On Feb. 9, the School for the Photographic Arts Ottawa (SPAO) held a live auction and print sale to raise funds for the school. Among the artists up for grabs: Tony Fouhse, Louis Helbig, and Michael Schreier. To check out the amazing photographs that are up for grabs, click here.
One SPAO student, Jessika Brunet, was recently profiled in the February 2012 Interiors edition of Ottawa Magazine. She uses traditional photography techniques to explore such diverse themes as identity, sexuality, and time — and to turn her musings into great art. We reprint her story here.
By Kristin Braginetz
You won’t find 19-year-old Jessika Brunet posting party pictures on Facebook. While most of her contemporaries are highly practised in the art of uploading digital snapshots, Brunet spends her spare time in the darkroom, developing thought-provoking, highly technical images made with a large-format camera.
A native of Rockland, Brunet was exposed to non-digital photography as a youngster when her father took up the art form as a hobby. “It was like a childhood discovery,” she says, noting that her father embraced traditional photography just before the digital phenomenon hit. That passion followed her into high school, where, she says, she often felt isolated from her peers, a feeling that continues to influence the work she now produces as a student at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO). “There were always a lot of misconceptions about me — a disconnect. I perceive art as a dialogue, so it just made sense for me to turn to art.” That art, she explains, allows her to say what she needs to say.
That said, Brunet has never considered herself a tortured artist — that’s a label others have bestowed upon her. “I just stood out. The [artist] label was kind of pinned on me, and after a while, I was like ‘Yeah, that kind of makes sense.’ It just happened that way.” For Brunet, who admittedly struggles within the restrictions of conventional education, the SPAO environment (where’s she’s now enrolled in her second, and final, year) has allowed her to flourish. “The school is an amazing environment to work in. We all feed off of each other, and it’s a very progressive kind of education, so it works really well with the way I learn. I struggle with constraints. You give me constraints, and I just find ways to break them,” she says.
Her appreciation of her school is reciprocated. At last year’s graduation ceremony, she was presented with the Young Talent Award. The award, which was sponsored by Valérie Yobé (a local graphic designer who has a long-standing relationship with — and often teaches at — SPAO) carries a cash prize, along with a whole heap of validation and recognition. Yobé says she recognized Brunet’s flair immediately. “I saw right away a pure talent, young still, but so poetic. Her work exhibited deep atmos-phere and a sense of timeless scenery.” Yobé notes that though she had seen Brunet at the school, she did not know her well at the time the award was given. “She has a tendency for discretion. In the same vein, her photos are subtle but strong, expressive but mysterious.”
Since then, Brunet’s career has been on a serious upward trajectory. She showcased her work at Arts Court during October’s Culture Days as part of a group show called Traces. The same month, she held her first solo exhibit, entitled Articulus, at Patrick Gordon Framing (Gordon offered her the show after being impressed with her portfolio). The series was partially born of Brunet’s keen sense of self-awareness. “As one of the youngest students in my program, I had this fear that I was kind of up in the air, out of context. I was floating around and feeling like I didn’t have the right to talk about anything. What’s my life experience, you know? How can I honestly approach something? I felt like the only honest subject matter was internal dialogue.” Articulus, she says, was the result of her exploration of that internal dialogue.
Once she had determined where Articulus was headed, Brunet went all out to get the results she envisioned. “If I have a concept that I believe in, I’ll just do it. It’s all about that final object. How you get there, how many hours you spend on it is irrelevant.” She shaved her head bald. She suspended herself with bondage ropes. She also shot herself naked, a fact that doesn’t sit particularly well with some family members, friends, and viewers. But Brunet regards nudity with the same remarkable maturity with which she regards everything else. “I think it says something about a person’s personal perception of body and body ownership. Why does there have to be a negative connotation to nudity, even if it’s sexual? Why do I have to be a victim because I’m showing myself? I think it’s a liberating experience versus an exploitive experience.”
Yobé says she envisions a bright future for the student upon whom she bestowed the Young Talent Award. “There is no doubt that her work is going to grow and that she has a lot of potential for exploration,” Yobé says, adding that she is impressed by Brunet’s ability to explore images and also to understand and get the most out of traditional photographic techniques.
Next up, Brunet is working on a long-term project that focuses on two themes. One will be a formal, more traditional series of self-portraits in which she hopes to fully capture her own identity. The second is an exploration of such contemporary issues as gender role perceptions and sexuality. Photography will continue to be the concrete expression of these explorations; she is also interested in dabbling in photography as installation. “I work with long exposures. But we most often expect photography to capture an instant, to stop time. I find it interesting that photography can also capture the passing of time, a full moment lived. What can be discovered in that kind of image is very different from what we see in an instant captured.” That said, in this instant, at least, Jessika Brunet’s future is wide open.