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Explorations in Expression in Unpredictable Times: Artist Tess Felix

By Sara Ost, Editor at Large

These are the most trying times in a generation: A convergence of economic, health, justice, and climate upheaval. That we do not yet know how these seismic shocks in our culture will reorient and settle makes giving ourselves permission to take the time to revitalize ourselves paramount. For some of us, that might mean a bit more meditation, a bit less Twitter, or perhaps a little less Netflix binging in lieu of uplift through a novel or two. For others, finding paths to explore the well-documented connection between art or craft and healing is empowering.

In spite of the exhausting 24/7 news cycle, we see positive cultural changes on the ascendant, too. Consider: Gardening has reconnected millions of us with the earth. (I put in a fruit orchard with my parents this summer, something this city girl never envisaged she’d be doing.) Earlier in the year, when the pandemic first descended, there was a dismayingly mad rush on meat nationwide. Yet within mere weeks, demand shifted to legumes and pulses. An organic recipe publisher I know reports their vegan recipe website traffic has never been higher. A former friend I had cherished reached out and we forgave each other—really, we forgave ourselves. We laughed and cried, of course, and he told me he’d spent all of this time in quarantine patching up every last relationship in his adult life. I’m sure he’s far from the only one.

Craft and care—whether for self or others—are on the rise, as is art in all its forms (including conscious protest for meaningful advances in social justice). In my debut column for CocoEco, I turned over these trends, which all seem to share in common a soul thirst for deep revitalization. Viewed through a cultural lens, I believe this manifests powerfully in expression. In this and coming issues, we’ll encourage and inspire you with stories of conscious women expressing themselves in fearless, positive, creative ways.

Our first interview is with noted San Francisco Bay Area artist Tess Felix.

When we speak, she’s just emerged from a swim in the lagoon next to Stinson Beach, where she’s made a home with her family for decades. During our call, which she takes outdoors, I occasionally hear the pleasant sounds of neighbor children passing by and calling out to her.

While Felix has lived on the Northern California coast, more or less, for most of her life, she’s embarked on nomadic adventures and educational and career pursuits in London, Texas, and Los Angeles along the way.

“It’s really sort of amusing how I ended up back in Marin County,” she recalls with a soft chuckle. “Living in London, I planned to move to France, but I met my husband in England and it turned out he was from Stinson Beach. But I’m still planning on ending up in France.”

A lifelong artist and craft professional, Felix began her career studying theater craft—costuming, special effects makeup, wig-making, and styling. Her relaxed, serene energy belies global successes that span an impressive and eclectic range: She’s done Hillary Clinton’s hair (mum’s the word on the many other celebrities she has styled, but I was lucky to pry Madame President out of her). She’s done special effects makeup, styling, and costuming for films and plays that are household names, though she prefers not to name-drop (see previous). Most recently, she was slated for The Book of Mormon in San Francisco in March of this year, but of course, that was all put on hold when COVID-19 arrived.

Felix says her life as an artist and in her professional crafts has been defined by her inborn need to make things; to work with her hands; to interpret what she observes. (“I find faces so fascinating,” she explains. “But not as a critique; I’m an observer by nature.”) What is so resonant in the context of our perspective on the current milieu: The lifelong thread of expression that has twisted and turned in response to her travels, projects, and observations.

Felix is humble in every respect when talking about her life and her work, including her most celebrated contribution that put her on the twin cultural maps of environmentalism and fine arts.

More than a decade ago, walking Stinson beach, she began to notice something: plastic. “Plastic trash was just everywhere,” she says. “I do not consider myself an activist, and still don’t; I’m an artist, but it really bothered me.”

She began to collect the plastic, not to recycle, but for a profoundly original artwork, one that would become not only her art world signature but challenge the reality that we had almost wholly ignored our plastic problem as a culture, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the cheery calls to reduce, reuse, recycle.

Caps, toys, kitchen utensils, bits of broken home décor: the detritus of our consumption culture was endless, and Felix eventually began organizing her hauls by color into assorted bins. The art that emerged, human portraits rendered in plastic collages, was innovative, shocking in its unsettling beauty, uncanny, and, for this writer, curiously guilt-inducing. The world took note. She has been covered in major press, featured in Art Works for Change, and her work has been shown in dozens of galleries and museums from California to China and beyond.

In this time of the coronavirus, she’s taken up painting seriously for the first time since her earlier years. “I never felt I was a very good painter, but I’m really enjoying it and I think I’m learning from it and it’s a worthwhile thing right now for me.”

She’s been experimenting most with “upside down painting” to challenge her brain. “I’ve been tearing people out of magazines, and you paint them upside down,” she says. “They come out really peculiar. it helps undo ideas around things, around how they should be proportioned.”

Felix still collects plastic and still makes art from it, though, “I think my style is more refined than it used to be,” she shares. “I almost like how it was looser in my earlier pieces, but the painting is really helping me continue to develop my work.”

A new piece is to be included in San Francisco’s world-renowned de Young Museum in a major new exhibition simply called the de Young Open; with wildfires raging and shifting pandemic restrictions, the exact timing of the public opening is still being determined between museum leaders and city officials, but the hope is within weeks.

Felix is also a dedicated subject in an upcoming documentary short film series by respected environmental filmmaker Cynthia Abbott called Every Second Breath. (Shooting the video while maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask was quite the experience, and I can almost hear her shaking her head. But they made it work.)

“I’ve been very shy all my life,” she says, “So this a whole new chapter for me, to be on film especially. Just to talk at galleries and such was always hard for me, but I’m getting better at it.”

Meanwhile, in between some private commissions, Felix has been at work developing the concept for an exciting installation abroad, sponsored by an environmental philanthropist, in far-flung Malta. The artwork will be the largest one Felix has ever created: a billboard-sized trash rendering of Jesus Christ. The Maltese are notoriously some of the most lax in Europe about recycling, and, as Felix says matter-of-factly, “Maybe Jesus will get people’s attention.” Fortunately, the local authorities are supportive and the project has been given the green light. (“They want me to mentor people and teach them,” says Felix.) Unfortunately, “Americans aren’t allowed in Europe,” she notes drily. With the pandemic and the state of the planet as it is, the funding is temporarily on hold, as well.

“You know, it’s been interesting, I’ve also taken up gardening, which I never had any interest in at all before,” Felix laughs. (I can relate.) “I’m down on the ground with the earth and the bees and the butterflies and the birds. I’m not surprised that I love it, but it’s a new discovery, and I didn’t know that I would enjoy it so much.”

Until the current holds lift, and until France, Felix will keep combing her environment, finding new paths to expression.


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