Toronto-based artist Joan Andal Romano questions public and private domains – what to share with the world and what to keep as hers alone. Vulnerability is at the core of her practice. She reads magazines from back to front and also views people in this way; when her mindset is free and heart is open, strangers become friends and indifference to encompassment. For Romano’s series Our Beautiful Flaws, she stitches painted papers amongst her moments typed on vellum. She does not cut threads neatly nor does she hide the flawed seams.
A: In Issue 100 of Aesthetica we feature Our Beautiful Flaws Situation 1. This piece is mixed media and stitch on unstretched canvas, and although it uses approaches and techniques found in your previous work, it also seems a forward departure from them – what do you think?
JAR: I am experimenting with stitch among my mixed-media techniques. Before COVID-19, it was a tradition for me to celebrate my birthday with my family and in the same weekend have an art day with close friends. One weekend, my friends brought over sewing machines and it was an eye-opener for me. The day is filled with inspiration as we all push the envelope of our creative selves. The following day I took my sewing machine out of the box and began experimenting with stitch on different materials such as unstretched canvas and linen.
A: What do you mean by “situation”? What are the three situations?
JAR: These frozen moments in time are actually taken straight out of my journals. I am a very private individual, but these are brief write-ups and if one actually reads the entries typed on vellum, one can get the gist of the “situation”.
A: Do you think the Our Beautiful Flaws series is the truest representation of you as an artist or do you think it is simply a part of your evolution, with further experimentation on the horizon?
JAR: I change every year, every season, every day. My core values are always the same and I live by principles. However, my visions of colour, material, substrate and process are always changing, always evolving. I need to be always experimenting, it is part of my growth process as an artist. It’s unfortunate we live in these environments where mistakes are not welcome. I wonder if people actually realise that in the art process, for example, a mistake is the jumping-off point to inspirational work.
A: When did you begin to integrate words into your work? Are the words in your art always personal, from journals for example?
JAR: Our Beautiful Flaws series is where I used words for the first time. I am an avid reader and I know that words have power. My journal entries actually carry a certain energy to them. The moments captured in Our Beautiful Flaws series are all about falling in love.
A: You also write poems and short stories – do you think that you’ll develop these further, separate to your art practice?
JAR: I believe so. I have friends who are published authors. They all have this gift in writing. I am nowhere near their level of expertise but perhaps one day I will finish a book. I recall one day having acupuncture done and the therapist must have reset an internal button because once I came home, I went straight to my laptop and I wrote 150 pages. The draft pages are still in a special box waiting for me to write the next few chapters.
A: How does the texture of paint differ from the other materials that you use?
JAR: Acrylic paint has a variety of consistencies, they can be heavy or light (water-based). Then there are the gel mediums, the powdered paint colours, fabric and different textures of Japanese papers. They all speak to one another. Actually, colours drive my creative direction first, then the texture of various materials follow.
A: When integrating materials, how much of the process is planned and how much is accidental or perhaps “magical”?
JAR: Nothing is planned. I keep an art journal full of ideas, full of quick sketches so that I do not lose the thought, but for the most part I allow the creative process to develop on its own. There are times I rotate the art piece, at other times I use different tools, apply the paint spontaneously and just watch how things unfold. I elevate my thoughts to a new level and try to live in that space where things will just happen without over-effort on my part.
A: You also explore the possibilities of colour – tell me about Red + Tissue.
JAR: The original layer of Red + Tissue was not red at all. If one looks closely at this particular art piece, they will notice several layers of paint and various materials. The final paint colour is red and a wet-on-wet technique was used at the very end of the creative process. I soaked a fine piece of Japanese paper with water and applied it to the wet painted red canvas. The effect was eye-catching. The energy of Red + Tissue lies in the layers.
A: Some of your work, such as Dear Lola and the Life is Art (Alice Series) includes portraiture created in a specific style – why is this? And what is it about portraiture that appeals to you?
JAR: There is a story behind Dear Lola. It is my mother whom we all call Lola. It’s about her wedding and the poetry that was written and shared between her and my father. Life is Art (Alice Series) is about me. My pregnancies were high-risk. I was asked to stay in bed during the final trimester for two of my children and so I had several visions of myself visiting all the art galleries and museums wearing my all-time favourite flower dress. I could not visit them physically and so I dreamt as I counted the days. It is not that portraiture appeals to me; I was inspired to paint the story and the person.
A: How was the creation of La Vie Est (Life Is)… different from your other figurative works?
JAR: I read a lot of books. Every Sunday I watch the CBS Sunday news when folding laundry and I came across a segment where they featured Diana Gabaldon’s book series called Outlander. I was instantly hooked. I read all eight books. After reading all eight books I was inspired to paint and so I painted Claire, one of the main characters. I corresponded with Diana and shared the art piece with her. An excerpt of Diana’s response is “What a fascinating piece! And such an interesting story behind it – I’m honored to have had some small part in its genesis.”
A: During your travels in Italy and you mused on the collision of past and present. How has this inspired you?
