Catching Up With Joan Cox, Winner of the 2022 NOT REAL ART Grant cover

Catching Up With Joan Cox, Winner of the 2022 NOT REAL ART Grant

Joan Cox has kept busy since winning the NOT REAL ART grant in 2022. “Right after I won the grant, I think I was in about 20 exhibitions, all in one year,” says the Baltimore-based painter, who departed for the nation’s capital with her wife and daughter in tow soon after our interview. There was yet another exhibition to attend—this one she wouldn’t miss for the world.

“After winning this grant, I also applied for the Portraits exhibition with the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington D.C. (GMCW),” says Joan. “My work was selected as one of nine portrait paintings where they commissioned custom lyrics, music, and dance for each painting.” The selected painting, “Night Hunger,” portrays Joan and her wife wrapped in an afghan blanket on their couch, an intimate scene that inspired GMCW member Richard Clawson to compose “For Us.” Performed at the Kennedy Center by GMCW and 17th Street Dance, “the song is about a whole universe happening in this room behind closed doors.” Learn more about the Portraits project here.

Lesbian painter Joan Cox joins us to discuss her two-year whirlwind of residencies, exhibitions, and awards since winning our biennial grant for artists.
‘Night Hunger’

The performance comes after a two-year whirlwind of exhibitions, residencies, and awards. Joan’s creative relationship with Michael Swank, director of Art Gallery Studios, prompted an online solo exhibition, a group exhibition in Mexico, and an online residency with other like-minded LGBTQ+ artists. The work these artists produced during the residency appears in Vol. 4 of The Bureau of Queer Art, a print magazine curated and produced by Michael Swank.

The corresponding exhibition, Pink Tide, features two of Joan’s paintings—“Duo Totem” and “I Was Once a Tomboy”—and runs through Aug. 3, 2024, at Damas Gallery in Ventura, CA. Download a free PDF of the The Bureau of Queer Art: Pink Tide here.

Joan also served as a judge for the NOT REAL ART grant this year, bringing her work with us full circle. “I don't know how I won this grant.” She laughs, marveling at the exceptional submissions from our largest pool of applicants to date. “I'm really honored, and I feel excited about my work, but wow, the quality of work that I personally reviewed was amazing.” Despite her busy schedule, Joan has no plans to slow down. Later this summer, her solo show Totem opens at the International Art and Artists Hillier Gallery in Washington, D.C. “A totemic portrait is like your spirit animal,” says Joan, explaining that most of her work is symbolic. “It’s like your inner spirit coming through your portrait.”

Scroll through to read our interview with Joan before Totem opens on Fri. Aug. 2, 2024.

What have you been up to since winning our grant two years ago?

Joan Cox: Since the award, I’ve been following a lot more opportunities online. I've been getting accepted into almost every show I apply for, which is amazing. To the point where I'm like, wait, is it my work now? Is it culture? I think culturally, LGBTQ+ work and figurative work are at the forefront right now and are desired. When I search for “call for entries,” and I search on “portrait,” “figurative,” “queer,” “lesbian,” and “women,” I'm getting one opportunity a month, whereas, before it'd be once a year that something might align with my work.

How did you use the funds?

JC: I'd been working in my home studio for the past 10 or 12 years. I had an attic space with two rooms and a basement space where I worked on paper, but the scale of my work has been getting bigger and bigger. It was really tight [in the attic], so I got an outside studio space in a massive warehouse. The grant covered a year's rent on an outside space and enabled me to work on multiple large paintings at a time.

An excerpt from Joan Cox’s spread in ‘The Bureau of Queer Art, Vol. 4: Pink Tide’

What trends are you seeing in the art world? What trends are you seeing in queer art?

JC: The overall trend in the art world, besides figurative, is specifically figurative Afrofuturism work. Queer art is still only taking a tiny little slice of the pie in terms of attention-grabbing museum shows and bigger shows in general. But 10 or 15 years ago, I searched everywhere, and you just got the usual sort of photographers from the ’70s. Until Instagram exploded, it just wasn’t easy to find other queer artists making anything valuable.

