Jo Ann Callis was born in Cincinnati, OH and relocated to Los Angeles in 1961. She enrolled at UCLA in 1970 where she began taking classes with Robert Heinecken, among other prominent artists. She started teaching at CalArts in 1976 and remains a faculty member of the School of Art’s Program in Photography and Media. She has continued to photograph, draw, and paint, and her work has been widely exhibited in such venues as the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Hammer Museum; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and many others. In 2009 a retrospective of her work, Woman Twirling, was presented by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Callis has received three NEA Fellowships and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other awards and prizes.
We spoke on November 8, 2017 at Jo Ann's home in Culver City.
Paula: I'm curious about your path to photography. How did you come to decide that photography was going to be the way that you wanted to work?
Jo Ann: I was making art since I was a kid and loved it, but I had nothing to do with photography. Never looked at it. I didn't know there was such a thing as fine art photography. It was just not on my radar. I went to UCLA and I thought, "I have to major in something where I can make a living." I majored in design, and as a designer I needed to learn how to use a camera, and somebody said [Robert] Heinecken was very good, take his class. That's what I did.
It was back to fine art after that. I was like, "I love this. I love this. I love the magic in the darkroom that happens." I had something to say. I had ideas. It just opened up this world that I didn't know anything about. I was just so excited. That class was in my last year of undergrad, and right away I applied to grad school, and studied with him three more years.
Paula: Do you give a lot of credit to Heinecken as your teacher for your discovery of this way of expressing yourself?
Jo Ann: I do, because, and I really have tried to do this in my own teaching, he was so encouraging to me, and he never put people down. It taught me not to be so quick to judge. Everyone's got something they're contributing. The best thing he could say was, "This is very interesting," and that was high praise. He just allowed you and encouraged you to do what you wanted to do, and so I did just that, and went with it.
Paula: You went to UCLA grad school. Did you start showing right away?
Jo Ann: I did. In 1974 there was a show at the Woman's Building. A friend of mine who is a painter had a spot, and she couldn't do it. She said, "Would you like to take it?" and I agreed—it was that easy. I showed there even though I wasn't part of the Woman's Building. That was my first show when I was just beginning. I was still in school. They were all black and white, 35 millimeter. I started showing right away, but I was already in my 30s, and I just never stopped. I was getting in group shows and competitions and things like that. I was in G. Ray [Hawkins’] gallery and then it went on from there.
Paula: How has the galley scene changed?
Jo Ann: Maybe it's not so different in that young people are going to young galleries, and they're starting up with them. They have shows, and galleries sometimes have pop-up shows in different places. It's not so much the old system where collectors will come in and spend a morning talking about art and what's collectable and discussing it and learning from each other. New collectors look online a lot and they go to fairs. Having taught for a long time, I know many young artists, and they still want to show their work in galleries or spaces.
For instance, I have some work up this week downtown. My printer who is an artist has a nice new studio with his wife who was formerly was my student. They invited me to participate in a group show and I happily agreed. It was only up for a week. The people are using their studios as spaces and they're connected socially. That wasn't so common when I first started.
Paula: Is there something particular about photography that makes it different, makes it unique? What does photography offer that another form does not?
Jo Ann: What I loved about it at first is first it was relatively fast. I loved that you could get through a lot of ideas. With sculpture you have an idea and it would take forever. I also liked being able to start to see differently. You see things in the world, but you also know how that's going to translate on film, in black and white. You know what that's going to look like. Even when you look through a four by five and it's upside down, you learn how to see that way. Even with color, you can kind of visualize differently. I felt like I noticed things more.
Paula: Sounds like it just clicked for you.
Jo Ann: It just clicked. I had the right teacher and it was the right time. I was going through a lot of emotional things, like a divorce. I had to support myself and the children. It just was the right thing, and I could do it. Early successes I had really encouraged me that maybe this was possible, and I loved it so much I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do.
Paula: Some of your work is pretty provocative. Where do you think that comes from?
Jo Ann: It comes from who I am, I think. I'm attuned to sensuality, sexuality, expression, emotional things, psychological things. On a scale of very easygoing to more anxious, I'm on the higher end. Not crazy anxious, but I feel like I'm not as relaxed as other people I've met. Some people hide it more, and sometimes I think people are not as nonchalant as they seem to be.
