Jessica Dessner Is Drawing Inspiration

Art, dance and music intertwine in a blossoming visual art career

Jessica Dessner, a Brooklyn artist with a familiar last name in these parts, has a show of new drawings on display at Country Club gallery in Oakley.

She is the older sister of twin brothers Bryce and Aaron, native-Cincinnatian members of the popular Brooklyn-based Indie band The National. Bryce also founded MusicNow, the boutique music festival held here in spring.

Jessica, who is 37, has a varied arts background herself. She only recently took up drawing, after being commissioned by musician friend Sufjan Stevens. At Country Club, her show Before You Know features 10 colored-pencil drawings. A majority are not just representational-realistic but architectural in a detailed, observational way.

“Wires #1” shows the tangle of wires surrounding a utility pole, while “Wires #2” plays barbed wire off utility wires. “Curtain,” “Apollo Hotel,” “Clock,” “Shack” and “Kochin” all feature buildings and/or their interiors and exterior surroundings. There is one, “Sufjan’s,” that has a different approach, more colorful and a perhaps a shade mystical in its depiction of a bird flying across a fiery yellow sky.

This is her first show of this new work. And it’s a good start for someone who, until recently, had primarily been trying to be a dancer. She started that pursuit while growing up here, attending Cincinnati Country Day School.

“I went to Barnard College and was a dance major and while in school I danced with a company,” she explains by phone, shortly after arriving in Cincinnati for the show’s opening last Friday. “And I had a pretty great dance career in New York. I was classically trained, but segued pretty quickly when I was exposed to Butoh, a form of Japanese contemporary dance that was an artistic movement sort of spawned by the nuclear holocaust there. At the time, there were a number of people in New York doing it and I fell in love with the movement and danced with a company for several years, and that sent me deeply into modern dance.”

She also gained experience as a choreographer.

“That was my milieu and I loved it, but I started dancing so young I guess I felt I’d finished it,” she says. “I stopped dancing abruptly in 2003.”

Dessner found other activities to occupy her. She booked entertainment at a Brooklyn club and admired the buildings — even taking snapshots — when traveling with her husband, New York architect Olle Sondresen.

But her impetus to seriously try drawing came about through the graces of Stevens. And her brother Bryce — as well as Cincinnati, itself — played a role. One of Stevens’ early albums was 2001’s Enjoy Your Rabbit, featuring electronic arrangements and songs about animals in the Chinese zodiac. For 2007’s MusicNow, Bryce commissioned him to create new string-quartet arrangements for several of the songs. Stevens enjoyed the experience and music enough to rework all the songs for string quartet. Last year, NYC-based string quartet Osso recorded a new album of those arrangements called Run Rabbit Run for Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty. And Stevens turned to Jessica for the album art.

“The idea was to have me do drawings for that album’s artwork,” Jessica explains. “It was a big leap of faith on his part. But a lot of the artwork and a lot of the music and projects that happen in my particular arena (Brooklyn’s alternative-arts scene) come out of these friendships. We’re hanging out and someone says, ‘Hey, want to do this?’ ”

Osso performed at Country Club last year and Dessner exhibited album-related drawings. She also received an invitation to show new work at a later date. Oddly enough, as this show comes, she is dancing again as one of the “fly girls,” as she calls it, touring with Stevens for his new Age of Adz album.

“He decided he wanted dance as an important part of this tour,” she says. “He has two back-up singers who were going to be the primary dancers. I did the choreography and was accompanying them on tour just to check in. In Seattle last week, I got thrown into the live show. It went pretty well so now I’m going to be part of it.”

BEFORE YOU KNOW is on display at Country Club in Oakley through Jan. 8. Get show and gallery details here.

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