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Art AND: Kiran Joan

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Kiran Joan is effervescent. Before I met her in her humid Clayworks studio this past April, I had been instructed by three mutual friends, “You’ll like Kiran.” And it would be hard not to. The young artist is a people person, naturally inquisitive and excitable, she laughs easily and really wants to make you a chai tea when you show up for a studio visit.

Born in Muscot, Oman, Joan moved as a child with her family to another port city on the other side of the Arabian Sea, Mangaluru, India. She attended undergraduate school in Bangalore to study sculpture and then enrolled at the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Illustration MFA Program, which brought her to Baltimore in 2019. Currently, she works across ceramics and graphic design, a combination not many artists undertake but feels right for her. Joan says, “I feel like I’ve always been drawn to working with 3D material and always kept wanting to go back to it. I worked for a few years as a graphic designer and then I [thought] I’ve been drawing all my life—I want to do illustration.” 

After graduating with a BFA in Sculpture from Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat, College of Fine Arts, Bangalore, India in 2017, Joan received her MFA in 2021. Spending most of her graduate school career during the pandemic bonded her to her cohort, many of whom stayed in Baltimore and remain close today. Joan says of her colleagues, “The camaraderie within our group was extraordinary, and even after graduating, we maintain a strong connection through regular group critiques and sharing feedback on each other’s work. These individuals have truly become my people, my chosen family here in Baltimore.”

 

Kiran Joan, Garden of Love, ceramic

The Baltimore Clayworks artist in residence, who also teaches in MICA’s Continuing Education program, says that her favorite part of teaching is “helping students find their voice in their work. I love supporting them in the direction that feels right for them. Discovering one’s voice amplifies the strength of their illustration work.”

Joan’s own illustration practice has gone swimmingly despite any pandemic setbacks, perhaps in part because she has perfected the cold email. She says about networking, “I just like to put myself out there. I didn’t know what people would think when I reached out but I have this idea that you won’t know unless you try.” Trying (and a great portfolio of past projects) has gotten Joan’s work into the New York Times, Politico and HuffPost, amongst other publications. She has also created graphics and animations for Urgent Action Fund, the Creative Alliance and the Washington Post.

In animation and ceramic, Joan utilizes a limited color jewel-tone palette of pinks, black, lime green and indigo blue to show Indian women, sometimes in profile and sometimes straight on, typically from the shoulders up. Her characters ride bikes, pick flowers and generally engage in play, a tenet of Joan’s art practice. The representations are as textured as they are colorful— even Joan’s animations have an implied surface to them that makes them feel more real. These depictions are rarely one person, Joan prefers to think of them as “as many people coming together” to make a new composite. 

For most, a successful freelance illustration and graphic design practice and teaching would be more than enough to keep busy but Joan’s ceramic practice is also important to her. She’s partnered with other ceramists to have them throw mugs and plates she can illustrate (Joan is not a fan of throwing on the wheel). And lately she’s been making large functional pieces, constructing tables, fountains and stools from clay. This summer Joan will complete a two week residency at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts in Maine themed around Collectivity and led by artists Armando Minjárez, Michelle Im & Raheleh Filsoofi.

At Clayworks we discussed community, the power of clay to give and take away and why Joan thinks rock climbing is a perfect hobby for artists.

Joan’s solo show of her residency at Clayworks opens July 8th.

Kiran Joan, portrait by Justin Tsucalas

ARTIST: Kiran Joan
STUDIO VISIT: April 13, 2023
PLACE: Baltimore Clayworks, Mt. Washington
AGE:  27
WEARING:  A black tee, Corduroys from Everlane and my most beloved Doc Martens Adrian loafers 

What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading?

I just finished Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Esté which urges us to nurture our inner beings and embrace our intuition. It speaks to the liberation from societal expectations and encourages us to reconnect with our primal instincts, symbolized by the inner animal. Through rich storytelling and research, the book empowers individuals to trust their authentic selves and embark on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment.

I’m currently reading Olivia Liang’s Lonely City that explores the themes of loneliness, art, and urban life. It’s making me reflect on the importance of fostering genuine connections and how art can alleviate loneliness. 

You attended MICA’s Illustration MFA program from 2019-2021. What was it like going to grad school in the pandemic? Do you feel especially bonded to your cohort?

I am a huge fan of my ’21 cohort, and I hold deep admiration for our incredible faculty, Whitney Sherman and Kim Hall. School was obviously challenging during the pandemic. I used to paint a lot before and switched to digital media soon after. In my first year at MICA, I was primarily painting and using analog material. Our grad program comes with a wonderful open studio space and I enjoyed using watercolor paints at the studio. I’ve been using watercolors since I was a kid, so it’s more intuitive for me now. 

Once we were under lockdown, I got a scanner and tried to paint. But I realized then that everything was going to be virtual even more henceforth. It led me to push myself to learn animation over that summer and build my digital illustration skills even more.

 

Kiran Joan, Garden of Love

Since graduating, you’ve been very successful at getting clients. Is there any general advice you would give to illustrators who are looking for work?

It’s necessary to come up with a portfolio that you’re proud of. But also I had to hustle a lot soon after graduating because I had to get an artist visa [to stay in the U.S.] and you have only one year to prepare for it. I just kept sending emails to Art Directors and put myself out there. I think putting yourself out there as much as possible is really important. 

I’m gonna press you a little bit on what you mean by that. Were you emailing people or networking in person? Do you have the opportunity to meet people who can hire you here in Baltimore? 

I always reach out to people via email. I used to send at least 10 emails a day, but now I send maybe 10 emails a month. Find ways to connect with people who are in the industry. If you can do portfolio reviews, that’s a good way to interact with Art Directors and build good relationships. Building those connections are so important. I think of myself as a social person. I love hanging out with people in person, but something about sending out emails I really enjoyed.

