empathy was not in the dictionary

a  studio visit with Joanne Easton 

by Francesca Cozzone


I’d like to say I met Joanne Easton while we were both growing up around Chicago and later had reunited in San Francisco, but that would be a lie.  Jo has a powerful grace about her that would make you wish the same.  She is constructive and thoughtful. Her work speaks loudly and align themselves perfectly with her aura.

“People expect one answer when they ask you where you are from.”

Jo always has difficulty sharing where she is from. She is uncomfortable defining it as only one place. As she got older, she realized everyone comes from many places. After a couple minutes of catching up, the concept of place (or many places) was the first thing we discussed. Jo has become more comfortable with it, especially since it is clear that place influences her work as a way to spend time in it.  Jo was born in and now resides in Oakland, CA.  Her first five years were in Chicago and later Australia. For 10 years as a child, she spent 9 months of the year in Sydney, Australia, and the other three months in Chicago.  Like a true Chicagoan, she spent those three months always in the dead of winter. Although she calls many places home, she still needs that one space to call home base--“a place for people to find me.”  She loves the freedom of leaving and returning, but she says it is like going on holiday: you itch to return to your making.  

Her studio base is currently located in the Dogpatch, an industrial section of San Francisco. The window looking out of her studio faces the Bay through the beautifully deteriorating brick buildings that line the coast. Joanne always seems so calm to me; and when I entered her studio, her space emitted that same assurance.  Her work space was organized by her current projects. Bookshelves are filled with materials and books, the floor with piles of branches from her current work, wrapped covered marked(armature). There were notecards of lists hung in the corner or piled together in envelopes on her work desk. My favorite find: a metronome sitting peacefully next to two projects. Every agenda, every task was important, but the lists don’t overwhelm her. Some lists are hidden because she is still thinking through the ideas. Her lists are a way to continue on to the next small thing. One step at a time, she accomplishes what she wants, what she enjoys, her process


met up with her a couple weeks prior to our studio visit when she was a part of the Big Clay Show at San Francisco Art Institute. She made ceramic bells and attached them to balloons, using the deflation of the balloons to trigger the sound. She described the work as making a moment. She created each bell by pressing her thumb into the clay and closing her other palm around it. As she described this moment, she made the motion with her hands, sharing her strength and intention in making them.  handbells (100 conversations) was inspired by David Ireland’s Dumb Balls. For Ireland, it was passing the concrete back and forth to round it and keep the shape.  The moment, the motion, the creative process. Now weeks later, the bells are haunting her. They are incomplete. She wants to continue to share the moment. After she updates them to her liking, she intends on gifting them, turning the work into a remnant of the moment.



With the metronome staring me in the face, I was surprised to hear Jo say she isn’t musical. Like any normal child, she hated her piano lessons; but now as an adult she is teaching herself to play the ukulele. In her artwork, it isn’t about playing an instrument or even making music. It is about listening. One of her main drives in making is to admit to not knowing. Listening (to figure out a place or to make sense of knowing) is one of her tools. It’s listening beyond everything you’ve already learned; it’s to listen to everything before really hearing it. The etymology of “to listen” means physically offering your ear. To reconnect with her drawing, she attached a pencil to the metronome and drew against the rhythm.  Having a ribbon connecting the two object, the ribbon illustrates the tick tock of the metronome. Jo said it was a bit of a performance, recording and drawing it. The metronome sits just below a heartbeat tempo, which causes anxiety for some viewers. Sometimes it can have a soothing effect; but Jo recognizes that in stepping to a rhythm, we are trying to make sense of things, to organize them, to categorize things.  The performance of the drawing (though faint in graphite) stops the viewer from articulating their rhythm. Something gets lost.  

“It’s a great attempt to open up to listening. I’m finding this beautiful and absurd, and I want to highlight that.”



Jo was hesitant to talk about empathy--so much so that she removed the word from her artist statement. It was hard not to talk about empathy.  Empathy is both powerful and subtle. While browsing through a dictionary from the 1960’s, she discovered that empathy was not included. It was only in the supplemental part. She went on saying it was “a new word, an old word coming back into dialogue. It has its own definition, but its broader understanding is very misunderstood.” Empathy is hard, uncomfortable; just like it is hard and uncomfortable to learn something new or different. That’s where empathy’s real strength comes in. To be empathetic you really have to let go of what you thought was correct.

“It takes a lot of confidence to stand with something you don’t know. People see it as giving in to something, but it is actually standing with it. It’s a real interaction. It’s not one way or another.”

Next to the metronome are two projects. One part of the project, pseudonyms, is a handmade book of calligrapher’s ink and newsprint. It sits on top of a hidden project wrapped in thick black cloth. I quickly asked to unwrap the hidden project, while trying to remain sensitive to what the artist wanted to share with me. walking towards the sun is Joanne’s most recent project.

She titled her project a tale of the sunset (pushing 93 million barrels 93 million miles to the nearest star), saying “it’s really walking to the nearest star, which is the sun.”  In 2015, we will be using 93 million barrels of petroleum as a global economy, and Jo thought it was quite coincidental that a trip to the sun is also 93 million miles away.  Wanting to draw some light on this devastating fact, she has been creating sun prints. The prints were hidden so the sun wouldn’t continue to stain the newsprint. She observes, “They change really quickly. I’ve been thinking a lot about how they are changing with the sun.” Jo lays out the newsprint sheets in a circular direction, one on top of the other, leaving a quarter corner piece for the sun to shine upon.


So much of Joanne’s work is about creating moments and listening in order to rearticulate the things she already knows. The idea of not knowing is what drives her practice. What can she see in a new direction? How can she make chaos out of order? “In a lot of my work, I like order. I try to count things, value things. I’m interested in when that order falls away.” When things fall away, she hears the music, discovers the moments she wants to share.

a tale of the sunset (pushing 93 million barrels 93 million miles to the nearest star) will be a part of her MFA show from May 15 to 18, 2015 http://www.sfai.edu/events-calendar/detail/mfa-exhibition-edge-effect-opening

You can find more of Joanne's work at http://www.jeaston.com/