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Conceptual Meaning and Inspiration

Lesson 1 from: The Art and Business of Conceptual Portraiture

Jennifer Thoreson

Conceptual Meaning and Inspiration

Lesson 1 from: The Art and Business of Conceptual Portraiture

Jennifer Thoreson

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Lesson Info

1. Conceptual Meaning and Inspiration

Lesson Info

Conceptual Meaning and Inspiration

I think this is kind of all in all in a in a nutshell what making art is really it's the narcissism thing where you pretty much feel like you're a genius at times right? You've got it all figured out you know where you're going you know, what's going on you know, like what the works about it's important to you it's going to be important to other people it's going to mean something you're going to leave a legacy the narcissus something right? All of us have some of that let's just keep it really we've got it but then we have equal parts crippling self doubt so equal parts so we're going to talk a lot about getting up that mountain and figuring out how to get past that bit because we all have it and we all have it in a shows up at the beginning right rears his ugly head right when you've got a cool idea and says that's not gonna work you know, that's really done people are going to like that people are going to respond to that it's going to cost too much it's going to take too much time ...

all that stuff that comes into play you don't have the ability to do this you don't know how to do this what do you thinking? And then at some point those two things mary and you would have made art no that's kind of the goal is to get past the crappy bit get past the spending part where you can't see your north and get into the narcissism partly that this is going to be awesome I'm going to make something important and then you're there you're you're golden but that's a long journey we're going to kind of talk about this morning how to get through that and just kind of as a big disclaimer this is my own journey this is not the answer to life for everybody all I can really do you can't teach this stuff okay? All I can really do is tell you what's worked for me and really hope that it's going to help it's going to help you somehow so this whole program the next couple of days is just that I'm sharing it with you my journey telling you what my crash and burn moments I'll bear all to you and also share what what worked? I find that I if I look back and on my life creative life I work in faces and I think a lot of creative people find that this happens with them and it's not just a phase it's crash and burn start over push the reset button and climb up the mountain again get up there crash and burn push the reset button and start over again I've done it lots of times I started out as a wedding photographer by accident actually went to music school learned how to be a concert clarinet player that was going to be life and then I took a photo class my last semester of music school and that was that hey dad this is what I want to do for the rest of my life awesome so I started photography business and literally had pictures of my friends on the walls I ordered a light that came with an umbrella and I thought how nice of them to send the umbrella in case it rains right I mean I had no clue none I was one of those people and a bride came in one day and said hey do you shoot weddings and I said sure yes I do so from that point for the next five six seven years I shot weddings I never meant to shoot weddings but I did and I learned so much from it and I'm so thankful for it but I was never happy it never felt right what I really wanted to do was make work that was expressing ideas talking about something that was going on with me something I believed in something that was important to me so after that phase was crashing burn moment I sold my business sold everything I had moved up to boston where I knew no one and just started over so I taught it be you up there for a while and um made fine artwork I made for serious of work while I was up there and so that was kind of a crash burn start over moment andi I find I mean I've done it many times and I need that it happened again when I moved to new mexico and I'll talk about that here in just a minute so my first semester when I went to mexico and which is the three years ago over so I wanted to go to graduate school and main reason for that was to give myself three focused years where I wasn't trying to run a business and I wasn't trying to make a living really I could just make work for three years and it was the best thing to ever happen to me but the beginning of it was absolute crash and burn when I moved out to new mexico first of all this coming from the city so it I hated it I hated it I hated land I hated them people hated it all and it took a minute for that toe warm up and for me to feel like I could start making work again but also landed in the middle of a divorce and I never expected to happen and just in life crashed and burned and felt unwanted unneeded and discarded at that moment and making work making photographed scenes seemed like the most ridiculous thing on earth I couldn't make myself do it I didn't want to make photographs I didn't want to make I didn't want to pick up the camera. I didn't want to be a photographer anymore, really, so I started making objects. I took a class on this there's an image of our pueblo pottery class in graduate school, learn to dig the clay and clean the clay and sifted and eventually turned that clay into a vessel into a pot. Um, and that that process changed everything. Sabrina ward harrison says make what you most need to find, and I read that really resonates now, especially looking back on that process because I couldn't make photographs and I didn't want to. I needed to make something with my hands. I needed to make something that felt like a process I was putting my body into and making a little vessel something precious and not a digital print that wasn't happening, that wasn't meaning anything anymore at that point, so I made what I most needed to find, and it was the door that opened up into this whole new process, a whole new body of work and me falling back in love with photography in the end, so probably the most special thing that happened out of the process I built, I clean the clay, and I sifted it, and I, you know, built the pot I made the bottom and I made the next layer and coil by cool by cool I'd made this precious beautiful thing and I was so proud of it. And even when we when we made the pot we breathed our spirit into the clay and so I felt