Divining with shadows and dreams, tears and blood:
Revelations from otherworldly conjurer JL Schnabel of bloodmilk
In dreams we travel instinctively to places we’ve never seen but already know: still landscapes of dim corners, hushed collections of shadows, overwhelming and powerful darkness. Mysteries are slowly revealed and forgotten, and surface later as foggy instances of déjà vu. We awaken with tears drying on our cheeks and a feeling of loss for worlds the doors of which are open only for fleeting instants. Beyond these doors, filaments of memories and past lives spin idly in un-accessed portions of our brains like mechanical toys in dusty attics. And one night when these obscure recollections and neglected reincarnations are finally unlocked and spill about us in pools of nonsense and surreal stories, we attribute them to overactive imaginations and snippets from tales told when we were young.
Thoughtful and enigmatic, and perhaps part mystic or seer, JL Schnabel travels with ease between these impossible dream worlds of shadows and half-light. From these etherous realms she conjures into existence and immortalizes dark memories and strange sorrows, the results of which are items delicate and powerful, graceful and grotesque, and exquisitely, painfully personal. These singular adornments which she refers to as “psychic armor” are the foundation of her line of hand-crafted jewelry, bloodmilk: “supernatural jewels for surrealist darlings”.
Not only a time traveler, world straddler, and collector of tears, of bone, of teeth, and words – JL Schnabel, in addition to continuously creating new baubles for bloodmilk, is also a staff writer for Hi-Fructose Magazine. And if her creative energies were not already stretched vaporously thin, she has also just this evening – 11.11.11 – released an immense and immensely stunning lookbook for her current collection, which can be seen in spellbinding detail here. Despite all of this on her very full plate, she granted the following interview which parted the veil and revealed a glimpse into the process of her conjurings and consequential creations, and guided me through the strange splendor of her own alternate worlds.
S. Elizabeth: In the past you’ve spoken about the surrealist spirit of “objective chance” – the ‘curious joining of objects/images that are seemingly unrelated but are in truth secretly connected’ and further note that is how the name “Blood Milk” came about “…taking two potent potions and conjoining them forever beneath the same banner.” I find this notion of objective chance intensely fascinating. Are there any other instances where you can cite the presence of this spirit in your life? Is this sort of an everyday thing that you have always been aware of, or is it more prevalent now because of your work as bloodmilk?
JL Schnabel: For the surrealists, ‘objective chance’ was applied to an interest in the “marvelous encounter”. Beauty was convulsive. To react to art / writings / dreams / love & desire/ life with both repulsion and attraction, especially when experienced simultaneously, was a goal of the surrealists, the ultimate state of being. These reactions mirrored the anxiety of the everyday, the ordinary. To see beyond what is objective by joining a word that’s quite its opposite is already an illustration of what it means.
I think everyone’s life is freckled with these instances. It’s as abundant as synchronicity. Sometimes hard to recognize, but always there if you have the eye or spirit to really look. For me though, objective chance lives in my world of “making” while synchronicity has lately been occurring so often in my waking life that it doesn’t startle me as much anymore. These are strange times we live in.
The themes of light/darkness, horror/beauty, sacred/profane are pervasive throughout your body of work I’d love to get a peek into your cerebral machinations– to see how you take a grotesque notion and forge it into a wondrous thing of eternal beauty. Talk to me about your process – how a small, gnarled crow’s claw, for example, comes to be clutching a quartz crystal, and is reincarnated into“the messenger”? Or how a boa constrictor snake rib bone is transformed into “forget me not”
I had a tarot reading recently and was told, with the forewarning of “I’m someone who would understand,” that I “have an intimate relationship with death”. When I was a kid, I had a potent brush with my mortality and since then, steadily, my feelings / visions / & reactions to death have transformed. I think this kind of spectral intimacy lends itself to seeing both the beauty and horror in life, in art, in those around me, maybe most importantly, within myself. I’m connected to my jewels, they reveal my secrets, my darkness, my lightness. I think the only way to describe how these physical objects materialize is that they represent my turbulent emotions and ideas on mourning and spirituality. They are immensely personal.
As for my process, I always carry around a palm sized hardbound sketchbook that I flood with notes and scratchy drawings. I work in a stream of consciousness style, without limiting myself with seasonal deadlines. I’m always filled with ideas for new pieces. I wish there was two of me !
I like to think that I’ve created a language with some of the objects I’ve molded and work with within this language to create new narratives. Sometimes I’ll already have an object that I’ll use as the starting point, such as bit of bone, and other times, I’ll find things at antique sales or on the street or in the woods that I think would be good to add into the collection. There is a lot of mining involved. Friends gift me bits that they think I could use. Somehow I’ve become the girl people give dead things to. It’s terrible, and really great.
