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  • Interview by Rosie Osborne

Joel Werring

Tell us a little bit where you grew up and atmospheres that you were surrounded by.

I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. I’m the oldest of three kids, and my parents were quite young when they had me. They were just teenagers. My mother was only seventeen. As young parents, they were still growing up themselves and were struggling to figure out their lives. My father was out of the picture by the time I was four. He and my mom both struggled with addiction to heroin, and he was in prison for most of my childhood, and then died when I was nineteen. I would say that the various environments I grew up in were pretty extreme. We primarily lived in a neighborhood of Phoenix called Sunnyslope, marked by a mountain with a large white S painted on the side. My mom and her boyfriend and my siblings and I moved around a lot, from one housing complex to another. These apartments had names like Casa Del Sol and Palo Verde Gardens, which made them sound like these beautiful vacation spots, but they were actually the opposite. They were pretty rough and my home life was unstable, so I spent most of my time avoiding it, either by drawing from an inner world or playing outside in the external world. Both of these worlds felt safer to me than home. Most days I was on my own with very little adult supervision. Fortunately, I had a grandmother and two aunts (my mother’s mother and older sisters), which helped in providing some stability. They were strong women, and were a positive presence in my life. Early on, I was particularly close with my grandmother who loved to paint and draw. Other than going to her church, which I dreaded because they spoke in tongues and it scared me, I loved spending time with her. She opened up my view of the world at a very young age. I travelled with her to Mexico, California, and throughout Arizona. We would regularly visit the Phoenix Art Museum, and I think it’s through her that I developed a passion for painting and drawing at an early age. I intuitively knew that I needed structure and some kind of discipline as a kid, so I gravitated towards sports. Being an athlete was also a way of fitting in with the other kids, gaining respect. I’ve always been a bit of a chameleon. High school can be quite cliquey but because I was an athlete and also artistic, I was able to navigate various social groups. It was about survival for me, an instinct I developed at an early age.

Elactopazmajay, oil on hemp, 42” x 34”, 2019

Do you have any very early memories?

I have a few. Riding in the front seat of a police car, being fascinated by the dashboard, buttons, the walkie talkie etc. I was just a toddler, and I had somehow wandered off down the street from my grandparents’ home. The adults must have panicked and called the police. I also have a collection of images in my head from a time when my parents were still together. We were living in a small pink house, and I remember a pile of polished rocks, lizards, and an orange Volkswagen Beetle.

Did you try your hand at any other jobs before becoming an artist?

I’ve had the following jobs before settling into teaching and having a stable and consistent practice as a painter: a paper boy, lifeguard, waiter, ditch digger, substitute teacher, and I was a manny, a male nanny. At one point I was seriously considering becoming a Phoenix fire fighter, which would have been the default choice for me at that time since most of the male role models in my life were firemen. I took the physical and written test, but I intuitively knew that the world would open up for me if I left Arizona instead. It was time.

Red Ranch House, oil on hemp, 48” x 50”, 2019​

Do you remember a moment in front of a particular painting that will always stay with you?

Yes, Constantine’s Victory over Maxentius by Piero della Francesca. In 2004, I was in Italy for my Guggenheim fellowship, and my wife and I were driving the Piero della Francesca trail. Standing in front of that painting, at a church in Arrezzo, I felt viscerally, and for the first time, that painting might be something other than just a static image. It could be a moving picture, and it could move not just through space but through time. That painting operates in the past and the present at once. It’s a sweeping fresco with varying levels of resolution. Portions of the painting are just completely absent due to time, weather, and natural disasters like earthquakes. But there is something about those vacant areas that seems to amplify the portions that are still intact. There is a stillness, an otherworldly clarity, though it depicts a busy battle march. There's also a tree, painted along the Tiber River, that actually looks like something between being a plant, a flame, and a rock. The whole painting is a visual diary of cyclical transformation, history, religion, war, body and spirit, absence and presence. Seeing that painting in person changed me. It sent me on growth period, and I had to rethink my own concerns and reasons for being an artist. Incidentally, I am going back to Italy for my sabbatical in the spring of 2020, and that painting will be one of my first stops.

Wild Indigo (detail), oil on panel, 14” x 11”, 2019

Which artists inspired you most when you were a teenager?

My grandmother had this huge coffee table book on Georgia O’Keefe. As a kid, I loved seeing her paintings at the Phoenix Art Museum. Her work seemed so dramatic to me. They were expansive and sensual, and bold in color and scale. I liked that her paintings always teetered on being something between a still life, a figure, and a landscape. I thought about her work throughout my childhood and into my teenage years. As my artistic practice started to gain traction, drawing became increasingly important to me and I became fascinated by Degas. I liked the way drawing was a problem-solving vehicle for him. His ability to reduce the figure to essential planes of light and dark, and also his use of line to clarify and edge. His drawings have a physical richness that continue to resonate with me.

If you had to choose one artist who has inspired you the most, who would you choose?

Part of what I love about being an artist is the ongoing dialogue I have with the history of art. Artists have meant different things to me at different times of my life. Giotto, Goya, Neil Young, Patti Smith, Borges, will always be in my pantheon of great artists. But I would have to say that one artist that just keeps delivering for me is Martin Puryear. I think his work is just so uniquely his own. I admire his understanding of form, and structure and surface. I just find his work so poetic and beautiful. I feel his work in the solar plexus.

Jar and Pocketknife, oil on panel, 8” x 12”, 2019

Is it strange looking back at your previous paintings now, as if you’re re-reading a diary from the past?