like it was me in that thing we went to fire the pots though and the pot just fall apart in my hands right as I was setting it down to fire it and that was the peak of the divorce and all these things were happening and my instructor came over to me he was a wonderful spiritual man and he put his hand on my back and he said it's okay it wasn't meant to be and we buried it and gave it back to the earth and that was it and that was the first time I realized some things even in making art are just not meant to be and I was able to push the reset button and start over again so I found myself in my studio the next day and there were these two chairs sitting there and so these chairs have had a long journey they started out in boston as I was leaving boston loading up the truck there's two chair sitting on the side of the road just looking like someone had discarded them and I looked at those chairs and I thought that's exactly me that's me that's how I feel I feel discarded and they were wounded and broken the legs were broken so I took this muslim fabric that I have in the studio and started tearing it into but bandages and bandage this chair just to heal it because I felt like it needed it and so that was an interesting process had nothing to do with photography so then I bandaged the other one two and then I started bandaging the walls of my studio and then I bandaged fireplace in the back and in the end I had bandaged the entire thing and it took me the better part of a year to do this ripping the fabric bathing it in water like a baptismal effect and then wrapping those chairs wrapping that table wrapping the walls and in the end after a year I made one photograph one picture and I tell people this story and they say well okay but I don't have a year to make a picture and no absolutely but that was a crash and burn moment that had to happen it was like fire ashes and then something coming back out to those ashes in fact we're going to use ashes today because of that process their ashes on the floor in this photograph after we made the photograph the very next day it or it'll down and that was it it was like this baptism death resurrection process and I was able to see that in the work and it changed the way I make photographs even now, even the fabric I started to cut into a little bit and just repurpose that make it into something else given another life push it's, reset button and let it start over so she'll pass says, I tell my piano the things I used to tell you that's pretty great, right? So if you think about it that's what making art is tell your paper that piece of paper, the things that are on your heart that's it's a symbol and as terrifying as that that's all it is so I find that in that process when I look back on it it was the labour of wrapping that room, physical labor, the physical labor of making the pot, the catharsis of that act and then the photograph was the evidence of it. It wasn't about photography. The photography was then just a document of the process and that changed everything that's what I want to do for the rest of my life I figured it out, but it took a lot of pain and a lot of crap to get to that point. So really, this is what it was for sacredness to glorification for sacredness in a divorce for second miss in a broken chair making it beautiful and glorifying and making the best possible version of itself and the most wonderful part of that is in photography I can force the camera angle aiken change the lighting I can make everything look as beautiful as it could ever be in that one dimensional forced a piece of paper so I'm showing those things those broken chairs at their very best at their most beautiful and that was a healing process for me and I love the idea that I have the power to do that when I was kind of going through that process I realized how important the sense of touch wass and making that work touching the strips touching the water, having my hands wet, touching the clay touching the chairs that whole like touched every inch of that fabric as it went on the walls that labour and that literal thinking of imparting dna my skin cells onto those pieces of fabric like I am in every bit of it not became really important and really interesting to me. Um I remember one time I was at a ups store and my friend had just died and I was sending him a card and as we were shipping out I just started to cry and the woman who was behind the counter just put her hand on my hand she could say anything she just put her hand on my hand and it made my heart just rest and made it such a difference human touch is a powerful thing and I think about that a lot now when I'm working and that experience that fabric room taught me that so then I learned other processes where I could use that sense of touch I learned how to weave it took a week in class and we learned all things wolf which we're going to use a lot today in fact um so spinning yarn weaving, putting things through the loom having that fabric in my hands is another way to kind of touch and make objects so I made a lot of weavings and I'm still making weavings learn how to spin yarn I learned how to felt well the one on the left there is my own hair felted with wool so I'm playing with that idea of dna again my own literal dna being in the object so thinking about this that that very first like we talked about where you got narcissism and self doubt together this is where that stuff comes together when I was dating my husband he took me on a nine mile hike up the sandia peak some people are not made for a nine mile hikes up these handy and peak let's just keep it real so about two miles and I was like, I'm dying we need to call a helicopter from ty he's like no okay let's, get going! So I pushed on that pushed on to the point where I was funny maybe we're mile for mile four and a half was like, I'm seriously going to die here and now and so no, no, you've got to keep going and by the time we got two, four and a half he's like all right, well, you're halfway there if we turn around it's justus far back as it is up and so I thought about that in the way and making art like if you can get yourself past mile four and a half just get past that point, then it's just us far to go back than it is to go forward that's the turning point that's where the to the self doubt and the narcissism can marry it's at mile four and a half. You've got to get past that part, though, and how do you get past it? It's it's different for everybody, but you got to get past that part where you've got all the voices saying it's not good enough, you're never going to make it. You don't have enough time or money or resources