Over the years, I have passed Spanish Village artist, Joan Boyer, on the patio at least once a week. Each time we exchanged niceties…”Hi, how are you?” Each time I thought to myself, “She is so shy, so soft spoken, so timid…and, yet… there is something mysterious about that woman!”
I interviewed her for this story and at first I was very confused…everything I read that others had written about Joan, everything she told me, was filled with contradiction…like…”I am struggling to be more loose with my paintings.” Isn’t that an oxymoron…struggling to be loose??
Before I interview an artist, I give them a list of standard questions I will ask to reveal a little about them. Most artists have one or two word answers…some can’t find the printout I gave them with the questions. Joan answered each question with a well-written, thoughtful paragraph…typed.
Joan was born in Alameda, California. The city stretches over two small islands next to Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco. When she was growing up she and her family vacationed in their cabin in the Sierras. There she spent her days hiking in the mountains, swimming in the lake and her nights sleeping on the deck under the stars with her sister. Her appreciation for the beauty of California landscape surely began there. However, during those summers she wasn’t painting. She was sketching original fashion designs. “Maybe someday I will work backstage as a costumer!” she thought.
However, Joan’s parents wanted both her and her sister to take piano lessons. “Playing piano made me cry!” she told me, pouting and laughing at the same time. “I wanted to study art!” When she told her parents how she felt, they relented. At the early age of 10 she began taking art classes…dropping piano. She found she was very good at representational art…her renderings were “nearly photographic.” She received high praise for her drawings. But one day she realized… a lot of people could draw like that. “I wanted to be different…to break out of the pack.” I asked her what she did to move away from representational art. She replied, “I am still struggling! Learning to find one’s own style is a fairly long process…it involves passion…the desire to learn and the desire to paint what you love.”
She continued to study art in High School and earned a Master’s degree in Art History from UC Santa Barbara. She has taught art (hands-on) at every level. “Lots of pottery, sculpture, painting, enamel…even macramé.” Once she taught an adult art class in Otay Mesa. “I don’t think it was advertised as a Spanish Language Art Class.” However, no one spoke English…and Joan is anything but fluent in Spanish. “It was actually fun, though! Occasionally I would have to stop, point to something I wanted to talk about and ask the class how to say it in Spanish! We all laughed a lot!”
After teaching for three years in the San Diego area, she and her husband Bart were getting restless. They wanted some adventure, to travel, experience a different culture. They had even considered joining the Peace Corps. One day while perusing art books at the library (Joan does that alot!) a small ad in the newspaper got their attention. The island city of Pago Pago in American Samoa (some 4,800 miles from San Diego in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!) was advertising for an art teacher! She applied and was hired. “I love to travel…the challenge of communicating and interacting with different people, experiencing different ways of life.”
“While I was in American Samoa I created a lot of art…in many different mediums because I had to have an example to show the class for every project.” But perhaps the most interesting project she did with her class was learning the ancient Polynesian art of Tapa Cloth (bark cloth) painting.
“The cloth is made from the paper Mulberry tree through a very tedious process. When I was in Samoa, there were probably only 6 people that could make it.” In Samoa a painted piece of bark cloth is called siapo. A traditional siapo was painted mostly with browns, black and yellow. The paints were typically made from the bark, nuts and roots of indigenous trees. Joan’s students were supplied with the cloth and the paint for the project, but as their ancestors had done, they made their own paintbrushes from pandanas seeds. “The outer core is very fibrous. The fibers covering the seed can be cut and shaped with a knife to a point without disturbing the seed itself.”
Pago Pago native and world-renown Siapo Artist, Mary Jewett Pritchard personally showed Joan how to work with the tapa cloth. Mary Pritchard is credited with single-handedly preserving the ancient painting technique from disappearing in American Samoa after WWII. She was instrumental in having “siapo” included as part of the High School curriculum. “Meeting Mary Pritchard and learning about the process bring back nice memories of my time there,” Joan said.
At the end of her teaching contract in American Samoa, Joan was offered an additional 2 years. She and Bart decided it would not be good to put his career in Mechanical Engineering on hold any longer. So they returned to San Diego. Joan decided she needed a break from teaching. “I enjoyed teaching, but it wasn’t an ideal fit! There was also the minor detail that art programs in high schools were being cut back!”
She chose instead to return to school to study drafting. “I eventually worked as a mechanical and electrical drafter, documenting machines, drawing wiring diagrams and designing circuit boards.” I asked her if she enjoyed such technical work. “I enjoyed the challenge of making things understandable. But I was always exhausted when I got home, so I didn’t do any painting during those years.”
After working for 13 years as a drafter, Joan decided it was time to make her career as a fine artist her priority…so she quit. She signed up for a painting class with a highly respected local San Diego artist…it was a plein air class. She was a little hesitant! “I was thrown into plein air because I really wanted to take a class from that teacher! I learned a lot, but he kept painting on my canvas to demonstrate a point…I didn’t like that…so after several years, I decided not to continue with him.” she said.
Joan describes herself as a California Impressionist. The 19th century Impressionist style in France is said to be the first distinctly modern art movement in painting. The catalysts for her were well-respected traditional painters (like Claude Monet) who were tired of painting like everyone else…they wanted to stand out…like Joan.
“They also saw the writing on the wall,” Joan said. Photography was gaining popularity…evolving. Even then people were working on ways to make photographs in color! “There would be new competition for the lifelike detail of traditional painting.”
