Prof. Joscelyn Gardner
Joscelyn Elizabeth Gardner, Independent Artist & Professor of Fine Art, Fanshawe College
1) What is your profession and what are the specific dimensions of your work?
I’m a professional artist and full-time Professor in the Fine Art program at Fanshawe College. Currently, I work with printmaking (stone lithography, intaglio, and digital print), and in multimedia (video, sound, and more recently, 16mm film) in a research-based practice. I find it really stimulating to move back and forth between these mediums, especially since my choice of medium is dictated by my subject and each medium gives me scope to visually communicate with my audience in completely different ways. Printmaking is more focused, and involves sitting still, and slowly engraving onto stone or a plate, exploring ideas two-dimensionally, and then often working with a master printer to edition the work. In contrast, the multimedia installation work is time-based and involves working collaboratively with a lot of other people, working spatially, working out in the field, bringing together the talents of many creatives. It’s often much more complex to organize. Ultimately, it’s refreshing to go between two different ways of working which run parallel to each other and allow me to think through communicating my ideas in alternate ways.
2) How did you come to this type of career?
I’ve been working as a professional artist since the late ‘80s and I came to art through a childhood love of the creative arts in general. I loved writing, playing with words, and making art and this was encouraged by my parents. Once at university, I started studying Fine Art. I won a 1980 Barbados Scholarship for university study in Canada and needed to pursue a subject that was not taught at the University of the West Indies at the time, so that’s actually how I ended up in Fine Art. At university, I completed undergraduate degrees in Fine Art and in Film Studies. I then returned to Barbados. When I later moved to Canada in 2000, I went back to school and completed an MFA.
3) Tell us something about your process of study and formal and/or informal education and the nature of your degrees and/or training. When, where, and how did you become educated and qualified to do what you do?
I studied printmaking (BFA) at Queen’s University under Carl Heywood and Otis Tamasauska. As leading Canadian printmakers, they promoted printmaking as a serious medium. They both loved colour but had opposing artistic methodologies. One was very detail oriented and technically precise; the other had a highly experimental, loose, collage approach to his work. They provided a brilliant mixture of two different approaches to creating work. I also completed a BA in Film Studies at Queen’s and explored film simultaneously to fine art because it brought together my love of writing, visual art, and sound. It was a marriage of all these media which attracted me. In particular, film theory helped me to understand that a film or work of art could encompass multiple layers of ideas, and this has sustained my practice over the years. Following my move to Canada, I completed an MFA at Western University where I specialized in both printmaking and multimedia installation.
4) What were the greatest obstacles that you had to overcome to achieve the success that you now experience? What challenges have your experienced and how have you overcome them?
There have been several challenges over my career which I have tried to meet with resourceful solutions. After graduating from Queen’s, I returned to Barbados as a newly emerging artist, to find a dearth of facilities available to me for either printmaking or film, and few galleries there to show my work. It was a struggle to get off the ground. I began teaching part-time in the Division of Fine Art at the Barbados Community College and ended up importing a combination printing press to the island (a few years in the making) and opening a small printmaking studio (Island Impressions) which later evolved into an art gallery. I felt driven at that point to contribute to the development of art in the island and became heavily involved in the Art Collection Foundation (ACF) which was newly starting up at the time. One of my works was among the first five works awarded a Purchase Award into the Barbados National Collection in 1985. I subsequently became a Board member of that organization… we were acquiring art for the national collection through juried competitions and purchase awards and working towards the establishment of a national gallery. The ACF opened the privately-run Barbados Gallery of Art in 1996, and when this gallery later closed, the collection was overseen by the government appointed National Art Gallery Committee, though a national gallery has yet to come about. I was also on the board of the Barbados Museum & Historical Society for many years. By 1994, I was exhibiting my work internationally, and in 1996, I opened a 4000 square foot art gallery, The Art Foundry, in a 1700s rum still house on Foursquare Plantation and Heritage Park. It successfully ran quite substantial guest curated exhibitions showing the work of contemporary local and regional artists. Each exhibition was accompanied by a color publication and exhibition programming. However, since the Barbados art market was underdeveloped, granting systems for supporting the arts were non-existent, and the internet was not yet widespread, we had to find private sector sponsorship for each exhibition and try to sustain gallery operations with relatively little support. So, I would say that trying to overcome those hurdles in Barbados was my biggest challenge. I ended up leaving the island in early 2000 and moving to Canada, where artists are not burdened with having to set up support systems to show and sell their work.
