Cortland Jessup

and the Art of Instigation

Originally published in The Cape Codder, June 21, 2000

Birds rustle and chitter in the birch tree that overhangs the alleyway entrance to the Cortland Jessup Gallery in Provincetown, located in what might be called Gallery Central, a small intersection in east end Commercial Street.  The gallery, which celebrates its 11th season this year, wasn't located here originally.  It began as an overnight venture, when, visiting P'town in 1990, Jessup saw an empty shop space at the Courtyard in the center of town.  In three weeks, she was open for business, with six artists scheduled for exhibit, and before long, she had occupied most of the lower Courtyard.  An art gallery wasn't really Jessup's ambition.  It was simply another turning point in her long career as a creator, promoter, and collaborator in the arts.  Another manifestation of Lamia Ink [la mia, feminine, singular, mine -- loosely translated, "my thing" or "my work" and Ink for both its literary reference and "incorporated"], the non-profit arts organization she created to make art happen in diverse "alternative" formats.  Indeed, her extraordinary ability to produce the opportunity and the conditions for collaborative art-making is Jessup's own art.


That passion began in Joplin, Missouri, where in high school Jessup was thoroughly seduced by the theatre.  Acting, singing, writing, producing, the competitions, the winner's kiss from Bob Cummins -- she loved everything about it. It's a familiar tale in that way.  In 1966, right out of college, Jessup headed for the bright lights of the New York with two college chums.  One got out of the car before the car got out of Joplin; one returned home after two weeks in the city, but Jessup was there to stay.  "I felt like a duck in water," she says.  "I knew I was home." She arrived with $25.00 in her pocket and a Texaco credit card, which got her a room at Howard Johnson's in Times Square.   Within a week she found a sublet in the Village and a waitressing job, and had immersed herself in the theatre community and the incomparable life of a NY artist.


In 1973, Jessup left New York to attend grad school in LA.  She had discovered she didn't really want to be on stage; rather, she wanted to write and to produce, "to instigate".  It was this practice of collaborative creation that grounded her roaming spirit.  Now she was writing lyrics, collaborating with a composer.  In school in LA, she supported herself doing TV commercials.  Her residuals were ample. With that money in pocket, she opened her first gallery; really, a gallery-performance space, for she was interested in exhibiting/producing whatever people were creating.  There was visual art, theatre, dance, poetry, musical performance -- all in the risky alternative genre of collaborative work, of "relationship," that fired her imagination and passion.  She called it Art Arbor West, thinking that perhaps she would be bicoastal, with an art space both east and west.  The money was good in LA, but after five years, she had to admit to herself that she just didn't like the place.  She wanted to be back east.


Jessup returned to New York and took up a series of jobs that built on her skills as a catalyst and producer.  She worked as an arts administrator and an art publisher, among other jobs, all the time writing plays and poems, a novel still in the works, and continuing the Lamia Ink projects -literary happenings, readings, a magazine.  She knew how to work with artists.  So, although it wasn't a thought-out plan when she signed the lease on the P'town gallery space in 1990, she had done the footwork, and her feet had taken her to that cobbled courtyard.


When Jessup talks about the early years of the gallery, her voice slips into a higher gear, her hands take to the expressway, and the listener is transported, via her animation, to what she calls, "a creative high." 


"We created happenings, events, performances.  It was the early '90's.  The recession.  It couldn't be about making money, so we could afford to take chances. You know, the pressure to succeed, to make money, squeezes out experimentation.  We had one space called The Darkroom. There were wonderful installations there.  Patrick Clarke Fussell's MakeShift Salon was in the same courtyard, and we often did things together.  I must say, there was no clear "vision" worked out. We didn't have time to think of a vision, a mission.  I knew just that I wanted to associate with living, working artists.  Emerging artists."


