Name: Joanna Poag
Current Location: Rochester NY
Education: MFA at RIT
Preferred Art Medium: Clay
Children: Fiona, 6.5 mo, F
What is your background (where are you from, education, important details, where are you know, etc.)?
I have spent most of my life in Rochester, NY. I earned my MFA from the School for American Crafts at RIT. After a residency in Taiwan and a year as studio manager at Flower City Arts Center, I am now an Assistant Professor of Art at Roberts Wesleyan College where I teach Ceramics and Foundations courses.
Was there any part of your formal or non-formal training that prepared you for being a creative maker and mother simultaneously?
I don’t think I was prepared to be a maker AND mother per se, but I certainly I felt like my mentors drilled into my head the need to keep making even as my time windows and responsibilities shifted or became smaller. And, although I never grew up thinking, “I can’t WAIT to be a mom,” I do think being a mother was something that I expected to be at some point, so I think I paid subconscious attention to women in my life who I admired who were able to balance all of the things that I someday hoped to.
Are there any women that you find to be an inspiration for you as an artist/mother?
Yes! My mom was an english teacher turned mom/teacher to me and my (4) siblings. Before all of my siblings had left the house, she went back to school to get her nursing degree because after we lived in Kenya for a semester, she developed a passion for healthcare. It is this kind of vision and stamina that I want to be able to sustain throughout my life.
Ruth Asawa has always been really inspiring to me. She said at one point regarding her decision to have children, “Kids are certain, art is not,” and then raised four kids and had a really successful career as an artist anyway.
Liz Quackenbush was really encouraging about being a mother and an artist. She talked about parenting as being this really difficult thing, but a thing that she would do all over again if she had the choice. That was really helpful for me because the balance of both working and being a mom was something I was really nervous about before (and after) I had Fiona.
One book about the creative life that I really love is Madelyn L’Engle’s “A Circle of Quiet.” In that book she discusses what it means to be a creative and a mother, wife, grandmother, etc. I forget the exact wording but it goes something like this, “My children and my husband are number one to me. My writing is also number one to me. Bump.” She talks about the beautiful difficulty of playing all of those roles, and I hope I can do it as well as she did.
Can you talk about how you are balancing your roles as artist, teacher, and mother? Did you take time off after the birth of your child? How did that work? What about childcare? How did you navigate making artwork? What are your hopes for role balance in the future?
Some days I feel like I do a great job at balancing everything, and other days I’m glad that tomorrow offers another opportunity to succeed. I had Fiona at the end of June, so I had eight weeks to recover before school started. Thankfully, my husband is a teacher too, so he was off and we could adjust together. I think I thought at eight weeks I would be able to jump right back into making since I was teaching too, but I was being overzealous and set myself up to be overwhelmed and frustrated. I wasn’t realizing that I would have to feed her every two hours. It’s tough psychologically to go from having a ten hour day in the studio to having to take a break every hour and a half. I also had this crushing fear that I would never make again after having a child and that added to the stress and guilt I experienced. Thankfully, after three months, I had the courage and the energy to start working again and felt exhilarated to be back–that feeling alone was a huge relief. It’s still easy for me to say, “Oh, I’ll make more when _____________ changes in my life and I have more time.” But if I am always waiting for the perfect moment, then I never carve space for the things that are important to me. I now try to work two hours a day (or 14 hours a week). My progress is slow, but it is certainly steady, and as Fiona gets a little older, longer stretches of time will allow for more work. I’d like to work my way up to 20 hours a week in the next several months.
Right now, my sister watches Fiona three days a week. This allows for two full days of teaching and a day for me to take care of faculty responsibilities or have personal work time. I live really close to the school, so it’s easy for me to pop back home to feed Fiona when I need to. On Mondays and Fridays, I squeeze my work into her naptimes.
You talk about making as meditation in your artist statement. If you make while your child is present does this act still feel meditative? Has the meditative quality of making shifted as your time is divided between studio and child? How so?
Yes, it does! It’s not always this beautiful peaceful time of making, but even just having my hands making repetitive motions is satisfying. In a way, it’s been wonderful to split my time into two hour working sessions (more, if I can manage), because now I look forward to that part in my day. It continues to feel meditative because it’s space that is just for me.
