“I’ll sit here so I don’t get in trouble for smoking,” Jemima Kirke said on a recent morning, adjusting her paint-streaked apron so she could plop down onto a cushion by the window in her studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn. She lit an American Spirit, turned down the opera music a notch, and, having granted me entry by pushing a gigantic portrait of Allison Williams in her wedding dress away from the door, suggested I take an armchair where a wall used to stand before she and her studio-mate moved in.
In the three years since, the space has become Kirke's retreat. Its remote location is just a few blocks from the water, and a 20-minute walk from the nearest train. "It's perfect for me,” Kirke said. “Before this I was working out of my house, and before that I was in Downtown Brooklyn, and before that I was in Harlem. I move studios a lot—whenever I hate my work, I tend to move,” she added with a laugh. “But I’m going to stay here for a while.”
After all, despite starring in Girls, Kirke has always considered herself primarily an artist—and for just as long as that, she’s been making her work in unexpected places. Her mother, Lorraine Kirke, always made sure she had a studio growing up, but those locations ranged from a wine cellar to a boiler room. Once, when she was 14, she even resorted to using a picnic table as her canvas. Art school presented her a more dedicated practice, but after Kirke graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in painting in 2008, she found herself stifled again. Only this time, it wasn't by the constraints of space, but the unknowable judgment of the world outside the insular cocoon of her peers. Now she prefers to have a studio-mate rather than work completely alone.
“You just start to lose perspective of what you’re making, and I start to feel insane. I’m like, What am I doing here?” Kirke said. “And then I look over and I’m like, What is she doing here? And then I’m like, Okay, we’re both sort of shadowboxing here.”
Kirke likes to leave her small gifts like tulips, a fresh batch of which she’d just placed on her desk in a halved water bottle; she’d also bought herself roses on the walk over to her studio. It was a small but significant gesture: Lately, after Girls ended its six-season run on HBO, she’s had time to go there every day again—and maybe even take a fresh attempt at revisiting her desire to paint flowers, which she’s had designs on for a while, but never quite gotten around to, instead always falling back on portraits: “I’m like, If I have a stranger in my room I get to study, why would I want to paint flowers or myself?”
It's painting people, after all, that got Kirke out of her post-graduation rut, when she moved to Florida for a year during an “aimless” break from her native New York to work at an art supplies store. There, she abandoned her own work until a regular offered her a corner of his studio. When she started up again, people and faces became her subjects—especially when she could paint them from real life. “I didn’t have any friends, so I just approached people in coffee shops and stuff—the studio owner’s wife, my boyfriend at the time. But I’m still not totally comfortable painting strangers.”
The large portrait of Williams, the towering canvas of Sarah Sophie Flicker next to it—these are close friends of Kirke's. She has no desire to paint celebrities she doesn't know, other than Elvis, whom she paints from memory. The other faces around her studio include “one of the only moms I connected with” at her daughter Rafella’s school, whom Kirke got to know in particular after she painted her five-year-old daughter nude. “She was like, ‘Yeah, sure, when should I pick her up?’" Kirke recalled with a laugh. "I was like, ‘Yeah, this lady’s cool, she gets it.'"
Children are a frequent subject of Kirke's, who has two of her own. “My kids are sick of being painted,” she said. Nudity is another constant in her work, too. “You know the Bard type of kid? I have so many nude Bard kids,” she said, noting that many are friends of her sister, the actress Lola Kirke, whom she described as “such a fucking hippie.”
Typically, Kirke sends out a few texts a week to the 20 or so people she has in rotation to sit for her. In return for making the trek, each gets a rare peek at Kirke’s work, which she’s only exhibited “five or 10 times, give or take,” starting with a show inside Saved Tattoo Brooklyn at 19. Some of her oeuvre, which stretches back well into her teen years, might never see the light of day.
Her recent methodology seems to inoculate her paintings against the very idea of exhibition. Though Kirke used to produce a painting a week—sometimes finishing one over the course of a day—“I now try to stretch them out over a few years, because they change to me,” she explained. “Sometimes I look at a painting I did a few years ago and I see something else I didn’t before, and I’d prefer to go with that.”
Lately, Kirke seems to finally have some time for that type of self reflection; she just wrapped up five years of working on Girls, and is also currently going through a divorce, both of which have allowed for some rare solo (and therefore studio) time. “Girls was only shot during the summers, but then I had an identity crisis over it,” Kirke said. While her role as the free spirit Jessa on the show didn’t take up too much of her time, it clearly took a toll on her psyche, to the point where Kirke tried to quit. “With that, and whatever press stuff that happened in between, and then offers and scripts I was sent and sort of entertained for a while, I just lost focus,” she added. “But I still came back [to the studio] when I could—I just didn’t know if it was for me, but it definitely is.”
Eventually, Kirke came to realize her two careers didn’t necessarily have to butt heads. “I see acting as an extension of being an artist,” she said. “I didn’t at first, because I was a little prideful and saw acting as a lesser medium, which is so silly; looking at a script is actually very similar to what I do painting people and scenes from life. You can choose to portray it as exactly as you see it physically sitting in front of you, or you can make art out of it.”
Still, it definitely doesn’t seem like Kirke will be making too many calls to her agent after Girls. “I’ll still do it; I love acting. I’m just getting away from doing it regularly,” she said.
But she is ready to restart her art career; she might even be ready to start exhibiting more. “It feels very natural to do this right now, I think because it's very authentic to me and always has been,” she continued. “It feels like I’m getting back to—I’m not wanting to use these trite words like ‘myself,’ but that’s what it is—after the diversion of Girls, not that diversion’s a bad word. But painting is so solitary, and right now I feel like I’m in a very solitary moment, being a single mother and being alone in the house and all that, and having to do everything now. It’s a lot. So it feels nice to do this, too.”
Speaking of which, Kirke wanted to squeeze in a little more time on Williams’s portrait before picking the kids up from school. “They do their drawings here, and I put on Katy Perry for them,” she said, flashing a rare smile.