Welcome to Speak With Your Craft, a (semi) regular feature that profiles the many creative individuals in my life and my attempt to shed light on what inspires them. I also want to expose readers to crafts, talents, and skills that may be slightly offbeat or unusual and encourage the support of the movers and makers in the handmade world. Today, the spotlight is on Jill Verzino, an incredibly talented Connecticut-based artist and teacher whom I got to know through - where else - food growing! You know when you meet certain people in your life and you just get one another? Well, that's Jill. I had the pleasure of working with her in the garden on the Cheyenne River Reservation in 2016 (she was the garden assistant and she also designed the project's logo!) and bonding over our Jesuit educations (she went to Fordham, I went to Fairfield), blueberries, social justice, music, and, of course, more food and farming. Jill is equally talented as she is insightful about life and her creative process. I encourage you to check her out:
Meet Your Maker: Jill Verzino!
When did you first realize that you like to create?
I can’t recall exactly when I realized my obsession with creating, but I do know it was at a very young age. I remember my family would always refer to me as “the artist,” but looking back at the work I was creating then, there really was no apparent reason for them to call me an artist based on the quality of the work I was putting out. It looked no different than your average 5-year-old’s scribbles, so it must have been the quantity and frequency with which I was creating that made them label me as an artist.
Who or what are some of your creative influences and/or where do you seek inspiration? And, has this changed over time?
I’ve been lucky enough to have had some incredible teachers and professors over the years, and I think they are my greatest heroes in the art world. I’ve always loved the creative connection that comes with the teacher and student relationship. Every once in awhile, you have an instructor that you want to impress every class, no exceptions. Casey Ruble and Amie Cunat were two professors of mine at Fordham, and I feel forever indebted to the knowledge they imparted on me, the help they selflessly offered, and the opportunities they handed to me.
Beyond my teachers, I became infatuated with two female artists I discovered back in high school. They remain two of my greatest influences to this day. Robin F Williams and Hope Gangloff deal mostly with portraiture in their distinct styles. Now that I’m teaching high school students, I find that I am inspired by them. I have such intense gut reactions to their work, and the reflecting that results from my feelings about their work shapes how I think about my own work.
To return to something you hinted at in the beginning: it’s definitely a female thing to undercut our own work or belittle our accomplishments. You say there was “no apparent reason” for your family to call you an artist (this is not to say that your family weren’t supportive - they seemed like they completely are!), but clearly you were doing something both productive and creative. Why do we, as women, have to be so critical of ourselves?! You were onto something when you were younger and being “the artist” - you liked it and found enjoyment in it so much you decided to pursue art in higher ed and as a career, right? How has your confidence grown as you’ve matured as an artist and, now, as a teacher?
This question is perceptive and the topic resonates with me quite a bit. I’ve never been able to master the art of taking a compliment. I loathe situations where myself or my art is the center of attention, whether it be a gallery reception, an award ceremony, or even a celebration for some rite of passage. My insides curdle when others compliment my work. I usually reject the compliment while avoiding eye contact. I then feel like a hypocrite for doing so because I am the one putting my artwork out there for everyone to see, not anyone else. If I didn’t want people to see my work I wouldn’t be making it. It’s a process of research - research of myself and of this world. I’m not creating for the sake of private self aggrandizement and I’m not creating for public self aggrandizement either. I think of it like this, in the same way I want to consume art and talk about how it makes me think and feel, I want to share art and hear how it makes others think and feel. But god forbid you try to commend my work, I just can’t deal. A serious character flaw, I know, but I’m working on it.
As far as my confidence and my teaching goes, it’s easy for me to ignore my own work and focus on what the students are creating and how I can help them better their work. I have pushed myself to incorporate my own work in slides when introducing new projects. However, I don’t let on that it is my work until someone asks who the artist is. Alas, baby steps.
Describe your process: Do you map things out? Just go for it? How do you get to the end product?
