Welcoming me into her second story studio on Broad Street, Jill Hooper apologizes and says that if she seems scattered, it's because she's leaving for Paris that afternoon. Dressed in a bohemian cape with a black beret perched on top of her long, dark hair, she's the epitome of a cool and cultured artist. Breezing through her window-lined studio, Hooper explains each painting as if she is a docent — and in fact she recently began volunteering as one at the Gibbes Museum of Art, leading visitors past her own paintings. Hooper has two pieces in the permanent collection at the Gibbes, and at 42, she's their youngest solo exhibiting artist. When I ask if visitors know she's not just an ordinary intern, she laughs and says, "Only if they recognize me from my self-portrait."
The 25 pieces in Hooper's current collection are from the last five years of her life, and if there is a theme, it is one of isolation. "The body of work is solitary," Hooper explains. "I wanted to acknowledge how to be strong on your own. Next time I might need to include more people," she laughs as if suddenly aware of how these solitary images reflect her own journey.
A College of Charleston graduate, Hooper insists that drawing was "the only thing I was ever good at." Born in upstate New York, she moved to Southern Pines, N.C. with her family when she was 11 and soon began working with her first teacher, D. Jeffrey Mims. She also worked with Charles Cecil in Florence, Italy, and Ben Long of Charleston. "Every teacher has different information that is helpful for you to find your own voice," she says.
Her portrait "The Traveler" was inspired by Hermann Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, which focuses on the wanderer's struggle to find herself or himself, and the interplay between the feminine and masculine qualities within. This traveler is looking at the viewer, but also beyond, as if there is something more interesting in the distance. Hooper explains that the subject's strong jaw is meant to reveal a more androgynous character. "I would hope that men could also relate, that gender would not be the issue, but the journey, for lack of a better word, is the issue here." The painting is set in a transom mirror frame with the portrait below and a sunrise above because, Hooper says, "I wanted to offer a scene of what the person was going through." Placed directly above the model's head, the somewhat foreboding sunrise suggests a dark path ahead.
The process of painting from life in natural light is intimate, time-consuming, and brave. Many of Hooper's models have never posed before. "It's very important for the person doing the portrait to respect their sitter. It pulls out the humanity and honesty," she says. Hooper is very mindful about the models she chooses to work with and typically only paints friends or friends of friends. In a time where sitting still (without a smartphone or a Kindle) is rare, one can't help being curious about the relationship between model and artist. The quiet and contemplative faces reflect the complexity of that intimate relationship, offering a visual map to the stories and secrets beneath the skin. In "Jacob," Hooper struggled to find the right sitter for the beautiful, ancient, tactile frame that she says looks like it could live outside. "He is a traveling soul," she says of the gorgeous young man who is wrapped in a fur coat with clouds at his back to suggest movement and a wandering curiosity. A small, dead yellow warbler rests on the mantle of the frame, emphasizing the "lost in nature" vibe.
"Susan" shows a woman whose mastectomy has gone awry. It's a brave pose and a journey of acceptance. "I hope the strength and beauty of the woman captures your attention first," Hooper says. The sitter is lovely with rose-colored cheeks, full lips, and a gorgeous head of dark curls, but her expression is subtly pained. An act of bravery is shared between both parties, for the sitter to show herself and for the artist to create an image that is honest, beautiful, and raw. Light and dark are given equal weight, and Hooper makes us question our ideals of beauty and acceptance.
Hooper's self-portraits have been said to be some of her strongest work, and in fact "Pugnis and et Calcibus" (with fists and heels) hung in the London National Portrait Gallery in 2007. Her self-portrait from 2003 titled "Blackbird" will be featured in the show. In all of her self-portraits, her eyes stare directly at the viewer, though one always seems to be masked by the turn of her head or a swatch of her hair. Long fingers hold the bird in front of her face as if in offering. Birds are a common subject in Hooper's work and here, the "black" bird is made of iridescent turquoises and violet colors. "Don't judge a book by its cover," Hooper says with a smile.
Despite her achievements, Hooper does not sit on her laurels. "I really admire and respect her because she is always moving toward something new," curator Pam Wall says. "There has to be more there for her to be fulfilled."
Hooper could paint pretty faces every day and do very well for herself, but that would be too easy. Open to new experiences, she says painting is like taking a trip to Paris. "When you get there, you might come across a café, sit down for a cup of coffee, and meet some new people who take you somewhere unexpected," she explains. "Each painting takes on its own personality."