Meet our Chicago Studio Coordinator: Joshua With

May 15, 2020 By andreana-donahue

In early March we welcomed Joshua With as our Chicago Studio Coordinator – we’re so thankful to have him in our community! Since joining Arts of Life he has been an integral member of the team, especially in light of our unexpected need to create and further develop thoughtful virtual programming during the coronavirus pandemic. Originally from a West suburb of Chicago, he graduated with a B.A. in Community Art from Wheaton College in 2017. Joshua recently responded to questions on his background, experience with Arts of Life so far, and his own studio practice from studio artists Danny Frownfelter, Steve Harhaj, Aaron Kleeblatt, Alysha Kostelny, and Chicago Studio Art Manager Andreana Donahue. You can see more of his artwork here.

Steve Harhaj: Where have you worked before?

Joshua With (JW): In Chicago, I interned at Opera-matic, where I performed a variety of administrative tasks and worked on several interactive community celebration events. Then at Voice of the City I taught the music and movement portion of a high school theater program. After graduating college, I moved to Buffalo, NY where I worked at the State University as an administrator in their Graduate Medical Education Office. Most recently, after moving back to Chicago, I worked for the Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam at a pop-up shop and exhibit in Northbrook, IL. I was the point person and tour guide for the pop-up’s exhibit of exact 3-dimensional replicas of Van Gogh paintings where you could actually touch his brushstrokes for the first time.

Alysha Kostelny (ALK): What made you want to work at Arts of Life?

JW: Several parts of my life in Buffalo pointed me toward Arts of Life. I developed a strong friendship with someone with an intellectual disability and was/am very moved by the lessons I learned through our friendship. My partner was a teacher’s assistant at a school for children with autism, where she led her class’s art activities. I was inspired by some of the work they produced, and the experiences she had at that school. I attended several exhibitions for an organization similar to Arts of Life in Buffalo and loved the work and curation of those shows. When I moved to Chicago, I immediately started looking for similar organizations and began following Arts of Life. The more I learned about Arts of Life’s model, the more I knew I wanted to join this community.

ALK: What do you like about working in the studio and with artists with disabilities?

JW: I’m really excited by Arts of Life’s emphasis on being a community of equality where every voice is valued and artist leadership development is emphasized. I love getting to witness the diversity of art making practices in the studio and encourage each artist to further pursue their artistic voice. Working with artists with disabilities teaches me to be a more authentic version of myself and place more value in vulnerability and open communication. It also inspires me to experiment and trust myself more as an artist. I’m really grateful to work in a community of compassionate, funny, thoughtful people that are a joy to be around.

Andreana Donahue (AD): Have you always been interested in art and art-making? Can you talk a bit about your path to becoming an artist?

JW: I have been a musician for most of my life, playing percussion and singing in groups since elementary school, but I did not consider making visual art until part way through college. I started out with sociology/urban studies, and then took a break from school during my sophomore year. During the break I lost the desire to return to academia, while creativity became increasingly important to me. One day I was in the school’s art building rehearsing music with one of the professors when a friend told me I should check out a student’s senior printmaking exhibition. While viewing the art in the exhibition I had an epiphany that I could and wanted to make art. I met the community art professor the following week and felt a strong sense of belonging, so I returned to study community art. I then fell in love with sculpture and was allowed to hold a solo studio exhibition in addition to my senior community art project.

Aaron Kleeblatt (AMK): What artists inspire you?

JW: I love Tara Donovan’s ability to distill the essence of an everyday mass produced object and transform it into something mesmerizing and seemingly natural. I’m challenged by the ways Doris Salcedo and Theaster Gates dig into personal and communal stories and materials and produce sensitive empathetic work that is widely accessible and affecting. I’m moved by Van Gogh’s pushing the boundaries into modern art, and his commitment to painting otherwise overlooked subjects with dignity. I’m also often excited by the bold and playful energy found in Matisse and Chagall’s work, and lately I’ve been thinking about Andy Warhol and classic graphic designer’s Albert Schiller and Fortunato Depero in relation to the prints I’m working on.

Andreana Donahue: Over the years you’ve worked across various media. Can you tell us about your process and choice of materials?

JW: I believe creativity is an inherently vulnerable act, and it is important that I implicate myself in the work I make. Materials are often the initial driver of a piece/process, and I’m inclined towards those that are familiar and significant. I noticed that much of my early work focused on issues of health, healing, and self-care, and I started being drawn to medical materials. While prescription medication is often stigmatized and provocative in our culture, it is an ordinary reality of daily life for me as someone with two chronic illnesses. With pill bottle caps in particular, I’m interested in something simultaneously familiar and foreign. So I’m using that material – something that I touch on a daily/weekly basis, that is mass produced by a machine, to engage in an unusual means of producing traditional art-making processes like printmaking and ceramic molding.

Danny Frownfelter: Why do you like black and white? What are the pennies about?

JW: I think I’m drawn to black and white because of the simplicity and the clarity that comes from the contrast of the two. With my current series of prints/drawings with prescription materials I like that the black archival ink pad results in a tone similar to a cheap printer or typewriter, reflecting the mechanical nature of my printing materials. The pennies/tokens are a continuing piece that I’ve installed in 4 locations. I cut and press these ceramic coin-like objects using a pill bottle and pill bottle caps, and then spray paint them gold. Visitors are then invited to take a token with them as a reminder of self-worth, a symbol of healing, and evidence that self-care requires time and effort. 

AMK: Where did you get the inspiration for having matzo bread in your work?

JW: My mentor Leah and I helped another of my mentor’s, Larycia, think through an act of protest and performance art regarding the murder of Laquan McDonald. Larycia wore a shirt with 16 holes burned into it, symbolizing the 16 shots fired at Laquan, and referencing the rows of burned holes in Matzo bread, also called the “Bread of Affliction” by people of Jewish and Christian faiths. Later that semester, Larycia was suspended and eventually had to leave my college after wearing a hijab and speaking publicly as an act of embodied solidarity with Muslim women. Larycia taught that our physical bodies and actions matter, so my 2017 installation piece honored her teaching and sacrifice, while also referencing the Christian practice of Eucharist which emphasizes embodied solidarity.

AD: You’ve also coordinated or worked on several community art projects. Can you share your perspective on collaboration and building community?

JW: I really enjoy and learn a lot from working on community art projects. Working on artist-made public installation pieces created with initial community input teaches me the importance of art fostering belonging and ownership in a community. Working on projects that directly engage the community in the art-making process teaches me that the process can be more important than the end product, and it’s critical that everyone’s voice and participation is valued and has a real stake in the work’s outcome. That valuing of process over product is often at odds with the high-art hierarchy, and I think we have a lot to learn from those projects and participants, and the tension that comes with that approach. We meet ourselves in different and important ways when we take on the difficult and rewarding work of collaboration.

Images (top to bottom): 1. Joshua With, 2. Untitled, 2020, ink print/drawing on paper using medical prescription materials, 14″ x 11″, 3. With facilitating a virtual studio visit with artist Daniel Warren Johnson.