by Ali McGhee
Justine Briggs’s pieces are the kind of works you could fall into eyes first. Filled with detail in every corner, they are the product of hours upon hours of stippling, and depict figures that seem to have emerged out of deep mystical traditions and ancient, secretive practices, arcane, magical beings who would be as home in the dark forest as they would in the psychedelic works of Alejandro Jodorowsky. The artist’s work will be on display next at Izzy’s Coffee Den (74 N. Lexington Ave.) as part of an exhibition – The Dragon and the Unicorn – that they organized, which opens September 8th.
Briggs’s arts training came late, when they were in college at Virginia’s Christopher Newport University. “I went to college because that’s what you’re supposed to do,” they say, “and I really had no direction. After my first year I had to pick something to major in, and art was the only thing I could envision myself doing all the time.” Drawing, rather than painting, became their focus, and early on they developed an illustrative style informed by comic books that evolved into the visionary approach they take today. “My work then and now still comes from my imagination,” they say. The genre is psychedelic, visionary fantasy, but Briggs takes pride in the fact that they’ve never used psychedelics. “I feel like my psychedelics are in here,” they say, tapping their head. “I feel like I’m accessing the same states. If I actually did psychedelics, I wonder whether it would alter my art in a way that wouldn’t be ‘me’ anymore.”
Growing Roots in Asheville
When Briggs came to Asheville eight years ago, it was as a family – with their partner, painter Zach Briggs, who they met at college, and their first daughter. The rhythms of parenthood and settling into a new home in Asheville kept them enmeshed in family life, and art became their way to express themselves in a larger community they weren’t yet an organic part of. “We had no friends or family here and we had a new baby,” says Briggs. “And we were working all the time. So it ended up getting really closed in, and art became really serious for us. We decided to really pursue it – we decided to do this thing.”
Gradually, they grew roots in the larger arts community, but they didn’t resonate with much of what was on display in the River Arts District. “I feel like there’s a core group of people you see a lot that show here,” says Briggs, “but I think the area is incredibly diverse.” Rather than approaching gallery spaces, they went to other spaces, like area coffee shops, to pitch their work. “You can do things here in a really grassroots way,” they say. “You can put stuff up in a coffee shop by talking to or emailing the owner, and it’s just amazing.”
Despite the relative ease of securing space for their works, they initially found the process of approaching people for shows challenging. “It was difficult for me at first because of anxiety, but now I don’t care at all anymore,” they say. After becoming more at ease with the process, Briggs got interested in other talent that wasn’t getting out there, so they eventually started organizing shows themself. “Once you start looking, you can’t stop tripping over incredible talent and getting really excited,” they note. “And that anxiety that I felt, not wanting to talk to people, a lot of the people I’ve been meeting and trying to bring into shows still feel that way with where they are right now.”
The group shows they organize are titled, and the only requirements are that the title of each work is the same as the title of the show, and that the finished dimensions of every work are the same. The Dragon and the Unicorn is the second show Briggs has put together, and each artist will contribute two pieces – one for each word in the title. Briggs’s first group show was Power and Prey, which also featured two works by every artist. They’re already planning one next March, Wolf and Witch, and one in May, Mer, where artists will each include one work. “My idea with the two guidelines—with the title and dimensions—is that each artist is starting in the same place. It almost takes each piece’s title down to your name, really, and I think that kind of brings a healthy competition to it all. Like, I’m going to be right next to these people, coming in with the same rules. Let me make sure I’m bringing it. And I also want to bring myself up alongside other people and create a more dynamic atmosphere to do my work in.”
Besides connecting with the local community through healthy competition, these shows give Briggs the opportunity to produce work around a theme they’re excited about, but on a much more manageable scale than a full solo show. Because of their involved process, producing work can take a very long time. Their dozen works in last year’s Ritual Knife, an exhibition at the Satellite Gallery with Zach, took them a year and a half to create. “My work takes so long to do,” they say, “and it takes so much work to schedule these shows. This way, I come up with the title, so I know I’ll be inspired. But I’ll also be able to see what other people bring to it.”
Honing their process has been a key part of their artistic evolution. “Usually I’ll have some sort of loose idea or feeling,” they say. “I’ll sketch it out in one sitting, then do a watercolor wash and tighten it up.” Then the painstaking process of stippling and line work begins. “I use a fine-point pen and work like a robot,” they say. “It works well since I’m a stay-at-home mom. I don’t get to sit around and get in the zone in my studio. Sometimes I only have a few minutes, and then I’ve got that much time to get a section of bubbles done. If I have more time, I do it until my hand gives out.”
