Jessica Tomlinson, MECA, Arts Cheerleader

Jessica Tomlinson Inspire Portland

From Dead Space to Space to empty space: Jessica Tomlinson is director of public relations for the Maine College of Art(MECA) and is president of the board of nearby Space Gallery. She also sweeps floors. (Brian Fitzgerald/Fitzgerald Photo)

Editor’s Note:  A behind-the-scenes force in the Portland Arts scene, Jessica Tomlinson is a big fan of organic arts movements that have helped create the vibrant “creative” Portland of today.   It’s time, she says, to channel that movement and shape it to greater effect.

IP:  Tell me what you’re up to right now.
JT:  I’m director of public relations for the Maine College of Art, but I will be changing that.  I’m very excited.  I will be the director of the Artist at Work program here,  effective this summer.
IP:  What does that mean?
JT: The college has always supported our students, but how do we support our students’ personal and professional development as they graduate from art school?  What that means is two paths.  One is in the curriculum, so offering classes like the ‘Art of Business and the Business of Art’.  We have a class in creative entrepreneurship that we just added.  We’re having a workshop on things like licensing, how to create a model release form, that are much more about the professional aspects of being a ‘maker’.  So there are these components that happen inside the classroom and there are these connections that happen outside.  How do we give our students professional, real world opportunities while they’re still students?
IP:  So this is a separate curriculum from the art-specific tracks.
JT:  Exactly.  The Art of Business/Business of Art is a class. Creative entrepreneurship is a 14-week-long class.  The idea is that [this initiative] will also be a lens in which the regular curriculum happens as well.  So let’s say you’re doing five mugs in a ceramics class.  What does it mean to sell those mugs at a First Friday?  How do you learn about pricing, how do you learn about presentation?
IP:  The stuff that they always say, ‘they don’t teach you in art school.’
JT: We’re going to be that school that teaches you those things in art school!
IP:  Why are you the best person to do that?
JT:  Sure. That’s a great question.
IP:  You probably got that in your interview.
JT:  No, I was invited to lead this new initiative because it’s an extension of the work I already do.  I get a lot of calls where people say, ‘I want students to be involved in this,’ or ‘I need someone to design a logo for me,’ etc. So I make these connections all the time, and so it’s just my level of community involvement in general that I’ve got those ties to begin with.


IP:  Would you consider yourself an artist?
JT:  Oh, no.  I consider myself an arts cheerleader.  That’s the title I use on LinkedIn.
IP:  And you’re a connector.
JT:  Yes!


IP:  What was your education?
JT:  I went to Hampshire College.  Hampshire College has quite a reputation because there are no required classes and there are no grades and there’s a lot of hippies.    What I studied there was linguistics. Linguistics is broken down into different components and I was interested in syntax, which is the structure of language.  So I would do a lot of diagramming of sentences, that would have nothing to do with people, nothing to do with connections, it had nothing to do with art, but it’s about a way of thinking and training your brain.  You take a complicated system and understand rules and principles underneath it so that you can analyze it.  In a way what I loved about Hampshire, and why I chose it, is that they taught you how to think.  That was their educational philosophy.  And so it doesn’t matter if you studied the syntax of Icelandic language, which is what I did, or community theory.  It was really about teaching you to understand the world, in a way.  I love that place.
IP:  Sounds idyllic.
JT:  I’ve never worked harder in my life than I worked at Hampshire.  You’re never done. There are three steps: divisions one, two and three.  And when you finish your third division, then you graduate. Every [final project] has a title, so the title of mine was “Anaphors and the subset principle:  a cross-linguistic application of parametric variation”.
IP:  That sounds like a page-turner.
JT:  It will put your child to sleep, trust me.


IP:  So you taught English in Japan and then finished at Hampshire.  What then?
JT:  At Hampshire college I met Tanja Hollander.   She’s from Portland and so I would visit Tanya’s family when she came up to visit and that’s how I was first introduced to Portland.  When I graduated from college I’d moved around a little bit and I decided, you know, I’d like to go to Portland, Maine.  That seems like a place where I can go and be that post-college slacker.


