I stumbled across Jess Willa Wheaton’s work a few months ago in doing research for our editorial Favorite Album Cover and The Artists That Made Them. Her brilliant collages of color and nature only naturally found in dreams help us visualize the creamy, sonic art of Sugar Candy Mountain. I reached out to find out more about her creative roots, relationship with album art, and current works.
Have you always known you wanted to be an artist? How did you start off?
On some level I think I always knew it had to be art for me. There were certainly obstacles to getting on this path, but now I feel grateful for them because they’ve made me who I am. I think this is true for many artists. Plus it’s unavoidable that new obstacles will arise.
As a little kid I drew all the time like my life depended on it. But it wasn’t until I was 20 and began studying art formally that I didn’t feel cursed by the complete rapt fulfillment and total involvement I felt whenever painting or drawing. I thought there was no way in this life I could actually do what I needed to do, even while secretly doing it all the time. In high school I lived in an attic, and most of that deep blue carpet became stained shades of brown from accidentally spilling my paint water cup for 4 years straight. But it was completely out of the question to continue on like this… I just had no role models or guidance, and was supposed to be figuring out something practical to do forever. I also knew next to nothing about art, and artists, and museums, even pop culture. All in all I had some pretty isolated beginnings that were both wonderful and terrible.
One early influence was my friend Rachel Shipps, who I met at preschool. She was way better at art than me, and such an inventive, hilarious, kind, and curious person (still is). My biggest turning point towards art came when Zannie Biggs entered my life in 10th grade. On my 16th birthday I woke up in the middle of the night and walked hours in the ditch along a dangerous winding highway in total darkness to meet Zannie on the main street of our town. There we took the once daily morning commuter bus together to San Francisco. And then two hours later we were at MoMA, looking at art! And swimming in the fountain outside!
Later when we graduated high school, Zannie went straight to University for art. This blew my mind, and showed me there was a way. It took me two years to figure out how to do this myself, but then I did. And I just kept going from there. I got a BFA and then an MFA in art, and now have lived in New York for 8 years with my husband, the extremely talented artist Jonathan Tracy. Life’s still far from easy, but I’m living beyond my wildest dreams.
We found you through album art done for Sugar Candy Mountain, how did you connect with them?
This answer segues so beautifully with the last one. I met Ash Reiter of Sugar Candy Mountain when I was 15 and not long after meeting Zannie – they were good friends. I was pretty shy then, but we’d talked about liking some of the same music. At that time I was secretly logging on to the Internet via AOL dial-up late at night after my parents went to sleep, and listening to all the audio samples I could on Amazon.com when it was still just books and music. People used to make incredible recommendation lists with tons of soulful commentary there, and poring over these was my early musical education – descriptive words, album thumbnails and partial songs. Then one day at school Ash handed me a cassette of Nick Drake’s album Pink Moon , that she’d copied for me from hers. That’s how I knew we were friends, and those (full) songs became a part of the architecture of my mind. I guess the rest is history.
What other album art are you behind?
Album art is a lucky derivé for me, not something I’ve pursued at all. For this reason I’ve only done work for friends’ bands so far, and I think I like it this way. I work in my studio almost every day, but not as an illustrator or commercial artist; ultimately I make work to be shown in exhibitions.
My first album was for the band Fury and the Mouse (RIP) in 2006 because we were pals and they asked, and the second was for Ash Reiter’s album Heatwave in 2011 when she was still playing as Ash Reiter. With Sugar Candy Mountain’s newest album that just dropped May 4, I’ve now done 3 albums for them – Mystic Hits (2014), 666 (2016), and Do Right (2018). They also released a cover of the Zombies’ song Beechwood Park as a lathe-cut single, and I did that art as well. This artistic partnership is wonderful, and will probably continue. I produce my own work in my studio, according to my own vision, and once Sugar Candy Mountain has recorded another album, we find out together which of my new works can visually extend the band’s musical vision. I’ve only ever made the slightest adjustments to translate something from being my art to their album art. I don’t think this is the norm and I’m very lucky to have this arrangement. It’s incredible to work with people, like Ash and Will, with whom you have a deep understanding, and who deeply value what you make. AND who then bundle what you make with their total sonic poetry, and get it into all their fans’ hands.
