What has been done is un-done by living: Jessica Deane Rosner’s Ulysses Glove Project

Rhode Island has much to recommend it as a culturally-rich arts destination. In recent years, Providence, the state’s “creative capital,” has been touted as a vibrant hub of artistic endeavor. Among the many knowledgeable curators of the dizzying array of cultural offerings, I find my personal tastes well-served by the Providence Athenaeum and the doyenne of its legendary Salon Series, Christina Bevilacqua, who introduced me to Jessica Deane Rosner and her Ulysses Glove Project.

Ms. Rosner has shown her work in exhibition since 1992 in galleries in New York, Boston, and Providence, and abroad in Hong Kong and Leipzig. For this current project, Ms. Rosner has painstakingly transcribed the entirety of Joyce’s Ulysses on the surface of yellow rubber gloves. The work has taken three years and covers three-hundred and ten gloves. The effect is beautiful and odd and unexpectedly moving.

Now considered one of the most important works of the 20th century, the book was the subject of an obscenity trial in New York in 1921 and was banned in the United Kingdom until the 1930s. It was considered “dirty, filthy,” Rosner writes. “My father died in 2007; Ulysses was his favorite book. I remember that he kept numerous copies in our house when I was a child, and when he could, he went to the annual Bloomsday reading…” One of her family legacies, Rosner says, is this reverence for Ulysses. “Cleanliness is another.”

We conducted this interview by email and with one brief phone conversation. In what I have come to appreciate as a particularly Rhode Island story, it turns out Rosner and I have met before: a dear friend of mine was her son’s babysitter for many years (incidentally, her son is now sixteen and our mutual friend now an internationally-recognized playwright living in New York).

I…think a lot about the ephemeral quality of daily chores. They seem to hold no value because they must be repeated, and each day what has been done is un-done by living. A clean thing becomes dirty.

MKA: You began your art education with a bend toward craft. What pointed you in that direction?

JDR: I went to a five year art college. Instead of the customary one year of foundation, where you study the basics of art we had two years. That gave me an extra year to choose a major. I thought I would go into graphic design, but from the start, I felt constantly anxious about keeping up. It was extremely competitive and I felt lost. My mother, always a strong influence on my every decision, urged me to try enameling. The Cleveland Institute of Art was the only college that offered enameling (glass on metal) as a major. Enameling became my focus, with a minor in jewelry.

My enamels were always more like drawings or paintings than conventional enamel pieces. I enameled on copper bowls and steel squares pre-coated with white, much like a prepared canvas.

MKA: What were your early influences?

JDR: My family, especially my mother, Mona, and her mother, Gertrude, loved all kinds of art, including textiles, ceramics, and jewelry. Both Gertrude and Mona liked bright colors and contemporary work.

I grew up in Manhattan. We lived near the Met and we went all the time. You could pay a penny to get in. The admission is only suggested. So if it was raining or cold, or all through the winter, my friends and I would pay a penny or a dime and spend hours trying to get lost. We had two objectives: getting lost or finding a room with no people in it. That was our playground. All that time around all that art.

When I was very young, I liked any art that was narrative, anything that was detailed and beautiful. I liked illustration and decorative pattern. I loved Matisse, Picasso, Milton Avery, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Max Beckmann, Balthaus, and David Hockney. I loved the photographs of Jacques Henri Lartigue. And illustrations, especially in ink.

MKA: You’ve studied natural science illustration. Has this had any effect on your work? Your process? The attention to detail?homage to Lori E

JDR: The program, which included a year-long course in drawing and painting from nature, divided into a semester of black and white, then a semester of color, was humbling. I had to re-learn how to draw from life, which is a skill that gets rusty from lack of use. It helped me tremendously.

I do like detail. I have tried to move myself away from being too fussy and tight while still keeping my work detailed. I am moved when I see artwork, or anything that shows someone’s hand, as opposed to using a mechanical device to create work. I have always loved handwritten text and manuscripts. I also like music compositions, math notations – almost any mark making on paper.

As for process, I have always been slow and methodical. Almost every day job I have had – and I have had many – required speed. It feels completely unnatural and often led to tears and frustration. My artwork is the one place where I can feel adequate even though it is slow going and labor intensive. I try not to rush my art work. I enjoy watching the page fill and evolve over time, one mark following another. I like being quiet and still while I work. I like my studio to be warm and I am content to sit at my desk hour after hour – when I can – working on one piece that may take days, weeks, or even months to complete.  As I work, my mind often wanders creatively and I get ideas for another piece, then another.

MKA: The word that comes to mind in thinking about the Ulysses Glove Project is painstaking. I wonder whether there were any physical effects on you while you undertook this work? Did you notice this taking a toll on you physically?

