the whole reason. I love to work with others but do my own part. I admire all the others and we did very well. I encountered no arguments or any weirdness during the making. Everyone did their thing, and when I saw it all in a piece, I was amazed. It worked so well, showing so many different minds the character went through. Sure, I would work with all of them again one day when I consider to do more art-based things again. “The Path” was like working on a surreal dream with others – using my abilities to create an environment for a story character. When I make a play with others like “The Path”, it is a little less emotionally driven – we focused like a custom creator to gain a goal. But when we are free and just can let go, the deeper elements come out. I never speak about the meaning. I prefer it when people just feel something. That’s better for me. We see what we want to see and we feel what we want to feel.
JM: You have described your work as a “letting go of a long grieving, to let the spirits pass, and start new in peace”. Your work stunningly explores themes of rebirth. The spirit of one character dramatically rises from its corpse in “Spirit”. Do you draw on Eastern beliefs of reincarnation?
CJ: I can’t say I am a religious person, but I have an ethic, and an inner belief that we want them to go in peace. A dream is like an everyday tiny death for me. I drift off into another world in my dreams. It seems quite natural to me that death would be quite similar to sleep. I went to India alone when I was 18, and it made a deep impression on me, like time travel. There were so many different smells in the cities – some nice, some horrid. I learned they have different gods they pray to. They said one god is too busy to listen to all of our problems. I found it brilliant. I’m not sure, but I think I can’t see it as a one-god thing. For me, all here is a wonder in itself. We just rarely notice things. Our lives are usually busy and we’re always in need of time rushing from one appointment to the next. It’s easy to forget that there is something else here besides ourselves and the favorite shopping we think we need. For me, to create is like the opposite of consuming. Yes, I think seeing India broke my heart, made me scared, made me feel like in a fairytale, and made me just feel like I traveled into a totally different time. I’ve never felt it again that strong since. We call it adventure, because we were afraid and had big open eyes. But it was sure a trip I will never forget. Maybe we need hope, where our rational minds can’t make up a good reason to keep on doing the hard life, but I realized that we accept what’s normal to us, and in their system of belief, it is karma. Nobody demonstrates on the street for more rights. It is the acceptance of their destiny that was so different than what I’ve seen in Western cultures. I saw such beautiful people in rags, dirty brown walls with eaten away posters, but such a grace around them. It’s hard to explain. It was mythical or magical. The feeling I brought back was incredible. It makes us see our normal life so differently.
JM: Your works are technically very sophisticated and you have successfully incorporated mesh elements into your recent work. How do you find working with mesh and do you see it as the future of the virtual arts?
CJ: It is a dream come true for me, it really is. I did start with sculpts because I was told it’s soon going to be mesh here, but I couldn’t wait. Mesh has its trickiness. It’s very hard to do all yourself from beginning to end and make it render okay here. We do have land impacts and no matter how much we like something, we do need to make sure it doesn’t fill a sim too fast. I think that it enables us to have much more freedom to create here, to show how we work also. Many always use prefabricated sculpties. It was a format that was just useful in here. Mesh is a medium that’s used in games, movies, digital media. I see it as a challenge; it is harder for me to make something I like. Technique is very much needed to do it well. And the programs aren’t easy to understand either. But I am sure some, like me for example, will bloom in some ways. To see what they’ve made rigged inside here is an experience I wish for all to have. Compare it to making your own cake. The smell out of the oven – the choice how to decorate it. It’s freedom. We all can go on building with prims or sculpties. Mesh is just an extra that can enable some to get further into a new medium one day.
JM: Our readers would be very interested in the technical aspects of your work. Without revealing any trade secrets, what software and other technical tools do you use in your creations?
CJ: I use Zbrush most, but do retopo of my models in other software and uv unwraps. I felt like I was in an airplane cockpit at first, with all my bearings lost. After awhile, I saw more and more ways to understand the process. I still have so much to learn. I try to use Maya now also, and used Blender often for rigs and other parts. Blender is well documented and has many tutorials online made by users – very good ones – but it is a little hard for a creative person to be confronted with an interface that has too many words, numbers or terms they’ve never heard of. Now some free programs, like Sculptris, get people’s passions into manipulating in a clay-style way. I made a notecard with some links for people that asked me. It’s best to get free programs and just explore a little, and do step-by-step beginner tutorials, as silly as that sounds. It’s the best way to get a little understanding.
JM: Someone did about a 10-minute machinima of your work – to the soundtrack of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”.
CJ: Yes. That was jjccc, He’s an artist himself. He did a few and he’s great – so different. He made them and never told me a word until later after I had just seen them by accident. I couldn’t make machinimas like the ones of my work here. They’re amazing. Some even made songs themselves and were singing. I realized how much they had love for it that way. It was really nice to see it how they saw it. It becomes a new creation. I think like some write and some make machinimas. Others make content art, play SL gigs here or sell things. We see this virtual world differently than the way just visitors do. We all have a drive to make things better, in our ability. Also all the photographs. So many ways to create here. Even drama we can have here ^^. Just no smell or touch. I love SL. It made me learn new things. Who knows what we’ll do next year, but I do see why people like it here.
JM: As a prolific and successful virtual artist, what do you see as the future for virtual artists? Is the picture rosy or bleak?
CJ: It’s up to us. I feel we have some tools. Who will use them and see them as a gift, time will tell. But I do believe that we will see better graphic rendering, better creations, and new ways to express. I hope one day to make a RL installation, using characters I made in a kinetic way. So visitors not familiar with virtual worlds can walk into a space and accidentally animate creatures on a screen with renderings I set. Much was not very easy for us to get experienced with making 3-D, but SL is a great place to start to understand the basics of game or film-related methods and techniques. We probably would have always wondered how it’s done. My favorites in SL are the ones who experiment and find ways to make something special. No matter what medium they prefer to use. We all try.
JM: The Lindens have been faulted for not supporting the arts enough in SL, but through the LEA (Linden Endowment for the Arts), which supported “The Path”, they have made attempts to help artists. What more, if anything, do you think the Lindens could do to help nurture the virtual arts community?
CJ: Umm, tricky question haha. I am not sure. I think we all try to make things here, no matter if it’s called art or other names. Seeing all the LEA sims makes me feel that many have a place to make installations now, more than ever before. And amazing artworks all of them. I think it can be difficult for sim owners that always invited artists before, now that LEA is here. All have many sides, and it’s difficult for me to say what’s right or wrong. I hope all enjoy it and do the best as long as it’s there. We will feel a missing spot once it is gone again. I am super happy seeing my progress. I think as long as we love something we do with a full heart, it can make us so passionate that we get out of any dark hole that’s left.
JM: Claudia, it has been such a pleasure to share your thoughts about your work and the SL art scene. I hope these insights will encourage our readers to explore “Sprit” and other of your works, for you truly are one of the shining creative lights here in SL. Thank you, Claudia. I hope we’ll continue to enjoy your phantasmagoric delights for many years to come.
Photographs by Jami Mills and Cat Boccaccio