Nearly everything I make incorporates an object that has already existed, whether it’s a natural one such as a pair of rattlesnake fangs or something with a history, like a skeleton key or a shard of phantom quartz. In this way, I consider most of my work to be in the spirit of surrealist assemblage. Max Ernst is one of my muses, I love his collage work and in a way, I try to emulate his seamless technique and bizarre narratives with my jewels.
“Consider a girl who keeps slipping off, arms limp as old carrots, into the hypnotist’s trance, into a spirit world speaking with the gift of tongues.” -Anne Sexton
You have this quote currently both on your blog profile and in the “about section” of your etsy store –can you explain for us what it is about those words that speak to you, and why you would use it to describe yourself?
Anne Sexton has been an inspiration of mine since I was in high school. The way she conjures a stunningly searing image kills me. She can knock the wind out of you with one line! I even have her initials tattooed on my right wrist for good luck when writing.
This quote is extracted from ‘Briar Rose’ and is part of a longer series named ‘Transformations.’ They are her re-imagined fairy tales. I like how Anne imagines Briar Rose, not as a ‘sleeping beauty’ waiting for her prince, but as a woman who exists between worlds, with a gift of speaking the languages of both of these worlds. I like to think this quote sums up how I feel that I’m straddling different worlds in life with my work and how I feel connected to the ‘spirit world.’ I think it also speaks to how I probably live too much of my life in my inner world. I’m a hopeless dreamer, walking into traffic.
The descriptions accompanying the items in your shop are always so fantastically detailed, so rife with symbolism; one almost feels as if you could be creating your own personal mythology.
Thank you for the compliments about my writing!
In theory, I’m imbuing objects that already exist / tales that have already been written, with my own emotional / spiritual history. Sometimes this is a slight inclusion and other times it takes over the narrative of the piece, as in ‘the crystal tomb’ series.
Speaking of writing…I know that you also write for Hi-Fructose, covering contemporary art. I am struck by how, between the jewels you create for bloodmilk with their emphasis on the ancient, the esoteric and arcane, and articles you write/ interviews that you conduct regarding on the latest offerings from emerging artists …you have to strike a balance between excavating the bones and relics of the past and being “on trend” and future seeking. Either way, you are a bit of a time traveling nomad aren’t you? Thoughts?
I suppose there is a bit of time traveling involved in what I do, but I don’t notice it. Though, a lot of the art I’m connected to deals with these same esoteric and antiquated bits, whether in imagery, medium or style.
I don’t think of being ‘on trend’ with my written reviews. I like to have intuitive reactions to art and am blessed with the opportunity to write about what I’m attracted to 98% of the time.
Back to your writing, which, apparently through a thesis you were working on, turned to painting as a sort of research, and then to jewelry design? Among which of these mediums can we find the authentic you? Which of these artistic avenues feels most natural to you as a means of creative expression? Which is your dream job, and how does that translate in the work that you do with any of them?
I’ve been a writer since I was a little kid. I can not not write. Despite all my schooling, I find it’s the hardest thing for me to share. I fill journals and scraps of paper with snips of conversations, fleeting thoughts, wishes, my manic unrest etc. (though I would love to learn how to be a great recorder of my dreams as you are.)
Jewelry feels like fate to me. I didn’t feel exactly like I was making this conscious choice, it just happened. I can’t quite pin point the locus of its origin. In that same tarot reading I mentioned earlier, The Hermit card was pulled, suggesting I’m headed the right way with designing jewels and writing reviews. I like this idea, but I’m also a believer in the winds of change. I’m a bit restless.
I believe I put myself in everything I do. Sometimes I think this is my great fault because I leave very little left to protect.
A dream job would be to never have to worry about the real life and to live near the sea but still close to the city, making things that people love and feel connected to. This is really close to what I have now, I’m insanely lucky.
Your jewelry often references divinatory and alchemical motifs, as well as dreams and saints, etc – you are obviously well read on these subjects and are able to translate and transmute their tenets and philosophies into your work. I would love to take a peek at your bookcase, or at least some of your favourite texts in this vein!