Her life began to shift.  Summer - Provincetown, Winter - New York.  It seemed a good fit.  In the second season, one of her artists, who had lived in Japan, suggested she invite a Japanese artist to exhibit.  That artist came and brought slides from others.  Next, two from that group came.  One stayed three months and became a member of Jessup's family.  Thus, began the amazing Japan Art Bridge.  Jessup made her first trip to Japan in 1991. "Again," she says, "I felt absolutely comfortable.  It was as if, in another life, I were Japanese."  A plausible kinship, she suggests, for she is Oklahoma Cherokee, "and there might just be shared genes."  Whatever the explanation, her spirit felt increasingly drawn to Japan. 


By 1994, Jessup had organized a formal exchange program.  Since then, she has traveled to Japan many times, bringing a changing group of American artists to exhibit there, hosting Japanese artists who exhibit here. As Jessup envisioned it, she would divide her energies three ways:  Cortland Jessup Gallery in the summer season, Lamia Ink in NY in winter, and in the spring, the growing Japan Art Bridge projects. 


1994 was an important turning point for other reasons, as well.  That season she moved to the Commercial Street space. You could say it was an act of God.  In September, the heavens opened up and it rained for days, flooding the entire courtyard, the water rising to Jessup's knees as she tried to rescue the artwork. "I had to move. It was a disaster.  I didn't have flood insurance, and couldn't get it in that spot (since then, drainage work has been done).  She had a string of problems in that space.  She laughs.  "The address there was 234 Commercial, here we're 432 Commercial.  I think my angels were lost.  They got it backwards.  We haven't had a single problem here.


Jessup continued to refine her artistic goals - to make art more accessible to the community, to foster provocative work that mirrors our global, collective soul, and to create opportunity for reflection on the world we are creating.  Then, in 1996, Jessup's Commercial Street lease ran out.  The condo went up for sale and she couldn't afford it.  But she had commitments, artists were depending on her, and she had to find an exhibition space.  Desperate, at the end of November, she signed a lease in New York.  Then, on New Year's Day, with everything packed to move, the UHaul in the driveway, ice on the streets, she got the message that a group of friends wanted to help.  "My angels said, 'you're not going anywhere.'  That kind of support is what makes Provincetown so special." Jessup was able to purchase the space, and began the crazy commute required to keep it all going.


It's been three more years now, and each of the three projects has grown into needing her 100%; each is becoming a full-time, year-round job.  And two mortgages, the additional pressures of two galleries -- all has taken its toll.  "The pressure is so intense.  I can hardly come up for air."  Anyone who has been in this art town very long knows that the art market has skyrocketed and the heat is on.  Alternative spaces have disappeared.  There are increasing commercial measures of success; artists and collectors have different expectations of a gallery. "I never wanted to be a shopkeeper," Jessup explains.  The past season, with all the extra energy and financial resources called upon in the 100 Years of Art celebration, felt like "the last gasp" for Jessup, even though it was a very successful year, widely noted in the art press.


Jessup feels the need to refocus her energies.  This winter she closed the New York gallery and put the Provincetown gallery up for sale.  She wants to give herself space to make new choices, "to take the best of what I've learned here, and to create a new practice."  Jessup has commitments to exhibit Japanese artists in the fall and winter.  These exhibitions will take place in an interim space, project by project, at Gallery 1100 at Madison and 83rd Street.  In March, she'll take another group of artists to Japan. If it doesn't sale, perhaps the Provincetown gallery will reinvent itself.  This season, the new sign outside reads "CJG Projects." 


 "Japan is a new frontier for me.  The Japan Art Bridge project was an international launching point for me, and it has been very successful.  I want to pursue this cross-cultural exchange in a bigger way.  I want to go back to grad school in Asian Studies, to really immerse myself in the Japanese language and culture.  I know that I am learning through this relationship what I'm meant to know in this life.  I want to go the whole way, and come back full circle.


Sifting through the twists and turns of her career in the arts, Jessup has come to see that all of her work is about what she knows, in her deepest self, is the essential, humble work of bridge-building.  It is, in the Native American tradition, her path.  It's obvious that she is answering that call, wherever it takes her. "This has always been my work, to create dialogue across [her hands come up in front of her; her fingers make a bridge] in support of each one's expression." 


©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved