Jessica Joslin

In 1992, she began building the first beasts of this menagerie, using objects sent in a care package from her father, the same pieces that she'd collected as a child.

Issue 15 (1/2006) • January 25, 2006 • wersja polska »»

Jessica Joslin

Animal Trainer. The portrait of Jessica Joslin by Jared Joslin

Jessica Joslin was born in Boston, MA and grew up collecting insects off the windowsill to look at under her microscope.

Ever since, she has been enchanted with collecting a magpie's array of remnants from the natural world. The collection gradually grew to include obsolete bits of antique mechanical mechanisms, vestment trims, glass eyes and other oddball artifacts.

In 1992, she began building the first beasts of this menagerie, using objects sent in a care package from her father, the same pieces that she'd collected as a child.

In the rare moments that she is not building creatures for her ever-expanding bestiary, Jessica works as a commercial model maker, building prototypes of toys - alternately working as a sculptor, carpenter, machinist, mold-maker and painter.

She lives in a mad wunderkammer of a workshop, hidden away in Chicago, with her husband Jared, an accomplished painter.

presentation : Jessica Joslin
Francesca, 2002
  • 68"x35"x35"

Ostrich bones, antique brass hardware & lamp fittings, turtle shell, leather, glass eyes.

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Selected Solo Exhibitions

Selected Group Exhibitions



Jessica Joslin online:

Make something wonderful

Interview: Jessica Joslin

By Adam Szrotek & Sylwia Banasiak

presentation : Jessica Joslin
Diminuto, 2004
  • 7"x5"x6"

Antique hardware, bone, leather, cast/painted plastic, glass eyes.

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Can you recall the moment when you came up with this idea?

It was a gradual evolution, rather than an "aha!" moment. I had been making mixed-media sculptures, which incorporated bones, seedpods, and other natural objects with man-made found objects (especially parts from very old cash registers, adding machines and medical equipment). One day, I found, by chance, a bag of exquisite taxidermied bird parts, used for millinery c. 1900. That was the beginning of the first of my beasts.

Do you make sketches before you start to put up the elements together?

Sometimes I'll do rather idiosyncratic, miniature mechanical drawings on Post-its. I use them to determine the angles and lengths of the limbs and also to make notations of the thread sizes for the fittings.

Can you describe the process?

They all seem to follow their own circuitous path. I don't always start with the head, for instance. I do often begin with a specific part (or parts) that I'd like to use, a beautiful bone, or a piece of brass with a great shape and an especially lush patina.

Sometimes I'll start with a specific animal in mind, and along the way, the proportions of the pieces that work together will turn it in a different direction - a wallaby will turn into a dog, a raptor will turn into a shore bird.

Sometimes a picture is a direct inspiration. The feline twins, Lupe and Fiala & Lartet were sparked by a c.1900 Barnum and Bailey poster image of a performing cat troupe.

Materials you use and where do you find supplies, eyes for example?

The glass eyes are from a taxidermy supplier. They are set with leather from antique opera gloves. This forms the eyelids and surrounding area, integrating it with the skull.

For all of the years that I have been making these creatures, I have constantly been seeking new sources and hunting for treasures. The parts that I use are incredibly eclectic and specific. A materials list for a single toe might be: leather-jacket spike, 2 custom-made brass plates, brass fluid couplings, stainless steel standoff... etc.

How do you engage the pieces?

The sculptures are constructed using a wide range of techniques, each appropriate for the qualities of that material. I use mechanical fastenings whenever possible: miniature machine bolts, universal joints, springs, hinges and couplings. The sculptures may appear to be very fragile, but they are actually very solidly constructed. For elements that may be a bit more delicate, I will compensate in other ways. For example, a skull: I might coat the interior with resin and mount it with a fitting so that it can be removed for packing. A smaller head might be mounted on a hidden spring, so that it has some "give". I often reinforce the lower jaws with a brass plate and then spring-mount it, so that they can "snap", or bite.

Different bones have very different qualities in terms of density and tensile strength. Bird bones are thin-walled and lightweight, for flight. Mammal bones are much more heavy and dense. A mammal bone can easily hold a bolt or screw hole, whereas a bird bone would need to be reinforced; That type of fastening must distribute the stress over a broad area, by using brass plates, washers or sleeves.

What is the hardest part of the process?

The final steps. In fact, I've had quite a taxing day today, applying the thread-locker glue to the flamingos (Candido & Caprice) legs. I need to loosen all the joints, put the glue in and then get everything aligned very accurately and very quickly or I've got to wrestle them apart and start again. There are a lot of very precise angles. It would be convenient if could do it bit by bit, but leg joint #1, 2 or 3 is off a tiny bit it won't align correctly (the feet don't hit the floor flat, or the posture looks awkward).

presentation : Jessica Joslin
Candido & Caprice, 2005
  • 40"x16"x20" each

Brass, snakeskin, vestment trim, velvet, antique opera glove leather, turtle shell, cast and painted plastic, glass eyes.

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Also, the planning can get rather involved. The flamingos, for example, are constructed so that they are adjustable, the legs as well as the necks. They can stand in different poses. All of the larger pieces disassemble for shipping. There are a lot of variables to consider, especially when working with such diverse materials.

Do you have your favorite creature in your collection? If so, which one and why?

Usually the one (or ones) that are on my workbench at that moment. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be able to bear to part with any of them. Soon there would be no room for us humans anymore...

