Disarming and Whimsical: Jill Kerwick's "Lipstick & Other Stories" at the Visual Arts Center of NJ
Jill Kerwick is an artist who literally puts herself into the pieces she creates. Well, her body at least.
The New Jersey native makes 3D photo collages featuring startling images of women. Their bodies are human — actually photos of Kerwick's arms, legs, and torso.
But their heads resemble porcelain dolls. And sometimes in the background is a giant chicken. Or a massive bunny.
If it all sounds surreal, that’s because it is. See for yourself at “Jill Kerwick: Lipstick & Other Stories,” a new exhibit of her work at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey through Sept. 11 — her first solo show at the museum in Summit.
The title of the exhibition is fitting. Ask Kerwick about her work, and the first thing she says is: “It’s narrative.”
“It looks kind of like a normal scene,” says the artist, who grew up in Hawthorne in Passaic County but now lives in Fair Haven in Monmouth County. “Then you realize something bizarre is going on — something underlying the normalcy. People are attracted to it. They see something familiar there. But it’s a landscape with figures in it that don’t quite look right.”
Mary Birmingham, the museum’s curator, agrees.
“When you look at each of the pieces, you think: What’s the story here? Who are these women? Why do they look like this? Why is that bunny giant?” Birmingham says. “It makes the viewer think.”
Kerwick grew up around art. Her father, Thomas Kerwick, was a painter, and her sisters took singing and dance lessons. For Jill, it was art lessons and, like dad, she took up painting.
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia and later became an art director in New York City. Nearly 20 years later, Kerwick got a master’s degree in fine arts from NYU — “when everything went to computers,” she explains.
Kerwick was primarily a painter until a few years ago, when a chance meeting changed her work.
Every summer, she goes to antique fairs with her sister in Michigan. And about seven years ago, they visited a 4H fair where Kerwick met a woman who collected lady head vases.
They were a fad of the 1950s: 6-inch flower vases that look like porcelain doll heads. The woman told Kerwick she kept them on her mantle.
“I thought there was something funny and scary about that,” Kerwick remembers. “Heads on her mantle piece."
But Kerwick bought some from the woman. “They sat in my studio looking at me for two years before I decided to use them,” she says.
Prior to that, Kerwick had created a bunch of old-fashioned collages. But soon she taught herself Photoshop and incorporated the vase heads into her art. Purchases from eBay helped expand her collection.
To make her 3D collages, Kerwick sets up a scene — like a front yard or a patch of woods, sometimes with a chicken or rabbit — and places the vase head on a stand. She then takes a photograph of the setting, and to create the vase head’s body, she poses in whatever color clothing the piece calls for.
Finally, she uses Photoshop to superimpose her body underneath the vase head.
“I cut off my head and the body goes on,” she explains with a laugh.
Sometimes, Kerwick uses a painting in the background of the photos — often pieces painted by her late father.
“They happen to work really well,” Kerwick says. “They work better than most of my paintings. My father had a specific Hudson River School pallet. A lot grayer.”
Kerwick, though, has never considered herself a photographer.
“It’s like when a drummer sits down and plays guitar, they see it differently,” she explains. “I’m not a photographer. I just want to get done what I want to get done. I just say, ‘What the heck.’”
For all their whimsy, Kerwick’s collages are relatable, Birmingham says.
“They include very accessible things — like pets and oil paintings of landscapes,” the curator explains. “These doll heads — they’re figures that almost look like Barbie dolls. But the settings may look like our houses. Or the land around our houses.”
“It seems familiar but not familiar at the same time,” Birmingham concludes.
“Jill Kerwick: Lipstick & Other Stories” is on display now at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, 68 Elm Street, Summit, NJ 07901. Gallery hours are Monday–Thursday: 10 am – 8 pm; Friday: 10 am – 5 pm; and Saturday-Sunday: 11 am – 4 pm. For more information, visit www.artcenternj.org.