Insa Janssen is an artist whose works focuses on the human experience of emotion through the body. Her journey of exploration is deeply personal. It ventures from her perception of the masculine beauty, through the strength in female emotions, traditionally discouraged in women, such as anger and overt aggression to the deep comfort found in shared vulnerability, sadness, and joy in interpersonal relationships. Insa draws upon her experience as an Embodied Yoga Teacher to let the human body be the vessel and voice of emotion in absence of words. Nectar News had the privilege of sitting down with Insa (over zoom) to discuss her artistic practice and unique journey:
2022 91.4 x 121.9 cm | 36 x 48 in charcoal, gold leaf, spray paint, texture paste and marble paint on canvas
Nectar News: Insa, you have had a fascinating journey from being in the law field and then being an artist. I’m making the assumption that you’ve probably always been an artist and then maybe went into law and came back to that. But you tell me, what has that journey been for you? When did you start your work as a painter, and then how did the law become a part of your life?
Insa Janssen: Well it is a fair assumption to make. I cannot pinpoint the time when I decided on being an artist but I can say that I’ve always painted. I’ve also always drawn and photographed. My first journey into exploring it more professionally was in 2008 when I was in Los Angeles for the first time for a law degree. I took a photography class, and found myself in a very sunny city, spending a lot of my time in a dark room and being very content with that. What I started to notice was that I enjoyed my art classes much more than the academic classes I was taking. In fact, I was flunking my academic classes a lot because I was up with my camera too late. But I always saw photography as a passion that I have on the side because the way I grew up I have a very strong need for security and safety in my life. I didn’t even consider art as a professional career.
NN: Yes, I think so many of us carry that need for safety and security.
IJ: I was passionate about legal work too, and it allowed me to travel a lot. I was exposed to a lot more countries as a result and to artists. I started off working in entertainment law representing writers and screenwriters. During that time I was also going through a very difficult relationship in Los Angeles. And it was really after I returned from that in 2014 when I had completely lost myself, every part of me that something shifted. I felt like I needed a long walk to clear my head. And so, I started walking the Camino de Santiago, it’s in Europe and Spain as a famous pilgrimage. I did that and actually… Yes, I can pinpoint the time when I knew I was going to be an artist, it was on this walk.
NN: So this is a hike?
IJ: Yes, it’s a hike. It’s a 32-day hike. 750 kilometers through Spain.
IJ: Yeah. I needed a bit of a walk. And about halfway through a little longer than that, I was walking and rethinking my life and really worried that I had lost my artistic side because I hadn’t been practicing for so long. And then I had a very significant dream during the night where I realized, “No, art is not something that I do. It’s something that I fundamentally am.” And ever since having that realization, I have felt a sense of calm about my path as an artist. But it still took me another eight years to now to make that shift because I needed to grow in my confidence, in my skillset, and work it out. I also needed to work on that security need that I still have very deeply.
NN: I appreciate you sharing that timeline piece of it because I think so often when people tell their story of a big awakening in their life, they’ll say, “And then I have the awakening and then everything changed immediately.” But in reality, transformation takes time.
IJ: Exactly. It’s non-linear and there is a lot of work in between to get there.
NN: So, I’m curious about those eight years. You go on this long walk and discover that you want to go back to your core essence as an artist. What were some of those steps that you took?
IJ: I actually initially didn’t consider doing art professionally right away. I just felt like I had lost so much of myself. I was just glad that I found my essence again. And so, I always just gave away my work or just did it for myself. I always used to say, “Oh, no, no, no, I would never do this for money because this is my art. I don’t want to think about who wants it.” And only in the last year, have I realized that was a lot about me and that I don’t want to be confronted about whether someone wants me, because my art is so intertwined with that. I didn’t have that confidence for the longest time.
NN: I think lots of artists struggle with that.
IJ: Yes, and I’ve had that experience now talking to artists a lot. Even just saying the sentence I am an artist is something that I didn’t feel empowered to do for a very long time because it’s so much more personal than the other work that I did.
