Drawn to the sea

News Limited , December 2014

Jess Leitmanis

Wm 1 web a

A former Quiksilver designer turned freelance Surf Coast illustrator is giving her passion for the environment an artistic edge, writes MIRANDA LUBY

A watercolour whale in a wrinkled work suit. Half-animal, half-human, it’s a modern-day Surf Coast sphinx.
And like its ancient counterpart the striking creature has its own mythological story, born from the imaginative mind of its creator - Jan Juc artist Jess Leitmanis.
“It’s a character from this hypothetical future I was imagining where whales can no longer live in the ocean because they have been so influenced by humans,” explains the 32-year-old.
“So they begin to copy the human way of living in the world. They grow feet and wear suits and act like people.”
Jess laughs at the thoughtful silence that follows the description.
“It’s meant to be a bit playful,” she clarifies. But the story of the imaginary world resonates.
While the beautifully illustrated ‘whale men’ look like good-natured characters from a children’s storybook, there’s an arresting environmental message in their tattered garments and haunting expressions. And it’s a theme carried throughout the artist’s whole body of work.
Strangled-looking albatross struggle under tangles of a vibrant palate of plastic while sharply curved waves wash slicks of colour around the ocean.
“Humans have such control over the state of the world and I find myself moved to reflect on that idea,” Jess says. “It’s amazing the impact we can have.”
But the relaxed and cheerful artist isn’t trying to push any agenda with her work. In fact she, more than anyone, knows creativity should have no boundaries.
Jess says being homeschooled until highschool helped her find art at a young age.
“I was always encouraged to be creative and I had no expectations of me, which allowed me to express myself however I wanted to,” she says, speaking fondly of her childhood filled with ‘climbing trees, playing in cubby houses and creating art’.
“My dad is a writer so that kind of imagination is in the family and I always knew I wanted to do something creative.”
After Oberon High School Jess went on to study Communications Design at RMIT in Melbourne but found herself constantly drawn to the coast.
“Every weekend I was driving back down the highway to be by the water,” recalls Jess, an avid surfer. “I always felt more creative down here.”
Passion and hard work paid off when Jess landed a job designing at Quiksilver before even finishing her degree.
“Getting a full time job down the coast doing something I love - that was a pretty good deal for me,” Jess laughs.
She worked for the surfwear company for eight years, designing to briefs for clothing produced on large scales, and all the while her creative eye obsessed over the subtleties and details of the ocean she spent so much of her out-of-work hours in. But realizing a common irony of working in a creative industry Jess found that come the end of the day, she was too artistically burnt out to work on any of her own art.
“It was so hard to find the balance, and to switch from one headspace to the other — from commercial to following your own whims,” Jess explains. “My own work kind of took a back seat.”
Then, two years ago, she took the leap from full-time work to freelancer.
“I still wanted to graphic design and do work in the fashion industry because I was conscious that if I tried to make money solely from my own art then it would be dictated by what people like. I don’t want to do art for that reason,” Jess says. “I wanted the freedom and the time to see what I could do.”
So she now splits her time between studios in Jan Juc and Byron Bay, letting her coastal environments inspire her personal projects.
Working with ink and watercolour, Jess creates work with a considered fluidity, a deliberate contrast to the way she designs for a client. “The mediums are quite unexpected at times which is what I like about them,” Jess says. “The ink is applied with an old-style metal nib which creates nice varying line widths but also sometimes splatters and blobs which I don’t want to correct because that element of the unknown is what makes the work unique.”
Embracing this flexibility helps Jess find her way ‘through an artwork’, a lesson that she says can be applied to any creative project.
“Sometimes you think something’s not going to work and you can’t figure out how to fix it but if your just keep going, and don’t give up, something often happens and it can turn out better than you ever expected.”
The results are fantastical creatures and nature-inspired scenes that seem at once purposeful and effortless in design.
And while Jess’ art projects a strong environmental message, this is more a consequence of what inspires her than a conscious effort to raise awareness for a particular issue.
Her albatross artworks were influenced by photographer Chris Jordan, who, in an effort to explore consumerism, produced a photo series of a colony of the birds who had been strangled by plastic.
“Those images were really profound for me and I was moved to reflect on them,” Jess explains.
But she says her illustrations don’t have to be interpreted through her views on the environment.
“People can decipher them however they want,” she allows. “The albatross could represent you or me and the plastic might be tangible or an idea. It could be about humans being caught up in the idea of consumerism or following a certain way of doing things.”
Jess’ whales came from her own mind’s creative wanderings during a self-imposed two month artist’s residency she recently undertook in Indonesia.
“I was exploring the story in quite a childlike way,” Jess says.
And fittingly, she plans to create a children’s book from the expressive creatures.
“It’s about the whale men’s journey back to the ocean after some time on the land living like humans,” Jess says. “They have to remember how things were and find themselves again.”
And while the story contains a strong environmental tale for kids, Jess wants the real message, like the message in her art, to be more encouraging.
“It’s about being true to yourself and asking questions of the world,” she says. “And most of all being creative.”
Jess’ work is available in Tigerfish and Ballyhoo Art and from her website, jessleitmanis.com