IP:  That was mid-90s.  Can you paint a picture of Portland at the time?
JT:  A lot of boarded up storefronts.  Not a good place to get something to eat.  One place to get a cup of coffee, and that was a chain.  It’s a very different place now. It really felt like New England, depressed, the-mall-took-everything-away-from-the-downtown kind of downtown…and yet it was attractive.
IP:  What was the arts scene like?
JT:  The arts scene at that point was, June Fitzpatrick had a little gallery.  There was the Portland Museum of Art, there was the Maine College of Art, and there were a lot of creative people here.
IP:  So it was ready to happen.
JT:  I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know that it was ready to happen.  I liked what I saw.  I didn’t think about what it was going to become and I didn’t care.   That’s not what brought me here. I moved here in 1994,  and when I said I was going to move here, Tanja was living in San Francisco.  She said, “you don’t get to move to my home town without me,” and so she asked for me to find a place that we could live in.  She wanted me to find a place big enough for her to have a photo studio.  I said fine, scoped out a place and signed a lease.  She flew in from San Francisco, and she said, “Are you crazy?”  What it was, was the basement of the Trelawny building right across from the parking lot from Joe’s Smokeshop.  it had 17-foot high ceilings , huge massive pillars; it was about 1500 square feet, open, with a toilet,  and I thought that was heaven.  Tanya told me it was a horrible living situation but a fantastic gallery opportunity and so we started the Dead Space Gallery.  We lived in the basement and we made the upstairs the gallery.  We showed the work of emerging artists, primarily visual.  We did some spoken word, some poetry, some music, but primarily we were showing visual work .  And I think what’s great is some of the people we showed back then have really come around as artists and so it’s really exciting to say, ‘we gave them their first show’.
IP:  Who are some of those people off the top of your head?
JT:  Sure.  Scott Peterman, a photographer.  His wife, Greta Bank.  We showed Alison Hildreth, We showed Charlie Hewitt, we showed Angela Dufresne, who’s now a big New York artist.  And we showed Tanja, of course.
IP:  How long did you run the Dead Space?
JT: We were there for three years.  I’ll never forget.  Tanja’s mom said to me, “Jessica, I get why Tanja’s doing this. She’s an artist.  It makes perfect sense. But it doesn’t make sense for you.  You really need to go and do something with your life.”  It was an interesting thing to have someone say to you. It was a wake-up call.  That’s when I started working on a journalism project out of NYU, and so that started that trajectory.


IP:  Is that when you started working for Go Magazine, for the [Portland] Press Herald?
JT:  Yes, I was at Go while I was simultaneously working on that research project.  Then I wanted to do more of this civic journalism, so at that point I wrote a grant—which is unusual for a for-profit newspaper—to fund support for a position at the newsroom for community coordinator that would do this kind of work for the Press-Herald.  So that involved things like, opening up the editorial pages.  We had 15 community members meeting right in the newsroom.  It got intense.  That’s the kind of work that was happening in the newsroom.
IP:  So I can see the interest in civic and community in that.  How did you get to MECA?
JT:  [In the late 90s] the arts community was really starting to rumble in a sense that there were stirrings of change within the community. This particular building we are sitting in had been purchased [by MECA] and renovations were underway.  The more involved I kept getting in the arts community the dicier it got [at the Press-Herald] and so I needed to make a choice. My choice at that point was that I wanted to be more invested in the community.   I continued to get more involved in the arts and that involvement parlayed into a deeper involvement nine years ago when I came to work here at the Maine College of Art.


IP:  You’re also on the Space Gallery board.  How long does that last?
JT:  I wish it would last forever, but it won’t.  There are terms.  I’m two years into a three-year term.


IP:  You were talking earlier about being a translator.  Can you explain further?
JT:  Yeah. I like to say I’m bilingual and that I can be conversant in the language that artists have and then speak the language of the general public and the business community, and act as a bridge between those two.  That’s the function I will be playing [in my new role].
IP:  You connect the people who need to be connected, essentially.
JT:  Absolutely.


