What Matters: Jillian Adel on Soft Hearts as Superpower

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Debbie Millman has started a new project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an ongoing effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer 10 identical questions, and submit a decidedly nonprofessional photograph.

Up next: Jillian Adel, an artist, activist and designer based in Los Angeles. She believes the way that we show up in our art is the way that we show up in our communities, and that we shouldn't have to compromise in either.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Connecting with others, genuinely and authentically.

Sometimes this looks like a long, honest conversation. And sometimes it’s on the dance floor on a Saturday night (back when we were on dance floors on Saturday nights) with friends and lovers, finding rhythms in the music and each other’s bodies. Or in my own world of dance, moving to a song that pulls me mobile by my stomach guts, in an intimate moment of self.

And often, it’s with my art. Connecting emotion and story to paint or clay or idea.

These types of moments, to me, are the reason for being alive in human form.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

My mom was a single mom. She put herself through chiropractic school when I was ages 6–10, and, as an only child, I was always occupying myself with crafts. I had a My First Sony Video Painter that was essentially an early version of a Wacom tablet with MS Paint, but you plugged it into the television to draw and it made sounds as you did (if you had the sound on). I also used to trace the graphics in my mom’s organic chemistry book, the hydrocarbons. And for holidays, she’d gift me shoe boxes full of art supplies that she picked out from the art store. And I loved them.

What is your biggest regret?

Not going to my senior prom in high school. I am generally of the mind that everything that has happened in my life has value, so I don’t tend to use the word regret, but I didn’t go to my senior prom and that has sort of always stuck with me in a silly way. My best friend and I had fallen out and our plans were together. And I had asked my four-year-long major crush to go with me, who never answered. And then I was going to go with a friend who had actually dropped out of school, but he couldn’t afford his ticket, and I couldn’t afford both of ours. So I scrapped the whole thing and got my nose pierced! I tried to make up for it in college by going to a fraternity formal, but that didn’t pan out either. I always have a few great dresses on hand in my closet if anyone is ever in need of a date to a formal occasion!

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

This feels like the most important question in the bunch based on the fact that I feel what we are/have been going through in the last year is one of the biggest collective heartbreaks of a generation. That we are all going through heartbreak slowly, painfully, publicly, and together in a nonlinear way.

I’m not sure you “get over” heartbreak. But [we] get through its fits of overwhelm as we gradually integrate it into our bodies. We always want to dodge heartbreak: avoid it, get past it. But sitting with it and its gift of experience and proof of life is, in my view, the only way.

There’s a lot of heartbreak in my art. I remember the first art print poster I ever released, about a decade ago, which included song lyrics that my ex had worked on (he was a music producer), and I was so self-conscious about him noticing it was about how much he hurt me. We kind of danced around the issue uncomfortably. I was very insecure about it all. But then someone told me that the depth at which I feel pain is equal to the depth I’m capable of loving, which is a gift. Once I learned that my soft heart was a superpower, that’s when everything started to change for me (and my art).

Now, so many of my poems and art are about heartbreak. Not just from lovers, but friendships, from family, from society. Promises we were told when we were young that we found out were lies as adults. And I think wearing that truth on my sleeve (or in a painting or on a ceramic piece) allows others to feel more empowered in that truth that they may have also felt but were not able to express. And, referring back to the first question, it creates a connection that is healing for both/all of us.

That type of connection holds you in the storms heartbreak can cause. And it holds me now as we move through our current moment. We’re going to have to be holding each other for a long time to come as we move through the immensity of our collective grief, normalizing not being OK in front of each other. But it’s also proof that we are alive, that we bore witness, and the art that’s going to come out of this moment is going to mark a very important shift in art history.

What makes you cry?

These days? Everything. Joy feels really overwhelming at the moment. When there are moments of collective joy, I lose my mind because they feel so rare.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

What I’ve noticed over the last few years is that the moments and markers that people expect you to feel most celebratory are never the moments that do. Sometimes they actually feel quite dark for a variety of reasons. And the moments of pride and joy come in lesser-expected moments. And as I get older, these moments are much milder and longer-lasting because they are from more internal forces than external. When I was younger, I was very excited by public validation. And now, what anyone else thinks of my work, in either direction, doesn’t affect me very much. But I’m very proud of handling my recent depressive episode how I did, and the progress I’ve made in healing and managing my closest relationships. The pride and joy of building happier, healthier relationships with myself and my loved ones is much longer-lasting than that of any professional award or project.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

You know, for all I share about and as open as I seem, this is a subject I’m pretty private about. I do believe in a spirit world, and the details of that I leave between them and myself.

What do you hate most about yourself?

Similar to regrets, I don’t think “hate” is something I have room for when describing much of anything apart from toxic forces. But I do struggle with a victimhood complex that has caused me a lot of pain. For all the ways I had a very loving childhood, there was a deep current of codependence partnered with emotional abandonment that formed a terrible form of PTSD, which my therapist refers to as “Happiness PTSD,” that then compounded in my adult years in my relationships and has been a very long road to heal. The extreme form of this emotion doesn’t come up for me very often anymore (thankfully), but when it does, it is definitely the worst feeling in the world for me and I definitely hate it.

What do you love most about yourself?

The way I’m able to turn hardship in
to healing. And my pure heart that settles for nothing less than total justice—and is sure to be crushed by this cruel world, yet will die unable to understand how people can treat each other so poorly sometimes.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

It was the oyster pan roast with Parker rolls from John Dory at the ACE in NYC before it closed. :((((