Art + Love: Janell and Joe “Cujo” Nelson
Janell and Joe “Cujo” Nelson on how they make art, love, and partnership work.
As part of our Art + Love series, Janell and Joe “Cujo” Nelson reflect on their biggest collaboration to-date and how over a decade of moving in and out of one another’s orbit eventually changed their lives.
Of their love, one nominator wrote, “when you’re around Janell and Joe, their love isn’t only seen, it’s felt. It radiates off of them and has the power to change the energy of a room. And all of that shows up in the creative work they do. It’s a beautiful thing.”
This is their story.
On where it all started:
Janell Nelson: You’d think this would be a simple answer, but it’s a little circuitous. We technically first met in ’98 for a few seconds. We were literally teens who had an overlapping friend/dating pool. In 1999, Joe helped me with a photography project I had in college, documenting my appreciation for hip-hop culture, specifically graff (graffiti) and b-boy culture. We lost touch for a decade after that, but one of the pics I took of him during that time hung in my office during my first job out of college. [And later in] my first apartment after graduation—I loved [the photo] so much. Who knew he’d pop back up in my life 10 years later, romantically? I def’ did not. He was a friend who reminded me of good, pure times. We clicked seamlessly once we “got grown”.
Joe “Cujo” Nelson: In 2009, we met again a few times before we actually went out on a date. Our mutual close friend DJ Matt Kwest_on hosted an event that we were both a part of—I was exhibiting paintings and Janell designed the invite. She was looking great at the event—haaaa! Unfortunately, she escaped the venue before I could ask her out. Luckily, I saw her best friend Andrea a few days later and I persuaded her to tell Janell to give me a call. The rest is history.
On one another’s process and practice:
Joe: Janell is a great thinker and communicator. She’s able to create really great design concepts and strategies on the fly. She’s quick with words, too, like an intellectual freestyler in the arts business space. Even more amazing, she can actually bring those ideas to life. I love that she loves her work and lately she’s being more and more recognized for her talent and passion.
Janell: When describing Joe’s art and artistic practice to folks, I tend to say first and foremost that he’s a dope painter; one of the best street muralists and illustrators to ever do it. He’s also a graphic designer, but that’s more so his “day job.” I feel like he comes most alive when he’s got a spray can or paintbrush in his hand. He leads with his heart and enjoys the spark that his art can make with people. That love of, well, LOVE, is part of what attracted me to and made me feel safe to be vulnerable with him.
On sharing space:
Joe: Part of our foundation was built on working together. Not always on the same project, but just working next to each other. We have spent an obscene amount of time in coffee shops, studios, co-working spaces, and at home, just working. I love sharing ideas and creatively solving problems with her. We don’t always agree but I respect her perspective.
Janell: Truuue. When we don’t agree on creative philosophies or direction, we still might take some advice from the other—and then respectfully not press for solutions that the other doesn’t agree with. We acknowledge that while we both consider ourselves artists, we’re in different lanes that require different approaches. But being all up under each other at times has definitely made us have friction at times but, also, our practices [become] stronger by having an honest point of view in the room.
On collaborating with one another:
Janell: Since the beginning of our relationship, we’ve collab’d. I was still in the educational publishing space career-wise, but Joe and I freelanced on personal projects together right from the start. He illustrated a humor book I wrote—a passive-aggressive-cathartic series of quips to help us navigate corporate life [called Sometimesbook]. And [we’ve been] designing/illustrating projects together since—[like for] our entire wedding! I can’t front though, [since I’m] running my own design firm, it’s NICE having an illustrator in-house (literally) that I can collaborate with on-the-fly for quick renderings or spot art for clients. We roll his fees into the quote though, of course.
And [there’s] the work we do together as two of the 10 active co-founders of Englewood Arts Collective. We both grew up in Greater Englewood in the 80’s and 90’s, so being able to positively represent the hood where you came from everywhere you go, and with the person you’re going through life with, is strengthening.
Our biggest and best collaboration to-date is our four year old! The kid keeps us BUSY and we juggle our schedule being “lead parent” so the other can focus on whatever they need to, art-wise and career-wise.
On how their process and practice have been influenced by one another:
Joe: It’s great that we are both artists with different styles and approaches to design. My perspective has definitely expanded. Having someone with a professional perspective on design aesthetic is great to have around when creating anything.
On the songs that soundtrack their relationship:
Joe: Our wedding and first dance song was Triumph by Wu-Tang Clan.
Janell: “I bomb atomically, Socrates’ philosophies and hypotheses can’t define how I be dropping these mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery…” We’re Golden Era hip-hop heads, and nerding out over the culture from lyricism to street art was the romantic backdrop to our courtship. What else is there to say?
…and one more thing:
Janell: We’re corny and goofy together. I’m glad we found the person that makes us smile and we can be our dumb selves together in private while lifting each other up to do what we feel compelled to do creatively in the public space. As we grow older and life gets heavier, shifts around us are easier to navigate when you’ve got a solid partner in your corner.
Joe: Man, this questionnaire got me reflecting. We’ve been in it for a minute but our best years are still ahead of us.
About the Author: Tempestt Hazel is a curator, writer, and co-founder of Sixty Inches From Center. She spends her time working alongside artists, organizers, grantmakers, and cultural workers to explore solidarity economies, cooperative models, archival practice, and systems change in and through the arts. You can see more of her editorial, curatorial, and other projects at tempestthazel.com.