Beautiful Thinkers: Julie Wolfe, Artist

On found art, visual vocabularies and holding onto wonder

When I discovered Julie on Instagram, I was astonished with her range of work. There was an urgency to it that felt bold and brave. She embraces process as part of the creation of art. She started designing jewelry 30 years ago that is still carried at Barneys. From there, she spread out into conceptual installation work, sculpture, painting and drawing. She interprets the world through a colorful lens with her art making it a big more magical and honest.

Julie’s studio in Washington DC. illustration by Zac Neulieb

Julie in her Capitol Hill home and studio

How does process influence your work?
How I work and what I make are equally important. I usually work on 3–4 projects at a time. I have a studio space in my house, so I’m able to spread out and jump from one piece to another. I don’t know if that’s a lack of attention span or if it’s me wanting to connect everything together while I’m working on it.

You’re a prolific artist. Where did that sensibility come from?
A mentor told me long time ago that I should get up every day and make things. The best way, the most intuitive way to make things happen is to keep making and watch the work evolve. It’s a domino effect. You make something. You question it. You learn a little bit more about yourself and your surroundings. And then start the process over. I think that’s how we figure out our place in the world.

A lot of creative people will associate a color with a day of the week. That’s how I respond to these words. When I do, I kind of flip it and make the word into a visual that I can use later on other pieces. I come up with drawings and symbols that I associate with these words and texts. I like the idea of making these collections of drawings that I can use in larger paintings or drawings.

Left to right: jewelry for Barneys; installation at American University Katzen Museum, “Quest For a Third Paradise”

Art is my way of making sense of what’s happening in the world. I don’t want it to be super existential about it. My ultimate goal is to make things that are interesting to myself and to other people. I’m always striving towards the simple and mundane for the finished product.

When do you create art vs. responding to a found object?
There are certain times when I think I want to make a painting. I’ll have these two colors that I really want to make a painting of. Or I’ll have these shapes that I keep thinking about that I want to combine in a drawing. Or maybe I want to overlap two colors. That’s one way of working.

When I respond, it seems like it’s usually that I’m responding to the surface that I’m working on. It’s hard for me to work on a fresh clean surface. That’s why I love working on top of photographs or texts. The found art is a catalyst. Synesthesia is an interesting way to process the world. Color plays a big role.

Where does your color palette come from?
I don’t really think about that. It’s just ingrained in me. You know how everyone has these colors they’re drawn to but they’re not really aware of? My color palette has always been vibrant colors. I like a lot of white with pops of color. I don’t often work with a lot of muted tones together. I might work with muted tones, but they always have surprise pops of color. It’s a color palette I’ve worked with since I was a child.

Color Index, 2016

Was there a significant childhood experience that influenced your art?
I remember always painting on weird surfaces. I would use whatever was lying around: wood, a roof shingle or a scrap of metal. I even used to paint on turtle shells. My dad was a biologist, so he had lots of turtles. I would get into trouble because I painted fluorescent flowers on their back, which compromised their protection defense.

Constructed Situations (detail). 2016 | Pastel, colored pencil and gouache on paper. 66" x 231"

I don’t know if that was growing up in the 60s, but those kinds of odd surfaces and bright colors were something that made me happy. I liked the texture of various surfaces and the layering of colors on top of something else like painting on rocks. I love to draw on black paper with bright colors.

I also would draw things in compartmentalized ways, not a patchwork quilt, but a grid pattern. I would organize things like that. I loved systems. So much of my work today is about different types of systems: social, environmental or ecological. Some artwork is more obvious than others.

What practices do you use to fuel creativity?
I have a lot of different ones. I look at a lot of old things. I collect a lot of stuff, and I’m always looking at my surroundings. This past weekend we went to West Virginia, and they had all these different kinds of mushrooms. I’ve always loved mushrooms, so I did a study of all of the species. Things like this are some of my greatest inspiration.

Mushroom study , West Virginia. 2017

I also look at a lot of art. I spend a lot of time going to museums and looking at their archives. I like to keep up with what’s going on around the world. I’m interested to see how things are installed, the mechanics of it. I like to find trends in different countries off the beaten path, where you would least expect to see amazing art happening.

What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on?
I worked with a program with the State Department called “Art in the Embassies.” They curate the art collections in the US embassies around the world. They’re amazing collections.

I’ve worked with them quite a bit in different countries on their exchange programs. My work in Quito, Ecuador, was my favorite. They sent me over there to work in the Amazon with these tribal women. There were 19 from different tribes with different dialects. The communication was practically non-existent. I had an interpreter. We ended up communicating really well because we had a common interest of art.

They taught me their skills with fibers. I taught them metalsmithing, which they’d never done even though they make jewelry for a living. They were able to sustain their business by the embassies continuously supplying metal. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to do anything like that again.

Cultural Values: Language of Protest. 2015 ; Ink and gouache on found book pages. 72" x 115"

How do you retain your childlike sense of wonder?
I try to stay positive, but it is hard. It’s interesting how artists are responding to everything right now. I have seen some trends in my work that’s a little darker. I’m thinking about more futuristic things and going forward and what to expect. It’s a little bit darker, but I also can’t help but make it beautiful at the same time. I think that there’s this urgent beauty that captures people’s attention. Using that beauty to bring awareness is critical.