The Archaeologist

Unearthing unseen connections between the urban landscape and the human one is Jessica Clay’s artistic obsession.

Jessica Clay, Watkins College

By Ron Wagner

An artist who digs dirt — literally — as her medium of choice is a catchy description for Jessica Clay, but there’s something much deeper and more poetic about this painter.

“(It) really goes back to being a kid and playing in piles of earth that you find, this cool world,” says Clay, who was born in Alaska and lived there until she was eight. “That’s how I see the work operating, as disruptors or instigators to something that has the potential to be something else … In that moment you can see into the ground underneath. I’m interested in that brief window as sort of this through-tunnel into something alternate.”

Nashville seems to be in a perpetual state of becoming something alternate, but while most attention lands on construction cranes or the progress of the latest new building’s foundation, Clay’s eyes focus on what had to be created first to make the rest possible.

“I began to notice as residues of construction here in Nashville these big piles of dirt everywhere and how they interrupt the city grid,” she says. “I started thinking about them as sites of imagination.”

The mounds of soil are a convergence between ancient and new, static and moving, shapeless and formed. Until it is inevitably bulldozed away, the mound heats under the sun, cuts the wind, dissolves in the rain. The mound can serve as a hiding place or hill to climb.

I’m interested in that brief window as this through-tunnel into something alternate.

Clay sees the uniqueness in every one, which she’s been expressing artistically since 2016. “Mound Paintings” is an ongoing series, and Clay hasn’t been afraid to get much more intimate with the dirt that moves her. In “Fire Pit,” she uses a bare patch of earth as a canvas, while “Digging in the Dark” is a show Clay created by taking a shovel to the ground in an alley behind Scott Zieher’s contemporary art gallery in New York City.

“We just dug up as much as we could until it began to fall off the sides. We were finding things and left them there for the duration of the show,” she says. “This was really about the act of doing and the effect that I’m having on this space.”

The opportunity came, as many have for Clay, because of her connection to Watkins. Clay is one of the curators of mild climate, an art space created and run by former Watkins students, and Zieher invited them to do the show after they met during a popup gallery in Nashville.

“Watkins was really great in a lot of ways, and that was in large part due to the people that I was there with, both students and faculty,” says Clay, who earned a fine arts degree. “There was a strong group of people, there after-hours, interested in doing shows and organizing projects.”

Jessica Clay

That drive to be challenged and inspired by other artists pushed Clay to apply for a prestigious residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, where she spent nine weeks in summer of 2018 away from a cell phone or the internet as one of only 65 accepted artists out of the several thousand applicants. Clay came away with an interest in the fresco painting process as well as a renewed appreciation for the power of her art to guide her life.

“I was so inspired by every other artist there — the work was seriously so good and interesting,” she says. “Skowhegan was an experience that forced me to grow in many ways. In my work, because I was given so much time in which to prioritize being in the studio, and also in my personal life as an artist. There was such a merging of life and art that it was a real glimpse into what I could shape my life to be like. The time spent talking with the other artists became almost more important than my working on projects because there was so much to learn from those conversations.”

Spending time collaborating with — and creating collaborations between — other artists is at the forefront of Clay’s immediate plans. Unsurprisingly, dirt will also be involved.

Her next idea, inspired by a visit to Mound Bottom State Archeological Area, is the creation of an amateur archaeology group, which would go into excavated sites “to remember and recreate through the physical (and imaginary) act of entering these spaces while they exist in transition from one sharply delineated purpose to another one.”

Another is a “dirt-exchange drawing project.”

“I would get pairs of artists who live far away from each other to commission each other to do drawings in dirt in their respective places,” Clay says. “Then I would make a book out of them.”

For Clay, there’s no end to excavation as exploration. Visit to see more of her work.