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Dream Big: Joyce Owens at the Catholic Theological Union

Like most artists, Joyce Owens is a master at juggling many things.  Her most recent exhibition, “Dream Big” at the Catholic Theological Union proves that.  Although the exhibition shows mostly her masks, you also get a glimpse into her canvas and collage work.  The common thread throughout is imagery that asks the viewer to consider a more complex understanding of race using the cultural and symbolic implications of the mask as it applies to African Americans.  During the January 12th opening of the exhibition, curator Janice Pozzi-Johnson spoke about why she chose to exhibit this work at the CTU and Owens gives some insight into her thoughts on work and life as an artist.  The following is an excerpt from their talk.

Joyce Owens and curator Janis Pozzi-Johnson

Janis Pozzi-Johnson:
As you know, this exhibition is titled Dream Big.  And I think Joyce personifies dreaming big.  It just seems that Joyce is everywhere, [her] work is everywhere.  And [she] is always always making art, always showing art and always supporting other artists.  Joyce is also a curator at Chicago State University, she is a professor of drawing and painting, she has a blog on which she writes about art–her life has been given over to it.  Often the themes that Joyce addresses are racism and gender–and you see that even in these fabulous masks.  I guess for me what is so exciting about this particular show is elevating the mask and its importance culturally and historically. Joyce taps into that cultural and historical reference.  I intentionally show the pieces so they can each stand on their own and so that they would be given the air, the breath, the respect that each piece deserves.

She is also having another show at the Museum of Greater Lafayette in Indiana, so she has been doing an awful lot.  Let me just also say that Joyce’s work is seen all over Chicago. It seems like everywhere I go there’s something going on.  But also her work has been seen all over the country and internationally at so many places that I can’t even recite them now.  Take the time to read the bio, it is so impressive.  We’re really honored to have you here, thank you.

Joyce Owens during the 'Dream Big' artist talk

Joyce Owens:
Hi everybody, thanks for coming.  So, Janice asked me to do this show and I was in the midst of preparing for the Museum of Greater LaFayette.  And as she pointed out I teach, I curate and I blog.  I actually started a second blog because I wanted to write about writing.  As an artist you make visual images, and our visual images speak, but I as an artist have always written about my feelings too.  Sometimes when I couldn’t figure out how to make a visual expression about how I was feeling I would simply write about it.  So, I decided to start a blog about artist as writer.  So, I tend to be a person who is optimistic and rarely do I say no, so that’s why I’m here.

With this show I decided that I wanted to keep it tight.  I do a lot of different things.  I tend to work constantly all the time.  Sometimes I go through a day without sitting down because I forget to sit down because I go from one thing to the next thing, to the next thing.  As Patric knows, even when I talk to people on the phone I tend to be doing things–like painting and other things.  But I’ve been making masks for years.  I have an interest in sculpture, I have an interest in recycling objects, I have an interest in my culture.  I have a frustration with continuing racism, but I didn’t want to hit people over the head by saying, “You better stop that!” I wanted to have people look at my culture in its true light. So rather than showing negative images or angry images I wanted to show positive uplifting images that are really us.  We’re really not angry most of the time–we’re frustrated a lot, I think, but we’re not really angry most of the time and we really have a very strong cultural history that people really need to pay attention to.

Installation View, 'Dream Big' at Catholic Theological Union, January 12, 2011

I do a series that’s not here called Out of The Box. That series is based on photographs that W.E.B. DuBois collected of middle class African Americans that he showed at the Paris Exposition in 1900.  I decided in 2003 to start painting them because what that told me is that we had an active middle class, African American community in 1900 which was 35 years after we were freed from slavery.

I think it’s okay to have a raised fist, I think it’s okay to have strong angry images because that is also an expression that some people feel is important to them.  For me it’s important for me to say to you, ‘Look at my history, don’t look at it in a narrow frame.’  Look at my broader history.  Remember that Egypt is in Africa, for example.  And that culture that we admire so much and the pyramids–one of the wonders of the world.

Soar by Joyce Owens, Acrylic on Wood, metal, beads

I started looking at masks and books on African Art.  I went  to Howard University for undergraduate school.  I had very incredible teachers there.  And I learned about African Art.  I never really thought about myself making masks as an undergraduate–it sort of evolved over time.  After reading about how the masks were created–and Dayo can help me–there are secret societies who created masks that had certain powers.  And I thought, in that case, since the humans were creating these masks, I’m human.  I can decide that these masks have these certain attributes–that they have the power to bring us peace or to help us soar and achieve our dreams.

I like finding something that doesn’t seem to go with anything and try to make it work together.  And I think that’s kind of how life is–in life you have to make do with what you have and make it better.  I realized about a year ago that I’m an optimist.  I think people assume things about how I grew up, and went to Yale.  A lot of times people say that it’s easy for me to do this and easy for me to do that–but nothing is easy for me.  But I’m optimistic that if I work hard I will be able to do anything that I try to do.  The other revelation that I had 10 or 15 years ago is that I’m here to work.  I’m not here to vacation.  I’m not here to relax.  I’m not here for things to be easy for me.  I’m here to work.  If I don’t work, if I don’t use my brain, it will atrophy.  I had a broken shoulder a few years ago and I was astonished that my right arm had withered away over a matter of weeks.  I told my doctor that I can’t believe my arm withered away like this.  He said “it’s not about your arm being broken, but it’s about it’s not being used.  If you don’t use it, it’s just going to shrivel up.

I’d already known that I was here to work, but that reinforced that concept.  That for me to get up everyday and work–that’s what I’m here for.  So I can produce a lot of work, and I can do a lot of shows and I can work with a lot of people and I can do a lot of things because that’s why I’m here.

More Than Skin Deep #5, #2, #4 by Joyce Owens, Acrylic on Canvas, mounted on wood, in wood box

Patric McCoy:  Why do you paint on folded canvas?

The themes throughout my work have to do with race or gender, and [the series] More Than Skin Deep is saying we’re all the same, everybody’s the same. If you want to keep focusing on this melanin, you can but you’re losing out on a lot of things and it’s hurting our society.  Racism is sapping our energy and it’s sapping our workforce.

The folded canvas I started doing years ago.  I did a show at the Spertus Museum and they wanted to know if the work was in good condition.  I had to tell them that I made them that there were folds in there on purpose.

I thought about, ‘Why am I doing this?’ The folds to me subtly illustrate life’s wrinkles.  Life’s challenges.  I can work around those and I can still make a painting even though I have folds on the canvas that most people don’t have.  I like sculpture.  I like sculptural things and so even in my paintings I try to create sculptural form.

I figured out when my kids were little and I was working at a little table with some canvas that I was not in school anymore and I didn’t have to stretch that canvas taut like a drum.  It was my canvas, it was my paint and I could do what I wanted with it.  So I decided to play–and that’s another thing that I think is really important to do–to play.

Dream Big will be up at the Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park through April 6, 2011. For more information, visit the CTU Website.