JDR: During part of the time I worked on the gloves, I had a thyroid problem, which caused something called Graves’s disease. I can’t explain the disease but one symptom was extreme double vision. I would wake and not be able to focus. I stumbled around and had trouble going down stairs. I had to change eyeglasses at least three times to try to correct the problem but eventually I had surgery, which completely healed me. That ordeal lasted for about a year, and was the only time writing on the gloves was a real struggle. Truthfully, everything was a struggle during that period. I did work through it. I never stopped writing on the gloves but everything took longer. I couldn’t see without my glasses but it was hard to do close work with my glasses.

MKA: You question whether the “endless, unmeasured, and unacknowledged work of women across decades” is not a kind of performance in itself, which is an observation that gives me chills even as I type it. Can you say more about this?

JDR: I would not put my artwork in the category of performance art. Laurie Anderson  and Jenny Holzer come to mind as performance artists. But I do sometimes see my work and my life from outside of myself.

Along with images and words, I am attempting to bring my small domestic tasks to the forefront. I have a small, quiet life against the big stage of headline news and current events.

I have been thinking a lot about what people consider to be accomplishments. Since I spend so much time thinking about, worrying about, and doing domestic chores, I like to find a way to express them creatively. Does keeping a home clean count as an accomplishment if no one really cares about it?

I also think a lot about the ephemeral quality of daily chores. They seem to hold no value because they must be repeated, and each day what has been done is un-done by living. A clean thing becomes dirty.

However, world events also fade from consciousness. Every news story, no matter how big and bold-faced is nudged out by something else. Sometimes it can take a few days, but at times it is only a matter of hours before one news item replaces the one before. To me, daily life chores and the news stories that disappear feel connected.

I am working on drawings that include diaries of household chores along side global news stories. My dream is to make them almost life sized – a huge challenge, as I almost always work small.


MKA: Who are your current influences, or what are the exhibits you are anticipating? What other kinds of artwork speak to you? Who are your literary influences now?

JDR: The last big show I saw was a long-term installation of wall pieces by Sol Lewitt, at Mass MoCA. It was everything I had hoped for and more. He is someone who inspires me both as an artist, a person, a friend, and a writer. My taste has changed and evolved over the last five years. I am more aware of more artists and I read more about art. A short list of people I never tire of would include Eva Hesse, Sol Lewitt, Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Gego, Dufy, Gorey, William Kentridge, David Shrigley, Mimi Smith, and Sheila Hicks. Every time a few minutes go by, I add to this list. Artists who are not that well-known but are known to me, and whose work I admire are Lori Ellison, Caroline Burton, Sarah McEneaney, Maira Kalman, Nancy Shaver, and Jennifer Wynne Reeves.

A few of these latter artists are people I only know through Facebook. Their work amazes and inspires me. I have found Facebook to be an excellent and fun way to share work and learn about people I might never have known.  People poopoo it, but I love it.

As for literary influences, I am influenced by almost everything I read. I am a slow reader and I find myself thinking about the characters in books I am currently reading. I usually have one book on my nightstand and one audio book. Right now I am reading a Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith and listening to Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving.

I work in a library and my entire family is addicted to books of all sorts. I read a fair share of young adult novels because I enjoy them and I like to keep up with what teenagers and younger children want to read. I also love magazines – pop culture, essays, the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, and anything that has articles on how to get rid of clutter.

I listen to books on tape, too. While I was working on the glove project, I listened to twenty audio books. (MKA note: Ms. Rosner shared the list of audiobooks. I include it below.)

The book that most affected the way I keep diaries was probably Lucy Lippard’s biography of Eva Hesse. I am also moved and inspired by Maira Kalman’s the Principles of Uncertainty.

diary page 36MKA: Can you say more about the biography of Eva Hesse?

JDR: I kept diaries all through high school. Stupid things. When I began the Diary Project, I wanted to think about how to document my life in a more interesting way. To think about a reader, a possible audience.

MKA: Your diary project was born out of certain very personal stories. I read that you were deliberate in your choices not to obscure anything in your diary pages just because it told of something intensely personal or embarrassing. I am thinking about the ways in which so many of us have become accustomed to sharing and receiving very personal information about our lives – a kind of constant stream of sharing. The Ulysses Glove Project also comes from personal experiences and impulses – your relationship to your father and his death. Unlike the diary project, there is nothing in the visual experience of the gloves that would suggest personal experience. I wondered whether you would speak about how you start with something personal, then explore it at this level of abstraction, and remove?

I have been thinking a lot about what people consider to be accomplishments. Since I spend so much time thinking about, worrying about, and doing domestic chores, I like to find a way to express them creatively. Does keeping a home clean count as an accomplishment if no one really cares about it?

JDR: I think I am basically introspective. When I was younger my diaries and journals were mundane and personal but not particularly revealing because my writing wasn’t very good and I was writing facts instead of thinking about myself in more general terms, as an artist, a woman, a parent, a wife. I have gotten much better at writing without revealing intimate details that do nothing to bring a reader closer to who I really am. I now realize that sharing names and private moments can be titillating, but it doesn’t necessarily show people who you really are.