JAR: I am still processing my experience when I travelled to Italy. I stayed in Mantova and it was like time was on pause and “life” was allowed to unfold in its own timing – “life” had control of the remote control. I made new friends and we write to one another. I am definitely going back to visit. To me Italy is not a location or a destination, it was an experience I will cherish until my memory fails me. I wrote an entry after visiting Monte Isola for the first time:
“As I walk down this narrow cobblestone alley, my eyes travel to the grey stones, stone one would think would be sharp but no they are smooth. The stones are smooth from all the dreamers walking over them, sleepwalking actually. They live on this dream island; away from the mainland, the busy city, linked only by a body of water and a few boats. Along the alley are doors, beautiful wooden doors, some with iron bars, my eyes move to the rust on the iron bars. There is a deep green colour; the green can be found on the flowers that line up all the second-floor windows. I wonder if these dreamers know how beautiful their ‘path to home’ truly is. I see older couples walking and some are riding bicycles; they are holding grocery bags. For some reason, all the plastic utility bags are a light green shade; similar to sea glass. I try to look at their faces without being too obvious in my curiosity. They have this sense of peace about them. As if they know the end of their ‘path to home’ is near; they can sense home. I bless these dreamers for they understand what it means to live simply yet deeply. I bless these dreamers for they showed me a glimpse; a brief yet unforgettable glimpse, of how life can be. Their silent dreams coming to fruition.”
A: How do you find the process of creating architectural compositions – Town Hall, for example, versus work such as the Our Beautiful Flaws series?
JAR: This particular commissioned artwork was meaningful. I worked as a structural engineer for the town for almost eight years. A colleague was retiring and a dear friend of mine commissioned me to create an art piece of Town Hall, where we all worked together, as a gift. Using a ruler and making sure the perspective was correct was a challenge. I am a self-taught artist. I never attended a fine arts school to study visual arts. It all worked out in the end. There is a significant difference between my commissioned art and the work I freely create for myself first. This is the reason I only agreed to three commissions to date. I have to be really inspired by the person asking.
A: Does your background and work as a structural engineer influence your cityscapes? Does your work as an engineer influence how you work as an artist or is it a foil?
JAR: They go hand-in-hand. I do not allow the conflict to sit for too long. Due to my analytical side I see a lot of squares and straight lines. Due to my artistic side, I observe the smallest of details in everything I see and experience. I had a corner office in downtown Toronto, on the 18th floor, at one time in my career; the office had floor-to-ceiling glass and my view was the cityscape. Every night I would swivel my office chair around and for a few minutes count my blessings. If I paint buildings, it is because they are embedded so deeply in my memory bank.
A: What is it about the urban nightscape that you find inspiring?
JAR: I am an introvert but I always had a few close friends in all the chapters of my life. I remember going out a lot in my teenage years. The best times were when my close friends and I would walk the streets of downtown Toronto and all the bars were closing down and the city was sleeping. I always looked up at the moon and the stars. We shared stories and corny jokes and basically laughed at ourselves and all of our shortcomings. The buildings blanketed us and it was like they were listening to us – they witnessed all the laughter and innocence.
A: How do these works differ from works such as Fields, Straw into Gold and The Secret Garden series?
JAR: My father was an office manager by day and a Boy Scout leader during his spare time. I was raised to live outdoors: camping, hanging out by the fire pit, fishing, relaxing by the docks. My father taught me how to appreciate nature. When I paint fields of flowers and trees, these visions all stem from my childhood. My husband is also a very “let’s go outside, let’s get lost, let’s just drive and get lost, do we have enough water and food so we can get lost” type of person. There is something about nature that draws in both my father and my husband. I am just the observer who watches them with adoration. The cityscapes and the fields of flowers both inspire me.
A: The Apartment seems to combine the urban and natural elements seen in your other works – what do you think?
JAR: I love The Apartment series. When my siblings and I went away to university my parents moved often to different apartments. After a while they settled into one. They briefly stayed in one condominium where the rule was for all the residents to use white curtains only; my parents’ curtains were this beautiful orange-brown colour. Management always wrote them warning letters. If one looks closely at The Apartment (no.1), all the curtains have different patterns and they are all colourful, except one that is grey and white. I also made sure each balcony included colourful hanging towels and blankets. Each balcony is like a painting in itself.
A: What do you mean when you say “Keep the voices at bay and just create”?
JAR: I believe we are our own worst critic. We are the ones that stop our very own creative process. We doubt ourselves and our abilities. The older we get, the louder the messages are. I am not sure why that happens. Often, I play music just to drown out all of the negative thoughts.
A: What is a typical day like for you? Has your schedule changed greatly since early 2020?
JAR: We are all working from home now. We were renovating an older house but all the renovations have ceased due to COVID-19. We use the empty house as a makeshift office. There is a physical separation between my work and my home. I noticed the working hours are longer but I am trying to control that. I watch my children shift from online learning to in-person (cohort schedule) then back to online. Their lives are very different and they are not experiencing “life” to its fullest but we understand that safety for all is paramount. I miss seeing my parents and close friends. We talk on the phone every day. I know deep down that “this too will pass” and things will work out. I try to create art but other priorities take over and to me this is perfectly fine.
A: What does the rest of 2021 look like for your art practice?
JAR: My fourth Toronto solo exhibition was postponed. A lot of art galleries are not doing well financially during this time. I will continue to work on new artwork this year. We are planning to take a road trip out east, perhaps make our way to Newfoundland or Prince Edward Island. There is still so much of Canada we need to visit and explore. These are places where inspiration finds you. A long road trip is just what we need this summer. I know I will want to paint during the trip and so I will pack an art bag full of mini wood pallets, my paints and paintbrushes, art journal and sketchbook.
Images: all images are courtesy of the artist.
The work of Joan Andal Romano appears in the Artists’ Directory in Issue 100 of Aesthetica. Click here to visit our online shop.