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W O M E N   A R T I S T S

Jere Van Syoc

@ 2008 by Shelbi Parker

Jere Van Syoc is a Chicago based artist whose art has evolved from painting and drawing to sculpture, performance and documentation. Van Syoc received both a BFA and MFA from the School of Art Institute in Chicago and also holds an MA in Psychology from Antioch University in Los Angeles. Van Syoc's ongoing "Death Toy" series is both installation and performance art. Her work has consistently engaged the relationship between nature, culture and the violence of both the everyday and the extraordinary.

Toying with Death: An Afternoon with Jere Van Syoc

Artwork by Jere Van Syoc

This article was written by WMG intern, Shelbi Parker who is a student at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.

On a Monday afternoon, I found myself in a beautiful neighborhood, with stone buildings and numerous shady trees. When I located the right house, I was a little bit early, so I walked around the corner to catch a small glimpse of the area in which Jere resides. Behind the house, I found the van Jere uses to transport her artwork around: the Death Toy Art Bus. That made me smile, and I felt a little more comfortable going in, having seen something I recognized.

As I climbed the stairs to her second floor apartment, I was greeted by Minnie, a rambunctious puppy that likes to chew on things, like the wooden handle of a screwdriver and my arm. There were knick-knacks, books, and Death Toys everywhere. The Death Toys created a harsh contrast to the rest of the surroundings with their crude looking forms, they suggest insect-like creatures in dark reds and blues.

When Jere came in, she sat down in a chair across from me, very comfortable in her paint shirt and sweat pants. I could already tell that this would be very informal. As we start talking, her voice has a calming affect. It sounds so familiar, having watched her film. It takes me back to that setting, that story-telling atmosphere. And Jere has quite a story to tell.

"Born with a talent for foolin' around with stuff," Jere has always been involved with art, having a fondness for contraptions and toys. As a child during the war, she would make guns out of wood. Even then, death as subject matter was developing. That has been a popular theme for her, and so has sex; a lot of her work is based around those ideas. When asked why, she replied, "They keep most people's attention!"

Truthfully, though, she is motivated by events in her own life: her mother's remarriage, dealing with a new family, and her mother's death. When her grandmother died, Jere took the ashes and created a sort of altarpiece for it. That recycling of a loved ones remains seems morbid, but for Jere it is about renewal. Art pieces like her Death Toys series are sculptures of things that had once been alive but are now dead, whether that refers to animals or mechanical parts that used to run.

Artwork by Jere Van Syoc

These Death Toys are very much not toys. They resemble twisted mockeries of children's toys. All are mobile- whether on a skateboard, a wagon, a stroller or other mechanism of Jere's creation. They can take the forms of dogs, a rocking horse, or a pilot. Using found objects and mixed media, Jere creates these things that some might call monsters to talk about the primitive and destructive behavior of human beings such as animal cruelty, domestic abuse, and gang warfare. She then takes them out to public venues for people to see.

Death also plays a major factor in the project she is currently developing. Not to give away too much before it's finished, but it would basically be a device to play music at her own funeral. And she seems very comfortable with the fact of her own mortality. I admired that in our conversation. She is very at ease with herself: answering my questions honestly and with sincerity. Her demeanor parallels her work.

Perhaps that comfort comes from her longstanding relationship with Death in her art, as well as her history with the Feminist movement. She was just starting college during the Women's Liberation, and that had a large affect on her work. She added an aspect of protection to her work then, with undertones of anger towards the abuses of women.

Women's Rights are not the only issues that Jere was advocating for in her art. In the 1970s, she was part of a group that created a windmill, as a sort of recreation of Stonehenge, that had environmental capabilities as an alternative resource generator. She wanted something big- in size, impact, and concept; something almost mythical and legendary. Unfortunately, it didn't stay up. Jere said that everyone hated it, but for her it was a great success.

This is only a brief telling of Jere's story, and I would encourage anyone who's interested to check out her movie, The Brothel, the Temple, and Art. It gives a wonderful, personal description of Jere's art and life. The part about the fire is particularly interesting. It destroyed much of her work. I asked her how hard that was to deal with, and she admitted to it being a great setback. But it also turned into an art of renewal. "It was the worst and best experience of my life."

"I know many people say 'you're really making art - but I never know that I have made it this far, where I'm ranked." Hearing a woman like Jere, who I have come to admire, say that about her own success makes me wonder how I'll ever judge my own work in comparison. What is success, anyway? But if I continue to work, day by day, I'll improve. And one day, if I reach a level of art as deep and personal as Jere's, that will be my measure of success.

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Last Updated
Nov. 3, 2008
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