So, I went from working for a law firm in Munich to working more in the innovation space with new technologies. I moved to Berlin and took a job in a startup for technology, which I think is pushing the creative aspect of legal work to the maximum that I could go. That was an important step forward creatively for me. Also, in terms of steps, I reduced my work to three days when I was at a law firm and never went above four days in the startup. And that is actually something that I think is so important as an intermediate step if you can because time is the most valuable asset for artists. I always realized when I had a week or two off, my creativity would bloom towards the end of it. And so, that time component became really important. Because otherwise, it’s very often left to chance when that creativity truck hits you, and you’re seeing something connecting and then having that glorious moment of an idea that is so special. When you talk about that experience with other artists, you see their eyes light up because that’s the high that we are all after. And it came in handy in legal work and in the innovation space because you’ve come up with ideas other people might not consider because they’re at first weird and then turn out to be good or not depends.
NN: That’s so true. Let’s talk a little about your work. It is so beautiful and unique. I’m curious if you can share a bit about the medium that you work in. You have water prints, which I would like to know more about.
IJ: So, the water prints are actually from my very early work in 2014 when I left the US. And what I had in terms of material were the photographs that I took mostly in Bushwick and in the US. Mermaid is from the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island.
Taking those photographs at that time was very freeing for me. I was definitely half out of my mind running between serious legal meetings and I had only a digital camera and I very much loved the format of analog printing in a dark room. Since professionally I work with a computer, I don’t like it at all as an artist. Not to put that down, I think there is beautiful digital work out there. I just don’t enjoy the process.
I like to put my hands on stuff. So, I discovered that I had to come up with a new process for printing my digital pictures… If it’s analog, what I could do is print the images in a dark room and wave my hands between them and the light during exposure, and include objects to play with the light. It became like painting with light. When working with digital photography I couldn’t develop photographs in the same way and I also didn’t have access to a dark room. I used just a regular inkjet printer and printed it out, and then took a marble, a very thick stone cookie rollout. And I took Aquarelle paper and sprayed water and wine and tried other stuff on it. And just with muscle force transferred them. Sometimes with two or three printouts to get the right amount of ink there. Sometimes I added some ink afterward when I just wanted it to look different. Sometimes I printed it out on plastic so that it wouldn’t absorb the color and those look a little bit different. So, yeah, that’s the process of water prints. It’s just me trying to make up an analog way of printing digital photos.
NN: Beautiful. I love that. They’re so pretty. And what about your work currently? I know you said that was your first stuff. So, what’s your artistic journey been?
IJ: From there, I ventured into figure drawing. I’ve had the good fortune of having very pretty roommates, and also from going to museums, I had seen that there are so many depictions of beautiful nude women randomly in the landscape. And that’s because of the male gaze obviously. Male painters have been more dominant throughout history. I’d always been drawing women just because they are more beautiful, I guess, and because we’re socially more accustomed to beautiful female depictions I just took what I had, which is the memoirs that I had, and started exploring that.
From there I started experimenting with more materials and I came across this process of dipping in paint that you have on the water. I don’t know whether you know that Easter egg process where you have floating paint on water, and dip the Easter egg in. Well, I ordered a lot of those tiny bottles, and I have a very big plastic water basin that I can dip whole canvases in. And that became part of my process and I still love it. You see it in all of my pictures as the last step. You can have metallic ones where you have that awesome weird sense that when you walk around the painting it’s sometimes transparent and sometimes not.
And I started layering a lot. I love painting with oil, but not having a designated studio it’s difficult because oil paint dries for half a year. So, I did some acrylic and some oil that you can fasten.
I do multi-step serial work. So, I will finish six quite naturalistic charcoal starts, and then take the whole series through steps, and sometimes that’s half a year in between. So, all the larger manual landscapes I think were a year and a half in creation where I always put it away, and then I was like, “No, it needs this other layer of things.” And then, I wasn’t even thinking about the depiction at the same time. But I’m very, very glad about that work because my roommate who’s in that larger landscape passed away last year.
NN: Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss.