to do this, whatever it is it's nagging at you like I'm literally going to die get a helicopter in making this work keep going, keep going I find in my process this is my process if I lay it out in words and we're going to do this a lot in fact later this morning where you are looking at it in words your process and making lists but it's a new experience of some kind with the chairs it was a divorce with some other work it was a memory just things like that want to talk to you about all of those things but some kind of life experience and then a conviction from that experience something that I need to get off my chest, something I need to talk about and then the translation of that experience and that's the part that's the hardest it's like okay, I figured out what I want to make the work about now how am I gonna translate it into an image visualization then seeing what that might look like actually seeing images in your mind but it might look like planning it, executing it finally realizing it, which is the top of the mountain you've gotten there, you know? And then when you're done you've gotten to the top of the mountain and you're exhausted that you have arrest and restoration and you're able to come down and rest and that's where I am now, I just finished a big body of work, so I'm resting and I'm called collecting new ideas and letting myself hell it really is like running a marathon, but you have worn yourself out you warn your body out it's the same, the creative process, the same way you work it so much that you can't take physically another step mentally, one more step you're going to collapse, you use every ant ounce of energy you've got and then you rest and a lot of creative people beat themselves up during that time of rest we feel like we're supposed to be on all the time we're supposed to be creative all the time, be able to come up with ideas, be able to be on it, it doesn't work that way and it can't and it shouldn't work that way celebrate those in between times too. So think about yourself just for a moment in your natural creative rhythm do you have so money my hikes or long? You know I won't work on a project for a year and a half or two years and then come down for two years that's my process, some people come up in three days and down in three days I've got a friend who paints that way I mean she's got something painted in a few days and then she's resting and then she's it's another one so everybody's got a different rhythm and it's none of it's wrong we always want to criticize our own it's always not is good to somebody else's but that's it's not wrong if it's right for you, it's where you're coming from, I find when I'm in my rest period that's good for me to teach myself a new skill and it could be yoga. It could be something physical. It could be literally anything, and every time I do it every time I teach myself a new skill or take a class, it informs my work every time. When I took, I take yoga classes, listening to the language of the instructor and the way that my body feels in a certain pose and she's able to verbally describe to me how my body feels in that pose. Whoa that's interesting stuff that happens and I noticed myself using the same language when I'm speaking to my models took a weaving class one class and now everything is is wolf. I've made like thirty will sculptures, and I never would have done that had I not taken that class. So adding to your vocabulary, even if you don't think it's gonna help, it will it will. So if you're having one of those moments where you're doubting your ability as a creative person, teach yourself a new skill, I promise it will help. So I look and break down kind of where my influences air coming from and this is kind of my list so on the left things that majorly have affected my life um southern baptist upbringing I'm very concerned and gender equality because a lot in part of my southern baptist upbringing and living in a small town those things so I'm really interested in gender thing uh my loss of face when faith was in my twenties and I decided it wasn't important anymore and then finding it again when I was in my thirties that was a very interesting process for me and I refer to that often in my work the divorce framed it freighted objects so I've always ever since I was little like I'm the toy story person like the toy has feelings and emotions and I feel like I mean not I don't believe it literally but I do feel like they have human energy somehow objects dio and literal traces of people's life in them so I used objects in a different way than a lot of people would and that I'm really interested in love relationships and I look at that it translates in my work to this list resilience, pain and recovery love relationships faith the breaking point human tray so literal dna of people in the work fragility and temporary nous that death and renewal kind of thing and um baptism resurrection that sort of idea so if you think about yourself just for a minute, can you describe your work not what it looks like, but I list like we just looked at my list can you come up with a list like that? Ten words that describe the peaks of your life, those things that you know influence your decision making everyday and so it says you're working ten in the end, you may realize that it has a lot to do with what you actually put on paper just the way you think the way you're wired what's your list can come up with a list, it'll help a lot it'll change the way you see what you do so really our occupation is to translate. This is what we do for a living as fine art or conceptual photographers or even as portrait photographers were translating were translators it's a language that you're able to then put onto paper such a special thing and it's so hard to do? I think we take it for granted that first of all it's supposed to be easy is supposed to be technique if you can operate your camera, then you can do it oh, not at all, not at all, so your dna we're gonna break this down even more in the second segment but just some things that you might think about like life changing experiences, social issues belief systems that are in place in your life, memories, big time memories, things that you think about, often things you're convicted about, um, your interests. And that might include something like, well, I like to knit, you know, stuff like that, or just large questions that you've never been able to answer in life, just things that nag at you all the time. Those large questions mean that's, a body of work right there. That's, a body of work, for sure.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with RSVP


