Alumna Joey Hartmann-Dow ’08 recently joined the Upper School for a chapel focused on creativity, describing her path to becoming a professional artist and the way creativity has shaped her professionally and personally.
Her speech can be seen below:
Hi. I want to tell you about my art, and first I’m going to ask you to do a quick stretch, just sitting. With your feet flat on the ground and your butt totally on the seat sit up so straight— try to get taller than the person next to you, but keep your butt totally on the seat. Like try to hit your head on the ceiling, but don’t move your butt. Now try to touch the ceiling but stay totally in your seat. Stretch ! And think about all the parts between your feet and your fingertips up on the ceiling, that you maybe forgot about until you stretched them just now. (Who’s winning? Take note who won between you and your neighbor but don’t gloat about it now, wait until later.)
OK, back to earth. — My name is Joey and I was a Moravian Academy lifer, and now I am an artist. I believe that vulnerability is an important part of creativity, and connection, so I’m going to show you this photo that my parents took of me on my first day of school in 4th grade.
I went to MA pre-k to 12, where I enjoyed and benefitted from some strong art programs, but I didn’t want to be an artist. Or I didn’t think it made sense to be an artist. And I ended up studying art in college, which I also enjoyed, but not in a career-minded way.
However, after I graduated from college, I noticed that I was spending my time making and selling art, so eventually, I figured out that I was, in fact, an artist. Which surprised no one else, but I was like, “Oh well now I have to figure out how to do this.”
One thing that I have always been good at is being weird.
Maybe some faculty in here are thinking “Oh good she ended up being a weirdo professionally.”
So I’ve been figuring out for a couple years how to be an artist in a way that makes sense, and that has involved a lot of guessing, a lot of risk, and faith, a lot of support, some wandering, some teamwork, and I’m going to throw the word gumption in there too.
One of the cool things that I get to do now is I sell my work at an art market, a very special place in New Orleans where hundreds of people come through every night from all over the world to look at and buy art. I sell prints of these map creatures that I make and I get to hear a lot of comments from people about what they think about it.
These pieces are ink and acrylic on maps, usually atlas pages, and then I make them into prints so I can sell them more affordably.
Also, they’re weird. This is one of my weirder ones and it’s also the most popular. And people will often say “are you the artist?” and I say yes, and they say “It’s very creative.”
And I’ve come to understand what they mean is, “this is weird.” They’ll say “I’ve never seen anything like this”, “I never would have thought of this” some people actually just say “This is really weird” and one time somebody said “What’s wrong with you?” which I thought was a little rude, but that one— I could tell they were genuinely impressed and they bought several prints— I think it’s just that in some ways “weird” and “creative” and “thinking outside the box” go so against the norm it’s almost considered awkward, or unacceptable.
So I showed you my art first and told you that it’s weird, and now I’m going to tell you why I made it. I didn’t find out until after college that I was going to be an artist, but I knew for a while that I was an activist. And it was when I was in high school that I started feeling overwhelmed by how much was broken in the world. It felt like there was too much that needed to be fixed, and I was so small, and where could I even start.
Honestly, that was before social media and smartphones and I don’t know how you guys even handle it. At that point I decided to pick one issue that was really important to me and focus on that, knowing that trying to do everything I wouldn’t get anything done. And trying to have faith that other sensitive weirdos would fill in the other cracks.
So I picked climate justice. And that began to shape how I moved through the world. I learned what should be recycled. I turned off the lights. I stopped eating meat. I started seeing connections between climate justice and other social justice issues. And eventually, I started making art about the connection between humans and the earth. This was the first piece that I made using a map with that intention. Also you would be shocked how many people don’t realize that this is a map of North America.
I like this piece because it’s big, it’s a 6-foot pull-down map from a classroom, but also I like that it messes with people. It really makes you think outside the box— the box says north is up, south is down, North America doesn’t have a snoot-thing. So it takes people a second to recognize something they’ve only ever seen one way, with north at the top. It’s a little creative stretch.
And, maybe you have already silently wondered what kind of creature this is, if it’s maybe an elephant, or an aardvark. That’s something that I didn’t know was going to happen. I thought people might have trouble with south being up top, but I’ve now heard so many people struggle to let this creature be something they’ve never heard of, something they can’t put a label on, they can’t put it in a box.
