If you are wondering what J. S. stands for it’s Jeffrey Scott, but everyone calls me Jeff. I lifted the abbreviation idea from one of my favorite artists, H. R. Giger (he created the xenomorph in the Alien movies). I am an artist, designer, and concerned earthling. I live in Portland, OR between a snarl of industrial buildings lining the Willamette River (rhymes with damn it) and a large wood called Forest Park.
I have exhibited paintings at galleries across the US as well as internationally. My work is brimming with flora, fauna, and little bits of throwaway culture. Through it I hope to add my voice to the discussion about how we reinvent our relationship with nature.
Hi Jeff, let’s start with the unNaturalist. These are the observations of an outside explorer who makes no distinction between flora and fauna, and the leftovers of human consumption. Could you talk about more about this project and how it came into being?
A year ago I was only painting plants, animals, and organic patterns—things that weren’t created by people. It’s hard to describe but I kept feeling this tension between wanting the natural world to be untouched and honoring the reality of my experience. I’d visit these beautiful natural landscapes and if I looked closely I’d see evidence of humans everywhere: a bottle cap mashed in the dirt, blunt wrappers & beer cans stashed away from prying eyes, or a fishing lure tangled up in the reeds. I imagined what it would be like if an alien naturalist came to earth and it seemed like every square inch of our planet will bear the evidence of how we use it. I just visited Sandy River Delta Park where dogs are allowed to run and play off-leash. I found torn up tennis balls, fragments of leashes, dog hair, and bags full of crap. This is an unremarkable list of items to find at a dog park, but if we disappear tomorrow these are some of the artefacts we leave behind, and the alien naturalist would try to fit this piece into the puzzle of what human beings were like.
Your work very much refers to the presence of humans through the things we leave behind but you don’t directly paint people. Do you feel the direct portrayal of people would take away from the message?
If I was a director filming an action scene with an explosion I could choose to put the explosion dead center in the frame, but it might be more interesting to film a flock of sparrows tinged in a reddish glow taking flight at the sound of the boom. What you don’t say is just as important as what you do. The shape left in the absence of something can allow us to look at the missing thing in a new way.
I think the usefulness of art is in creating space for emotions, thought, and imagination. If you spell the whole story out it doesn’t give the person experiencing it any room to play with the ideas.
“Go your own way. Only some people will like it, but everyone will respect it. ”
Your subject-matter and practice very much corresponds with your low-impact life, would you say your painting is also a way of life?
I don’t think I deserve a spotlight for being low impact. I think I am, but that’s probably more a function of not having a whole lot of money compared to other Americans. The real test of low-impact is when you have lots of resources and choose to use them responsibly and in moderation. As our population increases it will be really important that we do more with less, or better yet less with less. I think the question that I keep coming back to is where we draw the line. How much stuff is enough? The economy marches on the back of consumerism, but I think we can all agree that beyond meeting our basic needs we just want to be happy. The great irony is that all of our material wealth doesn’t lead to increased happiness.
Being an artist could be spun as low-impact, but a working artist needs to make money too. If a wealthy collector buys your work where does their money come from? Where do the materials to make the work come from? Even if it’s indirect, an artist is also complicit in our economic system.
You talk about H.R. Giger being one of your favourite artists, what is the main thing you take away from his work?
Giger was a complete original. He followed his inspiration no matter where it took him, even if it made him an outsider. I would argue that his work was spiritual without being moral, that he subverted the story of humanistic triumph to explore our primal desires and fears. The fine art world didn’t accept him until late in his career and it takes courage not to seek the approval of others, so that’s something I take away. Go your own way. Only some people will like it, but everyone will respect it. I’ve also watched Alien more times than I can count.
“I think the usefulness of art is in creating space for emotions, thought, and imagination. If you spell the whole story out it doesn’t give the person experiencing it any room to play with the ideas.”
Where else do you find inspiration for your work?
I am genuinely interested in everything. All of life can be felt, prodded, and poked. Life only becomes boring when we stop seeing the mystery in all things and start to put in symbols to act as placeholders, usually for the sake of processing information quickly. I could look at a rock and think, “that’s a rock—a boring, stupid rock, and I’ve seen millions of rocks.” But rock is only shorthand for a class of objects. To a geologist it’s not just a rock; it’s a piece of the story about how our planet takes shape. The more you know about something the more interesting it is, because it opens the door for more questions. Everything is something more than the label we put on it.
Your commissioned illustrations and branding are very different to your painting style, how does your personal and commercial practice come together?
The reality of art is that it’s hard to make a living at it. I’m not at a point where I can only take projects that follow the theme of what my personal interests are, so I freelance to make ends meet. I love graphic design too and I think it informs the art. Some day they will come into closer visual alignment, but for now I’m enjoying the variety.
If you were showing around an explorer coming to earth for the first time, what would you show them?
Who knows! I’m not the type of host that plans. Alien’s choice.