Being of Service
by Rachel Koper
[Hassin] wants her artworks to serve a purpose, one that is aesthetic, and also public, intellectual and speaking truth to power.
I did a studio visit with Jenn Hassin to check on things since the birth of her daughter, Jade. She is blessed with agreeable little ones. I apologized to them in advance. I am about to ask your mom a bunch of art questions; you should be patient. Hassin, savvy as she is, tells the older kid Jack to keep the baby smiling in the bouncy chair and he will get a prize later. She is motivating, clear and doting. It’s cool to see her with art supplies in one hand and the smiling chubby baby in the other. Like all moms, she is on duty. Unlike most moms she has experienced a different kind of duty, military service. Hassin served in the United States Air Force for four years. Her final rank was Senior Airman. She chose not to reenlist in 2009 in order to study art at St. Edward’s University.
The Austin Chronicle awarded her 2015 Best Visual Artist, citing her work’s reflection on war and loss. Hassin is driven to address difficult topics. I have come to think she has an intrinsic desire to be of service. She wants her artworks to serve a purpose. One that is aesthetic, and also public, intellectual and speaking truth to power. Her unflinching grasp of social and military issues is unique as she has had skin in the game. I have met dancers that I just knew were dancers because of their super good posture. Hassin has the steely eye contact and posture of a veteran. There are quite a few artists that are slouchy shoe-gazer introverts. This is not Hassin. This hard-working woman talked of a feeling of “I am not enough.” We discussed a general lack of satisfaction and how some people will tell you to take time to “really love yourself.” She said this was futile for her. Her kids, her husband, her studio, her art projects, her research, her community collaborations are enough to satisfy her. She does not know how to sit on her laurels although she has plenty of them. She is a creature of action. She just wants to execute, get on with the next project, address social issues and pitch her new concepts.
Hassin has found a sense of purpose by being of service in her topical and process-oriented art works.
I appreciate the scope of her work. Letters of Sacrifice is an additive installation. Whenever a US soldier dies abroad she adds a rolled letter of condolence to the wall. These are not actual facsimiles of the letters, rather they are symbolic. She has discussed the bringing of letters to families with the folks whose duty it is to deliver them. She orients her research to primary sources and then distills what she’s learned. The count is real. She states that, as of October 1, “There are 6,899 men and women who have died fighting abroad since 9/11.” My favorite aspect of this sculpture, currently installed at the Pentagon, is the height of the empty fence. It is this large negative structural space that moves me. It will be filled eventually, but how long will it take? Nobody knows. It physically acknowledges that there will be more deaths. There will be more violent conflict.
Another work, Targeted deals with prisons and death row. Since 1976, Texas has executed 538 people, 13 of those in 2015. We are at seven this year, so far. The artwork is made of pulverized prison uniforms made into paper and arranged in a target shape. There is often a literalness to Hassin’s work. There is a rational translation and transformation of materials that is easy to understand. I find it refreshingly direct, unburdened by noodling philosophies. Just now writing “We are at seven this year” forces me into some feels, a sense of ownership and responsibility. Her work touches some buttons, inviting discourse.
Living in Texas with so many military bases, we are somewhat aware of posttraumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and the challenges and urgency of re-acclimating to civilian life. A Battle Lost is a piece Hassin made with veterans in Dallas. She told me she enjoyed the group setting, collaboration and working essentially in the role of an art therapist. Together they put military uniforms in a giant strong blender to make paper. Hassin then rolled and arranged the paper into the final wall work. The work was sponsored by the nonprofit 22Kill.
The #22KILL movement started in 2013 after the Veterans Administration released the staggering statistic that an average of 22 veterans are killed by suicide every day. 22KILL has committed to researching and understanding the genesis of this epidemic and educating the general public on the issue.
The solution is veteran empowerment. One of the biggest challenges veterans face is finding a sense of purpose after service.
Hassin has found a sense of purpose by being of service in her topical and process-oriented art works. It’s in her ambitious public projects and the large scale of her work. It’s in her ability to reflect clear eyed on some of the struggles and harsher realities of our world. It is her gift.