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2018 Interview w/Sonoran Arts Network


Jessica Van Woerkom wears two hats. ​She is a busy architectural designer, and she is also an artist - primarily a sculptor. In this interview, we learn more about her two creative callings.


SAN:  Where do we start?  How about with you…not the architectural designer., not the painter, not the sculptor, but you.  Are you a native of Tucson?  If not, what brought you here?
Jessica Van Woerkom: I moved to Tucson in 1999 from Seattle Washington for two reasons. First, the weather, like most transplants. I could no longer deal with the grey skies of Seattle. Second reason was because of the Physics Department at the University Of Arizona. At the time it was my intent to attend the Physics Department with the goal of studying astro-physics, as the university here has an excellent program.
SAN: You have a degree in architecture from the University of Arizona, and you are a working architectural designer.  Can you describe what type of architectural work you do?  Do you have a specialization?  Do you have a favorite completed project you’d like to share with us?
JVW: As you can see, I switched over to the College of Architecture rather than pursing a Physics degree. I graduated from the college in 2005. I work independently as an Architectural Designer, in the residential field with either new construction or larger remodeling jobs. Because I try to take on clients with interesting ideas and homes, They are all my favorite.
I am particularly fond of a project I worked on my first year out of college with the Firm Carver and Schicketanz Architects in Carmel California. The Santa Ynez Barn. It was a reconstructed historic barn that was dismantled on the east coast, reconstructed and retro fitted in California as a guest home. The main feature is the semi translucent walls, called Kalwall, that let filtered natural light into the space during the day, and then light up like a lantern at night. Was really a fun project to work on.
One of my most recent projects, that is still in construction, I am really fascinated by. It is called the Earth Bag End home. It is a series of 19 domes constructed from a technique called Super Adobe, in which earth from the site is fed into a sack/ sleeve and compacted to slowly form a wall. The D.I.Y. network recently finished filming the first stage of building and will be airing the show about living off the grid with this home sometime in February of 2018. I have more information, including images, on my website. 
SAN: Your website has some intriguing images of the Super adobe Earth bag Build. Is this in a really rural area of Pima County?  Will the final home have electricity and other utilities or is it really “off the grid?”  I realize your website has a more detailed description of the construction process. Could you give us an overview of your role in this project from its early stages of rendering to where the project is now in the process. 
JVW:  This particular home is just on the outskirts of Tucson in the Tucson Mountains, so it is not really rural. It is less than 10 minute drive from the interstate. It will have electricity provided by solar panels, septic and water from a well, it will not be connected to any county run infrastructure and is truly off the grid. 
I was honored to be able to work with my client from the beginning stages. Together we worked towards honing in her ideas to form a solid conceptual idea of what she wanted to build, from there I had many conversations with the governing jurisdictions to interpret what was required from them for her site. The site location has many regulations on it because of its location in the Tucson Mountains, next to the Tucson Mountain Park and BLM land, not to mention owl habitat, saguaro protection plans, wash and drainage restrictions and hillside restrictions. For me, sorting through these codes is like a giant fun puzzle. My client was thrilled I could navigate it all for her and present it in a way that made sense and made it easy to comply with.
After that stage, I worked through the design development with my client, developed the Construction documents, coordinated with the structural engineering firm and all other consultants to make sure my client got exactly what she wanted. I issue all the drawings required for a permit to be issued. Additionally I coordinated with the filing crew to establish a time frame for when construction could begin and estimated duration. Once construction began, my role was to visit the site a few times to make sure everyone was clear on the design and to act as support to my client. She is building the home herself, having just completed the first phase of the build. It will most likely take another solid year before it is completed. I will be updating my website with the progress of the build as she moves forward.
 SAN: Tell about the “green” aspect of this Super adobe project. Is this an especially low-cost and environmentally-sensitive project? What is the advantage of building with “earthbags” over other materials?  Have you done any other projects like this or is this a first?
JVW: This is my first Super Adobe Home. I would love to work on another one, I have a lot of fun ideas!
We tried to be as sensitive to the site as we could be. Construction always damages natural a site, there is no way around that. But smart design can help to preserve the best features of the site. I am very careful in helping my clients to understand that you never want to build on the most beautiful part of the site. It will ruin the beauty.
Working with soil from the site is very environmentally sensitive. First of all, it's free. If you own the land, you've already paid for the material. And even if you need to have soil brought in, a truck load of earth  is much less expensive than lumber or steel. These types of home are resistance to fire, weather concerns such as flooding or severe storms, they are bullet proof and will outlast any stick and stucco building by hundreds of years. They require very little maintenance when completed, are termite resistant and the 22 inch walls act very well to keep the interior space cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
On a global level, using a natural materials found on site or locally, reduces the impact on co2 emissions from processing, shipping, storing materials such as lumber and steel. 