Bonus Materials with Purchase

Book Proposal Sample.pdf
Critical Mass - Digital Book.pdf
Curriculum Vitae Example.pdf
Keynote PDF Segment 1.pdf
Keynote PDF Segment 2.pdf
Keynote PDF Segment 3.pdf

Ratings and Reviews

a Creativelive Student

"Thinking about art is not making art." In this inspiring and informative workshop, Jennifer helps you put thought into action - through meaningful self-reflection, exploration and by taking her through her own processes. Through exercises and examples, she explains how to pull out a thread of an idea and develop it into a conceptual project that is informed and invigorated by personal experience, preference, interests, and so much more. Her workshop not only feeds the creative soul, but offers earnest information on taking first steps toward publishing and showing fine-art. Jen so beautifully shares her talent and her love of teaching - I first "met" her on Creative Live and have had the joy of being mentored by her in-person as well. This workshop is a very close second to spending time with her one-on-one. Thank you, CL, for bringing her back!

kalei harmon

I love Jennifer, she's one of my cL favorites! She is such a soulful photographer and her art just resonates with me in so many ways. While she was creating her conceptual piece with the mother and child, my eyes welled up because it was such a profound experience to witness. I appreciate that she has a graduate degree in art and is able to refer to others in the field who are leading the way. She is so genuine and I'm grateful for her willingness to bare her soul to us through her art and process. I've learned so much by watching how she interacts with models and communicates efficiently and gently to get AMAZING poses. Definitely worth the buy if you're looking for inspiration from an artist who creates images which evoke emotion and communicate a message, not just trying to make "great photos." I can't wait to learn about the business side of it all!


I am so grateful for this class; it is just what I have been looking for to help me go beyond my "photographic potty training". By leading us through her own creative process, Jennifer Thoreson invites us to think about why we do what we do and to make our work more meaningful and authentic, creating our unique visual vocabulary. Moreover, she provides detailed info on submitting work to galleries and publications, contests, printing editions, preparing an exhibition and pricing. In her calm, unpretentious manner, Jennifer demystified art without trivializing it and I finally saw light at the end of a rather long tunnel.

Student Work