Interview with Joanne Tomi Aono


Neoteric Art: You received your BFA from Drake University. Discuss your art school experience and also the early years of being an artist after graduating.

Joanne Tomi Aono: I chose Drake because I wanted a University that provided exposure to other disciplines and people interested in a wide variety of fields instead of attending a school that focused exclusively on art. I also liked the idea of being someplace where no one else from my high school attended—I think this was in part because my twin sister (who also studied art) and I purposely chose to go to separate Universities—so I wanted a totally new experience, free of any familiarities. Since I had to work through high school and undergrad to pay my own way through college, I ended up going to Drake because of the scholarship and financial aid they offered me. I received my BFA with a double major in Fine Arts (Figure Drawing) and Graphic Design.

Being in these two often opposing fields was difficult at times—the typical push and pull between the fine and applied arts. I felt it from both the professors and my peer students. I will admit, by my senior year, I was definitely more interested in the fine arts. I spent much more time in the painting and drawing studios than the design studio, but my ever-responsible side kept me committed to both majors.


After graduating, I freelanced in design, while continuing to do my art. Back then, I was fortunate to be able to juggle freelance jobs where I’d work 60 hour weeks for several months then take several months off to just do my artwork. I exhibited in small shows here and there, did some collaborations, and did a bit of curating. In addition, I took a couple studio classes at the School of the Art Institute Chicago to continue my learning. Later, I decided to apply to graduate school. I was accepted to Pratt, but decided not to go after finding that my being “responsible” by making enough money to meet my rent, daily expenses, and monthly school loan payments disqualified me for decent financial aid. The clincher happened during my weekend visit to New York to visit Pratt. A friend and I were robbed at gunpoint and later witnessed a man being gunned down at our doorstep. I took it as a sign and refrained from moving to one of my favorite cities. Instead, I decided to travel and pursue my art.

NA: You say your drawings and paintings express how details in life are remembered and the differences of interpretations are portrayed through the fading words and letters as they blend into the positive and negative grounds. Please elaborate and also discuss why you have chosen to depict words and letters.

JTA: Good questions—I’ll answer them in reverse order. To begin, I’ve always tried to challenge myself. I think it’s the best way to improve. I was born in Chicago and have lived most of my life in this city. However, my family moved a lot when I was younger so that by the third grade, I had been in four different schools. Each move brought us to places where we were the only Asian Americans in the neighborhood. In addition to being an oddity as an identical twin, the repeated displacement into new schools made me extremely shy. I realized that the other children would be surprised when I spoke English, but were very, shall we say, curious, about me. I found that drawing pictures was a way for me to communicate that came more easily than with words.

2.jpgAs an adult, I envy and respect those for whom words come so easily, either in writing or conversation. When I was asked by The Peace Museum to do pieces based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I thought, “How can I depict those eloquent writings?” So, I drew the words. When my grandfather died at the age of 102, he left behind a short biography. After doing some portrait drawings of him, I decided to do a portrait using his words as well.

After reading the UDHR, a biography, or a novel, no one can cite every detail, but like life, each person remembers certain specifics and an overall feeling. The atmosphere I try to create with my paintings and drawings is this fading in and out of memory. Some words are more delineated while others are barely readable. What I choose to highlight may not be what another person would. There is actually a lot of detail despite the somewhat monochromatic look to my pieces. I want people to be drawn in close to study the piece’s details as well as grasp the overall experience —just like you would a person.

In a recent series entitled “Their Lives,” I am doing portraits of people who have died and left meaning to my life. After going to memorial services and hearing people speak about their personal thoughts of the deceased, I realized that we all have our private, often differing memories of people, but the overall visual atmosphere of our feelings is often the same. It is this that I try to depict. “Kurt” from this series is a stream of consciousness writing of bits and pieces of his life. Since he sailed and loved Chicago, I used the violent colors of a stormy Lake Michigan in this painting. Likewise, “Oi” is a painting of a photographer friend who used a pinhole camera, so the painting is done similar to the vignette.

drawing.jpgNA: What is the difference for you between your process in making a drawing and making a painting?

JTA: Actually, because of my strong drawing background, I approach painting very much like a drawing. I use very small brushes, so the brushwork is somewhat linear like drawing strokes. Upon close observation, there is a lot of detail. The main difference I see with painting is the ability to obtain greater degrees of color and dimension through the buildup of paint. In both, I choose a limited palette of two groups of colors and apply them together. I liken this to the use of hashi (chopsticks) because they are separate but still need to work together. In both, I use small strokes and slowly build up the surface. I’m anything but a fast painter, my process is rather tedious, but I prefer to think of it as meditative.