SAN: When you are not engaged in architectural design, you are also a painter and sculptor. Tell us a little about your paintings.
JVW: Honestly I don't really paint much anymore. I was a decent painter, but was never really fantastic at it. I still watercolor when I am in nature or traveling, but I do these more for my enjoyment rather than trying to use them as my "artistic medium" so to speak. 


SAN: Your sculptural work is especially fascinating because it seems to be created primarily from recycled and found objects. For example, your large-scale wall sculpture titled “Shifted” in the 2015 Tucson Sculpture Festival was created from recycle Venetian blinds.  Your work “Insides Out” is especially beautiful.  What is it about discarded materials that attracts you?
JVW: Thank you for those kind words. I am happy to hear you enjoy my work!
Well for one, they are free. That always helps any artist. But more importantly using discarded or reclaimed material does three things for me. First, On a socially conscious level, it allows me to discuss how wasteful we are as a nation, in our personal choices to our corporate choices. Everything these days is made not to last. Companies intentionally create products that will break down, and we allow this. We no longer repair most items, or take pride in the quality of something made well. Secondly, from an environmental level, this behavior of rapid consumerism of products intended for the landfills is doing serious damage to our world. I see it every time I walk through the desert washes, or in the alleyways of the city, in the canyons, in the rivers and oceans. Our trash is everywhere. I am amazed at how far into the desert I can wander and still find someone's trash. So I started gathering it up and either keeping it for a new sculpture piece or properly disposing of it.  I know this act and one silly little sculpture of mine is not going to change either of these two subjects, but at least it makes me feel like I'm taking some small action to make things a little better in our world.
And the third thing is does for me, as an artist, it to think outside of the box. Each collection of material I acquire has completely different features and elements. I cannot just continue to do the same idea or style over and over again. I enjoy the challenge of "figuring out" what the most beautiful and elegant arrangement of this trash could possibly become. And I like the idea that what was once so quickly discarded can be transformed into a thing of beauty.

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AN: Do you have a favorite sculptural piece you’ve completed?  or one you are working on now?
JVW: My favorites change. Some months I will really love a piece I've done and will be so in love with it, and then the next day I could suddenly see some fault in it or some way that I could have made it even more amazing and then I don't like as much it anymore. Some pieces I've worked on for years and everyone who sees it tells me how beautiful it is, but I just don't feel it anymore. They are like relationships in a way, sometimes I evolved past what they once meant to me, sometimes they are my first kiss, my true love, sometimes no matter how hard we try, we cannot get it to work.
Currently I am trying to finish up the pieces I have started already, which is very difficult for me because some of these pieces take years. I tend to have several developing at the same time so that I do not get too bored with the same monotonous work. But Currently I am trying to finalize what I have so that I can photograph it and get my work out to a few gallery.
One of the works I am trying to complete, which is still untitled, is a series of cut disks from used register receipt rolls, cut and cleaned with the interior circle filled with a translucent white resin. These little disks are then formed into quarter spheres, like an abstracted shape of a leaf. The idea is that this will be a ceiling installation, with the "Leaf" like  pieces off set so the undulate in a sort of wave. I will need at least 25-30 of them to make it really work. For now I am going to complete 6-8 to represent the idea until I can get funding to complete the project. 


SAN: How do you manage your time?  One project at a time or do you work on several things at once?
JVW: I prefer to work on several things at once. I am a Libra, so balance is very important to me. In a perfect world, all things I love; Art, Architecture, Exercise, Nature, etc. would all get equal parts of my day, and I do try for that.
SAN: What are your biggest challenges as an artist?
JVW: The biggest challenge currently is getting my portfolio finished so that I can look for representation and begin selling my work. It has been several years in the making and I am really ready to be recognized as a viable artist and make a living from it. I really want to expand and do large scale installations, that would be so amazing. I have so many ideas that right now, with my financial constraints and studio constraints that are not possible to fully realize. It would be amazing to be able to go really big with my ideas!
SAN: What do you think would make life easier for Tucson and southern Arizona artists/
JVW: Tucson is a double edged sword. It is such a creative place, it acts as a haven for artists and has an energy too it that makes you want to create. It is affordable so having a home and a studio is not an impossible idea for most people. I love that about Tucson! However, there really isn't a very large market for being able to sell that work. Especially for artist like myself that create more modern, or expensive pieces. Because It can take a year or more on one of my sculptures, I cannot sell it for anything less than what I would have made in that year at a normal job. So having a high price tag makes it very hard to support myself through my work here. I see that the farmers market model of selling art really does work for a large community of artists here in Tucson, but not for all. I would really love to see the city recognize and honor the artists in the  community and create a gallery row that provides high end work to be shown and sold. The city has not been historically supportive of the arts as much as they should have. All the artists that once kept congress street alive have been completely disrespected by the city. I'd like to see them make up for it. With all the new "complexes" that are being built in the downtown area, it is time for an officially gallery row, made by the community and supported by the city.





For more information on artists in the Sonoran Desert, visit their page directly at:  http://www.sonoranartsnetwork.net/