Paula: For sure.
Jo Ann: I wondered what I could do that was different. I started seeing slides of everybody's work that I had never seen and I thought, "God, everything's been done." Then I just thought, "Do something that really means something to you. It'll be different because everybody is different and everybody has a way of doing things. Just follow yourself. Of course, you see things around you and you're influenced by that. It just gets in to reflect the times that you're living in. I think I always tried to say, "Well, what would please me? What feels good to do?" It's like playing make-believe, like acting things out, which was great fun, and then I liked to make it scary, because for me those two parts exist always together. There's the joy and the beauty, and the excitement, and the happiness, and then right around the corner on the flip side, there's worry and anxiety, and fear. They live together. We're going back and forth all the time.
Paula: Do you think that doing this work helps to alleviate fear? You're putting that out into the world. You're not hiding, or trying to keep it under wraps, you're putting it out there.
Jo Ann: I am, but I also figure that people relate to it, I mean not everyone likes it, so that's fine. Some people like it. I think people relate to it because they recognize something in themselves that I'm able to show. It's just like when you read a book and you think, "God, I'm glad somebody said it, I get it." You get really excited because you didn't even know you felt that way, but when you read it, "Yeah, that's it." I'm just trying to hit that. You don't have to exactly know why you understand it. Sometimes I find with poetry, I don't always understand every line, but I'm moved by it because it means something to me, and ...
Paula: It evokes something?
Jo Ann: Yes. I don't want my work to be too specific, but just to have a feeling, to suggest a feeling, or a mood, or a thought. Kind of like when you walk into a room you haven't been in and you get a feeling of some kind. I was trying to set things up so there would be a feeling to that space, so it could be a space in the mind. Not a specific space but more of a stage, a real place pared down to the essentials. I think that's what somehow makes them a little bit timeless.
In the'70s, I was given permission because it was in the culture. Women's lib protests, free love, the pill, sexual revolution, women's rights, women were allowed to show their sexuality and be sensual.
Paula: You’re a woman artist of this particular time and place. You've talked about sort of an undercurrent in the society that was happening when you were starting your career, but do you think that it held you back in terms of your career, and your sales, and your exhibitions?
Jo Ann: I think it started when I told my parents I wanted to be an artist and they said, "Okay, but you have to get your teaching degree." I said, "No, I don't want to do that. I can't do that. I just want to be an artist." Of course there weren't as many women artists shown, but I think what has held me back is my own inability to really run it as a full-time career, because I had kids, and because it wasn’t in my nature. I did keep trying to put it out there in spite of having a lot of self-doubts. I worked for the Gagosian Gallery in Westwood for a few months while I was in school. I remember packing up prints in a box to send out and I thought, "I should be doing this for myself. I don't want to work here and do this for other people. This is not good." I was in school and I just needed to have a little job, so that's what I did.
I knew I was never going to live in New York. My kids went to school here. I couldn't do it. I wasn't a young artist, 23 and fancy free to go to New York. I wasn't going to do that, like Patti Smith and Mapplethorpe. I was already in my 30s. It was just important that I kept having ideas and making art and getting them out there for people to see. I was invited to be in shows in various places and I always complied. Meanwhile I was raising a family and had other responsibilities. Some artists are lucky to have financial support to allow them to make their work full-time. It doesn't give them good ideas, but it really helps.
Jo Ann: I'm sure there was a glass ceiling. I was so busy just making my work and managing my responsibilities that I wasn't dwelling on that at all. I just thought, "What's my next idea? And how am I going to do it?" I couldn't be worried about, "Oh, I wish I could have a show at the Whitney." I thought it was great if I could just keep making the work. That was really true. I don't want to make it and just not show it though, it's important to me, but I wasn't in that arena. I didn't push to do that. I couldn't. It was impossible.
Paula: There's more than one way to reach an audience than through the Whitney and big shows and you've certainly done that.
Jo Ann: I do have people tell me they like my work.
Paula: Of course! I want to touch on teaching and what that does for you. (Jo Ann teaches at Cal Arts). What do you like about it?
