JK: Talking about your work, you use these really vibrant colors, swirling designs, and organic materials. You call it Organic Mixed Media, can you describe a little bit about what that means? And also when you started experimenting with materials that are beyond just paint and canvas?
JLF: Sure. The name I just kind of made up. I was trying to think of something unique and different to explain what I did, something that departs from other kinds of artwork. Everything that I use, I use stones, shells, sand, I used to use a lot of dirt and clays, different things that I would just go out and get from the earth, so it had a real organic feel to it and real texture. So I wanted the mixed media part, and it just sort of made sense to call it Organic Mixed Media. And so I named it that because I had a show and I needed to promote it. So I said “how can I make this sound so exciting?”
JK: So it rose out of this need to define [your materials]?
JLF: Yes… I started painting this way in 2000, and I think that show wasn’t until a couple of years later, maybe 2003 or 2004. That’s when I actually called it the Organic Mixed Media…
JK: So you said you started this work in 2000?
JLF: Yes, I was living in California, in the Redwood Forest. I was in college for my Bachelor’s in Fine Art with an emphasis on painting, so I was doing tons of painting classes. And we had an assignment that you had to do something like represent the body in your painting. So some people did little cellular structures, or some people did life paintings of real people. And to me, I was just really connected to nature and I wanted to show the earth, air, water, and fire, because I feel like those are the 4 elements that make up the human body on a different level. So I did [a work] called Earth Fire, and I went into the Redwood Forest and I just scooped up all this dirt, leaves, bark, and anything else I could find. I mixed it up in my paint and put it across the canvas. I burnt some canvas, which was the fire part. So I had the earth and the fire, and that was the first piece I ever did like that. Then I did a whole series, and I just kept going with it and just never stopped.
JK: It seems like some of your style and the use of the swirl might be developed through your travels, so I am wondering if you can talk about where the swirl comes from? If you saw it somewhere in your travels or if it was something that you have explored before?
JLF: I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s an ancient symbol. You can find it in so many different cultures… So I think it’s a very common and universal symbol. I think it makes sense to people on a very basic level. And for me, I have always doodled spirals. My handwriting looks like spirals. My hair is usually curly… It was just something that naturally came to me. But to me, it has a meaning. A universal meaning; that connection between everything, people, the earth. To me that spiral is going all the way in and all the way out, so it is an infinite symbol… Even when you look at them, it brings you in, and at the same time it expands you. It gives you a calm and soothing feeling. That’s something that I feel in nature... When you are out in nature and it just brings you in. It can even reflect the Fibonacci numbers. How the spirals in the shells, the spirals in the pine cones, all these natural patterns in nature that are spirals too. It’s a sort of abstract wave that connects it all.
JK: You’ve done some murals in some different countries, Thailand, Belize, and Laos, among other places, right?
JLF: Yes. Everywhere I go I just end up painting.
JK: Can you describe how that process goes; deciding where to do a mural, who you talk to about it?
JLF: It’s definitely not planned. It just spontaneously happened every time. I love to meet the local people of whatever country I am in, even here in the states. If I am traveling somewhere, I want to meet the people and make new friends. So when you’re in these countries a lot of [people] don’t speak English, and a fun way to connect I think is through art. So I am always doodling with the kids or showing them pictures of my paintings. I always bring those just to show a little bit about myself. Before you know it, someone is asking me to paint. One time, I was staying in a hotel in Laos, and I was staying for a couple of weeks. I actually had my passport stolen, so I had to stay. I just had to hang out and wait by the embassy until everything got sorted out. But it ended up being a blessing in disguise because I fell in love with that country just spending all that time there. While I was there I just hung out in the capital, and I started painting. The owners of the hotel asked me if I wanted to paint something on a big wall that they had. So I said yes and some of the local kids came to help out. I was done with that, and I think it was the next morning or the morning after and I came outside. [I was] having breakfast, and this woman came up on a motor bike, not speaking English, but she was asking me to come with her, she’s handing me this helmet... So the woman who worked at the hotel said, “She’s asking you to come to the school. That’s the principal of the school. She’s asking you to come paint with the kids.” So I said okay. I was halfway done with my breakfast… but I got on the back of the bike, and I went out to the school. There were a couple of kids out there who wanted to paint. It just kind of happens naturally. I definitely make it known that I am an artist to people when I am talking because that’s a big part of who I am.
JK: What do the murals usually entail? Do they look like the works you put on canvas?
JLF: They look similar. There is always the spirals and the bright colors, but I don’t do the mixed media… My signature is the spiral, and I do suns a lot. Almost every one of the murals has a sun on it. I actually did volunteer work in Thailand and that’s the first mural I did. The place we were staying, we just had these bungalow huts. This was after the Tsunami in 2004… They asked me, this was one of the villages that was hit, [if I] wanted to brighten up the place. They said, “You can paint whatever you want.” So I painted big sunshines all over, and palm trees, and butterflies.
JK: Is that how you got started with travel?
JLF: That actually is how I got started with the international travel. I’ve been traveling since I was like a month old. My dad was a mechanic for the airlines, so we flew for free. We were an airline family. He has the travel bug too. That’s probably where I got it… [Thailand] was my first big international travel. That was the big one, and when I did that, it was like this whole world was open to me. I couldn’t believe how much there was to see out there. And just that feeling. I was a goner after that.
JK: You’ve travelled all over the world, to many, close to 30, countries. But you still come back to Pittsburgh. What do you like about being an artist in Pittsburgh? And what keeps you coming back?
JLF: Well I was born in Pittsburgh and it’s always been my roots. Even when I was living far away, off in some other country, it was always my home. I lived in Arizona, California, Hawaii, and difference places here for a while. But Pittsburgh always was my home. It just always brought me back here. You can take the girl out of Pittsburgh but you can’t take Pittsburgh out of the girl...So there’s the home feeling here, and it’s very supportive of the arts here. I love how diverse it is… I feel like the people here are supportive of self expression and of being who you are. That comes across in the arts… Pittsburgh’s very open, and loving, and accepting.