“I needed to learn a new vocabulary, a visual one, to hopefully spark conversation with a larger audience than the classroom on how we see or don’t see each other in so many ways, especially in terms of race.
“I create mixed media, figurative, often large scale sculptures as a way to explore the intricacies of race and class, gender and sexuality.” When it comes to discussing concepts of such great importance, Afro-Latinx artist Joann Quiñones is taking her inspirations to new levels be creating magnificent pieces and installations of mass proportions. Quiñones explores a playful balancing act between the honesty of history and the imagination of unrealized outcomes to create work that speaks to the importance of her inspirations with beautiful ingenuity. By working with multiple media, she is able to masterfully weave the narratives of her inspirations and produce art that forces the viewer to become a part of important conversations; “I work with all materials, but consider ceramics and fibers to be foundational to my process and thinking because of their long history and aesthetic traditions in places like West Africa, Spain, and the Americas. The work, then, is an invitation to remember, examine, and engage in meaningful dialogue”.
Quinones recalled that, “I started out thinking I was going to continue working exclusively in fiber, and early on I was making cloth dolls. Really quickly I realized I needed to turn to ceramics in order to access the history I wanted”. Although an extremely skilled multi-media artist, Quiñones’s journey actually started in the field of academia “I had taken a few ceramics courses in high school and at local community centers, but I had never imagined I could be an artist. As a first generation college student, earning a doctorate in English and becoming a professor was a major leap of the imagination. And I loved teaching students how to read, write, and question everything well”. It took an exploration of media to find the best avenue to share her artistic visions and her shift into the artistic realm was prompted by the tragic death of Trayvon Martin; “It was around 2012, with the death of Trayvon Martin, that I started feeling teaching literature wasn’t quite enough. I needed to learn a new vocabulary, a visual one, to hopefully spark conversation with a larger audience than the classroom on how we see or don’t see each other in so many ways, especially in terms of race. I started sitting in on my colleagues’ fibers and ceramics courses, and decided to take a leave of absence from Earlham College in 2016 to go to graduate school. I enrolled in the MFA program at Indiana University, Bloomington, intending to continue working in fibers. What I enjoyed about my time in graduate school was that I had real freedom to explore and play across studios and mediums. I took a Figurative Sculpture course with Melanie Cooper-Pennington, and fell in love! For years, I only thought of ceramics as handbuilding or throwing of functional objects, but I was introduced to life casting, mold making, and slip casting. My time at IU really sparked my love for mixed media approaches to sculpture, and I combine ceramics and fibers pretty equally in my work. I recently accepted an Assistant Professor of Sculpture and Mixed Media position at Alfred University, and I am looking forward to working collaboratively with my amazing new colleagues there!”
While Quiñones pulls from many different inspirations, she explained that her literary background has been an important influential factor; “Most of my inspiration comes from my love of history. I studied 19th Century U.S Literature in graduate school, as well as African American and Caribbean literature. I find I am drawing from that literary background often in terms of metaphors, phrases, important quotes and passages that help me frame my artwork”. Being a mixed media artist, Quiñones also finds inspiration in objects, materials, and the connections they weave across the world. She explained that, “I also spend a lot of my time researching the material culture of the U.S., West Africa, and Spain. I am particularly interested in Spain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, and how Puerto Rico and other places in the Caribbean are materially and culturally connected to West Africa. Ceramics, by looking at tile work, doll production, objects for the home, allows a window into exploring this history”. Her work concentrates on the concepts of race, class, gender, sexuality, and their influence on identity in an effort to create important and honest dialogue. Quiñones explained that, “My work highlights how our engagement with these concepts is highly ritualized, and often unexamined. By juxtaposing objects for the home with archival research I ask viewers to think about how narratives of the domestic, family, and womanhood are complicated by a history of slavery, stolen labor, and racism, particularly in the U.S. and the Caribbean.