Around the same time, an American born portrait artist, John G. Rand, frustrated by the difficulty of preserving mixed oil paints, invented the refillable tin paint tube…a far cry from the pig bladder used at the time! And the selection of premixed paint colors grew as well. Oil painters were now free to paint “en plein air”…outdoors.
Until I became a member of Spanish Village, I had never heard the term plein air. I assumed everyone who painted landscapes took some pictures, went back to their studios and painted from them. Until I spoke to Spanish Village painter Joan Boyer, I had come to think of a plein air painter as someone who just preferred to paint outside…I thought, “Big deal!?” But plein air painters are warriors!
“The challenge is to work quickly…I start with a rough thumbnail sketch…the shapes…the light…the shadow. Painting outdoors, in the moment, takes enormous concentration…to stay focused…to capture the effects of light on color…to keep the painting loose…to paint that moment, mood, emotion…the essence of the landscape…not the detail.” Joan said.
Claude Monet may have said it best, “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually.”
“When I am plein air painting, I try to shut out all distractions…like the bugs, heat, wind, dirt, cars, people, cows…park employees weed-whacking my foreground! When I get into the zone, time flies…it’s exhilarating…it is one of the joys of the profession…to lose yourself in your work!” Among other things, Joan loves to paint trees! “Even after 20 years of plein air painting, I can’t wait to get back out and paint trees!”
Joan has spent many hours (at the library, no doubt!) studying the works of the early California Impressionists…some 100 years ago…who would drive the back country, camp and paint. She wanted to paint where they had painted…see the changing landscape. But there was no easy way to identify where a particular painting was done. Joan decided to add GPS coordinates to the back of all her plein air paintings…so future generations of artists could record their own version of the changing landscapes.
One painting technique Joan enjoys using is Impasto. Impasto involves applying thick layers of paint so it appears to be coming out of the canvas.”Some painters build up paint on the canvas in multiple, smaller layers. I like to use a lot of paint in each stroke, like Van Gogh. I like the texture it creates,” she said. Many artists will use a palette knife to paint impasto, to sweep the thick paint onto the canvas. Joan however prefers the brush…she reserves her palette knife for her watercolors!
She had observed she tended to over-paint her watercolors…put in too much detail. She wanted to push herself to be more minimalistic…to utilize the white paper…so she put down her brush…and picked up her palette knife! “I scoop up the watercolor paint with the knife, place it on the paper and paint with the knife! It’s fun…and different!”
Joan has always found unconventional ways to work through her painting issues. “Shortly after my mother passed away, I noticed all of my landscapes were very pastel…no contrasting shadows. I had to consciously force myself to deal with the dark areas. So I began preparing my canvases with black gesso rather than white. It made it impossible to ignore the shadows,” she said.
This award-winning, well-respected painter also prefers to sign her pieces in an unconventional way…not in the bottom corner like most artists. I found one signature, hidden in the middle of the painting. “I don’t want it to be prominent, to distract from the painting. But I want it to be legible and complete if someone wants to know who the painter is. I actually inscribe my signature with a sharpened stick into my oils. Recently I put it inconspicuously at the top of a painting I entered in a show…it really confused people!”
“Several years ago, I thought I would try painting watercolor abstracts. In the past, I didn’t really understand abstracts…and I didn’t really like them!” Joan said. But, it was a challenge…”A challenge to forget the real world and create a different one!” However, the thought of standing in front of a blank canvas to paint an obscure idea was daunting. “So I chose a word to paint. I spelled out the word in stylized, distorted letters, turning the canvas as I went. I used the word to build a composition. Most people don’t even know the letters are there. I stopped using the letters recently, but I still choose a word for inspiration before I begin…and that makes it easy to title the piece when it is complete!”
She has since joined a group of Spanish Village artists called “Art-Telling” started by artist Sue Britt. They choose a word each month to depict with their individual mediums and styles. When they meet again, they share their art and their “personal journey” to complete the project.
Joan has been a member of Spanish Village for over 20 years. “I am addicted to Spanish Village…the idea that I can come to this beautiful park to work. Spanish Village is like a family. We try to help and encourage each other and promote art. But like any family, we can also be annoying. Those are the times we need to be reminded of how lucky we are to be here…it is a privilege.”
I asked Joan if she was doing anything besides oil and watercolors these days. She said she continues to experiment and draw. “When it came time to enter a piece in the Small Image Show, I decided to “channel” Toulouse-Lautrec. “I tinted my paper using a combination of black and white gesso. Then I used limited rough pencil strokes in different colors to create the portrait.” I really got into it…I could feel my brain firing…when I was done I was very pleased.” The result was a portrait titled “Ralph”.
So, I would have to say, I did indeed find Joan Boyer to be shy and soft spoken…but…definitely not timid! She is fearless…driven…and she thrives on challenge. And who challenges Joan…Joan!
Some artists paint because it is relaxing…they enjoy finding their comfort zone, a groove. To Joan, a groove is a rut and it is time to move on!
Like the landscapes she paints…Joan Boyer is constantly changing!
Thanks for Listening!
Spanish Village Art Center
Joan’s work can be seen 11am-4pm daily in Studio 6 of Spanish Village. You can meet the artist on Thursdays and on some Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Joan is a member of PAPASAN (Plein Air Painters Association of San Diego) and the San Diego Watercolor Society.
Some of Joan’s landscapes were also featured in James Lightner’s 2007 book, “Land of Sunlight”.