Interview with Joyce Coco
Joyce has a studio in the Bella Glass Art Studios, on the edge of Denver's River North district. A new Light Rail station is a few blocks away. We meet to discuss her relationship to Spark gallery just prior to her exhibition there.
Why did you join Spark?
It was so many years ago... I think the gallery was still on Osage Street. Prior to joining I was a member of DAWA, Denver Area Women Artists, and I knew Annalee (Schorr) through that group. Annalee suggested that Spark might be a good place for me to show my work.
What were your ambitions then as an artist?
I don't approach life like that. I let it happen - like peeling an onion... It seems I get into trouble if I have goals.
I love to paint, and Spark is a good place to show my work.
When I was younger I had studied with Edith Niblo, a wonderful teacher at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School. Edith was truly a guiding light.
After studying with Edith I decided to enroll at the University of Denver for my B.F.A. Edith said, "Don't do it, it'll ruin you". I enrolled anyway. I wanted this experience. I did not find the painting teachers at the school to be very competent as teachers. At that time, I was also very interested in sculpture. Actually, the art was more akin to installation.
Can you describe your installations?
They were huge - made from found items such as door frames and windows, and even bones. I was fortunate to have the assistance of my husband Al and my son Brandon to help me haul and prepare the components. Al had his career as a lawyer, and Brandon went off to school; and I simply could not do this type of work by myself. The installations are all gone. There was no place to keep them.
I have always loved color. Along with this love was the pragmatic aspect of painting, I could do the work alone.
At Spark gallery I have always exhibited my paintings.
Have you had much experience exhibiting at commercial galleries?
Over the years I have shown with many commercial galleries, in Denver and elsewhere. There was always some reason why the relationship did not continue. Perhaps there was a disagreement over business protocol. Several galleries simply closed.
In some instances I would pursue the gallery, in other cases the gallery would seek me out. It is better that way. When you approach a gallery, they are thinking, "Oh no, another artist...". When they seek you out, they want you. I find it very difficult to approach a gallery on my own. It is very intimidating.
At this point in my life, what I most value about commercial galleries is the assistance they provide. The gallery will handle the publicity, hang the work, maintain the gallery, and even endeavor to sell the art.
What are your thoughts about Spark now?
The camaraderie of the gallery is very important to me, our group of artists. There are continual changes in membership, and this is both a good and bad thing. I am very happy with the gallery. The energy that I put into the gallery I feel is reciprocated by my peers. I am very happy that there are members who have taken on the responsibilities of keeping us current and engaged with the numerous forms of social media.
There are times when I would like a more critical dialogue regarding the art that we exhibit. But then, I know; it is hard. We often have thin skins, and a well intentioned critique can sting if not articulated well.
Can you discuss some of the paintings in your upcoming exhibition?
[Joyce shows me a painting organized in a grid, composed of many small squares of varying reds and magentas. Between these areas of red/magenta a blue bleeds through. The painting is called "La Perle"]
This painting is an homage to my sister Perle who had a fiery, passionate life.
The painting was organized with a grid, first in pencil. On the right side the grid is replaced by three vertical bands. These bands share the same color palette as the small squares. I do not plan the painting beforehand. The painting tells me what to do. I cannot tell you why, in this painting, the grid has been replaced by the three vertical bands; and why, in other paintings, the grid defines the entire painting.
When I begin a painting I do have an idea for color, for colors I want to explore. The painting "Primavera" is comprised of varying hues of green. I think the genesis for this painting is our wonderful spring, with all of the lush green that surrounds us.
Edith Niblo had us explore color by asking us to do countless small 4" x 5" color studies. We really became acquainted with the subtleties of color and the spiritual power of color. I suppose those lessons are blooming once again.
Joyce would like to close by paraphrasing the poet Billy Collins
"All they want to do is tie a poem (painting) to a chair with a rope and torture a confession out of it." Often people who view paintings try to force a meaning and even the artist sometimes tries to "torture a confession", especially when titling their work.
