Interviewing Joan Braun for this article became a conversation, a two-way reflection because Joan listens even when she is talking. So, the notes I’ve written up gather Joan’s words interspersed with my reflections, a doubly reflective verbal form somewhat like the visual form of her extraordinary palimpsests.
Joan Braun’s evocative, haunting photographs and collages have long been created and housed in a defunct dance hall next to her house in Weld, Maine. She recalls, “It’s a building that hosted dances so long ago that even the farmer, [from whom Joan and her husband the poet Henry Braun purchased their neighboring farmhouse in 1964], did not remember back to when the dance hall had been active.” The luminous hall is now a haunt of wild animals and birds, “where the birds shit and the porcupines leave their poop.” Fittingly for this derelict, vulnerable, and beautiful space of her art’s creation, a melancholic attunement to the festive is a keynote in Joan Braun’s work, where everything is gorgeous, and also wasted, and mournful.
A recent Joan Braun black and white photograph presents a warm living room festooned with prayer flags, cheerful with kettle, coats, and lamp signifying light and safety, and yet the core of the image is an empty chair, connoting someone who has left. The coat arranged on the rocking chair almost looks like a Bogeyman figure, a presence, and non-presence, even as the stripes of sunlight enliven and warm the room. Similarly, Braun’s photographic collage of a smiling Buddha overlaid with lichen connotes grace, a kind of salvation, and also decay, lichen growing over stone and wood that has been abandoned to the elements. Her work makes you feel as if you have entered into a secret and strange, but not dangerous, space where the real order of things beneath the surface is visible. As Joan says, “One can’t translate a photograph into words. It is ‘about’ a thousand things.”
Joan’s patient vision is her patina. Patience in the sense of playing the long game, creating art for its own sake, not for public prestige, and patience also in the sense of suffering, as her life has not been easy (though that is her story to tell, I won’t tell it here). She has made a practice of creating work from the grist.
Braun’s Moths collages are created from detritus her household produced, with the emblem of the moth stamped by used coffee filters. Fashioned of the leftovers of domesticity, the moths do not condemn the domestic. Instead, they steadfastly and warily elegize the domestic, looking at domesticity through a sidelong glance. Likewise, the dance hall has been at once the artist’s escape from the domestic and symbolizes a willingness to stay nearby. She recalls that when she went to create her art in that place, she’d tell her two young daughters, “Don’t come get me unless there is blood.” This is the hallmark of Braun’s work, its willingness to abide, to stay with the trash and loss that is the world, and to return to heal where there is blood; to create images like marvelous suns from that wreckage. Moths, in traditional Greek culture, signify the souls of the dead. For Joan Braun, moths are rather the souls of the living. Ephemeral and passing, the living move through all that they—we—lose on our paths of creating our lives.
She states: “I think that the question that comes first is ‘Why do we make art?’ and the simple answer is that we are makers who innately understand the symbology of the horizontal, the vertical, the circle, and every other kind of meandering line. We are innately creatures with enormous curiosity who delight in endless variation and are never exhausted by it. We thrive on it. It nourishes us as directly as food and water do. We love to muck around in materials, words, and sounds, move our bodies into shapes, and dance and decorate ourselves. Much of this has been stamped out of us by the assembly line, the equation of time with money, and the economic imbalance that deprives people of the time to make art. Evidently, people in the Paleolithic devoted much less time to survival tasks (obtaining food, clothing, warmth) than we do, and had much more time to sing, draw, tell stories, and share their dreams. We are a distorted culture that wastes and destroys the talents of so many people.”
Joan Braun’s Survival Clothes series fashions garments from discarded newspapers, detailing wars, conflagrations, and the human wreckage of the time in which we live. Braun’s very recent photograph portraits of activists from Maine Inside Out (survivors of an unjust carceral system) show a similar attunement to the pain and beauty of survival. Increasingly, she is concerned not only with reflecting—bearing witness to—human suffering but also with creating art that “faces that we are destroying this earth,” as she responds with what she calls “Existential Creativity.” “Existential Creativity” is how the artist faces human horrors.
Braun’s palimpsestic layering of images draws from the domestic and the tragic—the places where domesticity entwines with loss, recategorizing both tragic and everyday losses, of time and the shedding of self into time. Her visual works are like notebooks of icons that are so private that one is rarely entirely sure of the secret at their heart. Her art, like her personality, is encompassing, clear-sighted. It never turns away; it is about abiding, holding the space of return. The symmetry of what is presumed lost (coffee filters, newspapers, and of course photographs themselves as papery, easy-to-lose objects) is met by the aesthetic symmetry of artworks that almost cover their own tracks, so quiet in their apprehension of the festival of sorrow inside the bones of the world. Her images are akin to bruises, touching the sensitive place of what goes wrong in a world that, even so, goes on. That the world goes on is the core skeletal structure of Braun’s oeuvre.
The multifariousness of an image stays with her: “My bottle photos, for instance. Bottles are stand-ins for people; they have ‘shoulders’ and ‘necks’ and are sturdy and vulnerable and open, and have space between them and behind them and in front of them, space being breathable air and the whole universe. They stand in space held by gravity, and it would take a purposeful force, a hand, an earthquake, to make them fall, and they are staunch and brave and fearless. They are there but ever-changing in the light and angle through which one sees them.”
As Joan reminds us: “Art is everywhere, not just at the museum or concert hall but in our homes and gardens. Almost everything is some kind of arrangement made by someone—folding a napkin, sewing, arranging the pillow on the couch, running, jumping, flying an airplane, designing a package, wrapping a present. We cannot escape it.”
Image at top: Joan Braun, Lichen Buddha, 2015.