For Kitchen Table Allegory, in 2010, Hutchins turned her family’s old table into a printing press. She applied ink to the surface and used it like a woodblock, letting the dings and scratches reveal the story of its daily use. It’s personal but not mawkish. “So much about her work is about love,” Porter says. Hutchins shows me Rama and Sita, a piece based on the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. “I was totally engrossed in the text,” Hutchins says. “I wept reading the verses—I loved all the romance and desire.” Sita is depicted as a tall red pole with a heart-print smock hanging from the top, while Rama is represented by a small squat rock with a clay vessel mushed on top. Sita looks like she’s crying and curling her body toward her lover, who looks up beseechingly.
As much as Hutchins’s work is about love, it’s also about language. At first glance, the piece Symposion seems like an enormous hunk of papier-mâché plopped on a shabby couch. But look closer and you see that the form suggests a ring of human figures (similar to the patterns on an ancient-Greek vessel). “Symposion” is the classical Greek word for a drinking party during which revelers would lie around sipping wine, having sex, and making speeches. Hutchins’s drinking party lounges on a sofa.
Text, both archaic and contemporary, informs a lot of Hutchins’s work. She discusses literature with unapologetic earnestness—whether it’s talking about the metaphysical symbolism in Moby Dick or writing about why the comma is her favorite punctuation mark (“It is the least beholden to convention...it can be drawn as an almost dot with a tail, like a sperm cell or perhaps a tear,” she noted in one essay). She excitedly pulls out Joseph Roth’s novel Radetzky March and another book on the German terrorist group Baader-Meinhof that she recently picked up.
Reading and making art are what saved her during her lonely adolescence, says Hutchins, whose mother died when Jessica was 12. “I was an intense kid, and I always identified as an artist.” After studying at Oberlin College in Ohio, she went to graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was there that Hutchins began creating papier-mâché works. She fashioned a tongue for Syd Barrett, the Pink Floyd vocalist, who had left the band after becoming mentally ill and ended up a recluse uttering gibberish in his mother’s basement. “I wanted him to be able to speak.” She made a heart for Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, another troubled musician. She was making arms for junkies she knew and other assorted totems for various lost individuals. She also made “a leg for me to stand on,” she says matter-of-factly. At the time, she was battling her own heroin addiction, which she would finally kick at 27. She didn’t go to rehab. “I just sat in the bathtub for a few days.”