Interview with Madeleine Dodge
Madeleine and I meet for coffee at Pablo's. We sit outside, under an umbrella at 6th and Washington.
Why did you join Spark?
Before joining Spark I was already a member of another co-operative gallery in Denver. I was looking for a greater level of intellectual exchange with other artists. I knew members of Spark gallery, and many of these artists also taught and were comfortable discussing art. I was looking for this kind of community.
Have you found this?
When I joined I did feel that energy. People do approach their art in a thoughtful way. I wish we had more time to talk about our art, and to be together discussing our work. There is a lot of isolation in the studio. In years past artists formed communities in bars, ateliers, and cafes. Now, perhaps, our gallery can be the place for that kind of exchange.
There is a fine line in terms of honesty. People think certain things about the work however they do not always express it. There could be another time and place for more candid critiques.
Artists seem to think differently. Part of being an artist is coming to terms with that. There is a unique synergy within a community of artists that can be very supportive. At Spark there is exists a healthy competitive spirit that pushes us to do better work, to explore and grow.
Many years ago I shared a studio with maybe ten other artists in an empty industrial space. The teacher Edith Niblo would make periodic studio visits. Edith was a guiding spirit for many of us and she would encourage us to speak about our art. She had decided that her mission in life was to assist artists to achieve a fulfilling practice. The legacy of Edith has shaped my thinking of art to this day, and it informs my expectations of our group at Spark.
Have you had much experience exhibiting at commercial galleries?
I have had relationships with perhaps four or five galleries. The galleries looked strong however it seems that for one reason or another the gallery would relocate or fail.
A relationship with a gallery is intimate, like a marriage. Sometimes the relationship can become strained, when your art evolves and the gallery wants you not to change, or when the gallery's ideas about art evolve in a direction different from yours.
I am open to a relationship with a commercial gallery, however I am not certain that this is the time.
Commercial galleries will do a great deal of the work that artists are often not able to do, such as promotion and selling. Commercial galleries have a whole
different structure than co-operatives. I am not sure that Spark could incorporate the attributes of a commercial gallery without hiring people dedicated to that purpose. The business of selling art is very difficult and complex. I do not sell my art, the art sells itself.
What are your thoughts about Spark and the co-operatives?
Denver is very fortunate to have such a great, well developed co-operative gallery system. It is an amazing foundation. Co-operative galleries are welcoming to artists and they provide the opportunity for artists to exhibit their work. They allow artists to participate in the full life cycle of a work of art.
Until the work of art it seen, it is not complete.
Can you discuss some of the work in your upcoming exhibition?
The body of work in this exhibit consists of digital imagery that documents the oxidation of steel - Rust. In my garden I have many smaller pieces of steel plate. This steel was intended to be used as substrates for paintings. Over several years I began to observe these beautiful patterns of weathering and rust, and the incredible and subtle range of color that would accompany this process.
The oxidation process is allowed to continue for a number of seasons. When I want to halt the process I seal the rusted steel. There is an amazing amount of color to be discovered. I have formed a very fruitful relationship with a digital printing studio called Nocerino. The steel is brought to them and photographed. The images are then enlarged to a point just prior to where pixillation would distort the image.
As I am working I do feel a certain responsibility to my colleagues in Spark. With certain members I have an internal dialogue, with an imagined critique. It is a kind of self-critique. There is a responsibility to keep growing as an artist, and to create good work.
Barbara and I meet at the Molecule, a cafe at the north end of the Arts District on Santa Fe. The bank of video monitors displaying rapid fire retinal poetry is gone.
Please tell us about when art became a part of your life.
I remember that as a child I kept a small box filled with papers and bits of cardboard. I would often make collages, and wrap boxes in extraordinary ways. At Christmas my wrapped boxes were an important part of the holiday. It would be fun to create a package that would disguise the contents - a bowl might be wrapped in such a way that it looked like a mailbox.
All this gift wrapping and package making and modeling was almost an obsession. I don't know how you can be an artist and not be at least a little bit obsessive.
Were there any people who influenced you when you were young?
