Stamps instructor Jessica Frelinghuysen focuses performance art on the human experience
September 25, 2023
Stamps instructor Jessica Frelinghuysen is many things: an award-winning performance artist, sculptor, societal commentator, Detroit resident, and advocate. Her commitment to community, conversations, and students is evident in all of her roles.
Frelinghuysen has a studio in Detroit at “Cave,” an artist collective. It is there where she connects with the community through her work as a performance artist. In describing her creative practice, Frelinghuysen explains that it is focused on social dynamics and how human beings operate. Her work has taken on many forms over the years, with many of her creations taking the form of wearables that make a point about the human experience.
Wearable Art as Social Commentary
“In my practice, I seek to fill a need that I see in society, so the art I make takes many different forms, most of them are wearables,” says Frelinghuysen. “For example, I have made uniforms and paper helmets. These structures and wearables invite the audience to engage and wear or inhabit something to fix a problem.”
In her Paper Helmets series, Frelinghuysen made screen prints that people can cut out, put together, and wear for different social situations, such as the common issue of hearing someone talk too loud on a cell phone. There is also a Helmet for Telling Secrets between two people, where a mouth shield and an ear shield are used so no words get lost in the conversation, drawing attention to such a private act in public. The way Frelinghuysen designed the items with bright colors draws attention to the gestures and actions of the wearer. Frelinghuysen describes the dynamic as “…the sweet subversiveness of these wearable sculptures.”
In her series of Uniforms, Frelinghuysen gives herself a 9 – 5 task as an artist that helps her fit into the community. One of the Uniforms she made was inspired by the overlapping sounds in the neighborhood, which inspired the piece and performance called Sound Collecting Suit. Activating the suit around town, she records people’s stories and sounds in Hamtramck, MI, the most densely populated city in Michigan, where overlapping Catholic church bells with calls-to-prayer from local mosques overlap children playing and forty different languages from recent immigrants to Detroit.
“There is a utilitarian use in all the wearables I make, and when I perform, I invite people to perform with me,” says Frelinghuysen. “In the Jessercise series, I go to various food establishments to work out with common groceries, or I turn a gallery into a gym to lead people in exercise moves using local International food-stuffs as weights. The correlation between food and exercise through art brings attention to different problems and situations, especially as a plus-sized woman living in a veritable food utopia here in Detroit, creating the opportunity for dialogue about body image, peoples’ origins and traditions, and just having fun combining different experiences. It’s about making life more interesting for people.”
Frelinghuysen has received many accolades for her work. In 2023, she became a rare, two-time recipient of prestigious honors from the Kresge Foundation.
Frelinghuysen was selected for the 2023 Kresge Artist Fellowships in Visual Art, awarding each Fellow $25,000. A previous winner of the Gilda Award from Kresge in 2021, Frelinghuysen became one of the few ever to receive both honors. The awardees are selected based on their contributions to the cultural identity and vitality of the Detroit arts community.
“I have been in the art community in Detroit for over 15 years, and becoming a Kresge Fellow validates my creative work,” says Frelinghuysen. “It is very validating to have this award from the community that I chose to make art in and live in, and it reiterates that what I make is important, has value, and brings joy to people.”
Inspiring Students to Have Fun
As a Stamps instructor, Frelinghuysen uses her experiences as a performance artist to mentor students pursuing their professional creative practice. “The students don’t always realize teachers are working artists as well, “ she says. “For instance, I show them my research on wearables and body extensions, how I put that in the public space, photograph or video it, and how it affects an audience differently in that context than in a gallery space.”
One of the courses Frelinghuysen teaches at the Stamps School is Social Spaces. She draws on her community performance work to educate students about art in society and non-traditional spaces.
“Having a place in the art world comes down to having perseverance,” says Frelinghuysen. “For my students, I cover the practicality of being an artist, such as how to apply for different grants and how to take an unconventional approach to sharing your work with others. I tell them their world doesn’t have to be in a gallery or a design firm. You can have fun with what you’re making and make it uniquely you.”