Jessica Valoris: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist

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Find your people. While much of the work may be solo, I have to remember that I am not alone. Call in your folks, call in your helpers, and delegate where you can. I used to think that every vision or idea I had meant that I had to know how to make it. I’d often spend hours trying to learn a new skill or figure out how to DIY a thing. While that may work for some bright ideas, sometimes it’s better to find a person who has the skills to bring my vision to life.

As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Valoris.

Jessica Valoris is a Washington, DC-based artist and community facilitator. Weaving together mixed media painting, sound collage, and ritual performance, Jessica creates sacred spaces that activate ancestral wisdom, personal reflection, and community care. She values collaboration with community-based cultural workers and collectives, and her work supports culturally relevant wellness and resilience.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in Silver Spring, MD, a suburb of Washington DC, in a household of women. My sister and I were raised by my single mom, and a handful of aunties, uncles, and chosen family. Half of my family is Black and half of my family is Jewish. Both of my parents are recovering, which has always been a source of pride and spiritual foundation. We grew up on hand-me-downs and thrift stores, with walks to the creek, card games, and lots of living-room karaoke. I was a passionate kid with a love for reading and collecting random objects I could turn into art projects.

In high school I was in a youth program called City at Peace DC, that used the arts to train young people in conflict resolution and social justice. That experience shaped my sense of purpose and was the first time I felt understood by my peers and connected to community in a deeply meaningful way. It was also the first time I experienced the transformative power of art.

At 17, I moved to New York City to attend Eugene Lang College of New School University, where I studied Education with a focus on Black history. I went on to work with young people as an educator and student organizer in public high schools. Inspired by my high school mentor, I was passionate about being the kind of adult that I needed as a young person.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

My mother’s first memory of me as an artist was my obsession with cardboard boxes. Since I was a child, I have always been enamored with found objects, often spotting a random material and thinking, “I can make something with this!” Maybe that’s where it all started?!

In 2014, one of my best friends quit her job and started her own organization called Colored Girls Hustle. During Hurricane Sandy, we were stuck in the house and decided to record an anthem for her newly-founded organization. It was a remix of Rick Ross’ “Hustlin’”. We posted it on Facebook, and got such a robust response that we decided to create an entire mixtape of what we called “music for the movement.” It was a collection of re-imagined popular hip hop singles turned into womanist freedom songs. The project inspired t-shirts, buttons, and zines, and created a platform for us to share our process through community-engaged workshops, performances, and talks. It was such a joyful time in my life and a pivotal moment in my identity as a socially-engaged artist.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

In March of 2022, a dear beloved of mine invited me to support in the curation of an exhibit of George Clinton’s visual art. As a lover of all things Afrofuturism, I was super juiced to support this project. After extensive research on the Godfather of funk, and several visioning sessions with my co-curator, we decided to wing it and request a visit to Clinton’s studio space. To our surprise, we got the green light. Within a week we were on a road trip to visit George Clinton’s home and studio space. When we got there, he was there with his family, smoking a blunt and painting a version of his iconic atomic dog. His family was so welcoming and hospitable. What was supposed to be an hour-long visit turned into a magical day. His family fed us, and broke bread with us, gave us a tour of their home, and showed us a heap of mementos and memorabilia. They even let us hold one of his grammy awards! We returned the next day to package the work and bring it back to Austin, TX where it would be exhibited at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center. It was truly a gift and inspiration… not only to meet a musical icon, but also to see all the ways that he continues to be a student of life and explore various mediums of creative expression.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am most excited about my ongoing body of work, Black Fugitive Folklore. It is an interdisciplinary collection of poems, doodles, paintings, sculptures, filmed ritual performances, and objects. This collection of works is based on an immersive study of the practices of enslaved ancestors and the ways that they imagined and actualized liberation.

I’m currently exhibiting a mixed-media installation called Passage/way/s at VisArts in Rockville, MD that will be up through March 5th. I’m excited to engage local schools and community groups through artist talks and interactive workshops.

Creating this installation has been a true labor of love and I’m excited about some of the ideas that have emerged while creating this body of work. I’m dreaming up a short book of poems, a custom deck of playing cards, and future site-specific activations. More soon!

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Honestly, the most interesting people I have interacted with are local cultural workers and fellow artists. I love an artist play-date, and being in a space of collaborative creative exploration. Thankfully, I am in community with artists that I am inspired by. Whether it’s devising a ritual performance or harvesting indigo, going down a nerdy google rabbit hole, or competing for bragging rights from a game of scrabble; spending time with my artist friends is always a source of energetic revival.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many things that I draw inspiration from. Primarily, I draw inspiration from histories of enslaved resistance and innovation. Stories of how our Black ancestors navigated the impossible circumstances of slavery, somehow fortify my sense of purpose and commitment to lift up their memory.