The work happening now, and the work being discovered by [Michael Swank] in particular, is immensely deep personal work in all different mediums. It's not just photography. I feel like queer art only used to be photography or a little sketching. I mean, face it, to paint somebody who's gender neutral is tough because you make a painting and everyone thinks, that's a boy or that's a girl, and you can't paint someone in between. When you see someone in real life, I think the human brain instantly picks up all different kinds of cues about gender identity or ethnicity, and when you try to capture that in a painting, it becomes difficult. So I understand the prevalence of photography, but it’s good to see painters and artists working with fiber and sculpture and exploring their trans identities and even just physical bodies changing. There's just a plethora of really, really good work happening.

Tell us about your residency with the Bureau of Queer Art.

JC: It was 12 weeks. We met online every week for an hour and a half, and two or three of the artists each week would present their work, where they're at, and what they're working on. And then all culminated in [Pink Tide]. But my work is big oil paintings with lots of layers that take a year at a time. When the residency began, I was sort of in the last stretch of a nine-foot-tall painting to get comments and some guidance on just little things, but it’s so important because I'm working solo in my studio, I'm working behind closed doors. Meeting with other artists was like grad school again, which was great because I had these other artists at different levels.

You meet with a curated group. [Michael Swank is] very good at curating a group of artists who will be helpful to one another in the type of work they do rather than whatever random six people apply this cycle. Some are younger, some are older, some are trans, some are men, but we're all in this queer bubble. So, we all have similarities in what we want to communicate in our shared stories.

Lesbian painter Joan Cox joins us to discuss her two-year whirlwind of residencies, exhibitions, and awards since winning our biennial grant for artists.
‘I Was Once a Tomby’

As someone who’s been on both sides of the grant process, what advice would you give to emerging and first-time applicants?

JC: It's just a technicality, but make sure you have a good photograph. I tend to hire art photographers because my work has a shine on it, but sometimes, when it's last minute, and it's still in the studio, and I've got to get it out the door, I just do my best with a cell phone. But take a good photograph, crop it, take the extra background out, and try to present the work with its own story behind it. Don't put in a drawing of the beach along with a painting of a spoon and something else that's unrelated. Make sure your work is related. Really consider your work and make sure it's related and that it's all one body of work so that it can come across clearly to the judges.

What advice would you give to young queer artists who are finding their place in the art world?

JC: It's so much easier these days than ever. Just be on Instagram all the time following calls for art and entries. Search all the time for opportunities to get your work out there to get seen and, if nothing else, to meet other queer artists where you can maybe get that feedback. Yeah, it's tough, but it's easier than it has ever been right now. It's always tough. I always tell people, family especially, it's like trying to be a rockstar.

There are a thousand ways to do it. You can be the craft artist who goes to all the fairs every weekend, drags all their stuff around, and sells a hundred pieces a week. Or you could be like me, painting for a year, showing it six times, and still not even selling it. There's every different kind of place and space, and you have to maneuver them and decide who you want to be. Do you want your work in galleries? Do you want your work in people's houses? Do you want your work in front of the public? Are you just making it for yourself? Do you want to make one thing, repeat it, and sell it? You have to figure it out.

Lesbian painter Joan Cox joins us to discuss her two-year whirlwind of residencies, exhibitions, and awards since winning our biennial grant for artists.
Joan Cox (center) enjoys Pink Tide’s opening night at Damas Gallery with her daughter Alexis (l) and wife Mare.

Joan Cox: Website | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn | Download Pink Tide

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of Joan Cox.

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Morgan Laurens

Morgan Laurens (she/her/hers) is NOT REAL ART’s editor in chief. Morgan is an arts writer from the Midwest who enjoys saying “excuse me” when no actual pardon is needed. She specializes in grant writing and narrative-based storytelling for mission-driven artists and arts organizations. With a background in printmaking, pop culture, and classic literature, Morgan believes a girl’s best friend is the pile of books on her bedside table.