Visually, the sculptures you make are objects of subtle repetition and variation. The linear quality of each piece appears as a three-dimensional drawing of an initial design repeated. However, visually the effectiveness of the work is because of the multiples and their proximity. How conscious are you about the role of negative space and light in the work? Is this part of the work planned or discovered within the process itself?
So conscious, and it’s both planned and discovered. I think my more successful designs (so far) have been the ones that show the most negative space. And so in that way, it is planned–I think very carefully about space because I know it will have a significant impact on light and shadow. I still get so excited when I set up a piece because you can never quite plan for how everything will work together in the space. The interaction of light and shadow is an aspect that I know will be interesting when I see it, but I can’t really know what it will do until I am in the space.
In your NCECA Emerging Artist speech and on a recent Instagram post you talk about exploration as “disciplined wandering” or “disciplined playfulness”. How do you define or think about this idea? How do you practice it? How have this idea and practice evolved now that you have a child?
This is something that I wholeheartedly believe in and something that is SO difficult for me to do. Disciplined wandering is making sure I am being broad enough in my practice to allow for fresh ideas and new ways of making. For instance, when I was in undergraduate, I double majored in both art and psychology. People would ask me all the time how my psychology major impacted my art making, and for years I told them that psychology major didn’t impact my art at all. It was years later that I finally realized that although I didn’t necessarily include disorders from the DSM-V in my work, psychology changed the way I thought about the world. I tackle my art making in a very scientific way, and so it’s not the WHAT but the HOW that psychology impacted. Lately in the studio, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. I was listening to one today about time. One of the guest speakers was a physicist that was talking about low and high entropy and how as the universe has become more disordered, it has allowed life that wouldn’t be supported to live! I was so excited to hear that because what he was saying was directly impacting the work I’m making right now. It’s really easy for me to put my nose to the grindstone and work without taking time to breathe. Practicing disciplined playfulness allows for the breath that could add new life back into me and thus into my work.
Now that I have Fiona, I am rediscovering the world with her. I don’t think about water when I take a shower–it’s simply a utility, but she is DELIGHTED by water running over her hands and feet. She is fascinated that she can grab it but she can’t hold on to it. And I am fascinated because she is fascinated! She has grounded me in a way, because I have had to slow myself down and enjoy time in a different way than I have in a while. She doesn’t understand what it means to wait and the only important moment is the one happening right now.
Your work is rooted in homeostasis or the self-regulation and balance of multiple parts. You are also interested in the chaos theory and order. How do you see these core concepts evolving in your future artwork? What’s next for your work? What should we be on the loo out for in the future?
I have started developing a body of work about time using the grid. After Fiona was born, I spent a lot of time thinking about time (or how I didn’t have any). I thought about how we arbitrarily organize our time into grids, with each twenty-four hours getting a 2×2 square on a piece of paper. That is such a rigid way to think about time and it doesn’t always mirror how we experience the passage of time at all–our understanding is much more organic.
The work I was making before she was born was about order and structure, but after her birth, I felt like someone pulled that rug out from under me and I couldn’t tell which way was up anymore. I was overwhelmed and I wanted that narrative to be included in my work. That’s a big step for me–I haven’t considered my own narrative as a tool for making work much at all. What I found as I continued working was that the “overwhelming” of the grid that I was creating was actually this beautiful development of growth. Isn’t that so interesting? I’ve felt so conflicted about having a child and being a working mom, but what started out as a more negative emotional response has turned into this fresh development and growth!. I’m still in the experimental stages, and I am so excited about where this body of work will go!
Are there any projects, hobbies, or activities (ex. Running, knitting, tea connoisseur, arts organizations, volunteering, etc.) outside of your artistic practice that you feel passionately about? What are they? Do you find them feeding your practice? If so, how?
My husband and I love backpacking and like to spend time outdoors. I enjoy running and swimming and downhill skiing. I don’t think they directly impact my work, but it certainly appears that I enjoy endurance sports, and I think there’s definitely a connection there. Recently, I have began cooking again, and I have surprisingly enjoyed it more than I expected I would!
Anything else we should know?
I feel really supported as an artist who has transitioned to being a mother, too! Certainly I feel supported by my husband and family, but also by the ceramics community, and I really appreciate that.
Finally just for fun. If you were to make a playlist today what would be your top 5 favorite songs?
Glen Hansard “Leave”
Gorillaz “Clint Eastwood”
Radiohead “Pyramid Song”
Aimee Mann “One”