My work now is more intimate, even if on the surface I reveal things in a less obvious way. I believe my writing and drawing reflect more of my nature, my feelings about politics, about what holds meaning for me, and my sense of humor. I’m not sure I can articulate why I think my abstract drawings reveal something of me. I just feel that they do. In the case of the Ulysses Gloves I ask that people read my artist statement when they look at the gloves. I doubt anyone would glean much of a personal nature from the gloves as they are, except to wonder why anyone would bother.

MKA: You have made a decision to stay here in Rhode Island. Can you speak at all about how this decision, to stay close to friends and family and a bit removed from the art world of New York has influenced your work? Your life?

JDR: When I moved to Rhode Island I moved away from family and friends. I knew one person here, and I didn’t know her well. I rented two rooms in her house. I thought I would stay here for a year. I wanted to be away from distraction, away from my job as a jeweler. I needed a break from my parents, who lived around the corner, a break from my friends who were competing for what little time I had. That was in 1986.

For me, this move has been the right thing. It took about ten years, instead of one, to develop a body of work and to gain the discipline I needed. I was not savvy about how to find galleries in New York, nor about anything art world related. I am one of those people who always take the circuitous route everywhere and anywhere. But I have kept at my work. I left craft and enamel behind after I had my son. It was too hard to find the kind of time I needed and much too hard to sell. I switched to works on paper because I always loved to draw, and found I could use the bits of time I had while my son napped. I carried around a pad and drew and wrote all the time.

I made friends here both in and outside of the art world, found a gallery, took classes in natural science illustration, drawing, Photoshop and kept working. Eventually I found my voice. I learned more about how to get exhibits. I became more serious about art. I became choosy and careful and met curators, dealers, gallerists, and artists along the way who have been generous with their time and expertise.

Being an artist is still a struggle financially, but I feel less naïve about it and more sure of my work, most of the time. I don’t know what would have happened if I had stayed in New York. I think I would have given up.

MKA: So, your son is now sixteen. And you make passing reference that you cobble together bits of time for your work. At the risk of asking a cliché question, is there anything you would like to say about women’s domestic work in relation to artmaking?

JDR: I am happy to talk about women’s work and making art. I read a lot about artists and I find that generally speaking the men never make any reference to home life or domestic obligations, and the women almost always do. This is true of art stars like Kara Walker, Julie Mehertu, Wade Guyton, and Richard Long, to name a few. The women talk about their families, the men do not.

I, like everyone who sees a lot of art, have noticed a trend – slowly falling away – towards HUGE art. Mammoth art works that cover entire walls, buildings, land, water, sky. Usually this work is made by men. I love some of this work but am always confounded by the thought of practical matters. How did they get the money to create the work? How did they – in the case of Richard Long – go off on treks across countries, picking up stones or photographing skies for a year? Who made the beds and took the children to school and play dates? How did they feel entitled to destroy floors or museum walls to accommodate their massive pieces?


Over the years, especially since my son was born I became more ambitious but had less time and money than ever. I learned how to create things by conceiving of drawings that did not require too much thinking once the idea was set and allowed for progress even if I had only ten minutes a day. I started my line drawings when my son was a toddler. I would create line drawings in primary colors plus black and keep adding to lines in a pattern until the paper was filled. There are infinite ways  to divide pages so that just using line you could make original drawings for years. I did eventually miss making images of things, and as my son grew and became less demanding I tinkered with more challenging visual imagery.

Still, I wanted to find a way to create something epic, and something original. I used a broom as a motif over the years. I wrote about cleaning, as I stated earlier and tried to imagine an art piece that would incorporate writing, cleaning, chores…all the things that had become part of my visual vocabulary. I wanted to make something deeply personal, something I could do without writing a grant – I have NEVER had success on that front – and something I could do in my small studio in my still fractured days. Eventually, that was how I found my way to the Ulysses Glove project.

Being a mother and a wife has forced me to figure out ways to create within a very piecemeal day. I’m glad I have those boundaries and challenges, because I think they are essential to who I am as an artist.

Jessica Deane Rosner is a visual artist living in Rhode Island. In Providence, she is represented by Cade Tompkins.

1. If I Stay by Gayle Forman
2. My Hollywood by Mona Simpson
3. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
4. Secrets to Happiness: a Novel by Sarah Dunn
5. Away by Amy Bloom
6. The Three Weismans of Westport by Cathleen Schine
7. The Lakeshore Limited by Sue Miller
8. The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass
9. Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick
10. My Abandonment by Peter Rock
11. The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer
12. Private Life by Jane Smiley
13. I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman
14. Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
15. This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman
16. The Lost City of Z by David Grann
17. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
18. A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans
19. In the Heart of the Canyon by Elisabeth Hyde
20. The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont

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2 Comments on “What has been done is un-done by living: Jessica Deane Rosner’s Ulysses Glove Project”

  1. Mark Perry
    January 30 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    Hey Jess, Great to read, wonderful story. Congratulations!

  2. Anna Zimmerman
    January 31 2013 at 10:46 am #

    What a wonderful, deeply authentic article packed with information and inspiration. Thank you.

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