Monday, September 22, 2014

Joellyn Rock Talks About Her Life in Art and the Amazing Sophronia Project

Joellyn Rock teaches digital art and filmmaking classes for the Department of Art&Design at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She is one of the faculty members who helped establish UMD's new Motion and Media Across Disciplines Lab, a video studio and motion capture lab with options for interdisciplinary research.

Though she has done other work that has caught my attention and fired my imagination, her involvement in The Sophronia Project is what compelled me to follow through with this interview. I consider it a major achievement in the Minnesota arts scene for 2014.

EN: Your creativity is expressed in a range of mediums. Can you briefly describe the various phases of your life as an artist?

Joellyn Rock: My medium of choice has shifted over the past three decades, but one constant has been my desire to tell stories with images. After college, I lived in Seattle for about 15 years, doing drawings (colored pencils, sgraffito) and paintings (oils and acrylics) while working a bunch of day jobs (cook, bookstore clerk, daycare teacher, whatever paid the rent). During those years I did illustrations and designs for posters and print publications, like The Rocket and The Seattle Weekly.

My aesthetic was influenced by the visual culture of that time: punk, comics and outsider art. I also did some collaborative and performance works, installations in gallery windows, experimental theater, shadow puppetry. Duluth actually reminds me of Seattle's art scene at that time… small enough and remote enough to be really friendly, open-minded, and supportive of new-comers. Smaller galleries and cooperative spaces gave young artists the chance to show our work and build community. Eventually I started moving into more mixed-media sculptural works (found objects, glass, clay, wood) and hand-built ceramics. I began to transfer my narrative imagery onto the surface of these ceramic works, stories disguised as decorative paintings in underglazes on clay. I also lived briefly in Paris and New York, where I continued to make art, living hand-to-mouth on part-time teaching gigs and sales of artwork. Then, in 1995 I had a baby and moved to Duluth! Maintaining a ceramic studio proved difficult, so after that I made the leap to digital media. I was drawn to the creative potential of the web and emerging interactive formats that offered diverse ways to tell stories. Since then I have done a range of projects that use tools like photoshop and digital video and web software. Most recently, I am exploring various ways to reintegrate tactile materials and physical interaction into my work with digital narrative. Do you have a primary medium you like to work in?

For me, I switch the medium to accommodate the project, and also in response to contemporary culture. As a digital artist, sometimes I miss working with clay and other tactile materials. I think the culture in general is overwhelmed by ubiquitous technology. My next work will probably try to grapple with that imbalance.

EN: Where were you trained? When did you realize you were going to be serious about art? How did that come about?

JR: I always loved making pictures as a kid and I hung out in the art room at Robbinsdale High School. I chose to study Comparative Literature my first two years at the University of Wisconsin Madison, partly because visual art didn't seem serious enough! But about half-way through college, (It may have been while sitting in an art history class) I began to realize how much I loved paintings… the colors, the formal elements, the ideas, the stories… and I began to feel that fire-in-the-belly for making art. I finished my undergrad degree in visual art at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Evergreen was a new interdisciplinary innovator in education, and it drew together a mix of radical thinkers and creative risk-takers. I had some wonderful female art professors at Evergreen (Marilyn Frasca, Susan Aurand). I was also lucky to be there with talented student artists who took the creative process very seriously (but not too seriously.) We even held our own student crits outside of class, just to talk about our work!

Some years after college, I was juried into the Washington State Arts Commission's Artist-in-Residence Program. For about 4 years I traveled around the state doing teaching gigs in schools and community centers, presenting my work in lectures and doing workshops. I was actually making my living as an artist, and when I walked into the room, they would introduce me as "the artist". That experience was an important validation for me.

EN: What are your primary themes? Where does your inspiration come from?

JR: I like to tell old stories in new ways. I often work with fairy tales and myths, reinventing characters and settings. I often spend a lot of time at the beginning of a project doing historical research. Visual imagery and literary ideas gleaned from the past are often layered into my work.

EN: How did you become involved with the Sophronia Project and what is your role?

JR: I drafted the original proposal to create the project for Northern Spark this year. Northern Spark is an annual all-night interactive media event presented by Northern Lights and curated by Steven Dietz in the Twin Cities each year. Kathy McTavish and I had been looking for a chance to do some collaborative work in digital media. We were both using digital tools to remix text and image, but in very different ways. The call for Northern Spark proposals gave us the idea to develop this project together. The theme of Northern Spark this year was : Projecting the City, taking inspiration from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In the book, Calvino spins a series of tales about imaginary cities. I liked the story about Sophronia, a place made up of two half-cities, part circus and part stone. Our project proposed to create an interactive installation by making use of Kathy's graffiti angel software for projecting text, my digital art and video mash-ups, and netprov writer Rob Wittig's technique of crowd sourced text in twitter.In the multimedia installation, a glowing tent serves as canvas for a mischievous mix of digital video, text, and live silhouettes that disrupt, subvert, and create a playful participatory space. Projections include remixed digital collage, video mashups, and text fragments gleaned from the project database and at #sophroniatwo. What have you found to be the most gratifying facet of Sophronia?

I am especially grateful to have the chance to work with generous collaborators willing to take the risk on something so experimental. At the Walker, we had to change our entire plan overnight because of the forecasted storms. It's both nerve-wracking and exciting to be able to reinvent a complex multimedia work like this, and to allow it to morph to various conditions and spaces. In each location the work took on a different mood, integrating the wildly different architecture and audience each night. It was fun to discover how we could adapt the project to these strange variables, and enjoy the interactive experience it provided at each location. Most gratifying of all, was the fact that the piece was appealing to such a wide range of participants. The glowing, mesmerizing projections seemed to entrance toddlers, teens, moms and grandpas… They all wanted to take a turn and play with their shadows.

And of course, I am Super grateful to work with all these people:
multimedia projections Kathy McTavish,
additional video by Lane Ellis and Lizzy Siemers
soundscape by Kathy McTavish electronic music by Tobin Dack
words by Rob Wittig, Kathleen Roberts, Sheila Packa, Katelynn Monson, Mark Marino, Cathy Podeszwa and #sophroniatwo on twitter
silhouette performances by Cathy Podeszwa, Emma Harvie, Gary Kruchowski, Lizzy Siemers, Jamie Harvie, Jay Sivak, Joellyn Rock, Rob Wittig and the audience participants!
set decorating by Ann Gumpper, Nancy Rogness, Karin Preus
tech support by Ben Harvey

EN: How many locations have you been at with Sophronia and how were they selected?

JR: The work was originally presented at the Walker Art Center for Northern Spark in June 2014. Funding was provided thanks to cooperation between Northern Lights and Walker Art Center. I also wrote an Arrowhead Regional Art Council grant to fund two additional shows which were staged at the Free Range Film Barn in Wrenshall in August and at the Duluth Art Institute in September. The Walker location was made through our Northern Spark application. The barn and depot locations were made possible by the generous curator Annie Dugan at Free Range Film Fest and Duluth Art Institute. I'm so thankful that these funders and venues are open to experimental works like Sophronia!

EN: Is there anything especially unique in how you create?

JR: I seem to be willing and able to ride out the mess of a complex project. I am compelled to make connections between diverse ideas and images. Eventually I am able to mash them together into something colorful and surprising. Since I'm not a perfectionist, and I am comfortable with failure, it doesn't prevent me from trying things I've never done before.

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Reader.

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