IP:  I would imagine one of the things you love about Portland is the fact that you can get in there, get your hands dirty.  There’s not a lot of rules behind things.  You can just jump in and start a gallery and if you want to start a project you can start a project.  Can you talk a little bit more about that?
JT:  I think it’s the organic nature of Portland, that things can spring up in an authentic way here with ease and unencumbered.  I like to say that this is a really fantastic arts ecosystem that has come about by default, but not by design.  I think the greatest opportunity moving forward is actually to design that future and, in a way, to be more intentional.
IP:  What does that mean?
JT:  It’s not about curbing that organic nature.  I think it’s great.  It’s kind of amazing.  One alternative venue goes down, like the Dead Space, and then comes the Skinny, which was the next incarnation—the porn theater-turned-alternative-arts-venue. Then Skinny goes down, and Space starts up.  So there’s always an alternative.  That’s great and that’s organic and that’s going to always happen because it’s going to serve the need.  So there’s one of everything in Portland.  But there are things that there aren’t one of here, and I’m interested in making those things happen, and I’m interested again in this conversation about quantity vs. quality.  This idea of how do we translate the seven thousand people that come out on First Friday Art do we translate that into truly supporting artists in a new way?  That’s great to come out, go on a walk, but how are we supporting artists?  Are you purchasing artwork during that walk?


IP:  What’s your ideal reality here?
JT:  There’s the boring things.  I’m concerned about the sustainability and growth of this arts community.  There are certain things we need to do, which is to protect what we’ve got.   Studio space is issue number one.  How do we make sure we have enough affordable, quality studio spaces for artists to work in?  We have some now, but what if we didn’t?  What are we doing to secure that as an asset for the future? It’s boring stuff, but you have to do it.  There are now 70 participating venues on the Art Walk, which is great. Now what we need is patrons. The other thing that needs to change is employment, and having people move here that are able to bring industry and jobs.
IP:  I hear that last point a a lot.
JT:  I had this interesting conversation with the mayor about this the other day.  Why is it there are young, smart creative people here that are struggling.  What are the opportunities for them?  When I see people are hiring creatives out of town because they don’t know how to access the ones here, that’s bad.


IP:  How would you describe your style of dress?
JT:  Inspired by kindergartners.
IP:  Kindergartners with, obviously , a strong sense of style.
JT: Kindergartners by nature have a strong sense of style.


IP:  What’s something about you that is not generally known?
JT:  I think I’ve told you more than most people know about me. Life is very packed and very full.  The idea of the personal and professional are so intrinsically mixed that is the big challenge for me.  Am I doing this for professional purposes or personal interest…there’s no distinction.
IP:  How about a guilty pleasure, then?
JT:  This is personal, and I don’t reveal personal information usually, but I will tell you this.  I’m inspired by Casco Bay. My guilty pleasure is that I bought a polluting motorboat. It’s a motorboat, it takes gas, it’s loud, yep. I did that.  That’s a guilty pleasure.
IP:  Especially for someone in the arts community.
JT:  It’s wrong on so many levels and I love it, more than anything.


IP:  What time do you wake up and go to bed?
JT:  I wake up at seven in the morning and I take my son to school on Mackworth Island, where he goes to the Quaker School.  I love to drive across that causeway every day and see Casco Bay in all of its glory.
I come home, I park my car and I walk to work.  And I’ve walked to work since I landed in Portland and it’s great to be able to do that.
My husband [artist Henry Wolyniec] likes to joke that I have the longest commute of anyone he knows.  It’s a seven-minute walk and it can take me about an hour.
IP: Why is that?
JT:  Oh, chit-chat, chit-chat, chit-chat. I get more work done on the street walking to work than most people do in 8 hours.  So I arrive at the school usually around 9:30 and it’s action-packed all day long:  go, go, go, go, go, go. And then I get home around six, have dinner with my family, put my son down at 8:30, and then at 9 o’clock is when I say my day begins.  That’s when I start working on the board work I need to do for Space Gallery or work that didn’t get done at MECA during the day,  or household stuff, like pay the bills. I’m up usually until around 1 in the morning and then I get six hours sleep and start it all over again.
IP:  Sounds hard.
JT:  It’s wearing on me!
IP:  No wonder you need coffee.
JT: Only one cup, though.


IP:  Any last words/any words of advice for aspiring artists here in Portland?
JT:  We’re asking an artist two things.  We’re asking of them for their creative selves to be in the world—to give us this gift if you will—and then we’re asking them to understand the principles and the functions of marketing and networking and business, and it’s a challenge.  My advice is that you’ve really got to have a handle on how you feel about that, and understand how you’re going to approach it.  Some of the artists are just intimidated by it, and that’s a demon to wrestle with, for sure. But you have a choice about that, and I think your life will be better as an artist if you come to terms early on with how you’re going to approach that.

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