In the Studio with Jo Ann Block
What does a day in your art practice look like? Has it changed since Covid-19?
Since Co-vid, rather than going to my studio every day, which was my practice, I have been at home working on my computer which has become my new work area. Fortunately, my project is still in the conceptual stages so it was kind of perfect timing, although work days have shortened, probably due to life being turned on its head. As I am thinking about the next step of going into production, I realize that I won’t have the freedom to explore different venues in search of supplies which sometimes I find something that I hadn’t thought of.
What is your medium of choice? Why?
For the past ten or more years I have been working in collage & mixed media. I prefer collage because I see it as a natural medium for queer art in that it simulates the construction of identity; I like the way I can construct something new—new identities, new images—by repurposing existing images from mainstream fashion and queer magazines among other types of source materials.
My collage work lies within the genre of painting; I am not painting, per se, but constructing images in a painterly way. My intent in the work is to challenge the confining portrayal of women within the canon of portrait painting where women are conventionally seen as erotic, vulnerable or beautiful. In this way my work becomes an investigation of the negotiation of power in image-making. Portraying Queer women complicates the issue of representing the female queer body in that butch women embody and present both male and female qualities; I imbue these figures with strength and power within a female body. In much of my work I portray queers as simultaneously heroic and unexceptional. Like other marginalized artists, ie., Khinde Wiley and Kerry James Marshall, the subjects in my work are the everyday people, unknown butches who become elevated through the means of becoming a focal subject in a work.
Why is art important to you?
One of the major themes throughout my work is examining the nature of identity. I identify as a feminist and came of age understanding the personal is political. As a queer artist I find that identity is an intriguing and unsettling question—for queer people certainly and all people if they consider how the inherent plurality of identities makes an intelligible identity unattainable and problematic to oneself. Art helps me to see who I am in a given moment & what I care about in the world. I hope that my work serves to educate or challenge viewers to consider how we identify over time, how lesbian and queer identities have formed historically, and what they mean today.
What is the most challenging part about being an artist?
In the broad sense I think that the biggest challenge is actually believing that one is an artist. I know many artist friends who have had bouts with this. There are so many impositions that society places on what is good art that its very easy to get sucked into measuring yourself against these arbitrary standards and the trends du jour. The best advice I have heard from working artists is to just keep making art without regards to the art scene or outside pressures.
In my day-to-day art making I’m also challenged sometimes with coming up with a well-thought-out concept that is unique to me. Other times, finding or deciding on materials that relate to the concept and then successfully using them involves a learning curve—which is a great challenge to have.
What influences your work?
I find that looking at the work of other artists and reading about their process is always stimulating! Some of my new favorites to follow are Beatriz Milhazes, Shirin Neshat, Erwin Wurm, and Peter Doig who inspire.