Recently you’ve become interested in making functional ceramic pieces like plates, cups and even larger furniture pieces like tables, chairs and fountains. What unique challenges do you see in making functional pieces and is that why it’s exciting for you?

Everyday objects can be mundane, lacking playfulness and I’m interested in the idea of adding a playful quality into our everyday lives. One particular challenge I’ve encountered is creating structurally integrated pieces that are not only visually appealing but also practical for everyday use.

This very notion of using a fragile material in functional ways, much like we do with mugs and plates, fascinates me. I’ve been following the works of artists such as Kelsie Rudolp and Austin Coudriet, who have been pushing the boundaries by crafting furniture out of ceramic [material].

I’m always pushing myself to outdo my previous work, even if it means stumbling along the way. But I find the whole process enjoyable, and there’s always something valuable to learn from it in the end.

 

Could you talk a little bit about the female character I’m seeing repeated in your ceramic pieces? Is it the same character or do you sort of picture them as a kind of chorus of women?

It’s a little bit of both because they all look more or less the same. I called them the Friendship Mugs.

The friendship mug has really been that aha moment for me. Where the hair acts as a handle for the mug – the thick black hair is linked to representing the shiny and rich hair of Indian women. There is a tradition of little girls having their hair oiled regularly by their mothers and grandmas. Although I have short hair now and so does my mum, she oiled my hair as a child and it is a special experience to feel connected and loved. 

I also see them as many people coming together, like the sense of community. Back home in India, the sense of community comes naturally. It’s not something that you have to work towards, you’re just brought into this community and sometimes there’s festivities happening that bring people together. After I moved to the US there’s not as much of that. So I want to build that idea into my work, and create a sense of community. I feel they’re a fierce group of women, you know?

There is a piece I made of my roommate, Akshita Chandra during the pandemic. When we would go to grocery stores for food, that was the only time we would have a little party, dancing in the aisles. I made another piece, after doing a contact improv workshop recently where we were learning about this idea of sloughing. We were all pretending we’re just resting on each other. So I liked the idea of the figures resting and looking at each other. 

 

Kiran Joan, Fountain Lady, ceramic
Kiran Joan, portrait by Justin Tsucalas

What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for by your friends?

Something I picked up during my time living by myself in Bangalore, where I made a cup of chai every morning. I’ve happily taken on the role of being the one to prepare chai for roommates, partners and friends when they visit. 

You’ve been teaching in MICA’s Continuing Education Program and Clayworks for the last two years, what do you enjoy most about being a teacher?

I taught a graduate elective course called “Creating the .gif” in the MFA Illustration program at MICA. From there, I expanded my teaching to Continuing Education and Clayworks. My courses, “Illustrating Gifs” and “Animating Stories,” blend illustration and animation. Creating a safe and supportive space is crucial for students to learn and flourish. I emphasize that there are no right or wrong ways to express oneself, fostering an environment where students can freely share their voice while learning new techniques.

Do you have any hobbies? Or do you fail at hobbies a lot? By that I mean, does your hobby then become part of your art practice?

I have been rock climbing a lot recently! It’s a really fun challenging activity that I fail at often. If I’m doing well at work, rock climbing shows me where my place is – on the ground. Basically, it’s a very humbling experience.

It’s also a metaphor you know? That you won’t always win – that failure might sometimes be even more important than success. There’s so much to learn in the process if you don’t get a route right the first time. Are you using your feet enough, could you twist your hips or angle your body to reach out better towards the hold or maybe you just need to build arm strength and that requires patience and practice. The process of climbing teaches valuable lessons about self-reflection and adaptability, urging us to analyze our approach and make adjustments.

Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it?

The neighborhood bird bun at Ekiben in Hampden and croissants at On the Hill Cafe in Bolton Hill.

What’s the best career advice you received? How about the worst?

If you are passionate about what you do and you’re good at it, money will follow. Don’t worry about what the world is doing around you, focus on what you love doing and everything else will follow. On difficult days it’s hard to believe that’s good advice. But it’s fantastic advice given by my father I strive to live by.

 

Kiran Joan, Lina, a side table, ceramic
Kiran Joan, portrait by Justin Tsucalas

In addition to your ceramic work and teaching, you support yourself with graphic design and have worked for a number of major brands in the last couple years. How do you relate the graphic design work to the ceramic pieces? Are they totally different?

With my drawings and illustrations, I represent nature and people in surreal spaces, to create spaces of comfort. [When I was drawing] I was thinking a lot about home and the lush green environments that I had when I was in Mangalore, India. But I also like working on these ideas of sexuality and how that could be represented in nature and India has a lot of censorship around those ideas. So, that’s what I was doing for my thesis project. I did interviews with friends and how they struggled with ideas of sexuality as well. 

Once I got into grad school, when I was doing illustration work, it was all on the computer. Working as an editorial illustrator is really fun and my dream job but the experience can be isolating. I was always at home. So when I came into doing ceramics, I felt like I just wanted to play and not really have too many rules or too many strict ideas of what I want to work towards and just see what comes out naturally.

Do you believe in astrology and if so, what insights can your signs give our readers into your personality and mindset?

I’m a Sagittarius – basically I’m adventurous and want my hands in many pies. I enjoy exploring various interests and pursuing different paths simultaneously, hoping they will ultimately lead to success in the long run.

What would your teenage self think about the direction of your life so far?

She would have never expected to do any of this and I think she would be really proud. 🙂

 

Kiran Joan, Lajja, ceramic

Portraits of the artist by Justin Tsucalas for Issue 15: Migration

This story is from Issue 15: Migration, available here.

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