INTERVIEW: Joanne Jaffe

“Finding something you love to do is a real gift. When the world seems topsy-turvy, I can escape to my studio, and for the time I’m working, find real peace and happiness.” ~Joanne Jaffe

If you are lucky, there are a handful of people who come into your life and change your understanding of what is possible. In 2006 a woman knocked on my door to remind me we had met briefly a few years before, and she would now like to become my friend. Her name was Joanne Jaffe, and she had tasked herself with a tremendous challenge.

She had come to see that her artist parents’ paintings and sculptures found new homes, in private collections, museums, colleges, and women’s studies programs.

Twice a year, Joanne would travel from her home in Santa Monica, California, to Blairstown, New Jersey. There Ben and Evelyn Wilson had a small stone house with a studio on a hill in the back.

And to this house, curators came from across the northeast to view the collections. They left with a treasure trove of extraordinary art.

As for Joanne’s and my friendship, well, it was a beautiful thing. She would arrive in the Fall and Spring, the perfect time for long walks along the Paulinskill Trail, past the river, lakes, and forests. We would sip 50-year old Scotch, left behind by her teetotaling parents, all the while examining thousands of paintings by her father, and hundreds of sculptures by her mother, Evelyn.

It took a few years, but Joanne’s tenacity and commitment to honor her parent’s legacy was complete. She gifted the house and remaining paintings to Montclair University and left Blairstown for the last time. She returned to California, where she has a thriving career as a ceramics artist. Many were sad to see her go. Here now, I share her 50-year journey as a creative artist in her own words.

How would you describe yourself as an artist? 
I am a ceramics artist. I do functional and non-functional ceramics, concentrating on surface decoration.

Has it changed over time, and where are you now in your process?
I started doing ceramics about 23 years ago, a few years before retiring from being an editor, mostly of magazines. Prior to doing ceramics, I worked in a variety of mediums and, throughout my life, have particularly enjoyed drawing.

I began taking classes in ceramics—at adult ed, community colleges—and started as beginners do, making pinch pots and slab pieces. After a few years, I started learning the potter’s wheel. Today I mostly work on the wheel, though I do slab work as well.

As my confidence and competence grew, I began drawing, carving, and painting on the surfaces of my pieces. This gave me a way to incorporate my love of drawing into my ceramics work. I generally work in a series and will pursue related imagery for some 12-18 months. Often the imagery draws upon an early ceramics tradition such as Pre Colombian pottery, ancient Greek pottery, Chinese bronzes. In the last few years, I’ve been inspired by Kandinsky and the Russian Constructivism. This is the first time I’ve completely embraced my love of abstract imagery.

Right now, I’m mostly making functional pieces: cups, bowls, plates, vases—each of which is a little painting.

Did you grow up in an artistic family?
I grew up the only child of an abstract painter father and sculptor mother. One of the things we did as a family was to draw each other. Until I was a teenager, my mother and I would spend every Saturday at my father’s Chelsea studio, looking through art books while my father painted. On Sundays, we’d go to the Manhattan museums. Art was like a religion in our household, and, growing up, I got a thorough steeping.

How did you satisfy your creative nature while working full time?
I studied English in college, enjoyed writing, and continued to draw. I wound up almost accidentally, concocting a career as a writer and editor for art and design publications. I worked for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as an editor in the 70s. For Architectural Digest in the 80s, then was the founding editor of Angeles Magazine, an LA art and design publication from 1987-91. In that way, I was able to pull together many of my interests.

Still, I had a pattern of every few years taking a break from wage-earning to do something more personally satisfying and art-related.

By living frugally, I was able to afford stints during which I would make soft-sculpture dolls or wearable garments made of feathers, or jewelry assembled from hardware. And so it went—until I discovered clay and got hooked.

What creative work did you love doing the most, and why?
Besides drawing in general, I think I’m happiest right now because I’m working with clay, a delightfully sensual medium. After years of severely limiting my palette, I’m luxuriating in color these days. I call my most recent work, my “Happy” series.

How do you share your art today with others?
I show my work at a gallery in Santa Monica, the Lois Lambert Gallery/Gallery of Functional Art. Every few years, when I’ve assembled a sizeable collection of work, I have a holiday ceramics sale in my studio. I invite friends, friends of friends, neighbors, etc. I’ve continued to fire my work at an adult ed class, where I interact with other potters and have made many friends with shared interests. We inspire and learn from each other.

What intrigues you the most about the creative process?
What intrigues me the most is what it does for my mind. It reveals who I am by manifesting how I work and what I have to say.

It provides me with a “quiet place” where I can focus on what I am doing and exclude all other thoughts and concerns.

It also provides me with a way of connecting with other artists and people interested in art.

Looking back, would you have lived your life differently?
There are aspects of my life, choices made, that I would do differently knowing what I know today. Some of my relationship choices; career paths, perhaps even leaving the east coast for LA. But as far as making art is concerned, I don’t feel that I had much choice. Some kind of art was bound to come through.

What would you say today to your younger self?
Not to worry so much–that things generally work out pretty well if you put good energy out. Pay less attention to your inner state and more to the outer world. Be as conscious as possible.

What would you say to young artists coming up in the world?
If you possibly can, find a day job that you enjoy and where you are learning something useful and personally meaningful. Don’t put too much commercial pressure on your art.