I made this work hoping people might wonder, what if the land and water were living things? What if it looked like a living being with a face, and feelings, and needs, and how would we treat it differently? But without realizing it, I was also making work about how humans have learned to label everything so we can put them into boxes.
I realized that the work I’d made that people think is the weirdest and most intriguing, the most outside of the box, is the work that is my most vulnerable, and that comes from a place of personal truth, the same truth that is searching for equality, love, peace, and the core of what I associate with my own spirituality, which is deeply linked to a belief that everything is connected.
Lately, I’ve been making work more specifically in the human realm, still asking questions about human relationship to the earth and each other. This series plays with the boundaries between earth and human, really suggesting that we are just one thing, and tending one is tending the other.
One of my recent projects really intentionally brought together my work as an activist and my work as an artist, with my beliefs as a Quaker, and that was this comic book that I made in collaboration with an organization in DC called the Friends Committee on National Legislation, which is a lobby group founded by Quakers, and one of the things they do is teach people how to meet with their members of Congress.
I got to go to DC for 3 months while I made this book, and making this comic was really exciting because I’d never made one before (sidenote: it’s really hard), and it felt like this really unique medium to tell a story, because it’s giving the reader so much more than just text or just images. And that really intrigues me, and was certainly an opportunity to get creative.
So I told this story of what it looks like for this character (who looks a lot like someone I know) to take an issue that they really care about, put it in the context of relevant legislation, and meet with their representative about it.
This one is about climate justice and I set it in Philadelphia, which is where I lived for a while, and I did slightly base the protagonist’s character on myself (but not entirely), because I felt like it would help me to ground the story in parts that were true to me, and it did help, I think it made it more authentic.
I often think back to my adolescent assumption that it didn’t make sense to be an artist. It wasn’t because I was worried I wouldn’t make enough money or that it was outside the norm. I was concerned that it wouldn’t be enough to change the world I so wanted to fix. I promise I’m not sucking up to all my former teachers, and my dad who’s here, when I say that I really thought I was going to be a teacher, and I thought that was a very clever way to change the world. And I knew that creativity was essential to the classroom.
So when I found out I was an artist, there were quite a few times I was full of doubt and questioning my role in society. I wondered if being an artist was good enough, was it helpful enough, could I make a difference.
Two things grounded me when I had these thoughts. One was the support I got from people I didn’t even know, emailing me, telling me when looking at my art that it stirred a feeling in them, that it affected them, and to please keep going.
And two, the faith that everything I’ve done and am doing now is leading to something bigger. Even if it doesn’t feel like the art market is helping anyone or that making funny greeting cards on the side is helping anyone, I learn something every day, and I could meet someone or make a connection, or discover something in the process that leads to an important project for social change in the future. And I think this comic project was definitely a version of that. Because— everything is connected.
Those were some good metaphors, I hope you caught them.
I think there’s a misconception that some people are creative and some people aren’t. Humans are naturally creative. Creativity is making connections, and we have to make connections. We have to make connections to survive!
We learn immediately the connection between food and hunger. We learn immediately the connection between being held and feeling safe. We learn the connection between our thoughts and our actions. Creativity is making connections in new ways— which often involves thinking outside the box, and getting a little weird. We learn so much through creativity— but we often forget we are allowed to use that creative power.
I’m so grateful that my weirdness wasn’t cut off at an early age, that my parents and teachers didn’t ask “What’s wrong with you?” but “What are you making?” Like most things, my creative power grew and developed with practice. Every time I did a little creative stretch, I remembered a part of my creative power. See, remember that stretch I made you do at the beginning? Ah-ha I set you up for a metaphor.
Surrounding myself with creative energy, letting myself get curious and get playful with my work made me a better artist, and human probably. I think that creativity is like a language that we already know, we just have to practice regularly if we want to keep making connections, and stay outside of the box.
Artwork created by Joey, seen below, is on display in Walter Hall. To learn more about Joey and view more of her artwork, visit http://www.usandweart.com/.
Thank you, Joey, for taking the time to share your insight and professional journey with us.