146 Jessica Wildman Katz

Born Ann Arbor, MI, 1987 / BFA & MFA, Wayne State University / Lives in Highland Park, MI

Jessica Wildman Katz has been working on windows. During the pandemic, she and her husband have slowly been renovating the 54-acre Brownstown Township farmstead that has been in her husband’s family for generations. Katz has been constructing frames and screens for the window openings in the loft of an old garage, where she plans to dry the lavender that grows on the property. It’s been an iterative process and not at all unlike the way she approaches her artwork—foregrounding material, experimenting with form, fusing utility and history.  

Katz’s most recent project, Things Being Felt (2018-19), began with an epiphany. While looking at a stack of Metro cards from an unhappy year-and-a-half living in New York, Katz finally recognized a use for a collection of wool roving she’d amassed: she would felt the cards. The project grew to include a multitude of items representing fraught experiences in Katz’s life—the types of memories many of us try to forget, but which are, ultimately, the bedrock of being human. The items are also preposterously unfeltable: strappy shoes similar to a pair she once attempted to steal from her sister, a bra reminiscent of a bikini top that she stuffed as a teenager and inadvisably wore swimming, a copper rose gifted by a borderline stalker.

And, most audaciously: the real, run-to-the-ground 1994 Buick Century that provided stability at a time when much else in Katz’s life seemed precarious. In addition to felting the entire vehicle, down to the windshield wipers, Katz encased the seat cushions in delicate gold leaf and made pillows from the upholstery in a protracted, poignant process of letting go.

A small book of poems written to accompany the works adds nuance. Still, the allure of Things Being Felt is not the specific associations of the objects, captivating as those may be, but the innate understanding that those associations exist (“ghost memories,” Katz calls them). Anyone who has ever held onto the shirt her father was wearing the morning he fell into a coma or buried her divorce papers at the bottom of a file box (we all have our version of this) understands the power of what Katz has done. Her acts of communing and enshrining begin in private, but ultimately she blesses us with artifacts that could just as easily be our own.

Bushcraft . . . Lure and Bushcraft . . .Radical Stimulus (both 2017) also begin with material and end with story. In the former, Katz fashioned miniature fishing nets and lures from a deconstructed blue-green silk dress that she had respun into yarn, then attached to bra underwire. In the latter, she wove antique 24-karat gold electroplated silk thread into an expansive, glittering pound net, which she then attached to copper-gilded saplings. Again, there is deft double entendre at play, in this case centered on gender and sexuality: harness, control, lure, bait. The personal element? Katz’s grandparents once owned a bait shop and, for a time, the family lived in back of it. Radical Stimulus, says Katz, is also a commentary on the commercial fishing industry, which has caused environmental harm and decimated local fishing practices.

Vigil is devastating in an entirely different way. The piece is an arresting aerial sculpture, but it is the caption that stopped me cold: “dress worn to Jimmy’s funeral and beeswax.” Katz has shared the story behind this piece, which has been exhibited in front of a projection of Lake Erie, but I don’t want to tell it here, because I find those seven words so haunting. That I felt a “ghost memory” from my own family before even hearing Katz’s speaks to her keen ability to pare even the most wrenching of experiences down to the core. 

Taking process-oriented work into the public realm requires a delicate balancing act. Moral Fiber (2015), staged during ArtPrize, asked visitors to write their wishes and intentions on mulberry paper, which Katz then wove together using a floor loom. The result was a delicate, diaphanous scroll. No writing remained legible. The specific wishes may exist only in the minds of those who expressed them. But we are all wishers, and in this piece every viewer becomes enmeshed.

“For me, the act of making, or of taking apart, possesses as much agency as the product itself,”  Katz told me. This speaks to the poetry inherent in her work: Her fragments and deconstructions, in all their painstaking execution, are profoundly intimate. Still, in the end, they unravel elemental truths.

Kristin Palm, December 2020

Copyright Essay’d 2020