Once in London, following my studies at Western University, I started teaching at Fanshawe College. I have been fortunate to be awarded residency and research/creation grants from the Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council of the Arts, and have served on committees for Forest City Gallery, Satellite Project Space, and Museum London. In 2014, I founded the Print London artist collective which is working towards establishing London as a centre for printmaking. We have established The Ontario Miniature Print Exhibition (TOMPE) which runs every two years and we run other exhibitions in the alternate years.
One of the greatest challenges that I have faced in terms of my professional work as an artist is in sustaining a practice that deals with the uncomfortable questions of race, gender, and sexuality. Addressing the deeply troubling and painful history of plantation slavery and its aftereffects can be extremely difficult. Mining the colonial archive often leads to distressing details that are very unsettling, particularly as they relate to violence against women. I was born in a former slave colony that achieved independence from Great Britain when I was six years old, and I lived there for nearly forty years of my life. My identity has therefore been shaped by the aftermath of slavery, and I feel the need to try to understand and reckon with this history so that our society can heal. As a white Creole woman, history has made me “an implicated subject” and this history is part of my DNA. A significant part of my career has been spent trying to uncover female voices that lie buried in the margins of the archives… to understand the relationships between Black and white Creole women in the domestic sphere and to highlight in a gentle and sensitive manner the resiliency and resourcefulness of the anonymous women who resisted enslavement.
To date, my work has been welcomed by curators in Europe, the USA, Asia, South America, and the Caribbean, where it has been exhibited in large curated museum exhibitions as well as in international biennials. It has also been written about in academic publications and collected by well recognized museums. However, recently, for the first time, I was forced to deal with an unfortunate situation in Canada where my work was pulled from a two-person exhibition ten days before its opening and after it had been advertised on the institution’s website (including reproductions of all thirteen works). The curators cited difficulties with labelling the works and fears that the work could potentially traumatize that city’s Black community. A year later, following further discussion, a version of the exhibition was mounted with exhibition texts that limit reference to some aspects of the work and provide trigger warnings to viewers. The exhibition has not been actively promoted by the gallery and associated exhibition programming has not materialized despite the promises of museum staff. Such a sudden about turn in the reception of a body of work that has been widely circulating for over ten years has been upsetting. I would have liked to be given the opportunity to interact with the affected community to discuss any problems that may or may not have been stirred up by the work and to learn from this. While I believe that we have collectively reached a point where we need to celebrate gains rather than focus on trauma and loss, the attempt to “cancel” my work, without reference to its context, does not sit easily with me.
5) Did you have any role models or mentors either in your domains of entrepreneurship, work, research, and creation or outside of them? Who were they and how were they instrumental in shaping you as a person and as a professional?
My greatest role models were my parents. They centred me in a creative life that was also responsive to the society around me – the need for caring, empathy, and humility. These principles were foundational. Other childhood mentors included Richard Goddard, a Barbadian youth leader who provided me with volunteer opportunities at the Barbados Museum, as well as in orphanages, day cares, and elderly people’s group homes. It was very eye-opening. Many of my teachers at Queen’s College, a well-known government secondary school in Barbados, also inspired me greatly – Daphne St. John, Dame Elsie Payne, Father Alfonso, Jeanette Ottley… the list goes on. They were incredibly supportive and made my school days exceptionally rewarding. At university in Canada, I also had inspiring professors though it is noteworthy that, at that time, there were no women on the faculty.
The circle of artists that I worked with in Barbados were also really instrumental in furthering my ideas around my role as an artist within the community. We struggled together to lay the groundwork there to allow us to function. We aimed to address our lack of resources as well as our isolation. We recognized the need to extend ourselves beyond Barbados; to reach out to artists in other islands. An artists’ group that included Ras Ishi Butcher, Ras Akyem Ramsay, and Annalee Davis, among others, called ‘Representing Artists’ was formed . I worked closely with Annalee while she was there, but she had moved away by the time I opened my art gallery. We formed the Lips, Sticks, and Marks collective of seven female artists from Aruba, Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad, and exhibited our work in a landmark show at The Art Foundry and at Caribbean Contemporary Arts in Trinidad. There were also other artists outside of Barbados, like Christopher Cozier from Trinidad, who had been instrumental in expressing ideas around Caribbean unity and the need to work together and promote each other. So, while I was on the island, it was very much the other artists with whom I was working who were inspiring me.