I went to a Christian boarding high school. We were required to be well versed in the Bible, but were never taught about the particulars of the weird and scary bits, the prophets rising bones, beastly angels, demons, the Rapture. I think, despite the vast differences between the two faiths, that this study renewed my early exposure to Catholicism. My father’s mother was intensely Catholic and would take me to church with her when I visited. I remember laying in the pews and staring at the ceiling, wishing I had wings to be able to fly to the top and touch all the angels pictured there. I remember being awed at her fevered faith. I was convinced that when she passed away, she’d become a Saint. She took me on trips to visit places that were blessed with supernatural occurrences, a church that had a crying statue, a field where the Holy Mother had materialized in a cloud. She had a pin that had a saint relic inside of it. Looking back now, it was really strange, but it marked me for life. I miss her.
With regard to all manner of esoteric knowledge and symbolism, to what do you attribute its (relatively)recent resurgence in fashion, almost to a point in which it seems “mainstream”? I know it is not exactly a new thing to see, for example, a pentagram on a t-shirt ( I had one on a Motley crew t-shirt when I was 15! And that was…a long time ago) but in this case we are talking heavy weight designers of considerable prestige…which of course trickles down. What is it about this sort of symbolism that lends to sartorial influence, and how does your work fit into this?
People have always been drawn to powerful symbols, even if they don’t fully understand them or why they are attracted to them. Right now occult and esoteric symbols are “popular”, and I feel part of this has to do with a sense of national, perhaps even worldwide, unrest. Our generation, the one just before us and the one coming up now, hasn’t put much faith into the government and subsequently its religion as much as past generations have. This has caused a ‘seeking’ for an otherness to fill this void. It seems natural to me to find comfort or expression in these symbols considering we have a generalized sense of fear and instability these days. The unknown is powerful in its mystery. Artists will always be the mouthpieces for such large, fantastic theories.
As for me, I’m just happy I can wear some of these symbols without people trying to burn me at the stake. In high school, we were taught, in intense detail, the horrors of Hell and how very real it could be for those of us who did not convert. This early brush with supernatural terror and people with cult like yet deep- rooted faith both repelled and fascinated me. To them, limbo, which was notion that had comforted me as a child, does not exist. You either are or aren’t going to Heaven.
And since we are on the subject of fashion, a subject on which from glancing through your tumblr I am sure you have at least some modicum of interest -who are some of your favourite designers, and what is it about their aesthetic that appeals to you? What could we find in your own wardrobe? What would a daily bloodmilk ensemble look like?
Like most other things, I’m attracted to fashion in an intuitive sense. Aside from a couple of big name designers like the late Alexander McQueen, I really don’t know who is doing what. I don’t follow it, I just collect it from the vast, flawed, yet wonderful abyss that is Tumblr. I do love fashion though. How it requires a certain braveness.
As for independent designers, I love Audrey Cantwell’s work. Her most recent incarnation, Ovate, plays a large role in my lookbook. I also really admire Zana Bayne. She’s created this subversive collection of harnesses that people are going wild for. I own a few and wear them obsessively.
I like the idea of creating a personal aesthetic. My own fashion reference point is Beetlejuice. I wear a lot of witchy blacks and a lot of bold black and white striped pieces. I’m attracted to the idea of clothing and jewelry serving as psychic armor. I think I wind up looking a bit Goth as I have long dark hair but I don’t really see myself this way. To avoid this label, I often wear electric coral lipstick. I don’t think this tactic works as well as I hope it does though……
Last year you had a show, “Darker, My Love”, resulting in a series of vignettes which questioned “if it were possible to commune between this world and the next”, and which was partially inspired by your pilgrimage to lilydale, an intensely personal experience for you, one which you are still trying to understand. And yet, you continue to be inspired by and create from it, as evidenced by your “seance” pieces. I realize you are still trying to work through and process the visit, but is there anything you can tell us at all about your trip to that victorian spiritualist community?
The pilgrimage to Lily Dale was immensely inspiring. My father had been accidentally killed the early autumn of 2008 & I was left in an emotional and psychic fissure. It was the first time I encountered deep- rooted grief. It was destructive and terrifying. I wanted answers .I started to question everything I knew about the afterlife and mourning. Things I had learned in boarding school, things different members of my family thought or didn’t think about what happened after one died. I ask nearly everyone I encounter what their thoughts are of how the afterlife looks, what or who they believe is there waiting for them. I still never seem to feel comforted.
Lily Dale offers an interesting promise of proof. It’s a strange and beautiful town, filled with ghosts and hopeful people, most of them far more “normal” than I had imagined them to be. All the mediums live in these olde houses within the small town that resides near Cassadaga lake and a true haunted forest, the Leoyln woods, which has spirits and elementals beneath its stunning canopy. It also marks the only other time and place I have seen a hummingbird after my very first encounter the previous autumn in SF.
