Our Amazing & Creative Alumni: Joan Livingstone '66

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Artist and art educator

By Nadine Fiedler

From the Summer 2011 Caller

 “I understand the world through my body,” says artist Joan Livingstone ’66. Growing up in Portland, and going on camping trips with her family, she came to appreciate the Pacific Northwest’s rich, sensual landscape and the feeling of always knowing where she was in relation to the mountains and the ocean. Joan’s physical consciousness provides the underlying sensibility for her celebrated works of sculpture, which she creates mostly of felt and other tactile materials. Her compelling and complex works allude to skin, the body and its organs, and how we feel and experience time and place.
Becoming an adult in the turbulent 1960s, Joan appreciated how teachers at Catlin Gabel helped her become a rigorous thinker who could consider all sides of a question. She studied art at Catlin Gabel and worked at the Portland Art Museum during summers and on weekends. But it wasn’t until she was in college that she truly committed herself to becoming an artist.
Joan became involved in agit-prop theater in Portland with a group that performed Shakespeare as a protest against the war in Vietnam. She thought about how bodies relate to space and made huge woven or tiedyed cloth hangings that provided a big, physical landscape for the actors to navigate. Joan’s theater work reinforced her sense of the physical, and she has continued throughout her career to refine and translate that sense. “I continued making bodyscapes, creating an experience for viewers as they move through the gallery. It’s about providing forms with the qualities of skin, and privileging the sense of touch and the sense of the body being immersed in a space that is intimate,” she says.
Feminism was another powerful influencing force for Joan in its challenge to the visual art hierarchy. “When I was in graduate school at Cranbrook Academy, the language of the time in art was about minimalism and reduction. I challenged the status quo, which was about big, heavy metal works. My works were in a human scale rather than a monumental scale. I incorporated qualities of skin and hide and the physical body. It went against the grain,” she says.



“I moved to forming shapes that made you think of the body, that were shapes abstracted from the body,” says Joan. “I would suspend felt in an exoskeleton until a shape formed, and impregnate it with resin. It became a process of developing patterns cut from the felt that, when stitched under tension, would curve in space. This gave it the sensuous qualities of the body. I would then sand the surface so the nubby, hairy texture of the felt emerged. From a distance the forms looked hard, but soft when viewed up close, which created a contradiction.”
Joan moved to New York in the early ’70s, allied herself with artists doing free-form fiber sculpture, and began exhibiting her works in galleries. She immersed herself in the art scene there and has done so in all the places she’s lived and worked since. “It’s important for an artist to develop a community of trusted artists around you. Isolation is a myth,” she says. “Art is a dialogue—a conversation—between artists that happens every day to share new ideas and propositions. Critiques are really important and will trigger your thinking. That’s why I like big cities: you’re exposed to many points of view.”
“And then I was seduced into teaching,” Joan says. After a stint as visiting artist at the Kansas City Art Institute, she was invited to return and take over the fiber department for a year. That stretched into four years, and Joan found that she loved teaching. Her art also matured in Kansas City, thanks to cheap studio space to create large pieces and a steady income, as well as inspiration from a lively faculty and art community. After Joan’s time was up in Kansas, Cranbrook Academy in Detroit called her to chair its fiber arts department for two years and work with graduate students. When that position ended in 1982, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago recruited her as visiting artist. She continues there today as a tenured faculty member of the fiber and material studies department. “I couldn’t be in a better place,” she says. “With my colleagues we have developed one of the strongest fiber programs in the world, for both graduates and undergraduates. It’s extremely rewarding to find parallel intellectual stimulation with my studio practice.”
Joan has just finished her sixth and last year in SAIC as dean of undergraduate studies. She plans to take a sabbatical year and make her fifth visit to India, a place that has always fascinated her, to study, do a residency, and make art. “In India there’s an extensive history of textiles and a long trade in them. I’m interested in the way the people there pay attention to the gods on a daily basis, the rituals, the amazing spaces, the maximal decoration, the earthiness of the culture, and the ubiquitous presence of the body,” she says.
During her many years teaching, Joan continued to produce works in her studio, show her work in galleries and museums, and earn significant awards and critical attention. As dean at SAIC she didn’t have much time to spend in her studio, and now she’s eager to get back to work and excited about the possibilities.
“So now I choose to return to the studio. I’m a little nervous about it. I need to do art daily. I live in an environment of art and have been drawing and making some prints,” says Joan. “I read enormously and voraciously. It’s a creative act for me. I write in my journal. Art is about responding and reflecting on the times in which we live. It’s about paying attention to who and where we are in the world. Paying attention is a fundamental part—not just in your studio but in your community and in the huge international world. Being able to absorb, internalize, and respond is what artists do. They show us the world in which we live.
“As I return to the studio full time, I’ll ask myself how to bring all this rich information back into it. I think I’ll take some risks and allow myself to play. It’s a huge risk to have no goal, to let the work evolve from the tip of my nose to the corners of my eyes. I’m not abandoning where I was. My new work will be an extension of where I’ve been. I’ll probably look at where I live and the skins of my neighborhood. But I’m also itching to make forms. I want to do casting, and I also want to engage other materials. I will continue to stay engaged with the body and the world.
“During my education and during the feminist movement I was deeply influenced by the notion that I could do work as a woman and as a woman in the world. I keep that close. But the phenomenological aspects of how we know the world—through senses, touching, and materials—is what’s critical. I’ve been an artist now for a long time. I know I’m not really afraid. Learning to trust myself and take risks is the most important part.”

"I am indebted to Catlin Gabel. It was better than my college education. It was about learning to ask the right questions and not accepting preconceptions, finding areas of inquiry, and pressing on the status quo. It made all of us hungry to learn."

Images of Joan Livingstone's artworks: Top: At Capacity, 1998-2001, felt, stain, epoxy, resin, rubber, pigment, metal. Bottom: From Migrations installation, 2004, mixed media, courtesy Laura Russo Gallery
For more about Joan, visit joanlivingstone.com