I’m not much of a planner when it comes to my art. To a fault, I’m mostly self taught at crafts beyond drawing and painting. Many of my closest friends can attest to my stubborn nature. For example, instead of sitting down and reading a book about carving or whittling, I sat down and hacked away at an extremely hard wood for days with newly gifted beginner’s tools until I had something that looked like a spoon. I choose the hard way, but I like it that way strangely enough. I try to get to the end product as quickly as possible. I remember spending all nighters in the studio last spring finishing life sized portraits in three to five days. I often wonder if that need for somewhat-instant gratification is now ingrained in my brain as a millennial and has something to do with my inability to put down the paint brush, pencils, or tools until whatever I am working on is finished. Who knows? Just a thought.
Some of the most creative people I know have some connection to agriculture and food. You’re one of those people - among many things, you’ve worked summers on an organic berry farm, did some urban farming when you were at Fordham, and worked on a garden project (with me!) on a Reservation. Your work, especially your Sovereignty collection, shows a sense of reverence for the people, plants, and animals behind the food. Talk more about this collection, and, maybe, what connects the food/farm and creative worlds together.
I try not to force the connection too much. I enjoy the ebb and flow of my art world and farming world. The two come together when they can and want to. This question reminds me of my time in college when people would ask me what I was majoring in. When I would explain both Visual Art and Environmental Policy, I’d always receive a disgruntled lip curl followed by a half smile and an “Oh! How do you plan to make those two work together?” I never had an answer for them, but I also never wanted to be a one trick pony that needed to meld the two interests into one cohesive career. For my senior Visual Art thesis, I painted life sized portraits of farmers for and with whom I’ve worked over the years. The detail attributed to the subject’s faces, their specific props, the Velázquez-esque composition, and the general size of the paintings portray the subjects as glorified individuals, much like one would depict a sovereign leader. The reality is, however, that these individuals are anything but glorified in their daily lives. Their profession consists of behind-the-scenes work that is physically trying and often visually grotesque. My intention was to highlight the working class in a way we might traditionally depict the rich, famous, and powerful. Their work is inherently valuable to our livelihood, ecosystems, and economy, and that is often overlooked by society. The paintings depict only white, middle aged men, correlating to the statistic that, though changing (!), a large percentage of our farmers are just that - older white men. Because I had strong connections to the work, the people, and the topic of this thesis, I felt satiated with the intention and humility I experienced while working on the portraits in a way I hadn’t felt until then.
Whatʼs one of your favorite projects - past, present, or a project in the works?
I just started an Instagram page called Daily Avian (@dailyavian), and my goal is to illustrate one bird a day for an indefinite period of time. I hope I can stay with it for a while. Having the Instagram page is a way for me to hold myself accountable for keeping up with it. That way I have other eyes watching. Either I’m taking requests for specific birds to paint or I’m closing my eyes, opening my Sibley field guide book, and putting my finger down on the page to choose a bird randomly. It’s been quite fun so far!
Whatʼs the best piece of advice/quote that youʼve received about creating? Or, conversely, what would you recommend to other artists?
Work smart, not hard. And there’s purple in everything.
Wait, please talk about the purple thing.
Next time you’re outside, look at the bark on trees. That is the easiest way to see what I’m talking about. The gray/brown hue of the bark takes on a hint of purple. Then you’ll start to notice that there is a shade of purple in most things because of the way the light hits them. Imagine you were going to mix paint to attain the color of a shadow on a white wall. You would most likely mix a shade of purple into that shadow.
If you could use only food and farm-related inspired words for a band name, what would it be?
What’s currently your favorite song?
The first song that jumped into my head was “No River” by the immaculate Esmé Patterson.
Have an idea for Speak With Your Craft? Know some interesting makers, crafters, cooks, bakers, food growers, woodworkers, herbalists, photographers, writers, actors, musicians, painters, fiber artists, and creative forces in your life? I have friends lined up in the near future, but I'm open to suggestions! Leave a comment or contact me! Remember, makers or creators need not fit into a neat box to be featured. So, here’s to more creating, crafting, listening, learning, and collaborating!