Maybe Joan Söderlund’s mother was on to something.
“My mother wanted to keep me off my bicycle because I had broken a few bones. I think she thought, ‘If we get her into art and painting, it will keep her out of the hospital,’” joked Joan. “I started taking painting lessons from the time I was seven years old. I never ever considered being anything other than an artist. I spent my whole life saying, ‘I’m going to be an artist.’ Not ever really claiming that I was. I was working at it; I was getting to it. You’re always working to be an artist.”
A native of Matawan, New Jersey and now a Charlottesville resident for over 20 years, Joan Marie Pearson Söderlund studied at Saint Mary’s of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. She credits the teaching influence of Canadian artist in residence Norman Laliberté; his work was graphic representational and religious imagery. “He took images and did whatever he wanted with them. He showed me tremendous freedom,” says Söderlund.
After college at age 20, Joan “went wandering off to New York City” to join the art world. She laughs. “I arrived in a pink and white gingham dress with white picque sleeves. I was so completely naïve.” She soon found work illustrating stories with Dell Publications. “It was representational work, not realistic, quite a lot of whimsy. The owl was like an Easter Bunny with colorful eggs. I was playing with ideas and mostly having such a good time drawing with pen and ink. Pen and ink makes you draw very attentively.”
As Joan’s work evolved, she painted in watercolors and oils, her work continuing to be entertaining, edgy and energetic. Much, she says, is out of her head with the help of occasional live models. “I always do people, I’ve always been fascinated with representing people. But I represent them with big heads, pinheads with bird legs, or even on stumps. I’ve never been interested in doing a landscape.
“It’s in the paint. That’s a big part of what I’m about. When I start I have no idea what will be the finished work. I’m just moving paint around. I’m surprised,” she adds with delight. “I can do anything I want with the surface—paint literal or figurative images. If it’s perfectly represented is not the issue.”
“I’ve always been fascinated with the Supreme Court. They’re so exalted. They have so much reach in affecting the law of the land. They’re there forever. The friendships and the team as not as predictable as you’d think. That’s good.”
Söderlund’s imaginative people—whether in paint or plaster—often come with an agenda, layered with meaning beyond their surface treatment. Her figures represent the “human comedy,” past and present in their many guises. Her people are seekers, thinkers, change makers.
Joan particularly admires the work of Picasso, Vermeer, Gustav Klimt, Mark Rothko, the sculptor Henry Moore and social realist Ben Shahn. “I have a lot of respect for Picasso’s audacity. But Shahn was a hero to me. He was the epitome of an artist human being. He really tried to explain, he tried to answer question, he tried to be so honest in explaining what is virtually unexplainable. He took such interest in social issues—he took interest in what was going wrong in our culture.”
With a wry and concerned eye to social issues herself, Joan developed and sold her work while teaching art for 34 years at Matawan Aberdeen High School. Her popular, elective course was for juniors and seniors who went on to Parsons, Pratt, Cooper Union and the Rhode Island School of Design. She also co-taught a humanities course which combined history, English and art.
“It was the 70s, a tumultuous time but also a time of positive energy,” she says. “There was a lot of teasing and bantering, but not resentments with every eyebrow raised. It was the job to die for.” She smiles. “Now they’d be indicting me on how I worked with the kids. I’d have been arrested. I’d be in jail.”
Joan retired from teaching in 1995. She and her husband, Ken, then started “roaming” the country as an adventure and settled happily in Charlottesville a year later. She became an active artist at the McGuffey Arts Center where she would have numerous shows.
Heros, a 2007 show at McGuffey, included portraits of Galileo, Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, Rip Van Winkle and Don Quixote. “The wisdom of Mark Twain’s humor made him heroic to me. I was also always taken with Don Quixote. I liked him because he was just such a dreamer, but I sure wouldn’t want to have a relationship with him. I liked him from a distance. In this painting, he’s making his own windmill with his tinker toys.” The painting won first place award in the Virginia Watercolor Society.
“Rip Van Winkle is practicing sleeping. He’s resting. He’s getting ready for the big sleep. He’s completely relaxed, totally unencumbered. He’s sleeping in the most vulnerable way, like a little baby would, not at all hampered by any anxiety.”