My best friend's mother was an opera singer. She was always traveling to Europe to perform. One day a portrait of her appeared in their house. This was one of the first original works of art I can recall seeing. I thought to myself, "What a glamorous life this woman has, to be an artist working in Europe, and to have you portrait painted..." I decided then that I wanted that kind of life for myself .
Your response makes me think of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.
Yes, Sondheim is a big hero of mine. The music he has written, and the lyrics... from West Side Story to Sunday in the Park with George. That musical always leaves me crying. His music makes me think of the "Great American Songbook", and what an achievement that is.
Also, it is very interesting to consider artists whose work straddles the worlds of commercial and fine art. It is a very fine and difficult line to navigate. As an artist who has spent a great deal of my time doing just this - working in the world of public art - I have a particular appreciation for artists who can work where those worlds overlap.
In the world of visual arts an artist I admire is Alexander Calder. His work addresses the aspects of commissioned art such as site and client directives; and it also emanates from a very private sensibility that resonates successfully with the public.
Grassland 10' x 8' x 7'
For those of us familiar with your work, we think of you as a "public artist". Was it ever otherwise?
When I was formally studying art I explored painting and sculpture. Rather quickly I decided that my aptitude and desires lay with three-dimensional work. In my undergraduate years at Tulane I almost majored in English. However, creative writing courses didn't exist at that point, and I felt that I could not make any creative contribution to the world as an English major.
After Bill and I (Barbara's husband, of Baer and Hickman Architects) moved to Denver, I was teaching art in the public schools. Leading others in art making but not doing much of it myself was increasingly frustrating. In graduate school in Boulder pursuing my M.F.A. I began the process of crossing that threshold where I felt comfortable calling myself an artist.
Please describe that crossing.
Throughout all of my schooling, from high school to graduate school, I had created art in response to assignments. What I really wanted was to create art that was in response to an endless series of assignments that came from me.
After my graduate thesis presentation, one of the professors reviewing my work said something to the effect of, "Very good, now you can go keep a clean house...". That comment shocked and angered me. It was also tremendously motivating. Having a clearer sense of the kind of art I wanted to create, I was able to finally see myself as an artist and began working incrementally to live out that definition. Soon afterwards I met Sally Elliott through an organization called Front Range Women in the Visual Arts. I became a part of a supportive community of professional artists.
Around that time, cities in Colorado were establishing their one percent for public arts programs. No track record was required to enter the competitions, and the projects offered the chance to work at the scale I was imagining. I began to get commissioned work.
Is there a conflict between generating your own "assignments" as an artist and having to contend with the constraints of a public art "Request for Proposal"?
No. The decision to engage in the process of creating public art was my decision. And I have come to love deeply the complexity - the many levels of attention - inherent in developing public art. A continual series of working relationships grow over the span of a project, first with the client and then with consultants and fabricators.
The recent installation of the public artwork "Grassland" in Greeley, Colorado exemplifies this process. The City knew it wanted some kind of gateway at this site. Wanting to dig deeper, we discussed what emotions they wanted to convey through the art. And we discussed content and symbols that might be relevant. We began to hone in on the idea of creating a work of public art that would evoke the landscape of this area before it was settled.
In this experience the City of Greeley selected me based on their knowledge of my work as an artist, on my references and on my portfolio. They did not ask for a complete proposal at the outset, knowing we would be developing ideas together. This was an atypical process in public art, and very gratifying.
You are having an exhibition at Spark gallery with Sally Elliott...
Over the years Sally and I have worked together many times. When we collaborate, we look at the space and consider what's distinctive about our own work and our perceptions of each others' work. We then discuss the ideas that we are personally thinking about, and search for qualities in each other's art to pull into our own art. There is a lot of give and take. Being involved in public art has taught me how to listen, and that is a helpful and necessary skill when collaborating. I would not say that we are a natural fit, and we know that. However in some ways perhaps we are, since we are both willing to embrace the uncertainty of the process.
Spark gallery is a wonderful place to experiment.
I spy Diorama
Much of your work in this exhibition is based on the interpretation of landscape. How did that come to be?