Sometimes it is strange. I’ve always thought of paintings as visual diaries. These objects mysteriously hold feelings, sensations, light, color and that somehow collapse and hold time. Like the Piero fresco I mentioned, they speak to the past, but operate in the now. The hope is that all these things come together to somehow make a painting, and I want it to add up to a handful of questions that will lead me into other paintings. I don't think of paintings as some kind of final description of who I was at the time I made them. I tend to recycle the imagery in my paintings. Sometimes I’ll paint an image but not really know how to make it work within the structure of a painting. So I’ll either scrape it out or put it on the back burner. Months or even years can go by and that image can find its way back into my work but it will function in a different context. Almost like it’s been living life, but now feels different, like it has a new set of stories to tell. I do feel like I have a lexicon of images, structures, stories that continue to get retold, or maybe employed, in different visual contexts.

Do you remember the first piece of artwork you ever sold?

Yes, I was an undergraduate art student at UC Berkeley at the time, and I was waiting tables at this Greek cafe on Potrero Hill in San Francisco. The owner of the restaurant knew I was an aspiring artist and asked me to hang some paintings in the restaurant. A customer came into the restaurant and bought a painting I had made of a tightrope walker.

Thunderbird, 60” x 48”, oil on canvas, 2019-20

What risks have you taken in your work, and what has been at stake?

2006 was a big year for me. I gave a up a secure job and left a community of artists that I deeply admired, and still do today, because I knew in my heart that things in my life needed to change—for the longevity of my practice for the health of my family. My son, Jonah was less than a year old at the time. It was a humbling year and a year of letting go. I started renting a studio in Long Island City, NY. Right around that same time, an aunt in Arizona, (my father’s sister) sent me a box of old photographs of my father when he was boy. One of the images was my father doing a swan dive into a pool but you couldn’t really see the pool. He looked like a comet, Icarus blazing through the sky. I felt this deep desire to paint the image, and it was the first time in years that I really committed to painting a figure. But because the figure wasn’t grounded, it allowed me to approach it as a shape, an abstract object in space. The diver is an image that continues to show up in my work from time to time. That photograph also thrusted me into series of paintings about swimmers and public pools. And I have continued to use imagery from family photographs, as well as birds' eye views of the apartment complexes where I grew up, in my paintings.

Swan Diver, oil on hemp, 41” x 60”, 2017

Is there a painting that you sold or think about or wish you could have back?

I have a painting hanging in a beautiful home in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It’s a huge painting of an ocean moving across a folding screen. The title of the painting is called Revolution. I made some last minute changes to it that I wish I could take back. It happens. If they’ll let me, I’d like to make another version of that painting and replace it. The owners of this painting are amazing people so I’m hoping one day they will be open to that.

Are there any authors or books which you think about that have had an impact on your life and work?

The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage. It’s written by this naturalist and physics professor at Stone Hill College, Chet Raymo. My aunt (mother’s older sister) gave me this book when I was 26 right out of graduate school, and I keep coming back to it. Such an inspiring book about the cosmos, but the author connects it to literature, philosophy, art, and the everyday world. Each chapter is marked by these gorgeous wood engravings by the artist/illustrator Michael McCurdy. Labyrinths by Borges has also been a book I keep returning to. I’m currently reading The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje. This book is a work of art. It’s violent, corporeal, but also mythical and wondrous. It’s a beautiful blend of fiction and reality and poetry, like painting.

Is there something particularly precious to you in your work studio?

My music, a few notes I have from my children, and my ritual of cleaning my studio and palette before I actually start painting. I’m looking and thinking about avenues into the work as I’m picking up the previous day’s mess. That ritual is precious to me.

If you could get any artist from history to paint your portrait. Who would you choose?

Velazquez. He hits truth on a formal level that is hard to comprehend. And yet he seemed to have empathy for the people he painted, honoring their dignity. Whenever I go to the Met, I always stop by his portrait of Jaun De Pareja. That kind of honest specificity is deep.

What are you presently inspired by? Are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?

I'm so inspired these days. I'm being hit from all angles and it's great. I've mentioned books and artists in some of your other questions, but I will say that music has been a really important aspect of my studio practice in the last few years. I used to paint in silence but now music helps in opening up my imagery, my senses in the studio. I love a wide range of musicians like Gram Parsons, Sparklehorse, Black Sabbath, Elliott Smith, Gillian Welch, Cat Power, Joan As Police Woman, Al Green, and so many more. And there are also a handful of contemporary painters that are on my mind these days- Mamma Anderson, Henry Taylor, Marc Desgranchamps and Hurvin Anderson. I also recently started this side project—Hi-Fi 52—where I'm painting one still-life a week for a year: 52 still lifes, and each still life is connected to a song. Each still life takes about three hours at the most, and it’s been a nice way to warm up, and to just give myself permission to work from life, not be in my head. It's also been humbling, forcing me to sharpen my perceptual skills and allowing for greater specificity with the formal components of painting. This exercise has been helpful with my ongoing studio paintings.

Glove, oil on paper, 12” x 9”, 2019

If you could paint anywhere for a day, where would you choose?

The Forest of Lothlórien, the kingdom where elves lived in Middle Earth. Just for the day.

What does it mean to you, to be a free spirit?

Well, I recently came across this poem in a book by Carlos Casteneda, and I think for me it sums up what it means to be a free spirit:

The conditions of a solitary bird are five: The first, that it flies to the highest point; the second, that it does not suffer for company, not even of its own kind; the third, that it aims its beak to the skies; the fourth, that it does not have a definite color; the fifth, that it sings very softly.

- San Juan de la Cruz, Dichos de Luz y Amor

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