Jenn Hassin can point to the first piece of paper she folded and rolled. It is red, a little more than an inch in diameter, and it is from a Texas newspaper, though Hassin can’t remember exactly which one.
Hassin’s intricately pieced large-scale assemblages — some with thousands of conceptually symbolic rolls of newspaper or handmade paper crafted from military uniforms — have been exhibited in museums, at the Pentagon and commissioned by private collectors.
And yet the Austin artist still keeps that very first piece in her studio at Canopy, the East Austin arts complex.
Made in 2011 when Hassin was still a student at St. Edward’s University, “Rosette Spectra” is a mosaic of hundreds of paper rolls, including that very first one, arranged by color in a swirling design, the paper sourced from Texas newspapers, including the American-Statesman.
Hassin admits to having an insatiable appetite for reading the news. “I’ve always been obsessed with current events,” she says. “I like researching issues, identifying statistics about events.”
Those statistics often become an artistic starting point for Hassin. She imagines the rolled paper as a spiral symbol of the circle of life. And if the printed information is hidden, she likes that aspect too.
“We all have secrets,” she says. “But we also overlook each other’s stories. We don’t pay attention.”
Hassin’s best-known installation, “Letters of Sacrifice,” is currently on display at the Pentagon in its Patriotic Art Gallery. A memorial to U.S. service members killed in action since 9/11, “Letters” features copies of official condolence letters for every soldier who has died, each letter rolled up and stuck in a circular wall made of wire.
“Letters” was exhibited multiple times in Austin and elsewhere in Texas before landing at the Pentagon in 2015. Since she started the piece in 2012, Hassin has continued to update it, adding new rolled letters every few months.
Hassin, 30, is a veteran of the United States Air Force. She served four years and was stationed at a base in England where she worked at a dental technician.
She maintains that her artistic intent is neither pro- nor anti-war but a simple call for attention.
“I am more interested in opening a dialogue about issues,” she says. “Being a veteran is part of who I am but not all of who I am. I wanted ‘Letters of Sacrifice’ to be at the Pentagon because I wanted the people who make decisions about war to look at it.”
Many of her projects include a community effort. Hassin received support from a veterans group to create “A Battle Lost,” with about 100 veterans helping create 8,030 thick rolls of varying sizes made of paper crafted from military uniforms. Each roll represents one of the 22 veterans who some advocates estimate commit suicide every day, with 8,030 representing one year.
Hassin made the paper using uniforms from every branch of the military, ripping the fabric into small pieces before pulping it and pressing it into thick paper of unusual texture and softness. The rolls are arranged in undulating shapes that suggest a topographical map and are in fact abstractions of various war zones from World War II to the present.
Beyond community workshops, Hassin’s artistic practice involves a somewhat unusual level of public speaking and presentations about her work. Last fall she traveled to Israel as part of a group of veterans invited by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. She met with Israeli military. She gave a presentation on her work to an audience of 9,200. And she gathered Israeli newspapers to make the 8-foot-long artwork “Borders, Israel.”
Most recently, and here in Austin, she has been visiting with local community groups and congregations to encourage participation in her project “Receptacle,” currently on view at the Elisabet Ney Museum.
Hassin used clothing donated by people around Austin — surgical scrubs, children’s clothing, T-shirts — to craft thick, colorful paper. Visitors to the Ney Museum are invited to write down a wish or a hopeful thought and roll it up and place it in the wire structure that stands in a grove a trees on the north end of the museum’s property.
Hassin will eventually take the cloth paper notes and repurpose them again in another work of art. But until then, “Receptacle” is a public wishing well of sorts — a place where people send their good thoughts out into the world and subject them to the elements.
“I’ve always been hugely inspired by the Western Wall,” says Hassin of the landmark in Jerusalem. “They way people leave private prayers and messages, send them off into the universe.”
Hassin is cheerful, focused yet quick to smile. Her studio at Canopy is tidy yet rife with evidence of a busy working artist: a table filled with neatly arranged tools and scores of well-used pencils and boxes of handmade paper — organized by color — stacked nearby. There’s also a child’s play tent where her 7-year-old, Jackson, decamps when he joins her there and a colorful bassinet for her 6-month-old daughter, Jade.
“I took Jade with me this spring when I went to the Pentagon to update ‘Letters,’” Hassin says.
Hassin grew up in the small Texas town of Eagle Lake, one of six children in a family that was, by her own description, plagued by economic and personal challenges.
“We were the poor family in town that wasn’t respected,” she says. “I started waiting tables when I was 11 years old. I stayed busy to stay out of the house.”
Military enlistment offered a break from her situation, and shortly after high school Hassin joined the Air Force.
After her service, Hassin — by this time mother to her first child — used her G.I. Bill benefits to enroll at St. Edward’s, intending to study biology and eventually head to dental school.
But she quickly switched her major to art and never looked back.
Since graduating in 2012, Hassin has forged her own way as an artist. Whatever recognition she’s received — the exhibition and project opportunities, the public speaking engagements and especially the private commissions — has been entirely of her own making. Hassin is not represented by a gallery, and she’s yet to have the typical solo exhibit in an established art venue, the industry’s sanctioning of sorts.
Her persistence and moxie got “Letters of Sacrifice” to the Pentagon, though. “People thought I was crazy when I said I wanted to exhibit (the piece) there,” she says. “I had to write so many people. I got turned down a lot. So then I just wrote to other people.”
Even her project at the city-funded Ney Museum is a venture she is footing the bill for herself.
Nevertheless, between private commissions and some organizations who have supported public aspects of her projects, Hassin has just enough income to shore up her practice as a professional artist.
“I want to promote discussions about important topics,” she says. “I want to make things that intrigue people.”
“Receptacle” on display
Jenn Hassin’s “Receptacle” is on view on the grounds of the Elisabet Ney Museum, 304 E. 44th St. Paper is available during museum hours, noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. austintexas.gov/Elisabetney