joyce lyon

Joyce Lyon, In the Garden: Overlaid with Texts from the Jewish Bible, the Christian Bible, the Koran, and the Book of Mormon, 2015, archival digital print, 22 in. x 17 in. 

How would you describe the work that you do?

I’m a maker of two-dimensional images. Drawing and painting, drawing primarily, but also digital works that use text and photographs. Responding to place, always about the experience of being in a place, what the place holds, visually, emotionally, historically. . . . not landscape, which is too limited a genre. But what the place evokes, what I find there or what I lay over the place, expressed through visual language. So I’m usually working with places I have come to know well. I’ve done a series of drawings of my garden at night called Approaches to the Garden, which was very much about dark and light meeting and how this could be seen as an allegory of what we know and what we don’t know. I did a series about my father’s Holocaust experience, Conversations with Rzeszòw, using places here, which I knew, and places in Poland, which I could only try to imagine.

Has it always been two-dimensional?

With Approaches to the Garden, I made the pieces quite large—some of them are four feet by eight feet. It was envy of the three-dimensional people and those doing  installations. I wanted the work to be experiential—big enough so you can enter, or for it to envelope you. But I think in terms of that [two-dimensional] surface, so I knew I wasn’t going to make actual three-dimensional spaces.

Are there ways in which you intend your work to challenge the viewer?

I think there are some people in this exhibition who throw down the gauntlet more directly, which is a very important thing to do. But I am looking to engage, visually and  emotionally first, then also intellectually. The challenge comes after, goes beyond the literal, beyond the representational. For a long time I was working with images that were large and continuous, but there would be a gap left between sheets of paper, to break the illusion. The gap points out to the viewer that this is a representation—and then the work pulls you back in again to explore further. I don’t want people to swoon into the work. I do use the lure of beauty, which I undercut with content, with context. My challenges are subtle but real.

Joyce Lyon, Otricoli Drawing, 2007, graphite on paper

Is there something you are currently working on that you are particularly excited about?

It’s the territory of it, not the specific work. There are two things! One is, for about three years now, I’ve been a part of a group called Mapping Spectral Traces ( . . . It is an international group of artists, social scientists, and scientists thinking about place as the holder of history, of memory, often traumatic memory. . . . [The group] seems like a home, because here are all these people thinking about things that I have been thinking about, and it pushes me to think about my work in an expanded context because the work I did about the Holocaust was of course about traumatic place, but that’s not really where my focus has been. [The other] . . . is a group called Healing Place, here (, which is, again, a group of artists and scientists thinking about place, mostly the Mississippi River, [and] thinking about how to heal it using the perspective of Dakota experience. So, I’m learning a lot . . . and working with language, and it’s really interesting to discover how places were described in Dakota versus how we sometimes do. . . . A different way of seeing things. It’s early days, and I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do, but I hope to develop a body of work. I think this work will be digital.

In the studio

Is there a reason why you would want to do digital work instead of painting or drawing?

I find that sometimes a photographic base is a more neutral witness—I know photographs aren’t neutral—but they are accepted as a more neutral, factual way of presenting evidence. In this case [of Healing Place], I don’t want to have that overlay of painterliness and the subjective, which could take the viewer away from what I’m trying to point at.

What advice influences you or your art making?

I am interested in the fragile and essential ways by which meaning is conveyed. I have been stimulated and supported by artists and writers who re-claim the territory of personal experience as a means to understanding larger contexts. In the context of this exhibition, I became involved in feminist art thinking in the early seventies, when St. Kate’s invited Judy Chicago for a month’s residency and with a group of friends I attended her public talks. This was a revelatory moment: she confirmed our perception that women had content and imagery that was not being expressed aloud within the art schools nor within the art world. . . . One of the things I remember her [Chicago] saying was that if it—the work, the venues to show the work—don’t exist, you might have to—you might get to—invent them. With that group of friends I became one of the founders of WARM.

Lyon's studio

Why did you choose to pursue the life of a professional artist?

I was torn between words and images. My undergraduate degree was in English. . . . I had decided that there was more revelation in what came from my hands [through art]  than what came from the writing, although they are both still important. In recent years I have come to combine them.

If you could meet your younger self and tell her about where you are now, do you think she would believe you?

Not completely. In terms of this writing/visual arts balance, yes. . . . I retired from the U [University of Minnesota] in May, having taught for thirty-two years. I was told that I have been important to a lot of people. I don’t know if my younger self would have seen that I could have had that kind of impact; I don’t think that my younger self was counting on being able to be as fully committed an artist. . . . I didn’t know I was going to be as committed to my creative self, to my visionary self. You might say that through my teaching I have been speaking to that younger self: to support, encourage and help prepare the longer, deeper vision.

Joyce Lyon

Are there certain ways in which you identify as a feminist artist?

Women’s perceptions and experience are an essential contribution to human experience. Saying this now seems simplistic, self-evident, a tautology. But it’s not—yet. It is crucial to have the whole range of perspectives, encompassing gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality, belief—all the voices—playing an active part in the cultural whole. It is our only hope for survival. This is a feminist perspective.


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