with Joan Stuart Ross
By Nancy Natale
Joan Stuart Ross in her BallardWorks Studio, Seattle, 2015. Photo: Cate Gable
A couple of years ago I saw some images that Joan Stuart Ross had posted on Facebook to promote an upcoming show. I was familiar with her gridded and carved work in encaustic and so was rather surprised to see the new pieces containing loose and painterly marks with drawings and handwritten text. The work looked related to but different from her previous approach to art making. As time went on and she continued to post photos of paintings that had such a newly expansive feeling, I became curious about what had shaken up Joan’s work after her decades-long art career. I wanted to ask her about the way art changes over time and yet carries forward the initial impetus.
Nancy Natale: First of all, allow me to remark on the changes that I noticed in your work beginning a couple of years ago with the series you made on boats and the series you are calling What is so rare. Do I have it right? Was this work different for you?
Joan Stuart Ross: The What is so rare pieces started in a Lorraine Glessner workshop at the Ninth International Encaustic Conference, June 2015. I’d admired Lorraine’s layers of thoughts and memories and was pleased to use some of her offering of simple materials—tracing paper, magazine images, and carbon paper. Drawing onto the back of black carbon paper that released a mark not seen until the paper was removed, much like monotype printmaking, gave me furry marks and notations that I enjoyed exploring. I’ve been using this technique in my paintings, overlaying layers of carbon-drawing on their encaustic and collaged surfaces.
What is so rare—Boats and Oars, 2015; encaustic, collage, carbon on wood panel; 12 x 12 inches
With this evolution has come a renewed interest in my roots—drawing recognizable shapes from nature. The lines in my color grid paintings that experimented with color dynamics were drawing for me, but with a return to what I used to call “pure drawing”— being inspired by shapes from nature—has come a new, more relaxed flow to my line and to its becoming fresh.
That summer, the title, What is so rare? led to a sort of philosophical freedom, as well. Every June, my sister quotes the poem by James Russell Lowell,
And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days…..
There I was in the Truro workshop, in June, continuing my interest in the iconical, metaphorical boat shape, thinking expansively, working across-country from my home studios in the Pacific Northwest, in my old stomping grounds (I’m originally from Boston and spent every summer as a kid at Whitehorse Beach in Plymouth, Massachusetts) and experimenting in an open way with simple media. I continued into the fall, working in my studio on the Washington coast.
What is so rare VIII, 2015; encaustic, carbon on wood panel; 10 x 10 inches
When I showed this series of twenty 10 x 10-inch paintings in a solo exhibition last October, several viewers asked for the meaning of the words, “What is so rare?” This rhetorical question seemed an enigma to them. I explained that this snippet of the poem conjures the connection of a questioning mind with nature—the entire poem evokes weather, atmosphere, growth and change, but this introductory phrase asks one to imagine what is truly “rare?” The definition of what is “rare” must be entirely her own; it is the essence of art, and cannot be fully explained. That is the theme of the series.
NN: I also see that you are using recycled wood pieces assembled into groupings. Can you speak about how you started this and how this is influencing your thoughts and work?
JSR: In 1994, when I began working in encaustic, I collected found pieces of wood, my former woodcut printmaking blocks, pieces from the lumberyard’s scrap box, and planks from here and there to use as bases for my paintings. About 12 years ago a student showed me a page from an art magazine—a wall piece composed of individual colorful works set in an abstract grid. I loved it! The image stayed in my mind, and I started piecing together small encaustic paintings in a larger presentation, with spaces in between: abstract maps, scattered landscapes seen from above, flotsam and jetsam, pieces-put- together, patchwork slightly related as parts to a puzzle, like New Hampshire’s stone walls, mosaic, the work of Gustav Klimt and Mark Bradford.
Waves, 2016; encaustic, textile and paper collage on recycled wood; 26 x 38 1/2 inches
I think of my work as refined in ideas about color and shape, layers and surface, media and choice, but it is gritty in its lack of need for perfection in edges, marks and in its abstract associations. I think that these two opposites create an arresting whole, both in a person’s personality and in my work! Nothing predictable, everything may change. Form is selected and placed; perhaps it is irregular and disjointed, but it is of a piece. I select form from the array that is out there, paint, layer, embed, scratch and scrape, then arrange to make it my own.
NN: And then there is collage, which I think has always been a part of your work. Has it changed for you? I see that you sometimes use lots of little pieces that look like mosaic. Is this new to your practice or something that you’ve been doing for a while?
JSR: Looking back, I was inspired as a child by a book of patchwork designs that I still have. More recently, Roman mosaics were influential from both photographs and from observations made in 1993 when I was a Rome Fellow of The Northwest Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies (now named The Civita Institute).
Tiers, 2015; encaustic, textile and repurposed paper collage, oil on canvas mounted to wood; 46 1/4 x 46 1/4 inches
In 2008-2009, I began to cut up some of my old work—paintings, prints, photographs—and to “repurpose” them into new work. I pasted them over monotypes and embedded them into my paintings. In 2010, I had a solo exhibition of these works, titled “Repurposed” at the Washington County Museum in Portland, Oregon. Lately I see that many artists are creating “hybrids.” It seems that cutting up and reinventing our old work has much to do with having created a lot of art over the years and having filled up one’s studio space!
After my mother’s death in 2012, I became particularly interested in using her textiles and fabrics as a guide to revisit the past and to lead into the future. In Tiers, Oriole’s Adventure, and Sky and Sea, the embedded textile deepens in opacity and suggests puzzle pieces that may have not been fully known nor expressed: thoughts, memories and emotions that are both past and present.
Joan Stuart Ross with Immigration at Foster-White Gallery, Seattle, 1983
See more at joanstuartross.com