by Rachel Haggerty
Two canvases were poised on easels—one near completion and the other at the beginning of its creation. A palette sat near, iced with months of paint like a wedding cake that keeps getting licked before it can be served. On the far wall, seven paintings hung on pegs for inspection. I was standing in the studio of abstract painter Joyce Howell, taking in the months and months of work done in preparation for her upcoming November show at Wally Workman Gallery. It was evident that this is a working artist’s studio, and a lucky one at that. Natural light pours in from the south and east windows facing Lake LBJ, and to the west, stretchers and frames made by her husband are stacked ready to use.
Painting on the side for many years while raising her two girls, Joyce got the confidence and time to go back to school and get her BFA in 1995. Five years later, she moved herself to Lubbock and received a hard-earned MFA from Texas Tech University. Going back to school helped Joyce define her artistic voice. She had been painting tight, realistic still lives. In graduate school, she learned to let color guide her first, then the brain. The result is inspiring. Her use of color and movement evokes an emotional response that causes one to linger in front of her works. She is able to translate not a finite emotion, but one that gently undulates warmly throughout.
“A professor in graduate school used to chide me for creating ‘pretty’ paintings. I’d respond, ‘I’m not trying to do anything, I’m just trying to be an honest painter.’ You know, in a world like we live in, why should I ever apologize for something that might be considered pretty? I think we need more of that. Even in my exit interview, he asked ‘What would you say to someone if they just responded that you do pretty work?’ I said, ‘I would say, thank you very much’. Another professor applauded.”
A lot of other people are applauding, too. In the two short years Joyce has been with Wally Workman Gallery, she has shot up to being their top selling artist. She has had several museum shows. Three galleries carry her work. I sat down with Joyce to discuss this recent success and what it’s like to prepare for her first solo show in Austin.
I need it to be consistent. I’m a working artist; I work everyday. Someone asked me not long ago, ‘How many paintings do you paint in a week?’ And it’s hard to answer. Sometimes I get 3-4 paintings done in a week and sometimes I only get 3-4 started in a week. Sometimes they take weeks to complete. Sometimes it’s easier. Sometimes it’s harder. But it’s always there. The only times I’m really not painting is during trips or when I have company.
Do you work on multiple pieces at the same time?
Yes. I just started this one this week and on this one, I’m at a good editing point. I have to remember safe is nowhere. I like the palette, I like the movement, but right now it’s too busy—it just needs to be finished. I’ve been looking at it a lot, What am I going to take away? Where is my balance? Right now it doesn’t have a balance to me. It has a lot of things in it that I really like. I’m at that point when I know that one of those things that I really like will need to be changed and moved around for me to take it from 70% to 100%. One paintings’ color palette flows into the next because rather than let that paint dry up and be wasteful, I try and use it somewhere. Who knows when that painting is finished if it will even have a hint of that color left but you know, it’s a layering process and one thing will tell you what else needs to happen. I love in a painting when specks and pieces of the rst painting show through and it has become something else. It has become a layered something. Without planning on first I’m going to have a dark and then I’m going to have a this and a this. I don’t like it to become formulaic. I like to just let it happen and act and respond and act and respond.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I take my camera down to the water and photograph. And do close ups. Really beautiful images. If I could get my paintings to turn out like that… In the spring, when the cedar pollen is so heavy, it sits real heavy on this channel and begins to swirl and move like a lava lamp. I don’t use those colors, but I think I have a similar movement in my paintings. We have fish lights at the dock, which lights up the water from underneath. I watch the shad and minnows. They come in schools, and they start moving and swirling and undulating. That’s the most fascinating thing for me to watch. Looking down into a big aquarium, it’s a movement that is constantly changing. And then, out of the black a big bass will zip across and get one. I think in terms of that linear movement and it makes a nice transition to painting in my head.
Do you usually have a favorite painting in a show?
Sometimes. I like them all. I have to come to a conclusion that I am happy with in each painting. Each painting is its own. I do have favorites though, I think they are the ones that are the most di cult to paint. The harder it is to come to a conclusion. So, when you nally get it there, it feels like a victory. For example, this one might end up being my favorite because I’m still trying to get there on it. It is very close but it’s not there yet. It just doesn’t feel balanced; it needs something open, lighter and brighter. I don’t have a light as light as my darkest dark. I have too much of a mid-tone range. It’s just not very well integrated to me yet. So, if I do ever get to a place I’m happy with on it, it will be one of my favorites because of all the work I poured into it.
How do you title your paintings?
I hate naming paintings. I don’t paint toward an end. Narrative paintings are easier to name but these are harder. I don’t like the paintings being defined. One reason I like painting like this is that it’s open ended and it can mean so many things to different people. If you name something with an object, then that’s what people are going to be looking for. And I think often, with an abstract painting, people are looking for that anyway; people are looking for something that resonates with them, that makes it make sense. So if I give it a name that establishes what this painting is about, I think that takes away from the viewer being able to make it whatever they want it to be in their mind. I like that, I like it being open ended. I would be comfortable naming them 1001, 1002. However, I know that galleries and clients like actual titles. So, sometimes I name them after the songs I listen to while painting or from a trip. I’ll think about where I’ve been and what I’ve liked. I’ll see certain things in a painting that remind me of that experience.
What music do you listen to while painting?
I listen to the Duhks, Billy Joe Shaver, and Sarah Vaughn. For the painting “Thank you Tom”, I was listening to Tom Waits for a while. I listen to one artist forever or even one song forever. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell. And there’s one song in particular “A Case of You” that she wrote when she had a thing with Leonard Cohen, who I also adore. So, I’ve been listening to a lot of “A Case of You”. There was a series on Showtime that I watched on Netflix. The series was good but the soundtrack was absolutely killer. It has a lot of rap. It’s energetic. I don’t like to listen to too much mellow music. I listen to a lot of BB King and Jerry Lee Lewis. When I listen to music like that, I’m reminded that halfway is nowhere. And I think I have a problem with that in my paintings a lot, sometimes I get in a stage that I’m liking and I’ll get afraid to go back into it because I’ll mess something up. But then I remember that that’s probably what has to go, whatever I’m protecting. Unless its there, its not there.
Do you believe preparing for a solo show affects your development as an artist?
Sure. Work begets work. I think it must be the same for writers or musicians. You know, the more you try and do, the more you grow and the more consistent you become and the more con dent you become. at’s the di erence between being a Sunday painter, people who break out paints every once in awhile on the kitchen table, which I did for many years. You know, it’s a huge difference.
Some artists are uncomfortable at openings. Others enjoy engaging with the public. What is your response?
Excited. It’s fun to hear what people see. It makes you feel you’ve connected at some level, I never know what level that is, but you’ve connected none- the-less.