Do you think artists get the recognition they deserve doing album covers or is it kind of your dirty little secret that it’s your art behind them?
I don’t think it’s dirty, but it might be a little bit of an inadvertent secret. Afterall, the music is the motor, and the art comes after the fact. It’s the band’s giant gift I am wrapping. And iTunes definitely doesn’t list album credits or anything, ha.
Recognition in the album art arena isn’t too much of a concern for me, because it’s peripheral to my other artistic activity. It could be for others though, and that would be valid. In my case, I know Sugar Candy Mountain are really good about crediting me as much as possible, on their website and other outlets and in person when they’re selling records at shows. And I display my album work on my website and link to their music. So it works out.
Being that we live in a social media soup too, it’s interesting to see where the imagery goes. As of writing, the hashtag #sugarcandymountain on Instagram has about a thousand posts, and most of them do relate to the band, not to Animal Farm or something. A majority depict the albums/my artwork, but maybe three of them refer to the fact that it’s my art they’re distributing. It’s Instagram, so there’s gotta be an image, although getting the word out about the music is the real subject in all those posts. Due to the mechanics of the platform and to all the repetition, perhaps image has become sound’s inseparable skin even more than in the past. I guess authorship can seem extraneous in that context.
How healthy do you find the relationship between sonic and visual art?
I don’t really think I’m qualified to answer this question, but it’s interesting to think about. I wish I knew what general proportion of visual art is made for albums, versus already made and chosen for albums. The two operations are so different. But regardless, I think sonic and visual art need each other for sure. I think we all know what a drag it is when good music gets stuck with lackluster art, and what a revelation it can be when a singular image crystallizes an entire album’s emotional complexity, or shows us an analogue of the place we truly do go while listening, but couldn’t have conceived the look of ourselves.
On a personal note, I can’t help but identify a little with album artist legend Storm Thorgerson, who was a teenage friend of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and came to make their ultra-defining art that way. Now it’s hard for me to imagine them without each other. These days I might admire a sophisticated music video more often than a good album cover – but maybe because they seem more complex to make and also the great ones are more rare? There was a humbly incredible music video I watched on a housemate’s computer in 2005 that I have no way of ever finding again, and it still haunts me to this day. I’m so glad it exists out there somewhere though.
If we go back to my very first encounters with most of the early albums that were to become important to me, I first scoped them out on online product pages. In that context, the album artwork was actually kind of big compared with what we see when we usually listen to music digitally now. It instantly became inextricably linked with the music for me; as keyhole and ambassador. It was never listed who made the album art, but at least the relationship still felt strong. On iTunes and Spotify, etc, the art and the relationship is obviously infinitesimal. But records are back, and are such beautiful canvasses.
Fillmore posters might exemplify the most ridiculously healthy relationship of all, in my experience. You flood out of a show there awash in your experience of it, and are then handed a gorgeous poster commemorating the show on the steps as you leave. The visual qualities of that farewell gift later expand to fill what you can no longer remember about the show, as your memory fades. If anyone doesn’t know about Fillmore posters, please look them up.
What new projects should we be staying tuned for and where can we find them?
Sugar Candy Mountain’s album Do Right just released! Please check it out at www.sugarcandymountainband.com. I think these songs should be recommended listening for everyone. It makes me so happy that their reach keeps growing so steadily and so deservedly, and they’re just back from a European tour. Reviewers use “luscious” to describe their sound for good reason. Their lyrics are worthy of print too.
Colpa Press is also currently producing a big beautiful book of my collage work spanning 5 years, which includes writing by Natasha Marie Llorens. It releases in late September 2018 at the New York Art Book Fair, and then will be available for purchase through their web store https://www.colpapress.com.
Photo Credit: Zorawar Sidhu