One Saturday night a couple of years ago, my husband and I were at home watching a movie when the phone rang. Wondering who might be calling us at such an unusual time, I picked up the phone.
“Hi, Tammy? It’s Brian,” said the deep voice on the line. “I was just going through my phone book and calling people I haven’t talked to in a while.”
We chatted for about half an hour and, when I hung up, I remember feeling I'd been touched by a rare act of kindness.
Brian Joiner, that voice on the other end of the line and an esteemed local artist, passed away Oct. 8 after being diagnosed with liver cancer several months ago.
I met Joiner at The Artery, a now-defunct nonprofit gallery in Newport, about nine years ago, soon after my husband and I moved to the Cincinnati area. I was immediately impressed by him. He was open, generous and professional, always willing to share advice with fellow artists.
The first work I saw by Joiner was an installation at The Artery that included a re-created “yellow brick road” down the center of the space, traversed by pairs of sparkling ruby slippers. The walls were hung with paintings that combined painted and collaged images of Dracula and Christ with those of slavery. He was always trying something new and as an African-American artist often addressed tough issues regarding race, politics and spirituality with irony and humor.
Joiner graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1985. He worked in the corporate world at Ethicon Endosurgery for 12 years before embarking on a successful career as a full-time artist. In the late 1990s, he completed a remarkable series of 100 portraits of African-American women from all walks of life.
This accomplishment undoubtedly led to one of his first honors, being named “Best Portrait Artist” in 1999 by Cincinnati Magazine.
The year 2004 was huge for him. He was one of just a few local artists selected from a national call for entries to complete a commission for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. His series of large-scale, black-and-white portraits of freedom fighters is now a part of the Center’s permanent collection.
That year, he also mounted an ambitious solo exhibition at the Weston Art Gallery in which he featured what became perhaps his most memorable imagery. Hundreds of “running ladies” invaded the centerpiece of the exhibition, a monumental copy of Seurat’s Pointillist masterpiece, “Sunday on the Island of Grand Jatte.” The formally dressed French bourgeoisie infiltrated by a crowd of no-holds-barred, nude black women running at full speed in high-heeled ruby slippers was a jubilant, indelible image. Joiner referenced The Wizard of Oz as a metaphor to conjure ideas about home — sometimes Africans being ripped from their homes to be sold as slaves, other times a more universal search for home, which is never as simple as tapping together one’s heels three times.
CityBeat interviewed Joiner that year about his life and his art, featuring his “running lady” with ruby slippers on the cover. (See "Forging a Weathered Soul," issue of Dec. 8, 2004.)
In his 2009 solo exhibition as Duncanson Artist-in-Residence at the Taft Museum of Art, Joiner created spectacular, circular Hudson River School-style landscapes populated by historical and contemporary figures as well as the occasional “running lady.” He created custom jeweled frames, cut the paintings apart and displayed them as almost exploding on the walls.
During a speech at a Taft reception, Joiner said, “My work is now truly becoming outside the box. When you look at it, you feel either your world is coming together or your world is falling apart.”
Joiner is pictured above touring his exhibition at the Taft in 2009. (Photo courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art.)
Earlier this year Joiner’s art was featured in the annual Black Creativity exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Most recently, he had been curating an exhibition called Chocolat, which will open as planned at Prairie in Northside on Dec. 3. One of his last requests was that a portion of proceeds from the exhibition’s sales benefit the Taft Museum of Art’s Duncanson Society.
Joiner was the recipient of many awards, including an Ohio Arts Council fellowship and a Cincinnati Individual Artist Grant. In 2007, he was the designated artist for the Ohio Governor’s Awards for the Arts. Winners received one of Joiner’s original works.
Joiner was never afraid to experiment, often developing new mixed-media painting techniques for each body of work. He was equally adept at delving into social concerns as he was at painting a pastoral Ohio River landscape or luscious blossoming tree in Eden Park. For this versatility and creativity, but especially for his ever-joyful presence, boundless energy and seemingly unlimited generosity, he will be missed by all whose lives he touched.
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