Jessica Houston traveled to the Greek island of Paros in 1992 to study writing—and instead began an affair with art that has enraptured her since. “Once I started, I was so mesmerized,” Houston recounts. “I compare the feeling to falling in love, you’re just so swept up that you just can’t even stop yourself, you’re so seduced. That’s how I feel, that’s how my relationship with painting started.”
It’s a relationship that flourished under the influence of the ancient world—jobs as art teacher and gallery supervisor led Houston to spend years abroad in multiple locales around Italy. Houston cofounded and instructed the international art workshop ARTE VITA in Florence, Venice, and rural Tuscany, where she combined the painting techniques of the old masters with a modern context. This idea seems synthesized through many of her works, which frequently juxtapose the youthfulness of bathing-suit-clad children with the solemn facial expressions common of Renaissance-era portraits. Weathering the Storm, which portrays five girls wearing swimsuits in the rain, is typical of this contrast and conveys Houston’s fascination with weather and water, other elements commonly depicted in her art.
In the cover image, Message from the Jackal, Houston presents Anubis, the embalmer of Egyptian mythology who weighed the hearts of the dead on a scale against a feather to determine if their souls should be sent to the afterlife or destroyed. “For the Egyptians, art didn’t represent something, it actually was something: a palpable, very powerful presence, more than just a symbol,” Houston explains. “That’s part of my fascination with Egyptian art and part of the way that the jackal is in the painting. He’s not just a symbol; he’s a presence that goes beyond an image and evokes a bigger sense of time.”
Houston explains that Message from the Jackal is about another kind of knowledge, one “that comes from a different sense of time and a different kind of listening to the world.” She says the girl in the painting is “privy to some kind of information, and because she’s a child it helps that communication happen.” Perhaps the jackal’s whisper is a sobering message—Houston says she was inspired by Elizabeth Kolbert’s book Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change and the endangerment of the monarch butterfly, which rests above the scale in the painting.
Houston’s art is on view at the Carrie Haddad Gallery, 622 Warren Street, Hudson through August 12, along with works by Stevan Jennis, Jenny Nelson, Allyson Levy, and Lori Van Houten. (518) 828-1915; www.carriehaddadgallery.com.