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Jay DeFeo was born Mary Joan DeFeo, in Hanover, New Hampshire. She spent most of her youth in California, and attended the University of California, Berkeley where she received a BA in 1950 and an MA in 1951. Awarded a fellowship to travel in Europe in 1951, DeFeo spent a number of months painting in Florence. Returning to the United States in 1953, she settled in San Francisco just as the Beat movement was taking off. DeFeo and her friends George Herms, Bruce Connor, and Joan Brown became stars of the San Francisco avant-garde art and poetry world of the 1950s. Her first solo show was in a tavern: a Beat hangout called The Place. DeFeo married fellow painter Wally Hedrick, and the couple set up a studio on Fillmore Street that became a gathering place for Beat poets, musicians, and other artists.
DeFeo’s work of the 1950s was influenced by the reigning Abstract Expressionist movement, but she soon began experimenting with unorthodox materials. These experiments led to DeFeo’s landmark creation, The Rose, which would consume her for eight years between 1958 and 1966. DeFeo’s process involved an obsessive layering of paint, resulting in a canvas that was almost a foot thick in some places. Upon the completion of The Rose in 1966, she took a four-year break from making art. During the 1970s and 1980s, she worked extensively in an array of media, including photography, collage, drawing, and painting, often limiting herself to a palette of blacks, grays, and whites. DeFeo described herself as a “formalist”, saying that the process of making art was, for her, “an exploration, an experimentation and a sheer love of materials.” She taught at various colleges throughout her career, eventually becoming a professor of art at Mills College in 1980.
Jay DeFeo, interview with Leela Elliott, October 1, 1986 in Moira Roth, ed,Connecting Conversations: Interviews with 28 Bay Area Women Artists. Oakland CA: Eucalyptus Press, Mills College, 1988, 46.