Joanna Kathryn Gifford: Inside the Artist’s Studio

Inside the Artist’s Studio:

Slowhand – Stars, Strays and Ashtrays

Joanna Kathryn Gifford

By Derrick White

“There are songs you can never remember, songs that you cannot forget.” – Eric Clapton.

Eric Clapton’s “Stars, Strays, and Ashtrays” is a hidden gem of a song on Slowhand the 35th Anniversary Super Deluxe album (not the original 1977 Slowhand release). It is easily overlooked especially because it shares a track list with hits like Cocaine, Lay Down Sally, and Wonderful Tonight, but it doesn’t disappoint. The Meadows Gallery located inside the Cowan Center at the University of Texas at Tyler is also something of a hidden jewel of an art space often unobserved because it is not in a larger metropolitan area like Houston, Dallas, or Austin but the space hosts some of the keenest exhibitions showcasing many of the strongest contemporary artists working in the entire state of Texas. The experience of stopping by the Meadows Gallery to check out the latest art exhibition never lets me down.

The recent December MFA exhibition “Revealing the Metaphysical: Edges/Actions/Layers” by local artist Joanna Kathryn Gifford was an amazing occurrence of organic forms, powerful installation, compulsive dedication, and astonishing plays of light and shadow. Joanna explains, “It is difficult for me to designate a style for my work as they are driven by the actions and marks of my body, however in my exhibition, the work presents as sculptural installations.” Most pieces show evidence of the actions of the artist’s hands and there is a powerful authority in this type of act as explained in a blog post from the Mark’s Daily Apple’s website discussing creating things with one’s hands. He explains, “Anyone who’s spent significant time creating with their hands – whether it is painting, carpentry, knitting, carving, or building – can appreciate the distinctive satisfaction it evokes. Spending an hour at one’s own workspace, however plain or disheveled, feels like time in a secluded oasis. It’s in the craft you find focus. The brush or needles, chisel or knife, spade or hammer become an unconscious extension of self. The mind devises, but the hand itself thinks designs. We live in a society enamored by passive entertainment and increasingly invested in the virtual experience. Fewer of us have jobs showing us the tangible results of our efforts. The urge to create is deeply human. Something about it releases stress and brings us back to center.” Akin to this sentiment Joanna Gifford states, “I deal in mixed media, but have an emphasis in ceramics. My material choices are driven by my desire to envelop my biological experience as a human in my work, and so clay, dirt, and other earthen materials are deeply attractive to me.”

Joanna received an Associate in Arts degree from TJC in 2006, a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Texas at Tyler in 2010 and both a Master of Arts and Master of Fine Arts from UT Tyler last fall. She has interned at the Tyler Museum of Art and taught beginning ceramics as a teaching assistant.

Joanna always leaned towards creative pursuits. When she was younger, she played instruments, danced, acted (and still does), and wrote. Gifford studied music but was distracted away from academia and dropped out of college for about a year. She remembers, “When I decided to go back, I wanted to do something creative I had never tried before, so I enrolled as an art major at TJC. I had never taken an art class. I was extremely insecure and frustrated about being a visual artist but I absolutely loved my classes and professors at TJC, they really helped pave my way as an artist.” Art has given her a way to communicate those elements beyond verbal language. Joanna believes art is language, and artists are philosophers whose thoughts are revealed through various media. “I have found my research has revealed to me the ether layer I believe to be present yet I could not experience or express through any other form of communication,” she expands. Adding, “I also feel art has given me another way to experience my life and surroundings. Physical interactions such as yoga, trail running, rock climbing, and other things allow me to experience my physical body’s connection to the mind, while art allows me to experience my mind’s connection to the physical body.”

Joanna addresses the frustration of creating artistic infrastructure. Explaining, “Many believe in the stereotypical artist as free spirits and not extremely consistent or reliable, yet in order to be a developed and successful artist, it is essential we build a foundation for our creative practice. As I was installing my exhibition, I realized that 80% of being an artist is infrastructure, time management, cleaning up, organizing, yet if I do all of it then the 20% of the time I get to really bring my work to life is so much more sustained and such a richer experience. For me, the process ends up looking like a pyramid with infrastructure taking up the main base, but it’s so worth it.” I concur with the artist. A lot of being a successful artist is the ditch digging preparation.

Gifford finds inspiration from many artists including, Janine Antoni (contemporary artist creating work in performance, sculpture, and photography) and Richard Long (English sculptor and land artist). “Both of these artists are the best examples of sustainable, present, essential, intelligent, curious, honest, and innovation without being derivative or transforming into entertainers. I also love their connections to the earth and their experiences as humans on this earth,” exclaims Joanna.

The artist adds, “When the edge of one idea meets the edge of another, there is an entirely new layer to the universe and, in turn, creates infinite possibilities, and the only way to unfold these new possibilities is to observe and create action. This idea is continually manifest in the physical and metaphysical. If we can be more sensitive and contemplative of our edges/actions/layers, like vast antennae, we can possibly interpret and intuit the work with so much more understanding.”

More understanding, I like the idea.

“Just like stars, strays, and ashtrays, they’ll never let you down.” – Clapton.

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