How do you find names?

I collect names, much as I do all of my other materials. I'm always looking for good ones and writing them in a big book. When a new beast is done, out comes the book.

How do people react to your artworks? What do they usually ask about?

I think that once people get close enough to them to see the level of detail and craft, they are intrigued (and hopefully charmed). Many people are curious about what they are made of, or where the bones are from. Architects and engineers seem to be especially appreciative of the construction, the intricacy. Biologists and doctors are more attuned to the anatomical correlations; Historians, to the cultural references, such as the Wunderkammer or Cabinet of Curiosities. Most people have been to a natural history museum and seen the mounted skeletons. This seems to be what is referenced most. Actually, one of my early influences was growing up in close proximity to the wonderful collections at the Harvard University Museum of National History. Clearly, that influence still comes through strongly.

Some, like animal activists may find your pieces controversial. Has your art ever been rejected and called un-humanitarian because of that?

Perhaps surprisingly, I have generally received interested, supportive responses from the people who I've spoken with... including those who are involved in animal rights organizations. I do think that these days, especially in America, someone will find something objectionable, or controversial, about nearly anything. Perhaps, that makes me a bit of a sitting duck, but as of yet, no fire.

I have a very strong affinity for animals, and I think that comes across in my work. I take the related ethical and legal matters quite seriously. I will only deal with osteological suppliers whose specimens are legally and ethically obtained. I also use a fair amount of cast replicas in my work (for protected species.) Because of my background as a model maker, I am able to do the molds and casts myself and keep a very tight rein over the quality. The vast majority of viewers (including a few biologists and naturalists) have not been able to tell what is real and what is not.

Has anyone ever approached you with a private order?

I just finished my first commissioned piece, Happy. At one of my openings, I was talking to a couple of collectors. They told me about a pet that they had once had, a cranky old dachshund, ironically named Happy. In a human's years, this animal would have been about 150 years. He was growing more ornery all the time-biting ankles and such. The one family member who still had a fondness for him was "Gramps", the equally cranky patriarch. One day, Gramps, being shortsighted, accidentally ran Happy over with the car. They had a funeral in the back yard and buried Happy.

presentation : Jessica Joslin
Happy, 2005
  • 8"x6"x21"

Antique hardware, brass, bone, beads, umbrella tips, vestment trim, velvet, leather, glass eyes.

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10 years later, they were walking around the property where their old house had once stood. The bulldozers excavating the property had unearthed Happy's skeleton. It was lying on the ground, perfectly intact. They decided that this dog was clearly meant to stay with them, somehow or other. So they packed him up and put it in the attic. What a perfectly bizarre, wonderful tale (to me, at least!) I told them that if they ever wanted to commission a piece from him, to let me know. A year later, I began the piece, with only the instructions, Make something wonderful.

Have you ever collaborated with your husband?

No, but in a sense, we are constantly collaborating. We share a studio, so ideas bounce back and forth all the time. He's my sharpest-eyed critic. Luckily, he's brilliantly knowledgeable of animals, so it comes in handy.

What was the best Christmas gift you have ever received?

The first Christmas after we met, my husband gave me an antique rhinestone frog pin. He'd bought it for me over a year before we met, because he knew that we would meet and that I was "the one".


presentation : Jessica Joslin
Adora, 2005
  • 18"x10"x11"

Brass, bone, snakeskin, leather, music wire, umbrella tips, glass eyes.

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presentation : Jessica Joslin
Bela, 2002
  • 17"x5"x13"

Antique lamp fittings & hardware, bone, brass, velvet, leather, chain.

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presentation : Jessica Joslin
Canto & Silva, 2003
  • 19"x15"x32" overall size
  • 13"x11"x21" each

Brass, bone, antique hardware & lamp fittings, cast pewter, cast/painted plastic, leather, glass eyes.

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presentation : Jessica Joslin
Cosimo, 2005
  • 14"x7"x20"

Antique hardware, brass, bone, glove leather, glass eyes.

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presentation : Jessica Joslin
Fiala and Lartet (cat & bird, respectively), 2005
  • 11"x6"x22" overall size
  • 11"x6"x12" Fiala
  • 9"x5"x8" Lartet (bird, on cart)

Antique hardware, brass, bone, leather, cicada wings, antique velvet & trim, model cannon, pewter feet, glass eyes.

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presentation : Jessica Joslin
Fritz, 2004
  • 10"x5"x11"

Brass, bone, steel, antique hardware & lamp fittings, springs, beads, antique ivory.

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presentation : Jessica Joslin
Lupe, 2005
  • 11"x6"x16"

Antique hardware, brass, bone, painted wood ball, leather, glass eyes.

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presentation : Jessica Joslin
Nico, 2005
  • 19"x5"x12"

Antique hardware, umbrella tips, brass, bone, leather, glass eyes.

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presentation : Jessica Joslin
Silvio, 2005
  • 4"x7"x11"

Turtle shell, brass hardware, beads, bone, antique vestment trim, leather, glass eyes.

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presentation : Jessica Joslin
Verio, 2004
  • 14"x12"x11"

Antique hardware, lamp fittings, wood finial, bone, leather, glass eyes.

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presentation : Jessica Joslin
Viola, 2005
  • 18"x9"x20"

Antique hardware, leather, bone, brass horn, silver bottle stoppers, cast/painted plastic, glass eyes.

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© Jessica Joslin