Thursday, March 16, 2006

NatureS: An Interview with Joyce Blunk

One of the great pleasures of putting together NatureS has been getting to know the work of Joyce Blunk. I didn’t know Joyce or her work at all when I started digging through files and notebooks for the poems that have come to constitute the book; Thomas Rain Crowe, who’d taken on the task of editing and publishing it for his New Native Press, knew us both, thought our work shared a form of relationship to the natural world, and eventually, gradually, introduced us to one another. He first published work by both of us as guest-editor for issue 2.2 of the online journal Nantahala Review; later, he brought over some slides and prints of Joyce’s work, while sharing with her some of the poems I was passing along to him for the book. Both Joyce and I, I believe, felt the mutual resonance that he’d sensed. It’s been almost a year ago, now, since the afternoon Thomas and I finally drove over to Joyce’s house, and she and I actually met. She was kind enough to take us up to her attic studio and show the collection of objects stored there, waiting till they should find their way into a work – a full human skeleton (what better reminder of mortality?), boxes of locust shells, fibrous bits of palm trunk, lustrous seed pods of various plants, feathers, boxes of magical objects of all sorts. Several of the wonderful constructions I’d admired in photographs were stored there as well, between shows, and so I got to spend some time actually before them, rapt, entranced by their details and the stories at which they hinted.

Joyce, in time, generously allowed us to use photographs of five of these constructions for the book, one for the cover, and four for section title pages. As many times as I’ve seen them now, as the book prepares to go through the press, it’s still a profound pleasure to come across them, and always worth a few moments to look at them yet again, and see what they disclose anew. I’m honored and delighted that they’re there.

Earlier this year I asked Joyce some questions about her life and work. Here’s some of the interview:

Jeff: So…. You grew up in Iowa, I remember, and got your degree at the university there. Were you painting then? Who were important artists for you?

Joyce: Yes, I was born in Iowa and grew up there. My parents and brothers and I lived in Fort Dodge, a medium-sized town, but I often spent summers—especially in grade school and junior high—at my grandmother’s farm. I knew as a kid that I wanted to be an artist. After high school, I went to the university in Iowa City and majored in art. When I graduated I taught for a few years, and then went back to Iowa City for the MFA degree. Yes, I was a painter, and still am. My graduate degree is in painting. But while I was in graduate school I took a multimedia course taught by Hans Breder. It was there that I really began exploring the infinite possibilities of combining any and all materials to create art. I started looking at the work of Lucas Samarias, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Nevelson, Lee Bontecou, the French artist Arman, George Segal, Edward Kienholz, Daniel Spoerri. And Antoni Tapies, that guy—his work is just so thrilling. Recently I’ve been so moved by the work of the contemporary Spanish artist Carmen Calvo. I saw a large show of hers a few years back in Salzburg, Austria, and I just haven’t been the same since. Then the exciting epoxy sculptures of Frank Gallo, who also attended the University of Iowa. Every day I’d walk past several of his sculptures placed out in the hallways of the art department. And of course the extraordinary boxes of Joseph Cornell have also impressed me. I can remember seeing an exhibit of his at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I went in at opening time and was shocked to see it was dark outside when I left. As far as painting goes, I look at everything. I’ve always loved the slightly edgy work of Richard Lindner and George Tooker, the formality and content of Edward Hopper, and the incredible tonality of Georgio Morandi.

Jeff: How did you begin to create your constructions? When you work on a painting or a construction, is there a narrative, a story that invents itself about or around the piece as you work? Or are you just working in a disciplined, deliberate way on the visual level?

Joyce: Since childhood, I’ve painted and collected objects, and I guess it was inevitable that the two eventually came together in my work. I’ve just always collected found objects, both natural and manmade, that are interesting to me in any way—texture, symbolic meaning, state of decrepitude, color, shape. In graduate school these objects became more important to me as directly related to my work, and I started actually putting them into or onto paintings to create 3-D assemblages. Sometimes these sculptural collages were arranged on wooden-panel paintings, sometimes they were vacuum-formed under a clear plastic covering, and sometimes I arranged them inside wooden boxes or on shelves that I built. As I work, a particular object is usually the starting place. I start with some “thing” that is interesting to me, an object that generates ideas and reactions from me, and then create a setting for the object that will enable me to visually present those ideas and feelings. The content (or what you call “narrative”) of the piece emerges from building layer upon layer of paint, color, and textures and from the formal presentation of the object. On a visual level, I do work in a deliberate manner, but of course as I progress new images and ideas reveal themselves, so that the finished work is often quite a departure from what I had in mind when I started out. I have to just pretty much let the work go where it wants to, let it tell me what it is supposed to be rather than trying to confine it to some preset plan. I think most artists work that way, whether they are writers or visual artists or musicians or whatever. That’s exactly what the contemporary American visual artist Richard Tuttle was talking about when he said, “If I can free a humble material from itself, perhaps I can free myself from myself…. I think [my work] knows, is smarter than I am, better than I am.” I believe my work is beyond me. You plan a certain amount, and then it becomes both an intuitive thing and a thought-out process that used your skills to take it to its own destination.

Jeff: Are you traveling again soon? What is there about travel that is good for you?

Joyce: For the most part, my working time is spent alone in my studio, so I find it very important to get out and meet other professional artists. Art residencies are a wonderful way to have intensive studio time and to share ideas with others. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive fellowships for foreign residencies as well as American ones, and each has been a great enrichment. The next thing on my schedule is a residency at No Boundaries International Art Colony on Bald Head Island off the coast of North Carolina this November, and further on down the line I have been accepted for another residency, for the month of May, 2008, at Cill Rialaig International Artists’ Retreat in Ireland. I have especially loved the opportunity of working abroad, meeting foreign artists, seeing some great museums in those places, and I have produced some of my best work there. I have remained in touch with many writers and visual artists that I’ve met over the years at artist retreats here in the US and in Europe. Living and working in a place so different from my own studio is a real charge, it’s just so stimulating and does such a lot for me. Last spring I spent almost two months on a residency in this very small Mediterranean fishing village in the far northeast part of Spain. Being in a new place, especially in a foreign country, is always so enlivening. To work that intensely for a long period is a great experience. Then, at the end of the time in Spain, I rented a car for a week and drove through the Pyrenees—it was bliss. I love the excitement and provocation I feel in other cultures—even just the distinctive foreign shape of a door handle or a telephone. And of course the landscapes…. And the textures, my God—things are as old as time. And, you know, all that is bound to influence my work in a new way. Throw in all that, and meeting a lot of new people, and the effect can be life-long. And, if you do good work, a long time after that because the work lives on its own.


Joyce’s work will be part of the publication celebration for NatureS on April 28th (more about that soon), and she currently has work in a juried group exhibition, “Discovering Contemporary Art in the Carolinas”, at the Fayetteville Museum of Art; it runs from March 19 to May 7, 2006. Then, May 26 through July 9, 2006, the National Association of Women Artists will include her work in their group show at the Goggle Works Center for the Arts in Reading, Pennsylvania. She has solo shows coming up at Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois, in 2007, and is in the planning stage for show at Radford University in Radford, Virginia, in 2008. Keep an eye open.

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Note: The photo is of Joyce in Switzerland, October, 2005.
Original content © 2006.

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