Once in Canada, my mentors at Western University, Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson and Patrick Mahon, were crucial to how I developed my art and research during my graduate studies. It was especially opportune to be there during the two-year period that Charmaine was there. Since then, I would say that I have felt more isolated in Canada because I am not part of a circle of artists who share my interest in Black history. I have found community with other printmakers, particularly at Open Studio in Toronto, and now, in London, with Print London. More recently, I have been discovering the experimental film community. However, until recent times, when the pandemic intervened, I had actually remained quite closely connected to Caribbean artists though I had moved away from the region. I returned home very often to do research and create my work in that familiar space. A large part of me has never really left Barbados because my family is still there, and as they say, “my navel string is buried there.” Exhibition opportunities in Barbados and in other Caribbean islands also continued to materialize for me from the 2000s onwards causing me to return often for that purpose. I found myself to be part of an international Caribbean diasporic community. As with many diasporic people, however, my sense of truly belonging in any one place now remains troubled.
6) What does your daily work routine look like? Where is your place of business/production and how do you stay focused and productive?
During the last year, because I was on a sabbatical from teaching, when I wasn’t traveling, I would wake early, walk my dog, and work on emails, admin, or writing. If I was lucky, I would get into the studio after lunch. My studio is in a large pole barn that has recently been renovated and winterized. Its countryside setting is peaceful and inspiring. I moved from a studio in downtown London in 2019, so thankfully, I was here during the pandemic. I usually work through the evening. The studio is where I think and write and create. I have tried to slow down and to give myself a break from deadlines. Once my projects reach a developed stage, I usually travel to a professional printmaking studio to execute my lithographs and have them editioned by a master printer; or, in the case of my multimedia work, I work off-site in a professional production studio or in the field, depending on the project. Now that I am teaching again, a large proportion of my time is spent travelling to the College and working with the students there. Teaching has proved to be a significant distraction from my own artistic production, especially since the pandemic started, but it appears that everything is becoming a bit more balanced now.
7) What does your process of research look like? Where and what are your archives and what artworks, artifacts, documents, or specimens do you study or examine?
For the past twenty plus years, I have mined Caribbean museum collections and British colonial archives for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century material artifacts and documents that relate to slavery – prints, photographs, letters, diaries, natural histories and travelogues – in order to speak to historically shaped Creole identities and relationships. As a female artist, I am particularly interested in relationships between women and often try to insert overlooked voices into the archive. In more recent work, I have become interested in how the living environment has also shaped lives and of the need to change perspectives so that we can embrace nature and her teachings in our lives. A fictionalized / imagined history has crept into the work along with ecopoetics.
8) What are you working on now and when and how will it be shared?
Coming out of my sabbatical, I have been working on two research-based projects which are both still in the process of development.
The first project is an experimental 16mm film that began to evolve when I met and talked to a man who lives in a shack that he has built from beach detritus on the south beach of Sam Lord’s Castle in Barbados. I had been doing some experimental filming with words suspended in the sea water on the shore of this relatively deserted Atlantic-facing beach, and gradually, the subject of my work shifted to this man who lives there. His name is Mark Pearce. The film briefly and poetically explores his daily life in his shack relative to the geography and ecosystem of which he is a part. I found him to be a remarkably interesting person who defied the stereotypes associated with his living conditions. Though I had passed him many times on this beach, near to which we have our family cottage, it struck me that he was almost a symbolic figure, standing up to the neocolonial “invasion” that is taking place on the cliff above him where the largest hotel complex on the island is being built by a Chinese corporation. Just in front of this looming modernist high rise hotel, sit the burnt out ruins of the former colonial plantation mansion, Sam Lord’s Castle, crumbling under the weight of encroaching vegetation. Mark has been there for well over fifteen years, first as an employee and now as a vagrant, and continues to stand his ground peacefully and creatively. He is an artist at heart and lives from the earth and the sea. I have been using the vegetation around him to physically develop and alter the 16mm film.
The second project, Songs of Innocence and Experience is based on a small c. 1858 ambrotype from the Barbados Museum Collection portraying a Black Barbadian nanny, Henrietta Thomas Weekes, and her white charge. Recent conservation of the encased ambrotype to repair its broken glass had revealed the identity of the infant in the portrait and also that her mother and subsequently, her child, had also been cared for by “Nanny Weekes”. My work takes the form of a print folio (lithographs) in which there are twelve image panels with letters addressed to Nanny Weekes from the child, and twelve interleaf text panels that explore the (imagined) lives of these subjects and the object itself from the (contemporary) child’s / my perspective. It is a poetic work which marries creative writing (from the imagined past and the present) with photographic and drawn imagery to describe these intimate inter-racial relationships from my perspective as both a descendant of plantation households and a Black ally. Obeah is invoked through a series of “obi-balls” (entangled plants, healing potions, and natural objects) which hover on each page. The folio can be closed and sealed once its contents have been read.