During the summer of 2020, I decided to create a self-guided creative sabbatical, where I would study all things Black fugitivity. I was hungry to learn about the ways that our ancestors freed themselves. I wanted to know the recipes, the codes, and the blueprints. Especially during a time of a global pandemic, rampant police violence against Black people, and a growing threat of white supremacist groups. I was looking for some nugget of hope to hold on to. I took 30 days to immerse myself in study. I listened to podcasts, and panel discussions, read books, watched documentaries and films, and took daily nature walks. I prayed, I sang, I danced, and I wrote letters to my ancestors. I did genealogical research and took a trip to visit my elders in South Carolina. And I made art… every day. What emerged were large paper paintings, micropaintings, zines, poems, sketches, dances, songs, and a dynamic collection of information and reflections that have shaped what has now become Black Fugitive Folklore.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My personal definition of success is deeply tied to my desire to create spaces of healing, restoration, and remembrance. The process is as much a part of the work’s value as the work itself. I make space and cultivate resources to invite community members into my work. Through discussions, study sessions, collaborative ritual, and story cyphers, I invite others into my creative practice and the immersive study that I am engaged with. My art has been a healing balm for me. It is a space that I return to over and over. I hope that by sharing my work and my practice with others, that I can nourish movements for collective care and resistance.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Find your people. While much of the work may be solo, I have to remember that I am not alone. Call in your folks, call in your helpers, and delegate where you can. I used to think that every vision or idea I had meant that I had to know how to make it. I’d often spend hours trying to learn a new skill or figure out how to DIY a thing. While that may work for some bright ideas, sometimes it’s better to find a person who has the skills to bring my vision to life.
  2. Documentation! Documentation! Documentation! Get good photos and videos of your work. I’ve kicked myself so many times for spending so much time creating and exhibiting work, but not getting quality photos of the work. If there’s no documentation, it’s like the work never happened. As you plan out your projects, always include photo documentation in the budget, and be sure to identify a photographer who can get the kind of documentation you are looking for.
  3. Exposure is nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills. I can’t tell you how many times people have thought they were doing me a favor by asking me to do art-related work for free. There is a misconception that artists should be happy to be invited to make things without compensation. No thank you. I make sure to have a clear rate that I use to determine what I need to be paid. When people approach me with projects, one of the first things I ask is “what’s your budget?” Furthermore, I make sure to compensate the artists I invite to be in collaboration with me.
  4. Apply to all things regularly. I apply to several dozen opportunities each year. (Sometimes I’m submitting multiple applications each week… for grants, fellowships, and residencies.) I’ve gotten really used to getting rejections, and because I’m applying to things so frequently, I get enough yes’s to carry me through. Also, sometimes I apply to things just to get my work in front of the panelists. Often panelists for applications are also arts administrators, curators, critics, or artists themselves. Being a recognized part of your city’s artist ecosystem can be a powerful opportunity.
  5. Time over tasks. And progress over perfection. I’ve found that I’m my best artist self when I spend a committed number of hours in my studio each week. Some days I may be staring at the wall for most of the day. On other days I may have an inspired idea, and the work is flowing smoothly. The biggest thing is that I have to show up. So many inspired ideas have come from sitting on the floor of my studio and staring at the sunlight. I love a good to-do list, but I also know how critical it is to make time to rest, to play, and to just show up. I also make a lot of work, and am practicing how to be less attached. If I give myself room to just create without the pressure of perfection, there is so much freed-up room to discover. I often have a pile of work that I don’t like, but I also have a pile of gems too!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Since I’ve been doing this work around legacies of slavery and enslaved resistance, I’m clear that our ancestors desired reparations. I’d inspire a movement to pay reparations to Black people for the debt of chattel slavery, and for the systemic inequities that have transpired since. Paying reparations would permanently close the racial wealth gap in this country, and be a first step to reckoning with our history. Furthermore, it would require the United States to completely rehaul its budget, potentially making space to deprioritize policing and militarization, and pour resources into housing, education, mental health, food access, and more. Can you imagine if the United States took responsibility for the debt of 400 years of unpaid labor and structural inequity? I can. And I imagine it would force us to confront all the ways that violent exploitation of land and people continues in this country and beyond.

We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.

I would love to meet Tracee Ellis Ross. I’m inspired by her brilliance and her silliness, and especially by her passion for social justice. In many ways, she’s a blueprint for the kind of artist that I aspire to be; one who uses their platform to elevate important conversations and to bring joy to the people around her. Also, she’s got a super funky style… I would forgo lunch and just ask for a day of playing dress-up!

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

@JessicaValoris on Instagram

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Jessica Valoris: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.