Mysteries of Identity
Super sleuthin' with the DIY PI Jessamyn Lovell
When she strolls into the coffee shop, Jessamyn Lovell looks unassuming enough. She bumps into a friend, then cozies up to the bar to order a tea latte. Little do most of us in the cafe know, in the last few months, Lovell has actually gone out of her way to look a bit more innocuous—she's taken the pink streak out of her brown hair, she's dressed plainer. That's because sometimes, her work means that she has to make moves undercover. Lovell, in fact, is a private investigator.
Lovell has been a photographer since her youth; that practice eventually led her to two projects, which in turn, led to her current work as an artist-turned-PI. The first was No Trespassing, wherein she tracked down her estranged father and observed him from afar, attempting to answer the deeply personal question of whether she wanted to reconnect with him despite a very fraught history. Lovell's second investigative project was Dear Erin Hart,—the genesis of which came when she was hanging No Trespassing at a gallery in San Francisco and her wallet came up missing. More than a year later, she received a call informing her that a woman named Erin Colleen Hart had assumed her identity and racked up thousands of dollars in charges at hotels, rental car companies and $500 at Whole Foods (admittedly, that last one isn't that hard to do). She spent months sorting out the situation and prying her identity back from Erin Hart; that was her logical response. Her creative response involved hiring private investigators to track Hart down and then trail her, documenting her life, and she hoped, elucidating some details of Hart's identity, that was now so wrapped up in her own.
By the close of Dear Erin Hart, Lovell had racked up 2,800 hours of investigative work, a large fraction of the 6,000 needed to earn a license as a private investigator. But more than that, she enjoyed the work. “I think what I love about this work is what I love about teaching and what I love about parenting and what I love about being in personal relationships,” Lovell explained. “Which is I love the puzzle. … To not get caught, to exercise my persona-building skills, to get away with things. I like the idea that I know things that someone else maybe doesn't.” As such, Lovell intends to obtain her private investigator certification by the end of the year, in conjunction with the opening of an exhibition at Central Features Contemporary Art (514 Central SW) that translates the experience of investigating other people's cases into an experience for attendees.
Yet, it's not purely a public service that Lovell is providing (though she does track down missing cats, locate lost packages, find estranged family members and espy identity thieves). There's something curative happening here, too. “It's the most interactive and deep therapy I've ever done,” Lovell described of her work. “I think there's a place for that in this and in all of the artwork that I do, really. I started my art practice out of a need to figure out my personal situation.”
Lovell regards much of her work as inquiries into identity. More specifically, “the idea of questioning identity and the fluidity of identities,” as she put it. Private investigation provides a jumping off point to delve into those sometimes murky waters, whether it comes in the shape of tracking down a petty criminal or an extrinsic family member, or even testing one's own identity as a PI. Though she herself has been forced to pause and question the nature of what she is doing. When she was following and photographing her father for No Trespassing, she admitted that she had “to decide early on if this was going to be about my dad or if it was going to be an art piece.” At that point a friend of hers told her straight on: “I feel like if it is going to be an art piece, then it is OK, but if it's not an art piece, then I feel like something is wrong.” “I took that and ran with it,” Lovell laughed.
Lovell has many identities, clearly—teacher, mother, partner, artist, PI. “Even in casual conversation,” she remarked, “when people ask me what I do, I’m not sure what I should tell them.” And in her most recent work, she is devoting her photographic eye and hard-earned sleuthing skills to elucidating those identities for others, while simultaneously challenging what art looks like and how it works in a world that tends to commodify it as a thing. “When the art really starts to happen for me is when I meet people who are open and willing to collaborate,” she said. And that next collaborator-