Once these projects have been completed, they will likely be exhibited, or put into storage with other works until the appropriate time to show them.
9) What are you proudest of in your career?
I am proud of having been able to explore many different aspects of the arts in two very different countries. I have worked as a professional visual artist, educator, curator, writer, arts organizer, and gallerist, and enjoyed every moment of it. My work has also entered museum collections and become an object of study in relation to the archive, which I find exciting. I have been able to practice as an artist and exhibit my work in diverse spaces in various countries. I have met and worked with people from all walks of life because I am an artist. Being an artist is a way of life rather than a career, and I am thankful that I have had the good fortune to pursue this direction in my life.
10) What are you proudest of in your life?
Hands down, I am proudest of my children, and maintaining a happy marriage and home life. It has been a challenge to balance a career with my family life over the years, but I am proud to say that I have managed to do so through learning the arts of compromise, delayed gratification, and thankfulness for all that I have been given.
11) What fiction or non-fiction book should be essential reading?
Ooooh…this is a difficult question. Books are my passion. I have numerous books around me that are piled up to the rafters! Choosing one is well-nigh impossible.
Here are three:
12) What TV show or film should be essential viewing?
I don’t really watch television, possibly because I grew up without it and prefer to read. In Barbados, we had only one local station available and, apart from the local news, I would only watch it sporadically. I can, however, remember when the TV miniseries Roots (1977) came out. We watched every episode as a family, and it affected me profoundly. It was based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel titled Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
13) How do you relax and take care of yourself?
I surround myself with my family and loved ones. We now live on a non-working farmstead outside of London and I enjoy taking our dog for long walks, no matter what the weather conditions are. It’s always exhilarating to be outdoors in nature. I try to get eight hours of sleep and to maintain daily routines.
14) What’s next?
My goal is to continue working as an educator and as an independent artist, with a view towards devoting myself completely to my visual art practice once I retire from teaching. I have been busy during my sabbatical year exploring new ideas in response to our rapidly changing social and natural environment and setting up a more functional home-based studio (#blubrydgestudios) so that I can produce work there without having to travel as much. It excites me to think that I will finally have the ultimate dream of dedicated time for thinking, writing, making and exhibiting my art.
Joscelyn Gardner (MFA) works across media in the fields of film / video installation, sound, printmaking (stone lithography, intaglio, digital processes), and text works, with increasing interest in alchemical processes which stem from engaging with the natural world. Using a postcolonial feminist methodology informed by (radical) empathy and an intersectional lens, she aims to rupture patriarchal or colonial versions of Anglo-Caribbean history found in the archives, by subverting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European pictorial conventions and methods of documentation through contemporary appropriation / interventionist strategies. She is particularly interested in collaborative survival / resistance modes within colonial systems of power and abuse; in relationships across difference, kinship, and interdependence; as well as in listening to (mercurial) ghosts in the interest of forming new and equitable societies. Recognizing herself as “an implicated subject” in relation to West Indian plantation slavery, owing to her (white Creole) family history in Barbados that dates from the seventeenth century, she retrieves atrocities that lie buried in our collective memory in order to reconcile the past with the present and move towards a metaphorical healing of historical wounds and a future in which radical reciprocity and care are centred.
Barbadian by birth, Gardner has held solo exhibitions across the Caribbean and in the USA, Canada, and Spain, and has exhibited prints and multimedia installations in numerous international biennials and curated group exhibitions in museums in the USA, several European countries, India, China, and the Caribbean. Public collections with major works include Yale Center for British Art, Yale University Art Gallery, Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico, Tropenmuseum (Amsterdam), KADIST (Paris), and the Barbados National Collection. Awards include the Grand Prize at the 7th International Contemporary Printmaking Biennial in Trois Rivières, Quebec, as well as Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council research/creation and art residency grants.
Her Blood Spoke: Joscelyn Gardner, Kara Springer, and Alberta Whittle, curated by Julie Crooks and Alexa Greist, Fodor Gallery, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ON: 14 April – 29 October, 2023
Our Colonial Inheritance, Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands (semi-permanent exhibition)
Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1990s-Today, curated by Carla Acevedo Yates, Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Boston, USA (catalogue): 5 October 2023 – 25 February 2024