All of the detail work has left Briggs with carpal tunnel and weakening eyesight, but to them, sacrifice is part of the job. “I’m feeling the physical sacrifice at this point,” they say. “My hands shake now. And I have to wear glasses when I’m working now. I get frustrated, but I forget they’re there, and when I take them off, I’m like, ‘Wow, look how much I packed into that little area.’
“There’s definitely always a place where I get angry, though,” they say. “Like, why do I even do this? Every time I’m working, I have that moment where I’m like, ‘Why with the bubbles again?’ I have to stipple entire shading on every single one, and I always put a ton of bubbles in every piece, but I like how it looks!” they laugh. “When it’s done I like them.”
For a while, Briggs would conceptualize their next piece while finishing whatever they were working on, but the process shut down their creativity. “I was finishing whatever I was working on and was getting really intense about the next thing I wanted to do,” they say. “And I was coming up with a structured composition in my mind, but when I would go to do it I wouldn’t be able to. I would get really frustrated and be really artistically dead for a while. So I had to stop and keep it loose.”
Death and Ritual
Despite that flexibility in their early stages of conception, Briggs’s style is instantly recognizable. Informed by the inner workings of their imagination, it’s also fluent in the signs and symbols of the occult and the natural world.
“My spiritual leaning is towards the natural world,” they say. “I don’t necessarily believe in anything, but I believe we’re little creatures and we don’t really know anything, and I also believe in the power of the human mind to attribute power to anything. That’s been proven without a doubt. I like to use that intentionally. I can attach meaning to an object to help me in some form of self-healing, to a ritual in general, whether it has magical powers or not. But I believe it can, because I believe in the power of the human mind.”
Plants also show up in some of their works, including The Witch of the Woods, which depicts a stump, florid with ferns and fungi, and with several sets of glowing eyes peering out. They created the piece for Ritual Knife. “I was exploring occult themes, and the Witch of the Woods is always, like, this naked woman with sticks in her hair. She’s still kinda hot, maybe, but always in that same vein. I wanted this work to feel like some woman or person who had transcended being human, and now was either more than – or less than – human. Who had become a part of this native space. And even from this lowly stump, wherever you walk she watches you.”
Briggs often depicts feminine figures, but they have masculine or androgynous characteristics as well. Their own journey with gender identity and expression informs their representations. “I’m a mom, for one thing – which is the most confusing role you can ever play, I feel like. A lot of reflection and analysis goes into that. I’m constantly analyzing my behaviors, like why I’m behaving certain ways, especially with the way I identify with gender and how I like to express myself in world.
“It can be really confusing when you become a parent, especially so young,” they continue. “I got pregnant when I was 22, and I had only barely explored myself at all. But my gender expression has been important to me since I was a teenager.” Briggs, who prefers they/she pronouns, “learned the word ‘androgynous’ when I was 14 or 15, and I thought it was magical. But being a mom, alone, is a really big part of the feminine imagery in my works. I think women are so powerful. But I also have male divinity in my paintings. And having been a partner in a heteronormative relationship for over a decade, I do like to look at gender roles. I have two daughters, and I think about their future a lot. And having so many women share their experiences, trauma, and magic with me does influence me a lot.”
The full range of a body’s forms and expressions, even its death, is important for Briggs. “I feel like I have a healthy grasp of mortality,” they say. “I remember my daughter asking about death, and we just talked about it, but instead of heaven we talked about becoming a tree.
“I feel like saying that I enjoy thinking about mortality isn’t the right phrasing, but I do think it’s peaceful,” they continue. “I do have a very part time job as a gravedigger. I’ve only gotten to do it two times in the last year because of my schedule, but it’s with a natural burial company. They do everything by hand, with tools. It’s always really physically intense, but also very special.”
As their children grow, more of Briggs’s time is opening up, but much of the creative process still takes place in relationship. “I think one of my and Zach’s greatest individual combined strengths as artists is our conversation,” they say, “in the way we can talk about ideas, or even working through a technical issue or something. Our artistic partnership is the most amazing thing that we have. Yes, we’re a romantic couple, we have kids, all these other things are going on, but no matter what else is going on – even if we’re fighting – if we go to that place it’s great.”
Creativity and motivation come through mutual support, but also through a sense of healthy competition. “If one of us sees the other person have one of those milestone paintings, we think, ‘Holy crap, they leveled up!’ You feel impassioned. It’s not about falling behind, but it’s more like that inspiring drive to stay together, at that higher level. That’s been there since the beginning.”
See Justine Briggs’s work in The Dragon and the Unicorn this Saturday, September 8, from 5-7 p.m. at Izzy’s downtown. You can also check out their work in town at Earth Magick (80 N. Lexington Ave.), online at their website, and on Instagram (@justinebriggsart). Other artists in the show include Zach Briggs, Fian Arroyo, Phlox, Mars Luren, Kaysha Siemens, and others.