"No way I’ll quit this. Not possible.”—Jason Ramey
Jason Ramey is a storyteller, with great tales to tell: from suddenly leaving college in Indiana for Florida, laboring on a cattle ranch and in a sawmill as he traveled, to working with violent patients in a mental health facility, to recently being menaced by a bull while fly fishing. His art tells stories, too. He grew up in a small G.I. house, sharing a bedroom with his twin brother and mother. The walls and furniture in his sculpture often refer to those cramped quarters and the furniture he grew up with. The walls he builds are stark white and the furniture is often split, which might suggest that alienation is his intention. It isn’t.
Jason’s art is about people and relationships. At first look, that may not be obvious. For example, This Side and the Other could be about two people—symbolized by the chairs—who are distanced from each other. Yet when I spoke with Jason about this work he focused on healing, about two people being able to talk to each other unburdened of their relationship baggage, or stereotypes based on appearance, or society’s values and expectations. Furniture and walls are made for people. Our relationships with those materials are intimate. They create spaces for us to be together, even when we don’t want to be, and they provide a place for our things.
Why does he make architectural sculpture? For starters, he’s always moving, always doing. In the midst of installing his exhibition (which is awarded to Chazen Prize–winners) and finishing his MFA, he bought a sander, checked some books out of the library, and taught himself how to sand scratches off his car. This is a man who likes big projects.
But Ramey’s drive is about more than staying busy. He is interested in putting things together, and by that he means not only sculpture but ideas. As we talked in a coffee shop he examined the molding and baseboards, analyzing how they joined at the arched doorway and the corner. And he talked about his fascination with chairs—the lines and function that people have worked and reworked for centuries. He’s interested in perfect chairs, like his 1954 Eames chair—chairs that are comfortable for everyone, no matter the sitter’s size.
Ramey faced a temporary set-back while earning a BFA from the Heron School of Art in Indianapolis, and it played an important part in his artistic development. He received a letter in the mail telling him he had to re-do his sophomore review. He was devastated. But he knew that he had to go on. It gave him fuel, and he fired up and started working even harder. He says an experience like that tells you who you are, and he is tenacious.
Finally, Jason says he makes sculpture because it makes him happy. He doesn’t sculpt to tap into the bad things in his life or his past. Creating sculpture brings him joy. He says this apologetically, because creating art is supposed to be about so much more than that. And it is, of course. But don’t we all aspire to a career that makes us happy? Isn’t it as simple as that?
Ramey’s sculpture is not the kind of work that has an immediate emotional impact, although Michelle Grabner, the curator who selected the Chazen Prize–winner, described his work as having a “demanding presence.” I asked him what he thinks about people not understanding his work; he said he doesn’t worry about being misinterpreted. There are formal elements that people can respond to, and then, upon further reflection, they may realize for themselves how his work refers to our sense of place, which is at the heart of many peoples’ sense of self.
After talking with Jason, I started to think about my own childhood. My family went for bike rides through the neighborhood on summer evenings, and if a house was under construction, we’d often stop and explore it. My sister and I would guess what the rooms were going to be, and we got a thrill out of stepping through the studs-only walls. I breathed in possibility and opportunity with the sawdust in those houses. The isolated walls and furniture of Ramey’s work evoke that memory.
Here are some of the memories Ramey has infused into work:
Sometime after 1983, or maybe it was ‘84
Though this piece was designed specifically for Paige Court in the Elvejhem Building, it is a personal one for Ramey. When his father left them, his family stopped eating dinner at the dining room table. His father’s absence was like a presence. Ramey, his brother, and their mother ate on the living room floor or the couch instead. He realized recently that this may be why he’s uncomfortable sitting around the table when invited to dinner, and he still doesn’t like formal settings—but he’s working on it!
Over the Wall Desk
When UW students move out at the end of the school year, the detritus-filled sidewalks are chaos. Ramey noticed how much furniture is thrown out—a lot of it cheaply made but still functional. He started thinking about how even when the furniture leaves a space, the walls stay the same. Then he wondered: if he attached a wall to a desk, would they still be able to throw it out?
In the small G.I. house Ramey grew up in, he and his brother would use the mirror in the room that they shared with their mother when getting ready for school. Ramey doesn’t like mirrors and isn’t comfortable with how he looks. He still doesn’t like looking at himself in the mirror.
Ball and Claw Wall
One day in his studio Ramey thought, “Boy, I really love walls!” and he realized that they calm him. So this sculpture is, in a sense, a wall on a pedestal. His mother had a lot of furniture that came from her grandmother; it was beautiful, but it was also too big for their small house. The legs on this piece are a nod to Jason’s memories of playing under a table with Queen Anne legs when he was growing up. He found the legs in second hand and antique stores, then built the base for this piece.