Joan’s 2008 Euphoric Memory show at McGuffey reveals her sentiments towards family and children, a peaceful past perhaps in now distressing days. “Nostalgia will always be around and we love it because when you’re a kid, you’re insulated from all the worrisome stuff. That’s your parents’ job. You’re always looking back at the good old days. But the good old days were the ones you were experiencing as a kid and were not necessarily worrying about the submarines off the coastline of New Jersey.”
“Our euphoric memory ‘of the ‘good old days,’ insulates us from the reality that war and poverty and countless incidents of social injustice threatened and prevailed whenever ‘then’ was,” wrote Söderlund for her show.
“I hope that it will not be proven that we are escalating into a downward spiral. Each generation needs those fond memories for sustenance. Optimism is therapeutic. Nostalgia is inevitable.”
Although Joan’s children—a son and two daughters—live elsewhere, their presence is felt in her art-filled home and studio. Life size portraits hang parallel to a large “family portrait” (above)—a charming line up of well worn, favorite shoes—her Birkenstocks, one daughter’s ballet slippers, another’s Doc Martin’s, her son’s cowboy boots and her husband’s work boots. “Feet,” says Joan, “I feel are very important in representing people. They are revealing and emblematic of our lives.”
During this fertile, creative last decade, Joan also developed her skill as a sculptor, again concentrating on the female form. Her focus is the “importance we give to the “fronts versus backs” in our appearances and facades. Social commentary morphed into a Prom Date series that is irreverent and beautiful, intricate and stunning. While Eleanor Roosevelt’s demure, ribboned wedding dress was the fitting result of her prom date with FDR, Madonna’s “torpedo breast” bustier from her “Blonde Ambition” tour suited her as Dick Tracy’s femme fatale, “main squeeze” in the movie, Dick Tracy.
Still painting the female form, Paradigm Shift (2016) is a study of “then and now.” The background figures—referencing Vermeer, Ingres and Joshua Reynolds, reflect the warm tones and soft and angular, skeletal forms of yore in contrast to the cooler and confrontational modern woman.
“Sometimes you don’t feel like working and you work and it’s delightful how it surprises you. People want you to do what you’ve done…it’s so tedious to do what you’ve done…using the same technique or ‘bag of tricks.’
“People always think artists are having fun. They just think we’re so happy doing what we want. I try to explain we’re only having fun when it’s going well. The rest of the time you’re pretty stressed. You’re working pretty hard while you’re playing.”
Söderlund’s A Room of One’s Own show, (2015) celebrates women’s autonomy and accomplishments, and advocates for her own creative, working space. “In a room of your own,” she wrote in the show notes, “you are able to think, write, paint, sketch, dance, compose, play and be whatever you need to be without distractions and interruption.”
While showing extensively and exploring new ways to work with acrylics, Joan also discovered a fresh technique in applying the paint, using credit cards or hotel keys. Neat stacks of credit cards sit beside jars of favorite brushes, still used for the perfect touch. “I scrape the paint. I can vary the heaviness of the paint, the opaqueness. I can make a sharp edge. I love edges.
“There’s an accidental element to what will happen. I like finding new ways of painting. I’m bored once I’ve done a subject. When I stop exploring, I won’t want to paint anymore.”
— Elizabeth Meade Howard, art editorFollow us!
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5 thoughts on “Joan Söderlund’s Human Comedy”
Joan was my hero, my inspiration and my high school art teacher. I loved her then and I love her work still! So proud to have been her student!
Joan- Wonderful to find this article on your work. I was one of your grateful students at Matawan HS who received your great support enthusiasm and encouragement. I went off to RISD, married Allan Wexler, a fellow student, and work creating, not only art in the studio, but public art projects, museum “interventions on looking”, and art curriculum for schools and museums. Love
Joan will always be one of my heroes!
Among other things, she helped me understand that I didn’t have to follow the prescribed path.
Mike Fitzmaurice class of 1973.
Joan means the world to me. I was her student, graduated 1975. Best teacher I ever had. Her encouragement and wonderful creative attitude still inspires me. I graduated Md. Inst. College of Art and still feel just as passionate about my art. Thank you so much Joan.
Joan, too, was my art teacher in Mataram in the late 70s, her ability to draw out a student’s very best work (even when you didn’t know where a piece was going) has stayed with me all my life. I have a piece we collaborated on in my home, it is a treasured piece of my young adulthood. I went on to help develop and lead a non-profit arts organization in support of students in my town for more than ten years and raised three children who are artists in their own right.