“I enjoy taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar, showing it in a way that gives it a different importance.”
Jo Ann Callis is a photographer based in Los Angeles. After graduating from CalArts, she began teaching there in 1976 and is still a faculty member of the School of Art’s Program in Photography and Media. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Hammer Museum; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 2009, the J. Paul Getty Museum presented a retrospective of her work in Los Angeles titled Woman Twirling. Callis has received three NEA Fellowships and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
In this interview, Jo Ann Callis opens up about how art kept her sane as a young mother in an unhappy marriage, the impact mentor Robert Heinecken had on her life and career, and her process when going on a photoshoot.
TGL: How was your childhood?
JC: I had a middle class upbringing in Cincinnati Ohio. My father graduated as an electrical engineer but later went into the furniture business and my mother was an elementary school teacher. My sister and I became the victims of sibling rivalry, and I developed a sense of competition because of it. Sometimes that can be beneficial because it can give one drive to succeed and a lot of times that can be uncomfortable and detrimental.
Art was in my life from age eight. I took art classes for kids on Saturdays at the art museum. Somebody said I was good and that is all I needed to hear. I found something I had talent for and which I loved so much. It gave me a passion for making things and studying art. I went to college for two years and then got married. A year later at 20 I gave birth to my son and we moved to Greater Los Angeles. I had another son two years later. At 22 I was ill prepared to take on my new roles in life and to be away from any family support. I was the mother of two sons when all I really intended was to be was an artist.
TGL: What was it like being a young mother in California?
JC: I was a homemaker and mother of two with big responsibilities for such a young person, but I attended sculpture classes at night at a community college to keep my sanity. Art helped me get through those most difficult years. I was driven to find a way to emotionally survive and art did that for me since I was a young child.
TGL: Were you making art at the time?
JC: Besides going to night school for art, I was making paper collages at home. That was the best I could do then. Making art at night school became my salvation, it was a place to feel whole and to have a little piece of life away from family a couple times a week, at least.
TGL: You got your degree from UCLA. When did you decide to go back to school?
JC: In 1970 I decided I wanted and needed my degree. I was thinking about getting out of my marriage, but I didn’t even have a college diploma yet and wondered how I would support myself and the children. At UCLA, I finished my undergraduate degree and then did my graduate studies there too. In 1976, before I completed my 3rd year of grad school I began teaching part time at Cal Arts. It was crazy. I didn’t know what I was doing at all, but I had a job, even though I had only been using a camera for 3 years before I started teaching others. I was very nervous and insecure about that, even though I was 36 years old at that time.
TGL: You took classes with Robert Heinecken at UCLA.
JC: He changed my life, because he supported and respected the work I was making. He is the one who recommended me to teach at Cal Arts. Without his encouragement, I don’t think I would have had the courage to go into photography. A few years later, he introduced me to my second husband, who recently passed away.
TGL: Was your husband a photographer too?
JC: No, he was a wonderful artist will a huge imagination and a great sense of humor that he brought into his art. He was playful and drew, painted, and made installations in the desert. His day job was on the Santa Monica Pier. He didn’t have a career in art, but he drew pictures until almost the day he died. Art sustained us both and it was a good marriage.
TGL: Your art is very surreal, but you are not a surrealist. How would you describe your process?
JC: When I made work, I started to think about ideas and how I could make pictures around those ideas or emotions. I wasn’t thinking that I was a Surrealist or how a Surrealist would do it. I was just following my intuition somewhat like free-association bringing me to something I could work on to express myself. Perhaps that is why my photos can look surreal; they may not make sense logically, but I hoped there was an emotional intelligence in play.
TGL: Did you plan out your photoshoots or improvise?
JC: I planned out my shoots, because I have to know what props I needed or what the model looked like and how to direct them to make the photo I had imagined. I would go to a location first just to become more familiar with where to set up my camera to make the picture I had in mind. When I converted my garage into a studio I started making all my photos in that space from then on.
TGL: How did you choose your models?
JC: They were mostly people I knew or friends of friends. I wanted them to look somewhat androgynous. I didn’t want bodies that were particularly one way or the other. They were not portraits of any individual person. They were not objects either because they were human beings that I hoped could stand-in for a person in general, not any one person. I love the relationships between the objects and what the objects conjure up in one’s mind. I enjoy taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar, showing it in a way that gives it a different importance.
TGL: When did you get your first exhibition?
JC: A friend of mine had scheduled a show at the "Woman’s Building” downtown. She couldn’t make the show for some reason and asked me if I wanted to use her space, which I did. That was my first exhibition in 1975. I also sent my work to competitions and got into many exhibitions that way.
TGL: You came up during a time when we didn’t talk about women artists the way we do now. How did you feel as a woman artist?
JC: I just felt I was an artist and not a Woman artist with a capital “W." It was the time of the Women’s Liberation Movement with the bra burning etc. right when I came into my own ideas on art-making. Feminism was very strong, and I got criticism because I often cropped out the heads of female models so we wouldn’t get involved in their identity. Critics saw it as treating women like objects. In a way I was, but not because I didn’t respect them. They were actors in a play. When you go to a play the curtain opens and you see the actors in the set. Everything is intentional; the setups in my photos are fabricated for that purpose. The pictures don’t look natural because they are metaphors for communicating a feeling, emotion or an unknown narrative. Just like in a play you never think the actors are living their lives on that stage, they are acting out some made-up drama.
TGL: Your work has a strong relationship to theater and mise en scene. Could you describe your creative process?
JC: First I think up some idea that excites and challenges me. I make sketches of how I want the photo to turn out. I organize what needs to be done to make that happen and shoot the picture.
TGL: You are represented by ROSEGALLERY in Santa Monica, a gallery that specializes in contemporary photography. What is important for you in the relationship between an artist and gallerist?
JC: I think it is trust, honesty, and respect for each other and what they each do that are the most important things in that close relationship. Each has an important role to play in getting one’s art out into the world for others to see and appreciate. It is essential that the gallery works at that goal, and it is important that the artist makes the art so each of them can survive. I adore Rose and her staff, I owe a lot of my success to them and their support of what I do besides their willingness to go the extra mile to make sure others can see it too.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don't already know?
JC: I’d like to meet Georgio Morandi, a painter whose work I adore.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
JC: Do what you are passionate about if you can while still paying the bills as you pursue your goals. I had no choice because making art was the only thing I really wanted to do. I thought teaching art was a way to satisfy that need to carry on in the only profession I was capable of doing well. It was worth the struggles because I have had a rich and fulfilling life so far.