A political science alumna speaks her mind on the art canvas
Los Angeles’ most beautiful sunsets usually occur when a forest fire is raging. The sky flares orange, hot pink and lavender as smoke drifts across the L.A. basin. Instagram feeds fill with shots of the neon sky as news reports tally up the acres burnt.
These are the sunsets that Jessica Bellamy finds most inspiring. For Bellamy, who graduated from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 2014 with a degree in political science, the beautiful sunset of a disastrous fire is part of the dystopian/utopian experience of living in L.A.
Much of her work as she now pursues a master of fine arts degree at the USC Roski School of Art and Design explores the tension of living at the edge of a tenuous paradise. For instance, “fire followers” — the lush plants that thrive after a fire sweeps through an area — make an appearance in a recent painting that also recorded a fire’s devasting march in real time.
“I did a bunch of etching marks into the bottom panel of the painting for how many fires burned 1,000 acres during the time I worked on this,” says Bellamy. “By the time I finished, I think it was close to 100 marks.”
The art of politics
Bellamy enrolled as a political science major at USC Dornsife with the intent of eventually becoming a lawyer. She had taken art classes since she was a child, and both of her parents like to work with their hands — her mother as a landscape designer and her father in construction – so she decided to add classes from the USC Roski School of Art and Design to her schedule as well.
Her coursework at USC Dornsife helped her get more comfortable during the critiques occurring in her art classes, where students provide feedback on their classmates’ artwork. She cites the class “European Thought II” (POSC 371) with Anthony Kammas, associate professor (teaching) of political science, as particularly helpful in finding her voice.
“Early on in college, I was a little bit shy and I wouldn’t speak unless called on. But, as soon as I started taking classes at Roski, all of those political science discussions from his class really came with a different relevance. I felt comfortable sharing and critiquing,” says Bellamy.
An internship with the Hammer Museum while an undergraduate solidified her realization that her place was in the arts rather than law. She added a minor in fine arts painting to her political science degree. After graduation, she got a job as an arts partnership and events coordinator at public radio station KCRW in Santa Monica, California.
A modern artist
Jessica Bellamy will graduate with an MFA from USC Roski in 2022.
After finishing her shift at the radio station, Bellamy spent her evenings painting. She worked at her kitchen table, where obliging roommates would cook around her, and sold prints online.
Bellamy picked up commissions from major brands. She painted a mural live for Google Pixel at Coachella and painted custom sneakers for guests at a party hosted by Kenneth Cole. Eventually, she tallied her income as an artist in a spreadsheet and realized her side job, and the time spent on art projects, was adding up considerably.
She also realized that she wanted more community. “You don’t really get that when you’re working full time and then trying to also be involved in the art world,” says Bellamy. “You don’t grow as fast on your own.”
After such a positive USC experience her first time around, applying for the master’s degree program at USC Roski was a no-brainer. Her first year of school has been mostly online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but she was already well-versed in the positive side of virtual connections: The gallery that represents her found her on Instagram.
She’s upgraded from the kitchen table, however, and with the easing of restrictions, she’s now receiving friends and clients at her art studio.
USC Dornsife’s influence
Even though she’s switched to a different school, USC Dornsife is still sparking inspiration. She recently attended an event hosted by USC Dornsife’s 3rd LA project that celebrated the 50th anniversary of Reyner Banham’s influential book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.
Banham’s 1971 book defined L.A. as made up of four distinct areas: surfurbia (the beach environs), Autopia (the city’s freeways), The Foothills (it’s surrounding hills), and the Plains of Id (the flatlands outside the core of the city). His work is a major inspiration for Bellamy, who plans to depict her own interpretations of L.A.’s core identities as part of her master’s thesis.
“I’m trying to come up with new ecologies based on my own experience in the city. I’m looking at the built and natural environment, but also at pollution, smog and light, sort of updating his vision,” says Bellamy.
She’s hoping to enroll this fall in a USC Dornsife class, “Los Angeles: A Polymathic Inquiry” (CORE 450), to help develop her thesis further.
Bellamy’s painted sunsets are also layered with L.A. iconography: palm trees, chain link fences, a Lakers player dunking a basket. Clippings from the Los Angeles Times are a particular obsession both as inspiration and as physical material. Its archives generate a constant reminder of her work’s theme.
“Even when I’m searching [the archives] for keywords like ‘immigration.’ it’ll show up next to an op-ed that’s about smog or what California needs to do in the future to survive, as if we’re going to have an apocalypse here every year,” says Bellamy. “By embedding clippings physically into the art, I think the politics lens is coming out in a different way.”
When Bellamy’s not in the studio or browsing the archives, she can often be found in “surfurbia,” rollerblading along the Dockweiler Beach path sidewalk — a hobby honed during the recent quarantine. Behind her gliding figure will perhaps be a vivid, California sunset, one she’ll likely lay down later on the canvas.