It is a gated community, fiercely protective. Sometimes there are picketers at the edges of this gate., but I don’t remember if we encountered any. You have to pay to get in and pay each day just to be there, though you can stay on the grounds. We stayed in the Maplewood hotel where a visiting medium from Erie was staying. The sound of her voice in the halls was an odd sensation, but in truth I was slight afraid of her.
During the day, if you don’t have an appointment with a medium there a various things to do, visit the healing temple, visit the small museum, walk through the woods. This is punctuated by 2 groups sessions held in the Leoyln woods. People gather near the ‘inspiration stump’ to hear various mediums give public readings to select people in the crowd. Some people break down during this, and others are clearly skeptical, giving the mediums short responses. I found this part to be the most interesting, this communal gathering of those looking to connect with the dead, and therefore, in a way, death itself. There is a braveness to this, but it is also rooted in sadness.
Though I didn’t get any messages from the other side as I had wanted, it cemented my interest in investigating how I felt about the afterlife. It’s an ongoing quest and I hope to find real peace in the future. How I deal with all this information and conflicting feelings is by making jewelry. In a sense bloodmilk was born out of this untimely tragedy, out of my grief.
Insofar as your paintings, what can we expect on that front? Is that something you are constantly working on, that we may not be aware of…or are the paintings the sort of project that occurs when the moods strikes or an opportunity arises?
I may or may not be making secret plans with amazing artist Sienna Freeman based around our mutual love of doubles / shadow selves … 😉
What direction do you foresee for bloodmilk? Spending so much time ruminating upon oracles and prophecies, surely you must have become somewhat of a seer yourself…of what does that foggy crystal ball upon that gloomy grey oxidised metal speak to us? What jeweled dreams are being currently cast / being forged in the future for all of your surrealist, supernatural darlings?
Those are bold adjectives! I wish I could see the future more clearly!
I think for now, that bloodmilk will remain as self -contained as I can keep it. In terms of exciting projects, I have a bunch of collaborations in the works with other artists and talented photographers. I also have a lookbook, ‘The Conjurer’ debuting today in honor of 11/ 11 / 11….
In December, there will be an exhibition at 309 Gallery here in Philly centered on ‘The Conjurer’. I’ll be showing my personal collection of my jewelry alongside Christina Brown’s photographs and Paul Romano’s design. I might never sleep again.
Your lookbook, ’The Conjurer’, looks to be a fantastical coming together of like-minded people with a shared vision, and is clearly a labor of love, from start to finish. How, and why was it conceived? How did it grow? Tell me about the experience as a whole.
‘The Conjurer’ was born from my need to have the work photographed on a model. So many times I’ll meet someone in person and they marvel at how much bigger or smaller a piece of bloodmilk seems when they see it in real life. To remedy this, I wanted to build a sort of bridge between how these objects/ jewels appear on the internet and how they appear in real life. The resulting lookbook has far exceeded my expectations and might not truly help people realize the size and scale of the pieces, but I absolutely love it. Everyone involved in this project has helped me to conjure this sorrowful yet beautiful world for the jewels.
The images were all shot in mid August in my great friend Paul Romano’s home. He is an exceptional artist and maker of incredible paintings and objects. His massive home is a reflection of the otherworldly beauty he captures in his work, filled with curiosities and strange splendors in every nook. Also living with him is another talented artist, Jeremy Hush, who also has a sizeable collection of strange things he’s acquired from traveling the world.
Jacci, the model I choose to represent the conjurer, is stunning. Her eyes have such an intense, potent power. She has also has this quiet grace I found inspiring.
In addition, another great and talented friend, Amber Lynn, composed a series of incredible still vignettes of the work coupled with some of the objects we found in their home and others I had brought with me, such as an old stone mortar that was my father’s.
Christina Brown, another great friend whom I met when she worked for me at my now defunct gallery, started shooting the lookbook in the fourth floor attic where Jeremy lives, in the room he uses for a studio. The light had a strange quality that high up, in the eye of summer, kind of like being caught in a bell jar half shrouded in shadow. The narrative is built up around the conjurer’s slow descent into the foyer of the house, with images having been shot in the hallways and in the living room. The transitional feel of it represents a kind of psychological turbulence. At the end of the shoot there was this absence of atmosphere and objects, it’s just Jacci and the jewels and a vivid, summer light. Though you can’t tell, it’s the closet she is to the doorway than at any other time in the series. Looking on it now, I think this is symbolic of my own need / desire to be able to open the door of my grief and to be able to step outside of it. To find peace.
The resulting experience was a wonderful merging of people, ideas and objects that I believe really illuminated not only the jewelry, but my ideas and beliefs behind them.