Quiñones’s MFA thesis work is based on the Topsy Turvy doll which is a children’s toy from the 19th century that was named after a character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This inspiration allows Quiñones to explore the concept of interconnected identities that mold, shape, and change how a person experiences and views their own identity. She explained that, “I use the figure of the Topsy Turvy doll as a starting point to explore the internal contradictions of a queer, Afro-Latinx identity. The figures I create are both human and doll-like, imaginary and realistic. They consist of hybrid forms and memories, carefully alluding to what it means to be both and neither – Black, Puerto Rican, a citizen, female, and queer. In terms of process, I am drawn to mold making as an expression of the desire to fill in the blanks of history. A mold creates a copy and an original. And ultimately, a casting is made when a liquid is poured into a cavity and left to harden. The result is an object that is solid on the surface and hollow on the inside, an apt metaphor for the impossible pursuit of charting identity”.
Quiñones creates beautiful work with an incredible amount of perfected detail that artistically blends her love of history and with her imaginative take on unrealized outcomes, strengths she thanks her many mentors for; “My mentor, Rowland Ricketts, would come into critiques and press his face against the wall so he could look carefully at your installation and the back of your work. It really taught me that you could have all the best ideas in the world, but attention to detail is just as important. And as I was getting ready to start working on my thesis, I remember Malcolm Mobutu Smith asking me, “What type of saints (images) did you want to see growing up? Why not make them?” This was a real turning point in my thinking, because I realized that yes, artmaking could reference the real and the historical, but it could imagine completely new outcomes. And that felt powerful to me. And I am forever grateful for Tim Mather and his timeless wisdom – “Test your clay body. Test your glazes. Test, test, test!” I also learned so much by working with artists such as Melanie Cooper-Pennington, Jonathan Christensen Caballero, Luke Huling, and Mitch Gathings”. With her dedication to producing great art that speaks to the important narratives of her inspirations coupled with her passion for multi-media art, Quiñones has made a name for herself in this industry; she has received numerous accolades such as the Mary Jane McIntire Endowed Fellowship, the Surface Design Association Outstanding Student Award, she was a nominee for the International Sculpture Center Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture, a finalist for the Manifest Grand Jury Prize, received an honorable mention for the James Renwick Alliance Chrysalis Award, and was recently featured as a 2020 Emerging Artist in the April addition of Ceramics Monthly, just to name a few.
The road to success hasn’t been without its obstacles though. When asked what adversity she has faced in the ceramics industry, Quiñones said, “I think a lot of the challenges have been related to an issue of access – to equipment, to materials, to time, to resources. There are a lot of wonderful opportunities out there, but it takes time to research and find them, and then often that amazing opportunity is one I can’t afford to take as a single parent working a full-time job”. Her commitment to her passions and her ability to persevere through obstacles has been instrumental to her artistic success, and Quiñones hope to inspire this in other emerging artists; “If someone tells you it can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done a certain way, ask them why, and then go ahead and try! Being a relative newcomer to ceramics, I found that there were a lot of rules about how things should be approached. I loved learning them, but really only took them as suggestions. I tried a lot of things, failed often, but made some great discoveries by asking, “What if I did this?”” She advises other artists to, “Lean into your weird and see where it takes you. As artists we end up having so many quirky passions and interests. All of it can be inspiration. Part of what I love about my studio time is the deep sense of play that happens there. I try not to censor an idea before it is fully hatched. It makes me sad to think about how many great works of art are never realized because we judge them before we even give them a chance”. Quiñones said she would challenge emerging artists with this: “Toni Morrison said, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” What if you take that approach to art? What do you want to see as an artist?” Joann Quiñones has proven that artistic success is there for those who are ready to work hard and push the boundaries of the industry. Quiñones’s pieces play with media, size, concept, and detail in order to beautifully represent her inspirations with an integrity that forces the viewer to partake in honest and important dialogue about the narratives she portrays – to have the type of conversations we need to be having.
Educational/Personal Growth Opportunity“If someone tells you it can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done a certain way, ask them why, and then go ahead and try! Being a relative newcomer to ceramics, I found that there were a lot of rules about how things should be approached. I loved learning them, but only took them as suggestions. I tried a lot of things, failed often, but made some great discoveries by asking, “What if I did this?” Lean into your weird and see where it takes you. As artists we end up having so many quirky passions and interests. All of it can be inspiration. Part of what I love about my studio time is the deep sense of play that happens there. I try not to censor an idea before it is fully hatched. It makes me sad to think about how many great works of art are never realized because we judge them before we even give them a chance.”
“Toni Morrison said, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” What if you take that approach to art? What do you want to see as an artist?”