HUBweek Change Maker: Liz Jaff

Liz Jaff is a visual artist who uses minimal geometry to explore memories of time and space. She rigorously explores the structural and aesthetic possibilities in ephemeral materials. Combining these with abstraction and repetition of architectural and natural forms, Jaff creates environments and objects that convey the specific feeling and character of a place or event. She received her BFA in painting from The Rhode Island School of Design and has exhibited nationally and internationally. She lives and works in New York City.

Q: You studied painting at RISD. Tell us a little bit about your evolution as an artist then & now.

When I initially decided to go to art school and study art, for me it wasn’t about being tied down to a specific medium. Institutions will ask you to declare a major and I picked painting because it was the most interesting to me at the time. I felt like the education was an opportunity to learn how to look at things and how to see things but I was always aware that I would eventually find a language that suited me — I had no idea what that was going to be when I was in school– but whatever the subject matter was that I thought was important to talk about, I wanted to be equipped to be able to pick what materials and what techniques would best convey that. Whereas I did focus on painting, I felt that I was also trying to learn about as many other disciplines and materials as I possibly could. I was very aware that I didn’t know what it was that I wanted to say through the work yet, but I wanted to be prepared once I knew what that was going to be.

Q: What did you eventually decide you wanted to say through your work?

For me, from very early on, it was looking at things and realizing how ephemeral the world felt to me and how transient certain experiences were. The beauty of walking through museums, particularly encyclopedic museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was that they were very much cataloging things through objects, but the actual experiences and the moments in which these things existed don’t really exist anymore. What these objects are now doing is creating a new type of experience for us in the present based on whatever contemporary or personal information we’re bringing to how we view those objects. I found that fascinating.

“What these objects are now doing is creating a new type of experience for us in the present based on whatever contemporary or personal information we’re bringing to how we view those objects.”

Q: That’s so interesting… how did you begin to communicate that? What was that process like?

I actually started by making forms from abstraction, which took me a while to get to. I had a hard time with abstraction. I wanted to be able to create experiences that felt very permanent in a gallery setting, but talked in a very abstract way about a very specific experience I was having. I tried very hard not to project my particular experience on it by using the abstract language. For example, if I did something that was very figurative, you would very literally get the story. So I decided that I wanted to work with existing architecture to create something that you couldn’t help but have a response to because we’re all used to occupying space and responding to architectural settings. And that’s how I started doing site-specific installations to communicate my work.

Q: Why did you use paper (or what appeared to be paper) for your installation on City Hall during HUBweek?

I have a day job, because, you know, artists have a hard time making a living, and I was working for a museum that sent me to Las Vegas to help them set a museum up there. I was living at a hotel for extended period of time where I’d be there for a month and then come home for a week. That’s one of those environments where not only are you traveling and you’re uprooted from where you normally are, but everything is manufactured and artificial. Everything is designed for you to have a very particular kind of experience– it drove me nuts. So much so, that I asked the chambermaids not to make up my room every day because I didn’t like coming in and having my room be this absolutely pristine sameness everyday. So I started to make things in my hotel room out of the stationary that was there, it was the most unrepresented material in the room and it was really the only thing you could make something out of. It was then that I realized that anything that I’d make I’d have to be able to take home with me, so that is where the folding and cutting came from. To me, it was the ultimate ephemeral experience that I could take with me, but whatever experience I was having while making these things in my hotel room wouldn’t be the same once I brought them somewhere else because they become at the effect of whatever new environment into; not unlike historical objects in a museum, where they become different because of the passage of time and the change of context.

Q: What was your experience with your installation at HUBweek like?

When you’re presented with something like HUBweek, when you think about how incredibly brilliant it is to say, “let’s talk about science, technology, let’s question what is considered innovative” and in a funny sort of way, what I did was possibly one of the the least most innovative things in the world because it’s so basic in its idea, but I think the scope of it makes it something more innovative. You would never expect that. The challenge for me as an artist is that I know what I want [my idea] to look like, but how do you really make it do that without changing it? I wanted the installation to have a sense of the unexpected, I wanted it to feel whimsical, and make you wonder “why is this even here? what is it about?”

The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.

To stay up to date on our Change Makers, events in Boston, and everything else at HUBweek, subscribe to our newsletter, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.