NA: What made you decide to participate in this years “Chicago Art Open” which is sponsored by the Chicago Artist Coalition? As you may or may not know, Neoteric Art is not a huge advocate for the CAC. What are your feelings toward the CAC?

JTA: That’s a loaded question! I joined the CAC after graduating from college and entering the “real world”. Since I freelanced, I needed health insurance, so I found the CAC who offered group health insurance for individual artists (I think this was one of the original reasons they formed). Since then, I’ve continued to be a member to support their efforts and receive their monthly newsletter. I’m not one for groups, so I’ve never taken advantage of their lectures, forums and parties, but I do think they help the individual artist, especially someone new to Chicago or someone who didn’t graduate from Chicago’s art school fraternity. Granted, they don’t have a review process, so there does seem to be a lot of craft artists and Sunday painters, but there are also many very respected and established artists as well.

I hadn’t participated in the Art Open for eight years and I saw that they now had jurors and a juror’s choice category. It’s a huge show—so there’s the expected good and bad as in most group shows. Since Chicago no longer has a Chicago and Vicinity Show, this might be the closest to it. When I brought my painting to the Mart, I met a young artist fresh out of school who was excited to have a piece in one of his first shows. This is why we should participate every once in a while—to boost the caliber of the group shows and to raise the bar for the emerging artists in Chicago. I don’t plan to participate every year, perhaps once every decade—?!

31.jpgNA: Do you see yourself continuing with your current body of work or have you been experimenting with any new directions?

JTA: A little of both. Everything still has continuity as I address form through texture and space, and the subject matter remains with the themes of memory and meaning, but I plan to use different mediums and imagery. I’m continuing with my “Their Lives” series of oil paintings and drawings. In addition, I’m currently working on the second part to my painting “The Writer”. This piece is “The Composer” so the subject is a music manuscript. I find this a natural progression from the words with the forms of letters and music notes creating similar movement and pattern. The final part to this triptych will be an audio piece. I’m also in the beginning phases of experimenting with images incorporated into the words. This is still in my sketchbook phase, so I’m not sure where it will end up.

NA: Who or what has influenced your work?

JTA: To begin with, I grew up in a very creative family—my dad is an architectural draftsman (so he always drew with a ruler). My mom used to draw with us and do goofy things like serving us green eggs and ham! In addition, they would regularly take us to museums. As a result, I have sisters in graphic design, sculpture, and architecture. My grandfather made kites and painted wonderful images on them. He studied ikebana in Japan and combined those skills with his carpentry in the US. The basement of the Edgewater brownstone in Chicago we grew up in had his studio with displays of these wild Japanese lamps with plastic floral and bird arrangements.

In college, I read Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, about Robert Irwin and have followed his art ever since. On my first solo trip to the east coast fresh out of college, I went to find inspiration in Boston, New York, and DC and was blown away by an Irwin installation. After walking into his room of light and scrim, I discovered how an atmosphere can heighten one’s awareness of color and form. I’ve also been interested in the writings of Milan Kundera—I’m intrigued by his ability to convey multiple thoughts and history without a necessarily linear or conclusive storyline, which was the inspiration for my painting “The Writer”. I recently finished reading the series of journals by Anne Truitt. I recommend Daybook, for it’s honest insight into the struggles of an artist living in the real world.

Some other artists that I’ve been influenced by are: Vincent van Gogh—seeing his show at the Met in 1986 and then the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have been inspirational. His use of paint was one reason I chose to take my first class in painting. Vija Celmins—I love the intimacy of her images and the subtlety of her sky and water pieces. Jim Dine—I’ve always admired his drawings. I saw a show in Montreal of his drawings from the Glyptothek and his show at the Block Museum of Art in 2006 was incredible. I’m moved by the energy in his lines and his ability to depict so much with an economy of rendering. Wolfgang Laib—I saw his retrospective at San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2002. I’m intrigued by his minimal materials with it’s intense process and spiritual presence.

In addition, there are multiple friends and peers that influence me tremendously. Being an artist can be a lonely path, but thanks to projects like Neoteric Art, we can find a supportive art community.