Jo Ann: I didn't like anything about it for a long time, except I always loved my students. That was never a problem. I actually found it very interesting to see what they were thinking about and the art that they were making. Teaching classes was the bane of my existence because I was such a nervous wreck. I started to teach three years after I had learned how to use a camera. F-stops, shutter speeds that kind of thing. I didn't know anything. I was still in grad school, and I had an opportunity to teach at Cal Arts. I was just petrified and had no confidence. I needed a job, and I knew the only way I was going to survive was teaching. I took it, and was terrified for years.
As I got a little older, I became a little less anxious because I could see that I wasn't going to die. I would talk to myself, "It's going to be okay. You're not going to die." I would have quit if I could have, but I couldn't. I am so grateful now that I couldn't because now I don't teach any classes. I just see people one on one, and I love it. I love my students; they're just fantastic. I get to know them better because of my individual meetings with them. It's just wonderful. God, it's just great.
Paula: How nice.
Jo Ann: I mean, I meet people from very diverse backgrounds, and with art, you get down to what matters to you, and what's the work about. It's like the best possible social interaction because you're really having meaningful conversations.
Paula: I know that they appreciate you as a mentor, but it sounds like there's an exchange too, that it's not all just imparting wisdom.
Jo Ann: I just tell them, "This is just my opinion, and I happen to like this kind of work. I understand what you're trying to do.” Thank goodness I'm not the only one looking at their work, because we have several people, and they're all coming from different places, and some are extremely conceptual and some do politically or social relevant work about the border and immigration, about growing food, everything. I'm not appropriate, perhaps, for all students. Sometimes I say, "You know, I don't think I'm going to be able to help, but I can tell you what I think." I think they appreciate that honesty.
Paula: What does looking at the work of this generation tell you about this group of young people?
Jo Ann: In some ways, nothing has changed in that they want to make their work and they want it to be shown, usually. They care about that, so that's the same. They have so many more avenues now because there's all the social media. They can get it out there in that way. You can self-publish. There's a lot of installation, that's a big style that's going on now that wasn't so much before, and lots of different ways of hanging work and presenting work. It's not just this one great picture after the other as projects. With digital people are not making prints so much. It's rare that I look at prints. People are always showing me stuff on their computer. When they're having a show, they have to make prints. I encourage them to at some point make prints so they can move them around and see them in a better way when they're going to exhibit them.
I do think people are more socially conscious now in their work. The way that everyone is communicating so fast and showing images to each other. They're more tuned into everything, it seems.
Paula: Okay, I have one last question. I know you like to dance. Why? What is it?
Jo Ann: It's another form of expression. It's upbeat. It's very direct to use your body to express something. You don't need an intermediary like the camera, a computer and printer, an instrument to play... It's just your body. The sad thing is you can't do everything you want to do because your body isn't trained to do it. I grew up watching musicals, and I took dancing lessons, as every girl did in Cincinnati at a certain age, like eight. I loved it then. I learned the steps, and I had a little tutu. I was never limber, but I still did it, tap, toe, and ballet. I've never been with a man who liked to dance, so just stopped dancing for years. Then I joined classes at the Y and surprised myself that, "Wow, I can still do this and I can still learn the steps, and it's really good for my body and my spirit. It's just so much fun to watch others doing the same thing.
Paula: To watch a great dancer is sublime.
Jo Ann: Oh, isn't it? Pina Bausch sends me to the moon. It's just like looking at art work that makes you crazy. When I first saw her, I just thought, "I've never seen anything that hit me like this in the dance world." She talks about relationships and people. Some of it is classic modern dance, but some of it is dance theater and it really gets me. I just love it. And it puts me in a good mood.
Paula: Is there anything else you want to leave us with?
Jo Ann: I want to say this, and it's so cliché, but ... My niece, who is an artist, said, "If I didn't have art in my life, I don't know how I could live." She said, "If you didn't have that sensibility to appreciate art, and music, all the arts, what would life be like? It would be unbearably awful." Art enriches you. It makes you feel connected to other people; all the arts do. You feel a connection that you're part of this human thing, and other people are part of it as well. It's a feeling of connection, not isolation. It's worth any sacrifice. You just need to do it, or you need to look at it. It makes life joyous, even though it presents big problems much of the time. When all is said and done, it’s completely life affirming.
To see more of Jo Ann Callis's work visit http://www.rosegallery.net/joanncallis