42 Jessica Frelinghuysen



Born Bryn Mawr, Pa, 1980 / BFA, Rhode Island School of Design; MArch, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Hamtramck

Art, it’s been said, is often about taking something small, and making a really big deal out of it. For Jessica Frelinghuysen, that initial seed is the minutiae of social interaction – the tiny events that individually are of little consequence, but that collectively make up the fabric of any society. Her concern is that, despite the increasingly impersonal nature of our modes of communication, and however personally awkward these micro-interactions may be, we should continue to both value and question them.

Frelinghuysen’s Paper Helmet Series (2002-present) focuses on somewhat unlikely “solutions” to everyday situations. For example, her Helmet for Telling Secrets (2005), is a transportable device that allows pairs of wearers to create a temporary private space in a public location. Clearly, though, the device comes with its own social awkwardness, so one could argue that its real intent is not so much to solve the original problem, as to transform it into a form of performance. There is certainly an element of absurdity in the work, but at their core, Frelinghuysen’s objectives are serious; ultimately she envisions her projects as long-running experiments in which we can all participate, and that highlight something we might otherwise overlook.

The transformation of Frelinghuysen’s “Paper Helmets” from flat printed sheets into sculptural micro-architecture is reflective of her own artistic trajectory. Her first degree is in printmaking, but a growing desire to take her work out of the gallery, and into participatory social situations, led to graduate study in architecture at the multi-disciplinary, and historically design-focused, environment of Cranbrook. Much of Frelinghuysen’s thinking still starts from “sketches,” which may be mappings of the communication paths she sees around her (e.g. 2009’s Happy Hour) or concepts for hypothetical new projects (e.g. 2012’s No Words (three-way thought call)). If the concept sketches show the influence of Frelinghuysen’s design/architecture background on her two-dimensional work, the eventual three-dimensional implementations (e.g. 2015’s Conversation Domes), with their emphasis on shape, line and color, show the continuing influence of her printmaking background. Frelinghuysen pays particular attention to color, and her selections are often informed by an awareness of psychology and the history of design.

As its name implies, the work Conversation Domes is participatory. Standing under one of the stations, the visitor hears a disorderly soundtrack of various voices describing their difficulties in communication. The participant may either listen, or join in. Frelinghuysen’s objective is to “bring attention to roadblocks that compete with our attempts to listen, find meaning, and be understood,” and hence “open a space for discovery, realization, and conversation.” Clearly there is a paradox here; in order to encourage a deeper consideration of what may seem very natural, Frelinghuysen abstracts, aestheticizes, and conceptually re-maps it into a highly artificial environment. The work’s appearance is similarly contradictory – the sleek and shiny domes are connected by tubing that seems as much derived from the string between two tin cans as it does from fiber optic cabling. The overall effect, simultaneously impersonal and strangely folksy, is a defining characteristic of many of Frelinghuysen’s projects. For example, her Acclimation Suit 6600 (2007), which includes “everything to assimilate into the highly affluent and low oxygenated mountain environment (of Aspen),” is one of a series of “Task Uniforms” that concurrently embrace concepts of uniformity and vernacular personalization. Arguably, the contradictions that Frelinghuysen highlights are also a defining condition of our age, as we try to reconcile traditional, human-level, interactions with a world of rapidly changing communication technology.

The Germination Corps (aka Plant Backpacks) project (2010 – present) extends beyond consideration of the interpersonal to look at the relationship between people and nature. Project participants (typically children) are provided with a plant in a backpack that they are encouraged to carry with them and care for. The intention is to develop empathy for natural processes of growth through real-world experiences. The project has been performed in numerous locations including Pittsburgh, rural North Carolina, Philadelphia, and Santa Fe. Often it culminates with Frelinghuysen – who by her own admission is naturally quite shy – leading an impressive parade. Each iteration of the project provides more insight into the work’s educational potential and cultural nuances. As with all of Frelinghuysen’s many activities, one thing that shines through clearly is her sincere and indefatigable desire to transform the world for the better – from the ground up.

Steve Panton, January 2016

Copyright Essay’d 2016