IJ: Thank you. He died doing what he loved, hiking. He was very young, and so I’m really glad that I captured him in ways that he loved. So, then from men, I ventured to return more to the female form, using myself as a model mostly because, during COVID, there were not so many options.
NN: What inspires your work?
IJ: I always work from something in a photograph or something I see or a human form that I can manipulate. And then content-wise, it was a long journey of drawing men which were emotionally quite removed for me. Then I started depicting myself or a friend who had been going through something and that inspired the Butterfly series. Then, only in the last year did I start to have more than one human being on canvas. Human relationships have not always been easy for me, although superficially very easy, but not on a vulnerable level, and took quite a bit of therapy to get there, which I’m confident and open about.
NN: Yes, this must be the Connection series that you are talking about. It is stunning. And I think it’s very relatable post-COVID to have something about this human connection, and it’s so visceral. There’s so much about touch in these paintings.
IJ: I like to use the body. I’m also a yoga teacher so for a long time I related to emotions, more through how you feel them in the body. You feel a lump in your throat, or you feel tingling when you’re inspired or something like that. So, it was that type of connection that I wanted to express.
NN: You spoke a little about time and the importance of time. And as an artist, It’s almost like you have to have the discipline to give yourself that amount of time to play and create. What is your daily discipline as an artist? What does it look like?
IJ: I’ve been working on having more and more time habits. I do start my day with the same routine of 20 sun salutations and meditation, which is very important to me because I do suffer from nightmares, and this routine gets me out of that. Then I’m fresh to start my day with whatever comes from there, and I want to develop this. I do not have a routine yet in the sense of “I spend five hours painting each day”. It’s more still like a draw. That’s also because I just now am making that transition to not having the four-day workweek. But I do agree with you that it’s good to have a schedule.
NN: But that’s a big step to move in. I think that one of the hardest parts about being an artist, especially in the world today, is when we’re not being funded necessarily the way we should be how do we create time and space? Yet, being creative about how to make space that’s a big sign of dedication.
IJ: Yes and I’m moving towards the vision of working zero days and being 100% an artist when I return to Berlin. 2023 is going to be just an amazing gift to me.
NN: That’s wonderful. How has the lawyer side of your brain aided you in your artist journey? Is there a conversation between those two parts of self?
IJ: It’s probably kept me safer than I would otherwise have been because it gave me some structure in my life. Probably a little too much structure. I think. What’s drawn me to the law is a very, very strong need for justice. I wanted to be a criminal judge when I was five. Representing someone and the creativity that goes into drafting a contract can feel like art when you make it from scratch and you find the right words and put the logic that is behind language in a delicate form where it sounds nice. So, there is some creativity involved in law.
NN: It’s interesting that you were driven to practice law out of a sense of justice and a desire to advocate for others. Because as you were talking about your art and as I’m looking at it, it feels like many of these pieces are advocating for others. You spoke about your friend and how you even advocate for yourself in the connection series, there’s this sense of justice in there as well.
IJ: Yeah. Advocating is very much the strong and fighting side of it, and I needed that. I just needed that in my life for a long time. Not just advocating for others, but in a way advocating for me. And then in the connection series and also slightly before then, it’s a lot about letting go of that constant need and letting a connection advocate for yourself.
NN: Beautiful. And my last question is for this upcoming year. As we move into 2023, is there a theme that you have in mind for yourself and your work?
IJ: Yes. So, I think the focus will be self-compassion. That’s basically it, because there are for the first time, so many unknowns, way more unknowns than knowns, and as a human being, I will be struggling with it all. And there will be moments of absolute fun and joy, and I want to embrace those completely. And also in my work, I want to dive deeper into the human connection. How we as a community process emotions. Not in an isolated way, but in a way together. And I think I’ll be exploring that more.
And then as a second thing, I want to experiment to the fullest extent that that year allows me with different modes of techniques. So, yeah, on a personal level, it will be about compassion and human connection, exploring deeper into that, and then just experimentation and fun for me in the next year.
NN: That’s a great vision for 2023. Thank you, Insa for this interview and I look forward to keeping an eye on your artistic career.
For more about Insa Janssen visit her website: https://www.insajanssen.com/