Visiting Artist Joan Hall: Inspired by the Sea

Joan Hall, this year’s visiting artist at The Rivers School, grew up in Ohio and never saw the ocean until she was in graduate school. But, as she shared with students at an Upper School assembly on Tuesday, the ocean—its beauty, its fragility, and the environmental threats it faces—has been the subject of her art for decades.

“We have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean,” Hall told the audience, quoting John F. Kennedy. Hall makes her home by the sea, in Jamestown, RI, though she spent many years in landlocked St. Louis, as the first woman to hold an endowed professorship in the School of Art and Architecture at Washington University. Despite her Midwestern upbringing, she is a lifelong sailor, and as such, she has a front-row seat for observing the devastating effects of climate change and pollution.

Hall’s work begins in printmaking, but she takes the prints—most of them on paper she makes by hand—in unexpected directions, building them into massive, intricate three-dimensional pieces that sprawl over gallery walls or colonize swaths of floor space. They incorporate multiple layers of prints laminated with mylar and acrylic, along with bits of plastic detritus scavenged from the ocean, glass beads, and other found or created elements. 

In the Revers Center’s Baldwin Family Art Commons and in the Bell Gallery, in the Campus Center, Hall’s oversized works bear such titles as “Acid Ocean,” “Incoming Tide,” and “On the Reef,” reflecting her focus. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the pieces are airy, colorful, even whimsical, and full of fascinating detail. “Color is really important to me,” said Hall in a phone interview. “And experimentation is important to me.”

At Tuesday’s presentation, she spoke about the nuts and bolts of her process, describing how she works with various materials and the logistical challenges of hanging her work. She shared stories of personal experiences that influenced her work: Seeing the Cuyahoga River burn during her Ohio childhood, learning to sail on the “inland sea” of Lake Erie, enduring a freak “microburst” that sank her boat during a race in Rhode Island. Her talk was followed by a brief Q&A session, in which one student asked her about the role chemistry plays in her work.

“In printmaking, it’s all about chemistry,” replied Hall. “It’s about learning how to use materials and understanding their properties.”

Later, Hall paid a visit to a printmaking class taught by visual arts faculty member Nicole Winters, who also serves as the coordinator of the visiting artist program, now in its fourth year. There, Hall expanded on the specifics of her process, telling students just how she achieves the multi-textured quality of her work by applying a range of traditional and non-traditional techniques and materials. In a December visit, she also spoke to the AP Environmental Science class about how her work intersects with environmental issues. 

The visiting artist program has flourished at Rivers, thanks to the efforts of Winters and Visual Arts Department Chair Tim Clark. “Working with a visiting artist each year is hard work, but it’s so fulfilling, as each artist has contributed a distinctive voice and perspective that has enriched our campus community greatly,” said Winters. “I believe that all of Rivers has found Joan’s work particularly captivating.”

“What sets Joan apart,” she continued, “is her ability to address important issues like marine advocacy in a deeply personal manner, utilizing abstraction, layered details, and subtle clues to convey the overarching ideas she hopes to impart. Our students were especially interested in her unique approach, and many of our student artists have relayed how inspiring her work has been.”  
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