Painting Is Breathing
Jessica Wachter, accomplished artist, grew up between the Badlands and the prairie. Returning home has inspired her to embrace the vastness in her art.
Story by Nicole Thom-Arens | Photos by Ann Arbor Miller | August 31, 2022
When Jessica Wachter ’09 returned to Bismarck, North Dakota, from Chicago, Illinois, she hung a huge canvas from the ceiling of her art studio. Large scale paintings are a defining characteristic of Jessica’s artwork, the study of which, along with abstract expressionism and oil painting, began at NDSU. One of her professors introduced her to the painter Joan Mitchell, and Jessica’s passion for big art grew from there.
But, voices of naysayers rang loudly as she stared at that blank canvas. What was she doing with her life? Did she really want to create art? She was too nervous to touch the canvas, so it sat for nearly a year. Finally, she made her first mark, then a second, and so on. When it was finished, she posted a photo of it on social media.
“I was really proud of this piece, but I didn’t know where it was going to go or what I would do afterward,” Jessica said.
Jessica’s faith in the universe and timing came to fruition in the form of a message from fellow NDSU alumna and architect Kristi Hanson ’87.
“Kristi was like, ‘I have the perfect place for this — a client’s home. I’m flying in tomorrow. Don’t sell this. I want to see it in person,'” Jessica recalled. “I was so excited. I met her and she bought it and put it in a client’s home in Seattle. That started a relationship with that client that continues to this day. I’ve done multiple pieces for their different homes, and they’ve introduced me to other clients. Kristi is another woman doing great things and who is strong in the world, and she believes in what I’m doing. There’s a different confidence that comes with those connections.”
As a career artist, Jessica must balance the questions, “Am I creating to sell? Am I not?”
“There’s that dance in life you have to figure out. This is my career. This is my livelihood. I’m not just doing this on the side,” Jessica said. “Yet, I still have to make work that feels like me and pushes my boundaries.”
Through self-love and determination, Jessica continues to expand her craft. She grew up with dyslexia, but what others saw as a trait that would hold her back, Jessica credits as being part of her success.
“It didn’t come easy, and this career isn’t easy,” Jessica said about her determination to persevere. “Anybody who has started something on their own knows it’s never easy. It’s how you pick yourself up after failures, it’s how you keep going that matters.”
Today, Jessica has clients across the country who include fellow NDSU alumni. She values the connections within Bison Nation and wants to pay it forward. She’s president-elect of NDSU’s School of Design, Architecture, and Art alumni advisory board and funds a visual arts scholarship. She tells current students, “What you have to create, only you can create and put out there.”
Jessica started “120 Inches by 120 Inches” three years ago, and it has been crumpled up, folded, hauled into the woods, and painted on in nature.
“That’s the beauty — it’s a work in progress,” Jessica said. “It’s wrinkled and cracked but it’s not destroyed. You don’t see those imperfections when you step back at this scale. I think that’s who we all are. If we look too much, there are imperfections in all of us, but that’s what makes us. When we step back and really take time to study, we see the beauty or can see something that provokes emotion.”
Jessica signs her work “J. Wachter” because she doesn’t want the audience to have preconceived notions about the piece based on her gender. She uses heavy brush strokes and black to convey power and strength. The uses of hot pink or “mac and cheese orange” bring a juxtaposition that completes the piece.
“I’m boundary-less,” she said. “The art can really control the room and take that power.”
“Prayer on Repeat,” is a meditation on speaking goals into existence and staying the course even when things don’t happen according to plan. Jessica reflects that some goals take longer to accomplish than anticipated while others happen more quickly.
“It’s kind of this dance that you go through and then you repeat,” Jessica said. “There may be a break or a lull that feels not content or lost or needs a breath and then you get back on that rhythm. Art is a vulnerability. You can’t hide behind it. It’s out there and it’s put out there; it’s very transparent.”
“When the canvases are so big that I have to step back to see it all or be on a ladder to reach it, there’s something magical about that,” Jessica said.
The raw canvas of “I’m Happy as I’ve Ever Been” provides a transparency unachievable with white painted canvas. Jessica uses color, texture, scale, and brush strokes to convey herself.
“There’s something different about this raw unfinished business. Is anything really finished?” Jessica wondered aloud. “The fun part about this career is that these things were once all my dreams, and I never thought I would get to be living this life. I have to remind myself that at one time, these were just far-off goals and be present in that moment, but then there’s the realization that there is no glass ceiling, so now where do I get to dream?”
Jessica studied both painting and printmaking while earning her art degree. About two years ago, she started making daily art with prints she had from college. When those ran out, she started using plain white paper. To her, these are a “beautiful mess.”
“It’s taken since birth to create the way I’m creating today — the learning and the trial and error of that,” Jessica said. “I needed to create something daily in one shot and not spend years or months. There’s a different freedom, a different dance that happens, a different place that comes with that.”
Recently, Jessica started experimenting with new shapes of canvas. Inspired by her romantic relationship, she’s exploring the circular canvas. She used this piece to propose to her fiancé, Nicholas Barranger.
“I didn’t want to use a ring, but I like the round symbolism of eternity. Painting is my language,” Jessica said.
Jessica will keep adding to the piece until the wedding day and gift it to Nick — a new painting for their new life together.
“I’m really excited to be at this place,” Jessica said. “I didn’t want to be married before and really focused on my career. I’m glad I did and put that first, but I’m at that place now where I can have that next step. Every work is documenting a period in your life. It’s documenting an energy, an essence, an embodiment.”
“Coming out of college, there was a time when I thought every inch had to be filled or clients wanted to buy pieces with more paint on it,” Jessica said.
“Need to Breathe” is the only remaining piece from Jessica’s time at NDSU. She’s kept it for sentimental and practical reasons as an archive of an artist’s journey.
“I remember people saying, ‘What are you doing? You’re never going to sell anything. This isn’t practical.’ I think you have to know why you’re creating and what you’re doing. If I would have listened to some of those other people, I wouldn’t be where I’m at, but you’re also vulnerable at moments and you feel malleable. It’s about not being malleable and knowing where you’re at.”