Jesse Kerr

Jesse Kerr


Illustrator: San Diego

Afternoon in San Diego, and Jesse Kerr is sitting on the coastline, scratching an image of a tidepool onto a sketch pad. It’s a new routine. A way to keep him active. And he’ll be sure to finish the sketch before the brightness fades – because there’s another reason he’s here.

     Pen and pad down. Time to trace curves of a different kind – riding the waves, sometimes straight past sunset. Think of that scene: the surf pushing him on, on, on. Finding those moments between day and night. Those spaces between the sea and solid ground. Perhaps the perfect tonic for a restless mind.

“It’s more freeing than anything. There aren’t too many things like surfing that people do out in society. You drive down to your favorite surf spot, you change in public, you run across city streets, break away from concrete, and you jump into the ocean. For the most part, it’s just you and the rules of nature; the energies of wind and moving swell. It’s a pretty unique experience. You develop a really intense awareness of the ocean and you definitely see a contrast when you’ve been surfing and then you come back and do something else.”

     As he spoke, Jesse was laying pieces of his art side by side onto a canvas cloth spread across an empty living room floor. After our conversation he would begin moving boxes of his belongings into a new home.

“This new place will be my fifth in four years. I just keep bouncing around trying to find something that feels right. It’s tough. I think everybody has those urges like, ‘I’m out of here’, and move, or go roam, or travel, or whatever.”

     There was some of that motion in the way we spoke, in the way he arranged his pieces of art, and in the art itself. Transience isn’t new to Jesse.

     His childhood memories weave through San Diego. Tract home developments, the beach, and some agricultural fields. Besides those things, just hills of chaparral. And peace. A young boy on the edge of unspoiled nature.

     Then that edge was flattened to build more homes.

“I’ve been looking for the pictures of that old landscape because all of a sudden it began to get cut up. Earthmovers and dump trucks and tractors just started scraping it away and evening it out, and then one day it was all leveled. There were just dirt lots for almost as far as you could see. And as a kid you’re just like, ‘whoa, what do we do with this?’

     Soon after, his family moved to the new edge of nature. And unbelievably again, a second time during Jesse’s childhood, the distressing cycle would run its course as that edge, too, was flattened.

“When I think about it, that was pretty influential. It was a good experience. Because even though portions of that land were developed and destroyed, I still had the chance to have nature in my backyard."

"That free access to nature, the closeness of it, is what I miss and constantly crave. I was free to explore—what kids crave to do most. And I still do hike and explore, and there is still land available to do so in; but these early experiences were so rich and powerful. There are a lot of people who don’t get to experience a close connection to the natural environment like that. It’s always been really special to me.”

     Landscapes, organic forms, geometric structures, botanicals—the connection swept through each piece of his work. While I continued walking through the living room, Jesse disappeared into his studio. He’d emerge a minute later, grasping an old cardboard tube with both hands. Sliding out and unrolling a number of printouts and transparencies, he knelt down and continued the story.

“My dad has worked with microchips for a long time. When I was a kid he used to design microchip layouts. They have printouts that are, gosh, like 4 by 4 feet, and you just walk up to it and there’s this huge computer chip drawing around you. It’s awesome."

"With imagery like chip designs, really when you try to copy something like this by hand it doesn’t look right. It doesn’t have the same feeling. There are all these intricate lines everywhere. It can only be interpreted. The mechanical pen line, with its unwavering width, color, and value—that starts to come close. Repetition and geometry also get close. But still, it’s so inspiring.”

     It’s the tension that first attracted me: the unforced curves of nature versus the opposite and equal beauty of straight-edged, technical imagery. And it’s so evident in Jesse’s work because straight lines just don’t exist in nature.

“Straight line is man. I mean, from straight rows of crops, flat walls of buildings, to computer chip drawings. It’s in our nature to order and arrange things. I think it’s one way that we attempt to make sense of the world around us.”

     There’s a struggle there. And not just for Jesse. I mean for all of us, basically. It’s tough to be connected to the natural world. And it’s tough not to be. But for Jesse, there’s always been a way to keep record. It’s sketchbooks. He’s been compiling them his entire life, regardless of where he’s lived or what he’s explored. Always journaling, visually. Collecting, visually.

“I personally came to a point where I realized that form comes from somewhere. A person is not really born with knowledge of forms in their mind. They understand it and increase their visual vocabulary by seeing and experiencing other forms. Also, after viewing more and more art I came to see through the ‘illusion’ of paintings and drawings a little bit, and realized that it was all just forms and lines and colors on a flat picture plane. So I decided that nothing is really off limits; I can learn and draw from all forms. So I chose to explore ways that I could expand my own visual vocabulary.”

     At thrift stores and art libraries he'll collect old picture books on nature. Flipping through pages, he extracts little pieces until unique structures and plant forms appear. It’s an uproar of ideas. Photography, observational drawing, collage. And now he considers what he might create beyond what’s in the sketchbooks—how he should share his most personal ties.

“I find that the urges I have to explore nature are very similar to the urges that lead me to explore form in drawing and painting; in fact, sometimes they’re interchangeably satisfying."

"I just have to keep on finding that freedom and joy in drawing, and to play with form. It’s just so direct, it’s so free, and that’s the guiding force.”

{december 2009}
(images c/o Jesse Kerr)