Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

Women Runnin It: Interview with Joanne Ludwig

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In “Time is Irrelevant,” her current solo show at Solespace, Joanne Ludwig decided to dive deep into a process of mystery revealing itself. The Oakland-based visual artist’s seeming irreverence for convention mixes with an incredibly potent playfulness manifested through large abstract works. Mixed media pieces use collage and paint in gestural brush strokes to create a loose, raw background. Simplified chalk and marker line work show portraits of faces, animals, elemental spirits and a magician. There is a focus on eyes and lips, and the visceral aspect is reinforced by textured fabrics.

Most impressively, Joanne created all thirteen of the new works featured in the show in just 27 days; the show’s title refers to her artistic process during this period. While exploring new directions, the show feels like a thematic continuation of a 2014 multi-disciplinary all-women art show and zine she created and curated entitled “Til Death Do Us Part.” The “Lady Warrior” themed project produced five issues of the zine, one for each of the five exhibitions/events she produced, consecutively titled “Honor,” “Loyalty,” “Faith,” “Courage” and “Love.” The feminine heroism of that ambitious show and zine, which featured sixty women artists, remains present, but in Joanne’s singular vision, risk, spirituality, and abstract expression coexist with bravado.

The show represents a coming-out of sorts for the shy yet hustle-minded artist, who has been a focal point over the years for building community around women artists, inclusivity, and pushing boundaries from the sacred to the erotic. Earlier this year she was a featured artist in the “Her Resilience” women’s mural project addressing violence against women in Oakland. She also has a history of working in and out of the music industry in the Bay such as distributing vinyl for Rap A Lot and other labels back in the day, throwing parties and events with NewTrendz, Local 1200, Rasheed Bawlout, her own “Jojo’s Dojo” with live jujitsu demonstrations, “The Artists Lounge,” and her recent AFRO DEEP events. There is a multicultural dynamic about Joanne’s work which cannot be ascribed to any one influence, yet seems fitting considering her background.

Born to a Thai mother and American military father, in her youth Joanne lived in San Francisco’s Presidio, Colorado and Hawaii. As she grew a little older, she relocated several times around the Bay Area, before settling in Oakland in 1998. Joanne studied painting and sculpture at CSUEB where she was awarded scholarships and graduated with honors. She maintains an impressive schedule exhibiting her work in both solo and group shows all over the SF Bay Area as well as being included in group shows in New York and Berlin. In addition, she continues to uphold a dynamic leadership position in Oakland’s art scene through curating group shows and gathering artists together to nurture a supportive, creative environment.

“Time Is Irrelevant” has just been extended through the month of August at Solespace; the conversation which follows will be continued with an artist talk, this Wednesday (July 15), which i am honored to host.



Artist Joanne Ludwig

Artist Joanne Ludwig

Oakulture: The title of your current exhibition is “Time is Irrelevant.” Why did you name the show this?

Joanne Ludwig: This year I made a promise to myself that I would allow myself TIME to rest, heal, reflect and to dream.  With SoleSpace opening up a second location on Grand Avenue some changes are in effect and Jeff asked if I wanted to wait until 2016 to have a show or take July. I’m not the type of person who believes that tomorrow is ever guaranteed, so I said “let’s do it!,” not realizing that it was less than a month away, but the creative is all about risks and the possibility of failure. I had to sike myself out and tell myself “Time Is Irrelevant.” The importance is SPIRIT.

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Oakulture: The short timeline for this show highlighted one of the consistent qualities I see in you as an artist – your commitment to the raw and improvised moment. During the course of your month of preparation for this show, you posted a #27DayCountdown in which you shared your artistic process with the works. Can you speak about that process and the decisions you had to make?

Joanne Ludwig: In this series of work I really let the emotion dictate my brush work and scale. I posted the #27daycountdown on Instagram so I wouldn’t be totally isolated in the studio and I needed the interaction to stay motivated. Most days I’d get up early in the morning, drink my coffee, put on a DJ Kobie Quashie or Denitia and Sene house mix from Soundcloud, then lay down the expressive color brush strokes with a brush that was 10 inches wide. The brush is heavy so I had to throw myself at the canvas. I’d be slipping and sliding around the room in my slippas just dancing to the music. Then I’d run off to my full time job, come home tired, have some wine (sometimes Mezcal ;), I’d chill out just staring at brushwork until I saw something appear, then I’d attack it and lay the line work. One night I came home tipsy from a Warriors’ game at SomaR Bar and that’s when I wrote sayings or “poetry” on the three #heal pieces. It was a good release and as an artist you have to let yourself be expressive and real. I almost wiped it away the next day but why not – all or nothing?

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Oakulture: Some of the subjects in your paintings are so alive they exist larger than the canvas. In this show we are surrounded by Orishas, eyes, and sacred, deep knowledge. Can you speak about the role of Spirit or ritual in your work?

Joanne Ludwig: My art education focus at CSUEB was under Dr. Levy who inspired me with his courses on the Philosophy of Art, which taught me about magic and ritual surrounding art, especially shamanic and tantric art. Ancient and tribal art speaks to me the most.  As a child I was always fascinated with nature and the supernatural so naturally I was drawn to ancient and indigenous folk art. I remember when I first moved to Oakland, I would love going to the Ashby flea and buying masks and sculptures from different cultures. After a few years of playing with styles I wanted to get out of my head, away from modern influences and am trying to get in touch with the intuitive.

I have much respect for spirit and the sacred. It influences my work, but I don’t ever plan on making a painting and say, “this is going to be Yemaya or Quan Yin.” I don’t enjoy that kind of control when I am creating. I like the possibilities to be open. For this series, the balance in my personal life really influenced my work. I’ve been meditating, enjoying nature and silence. Having ritual, a warm home and setting up the home studio allowed me to lose myself in the process and try to let the piece speak to me leading me where it wants to go. I’m honored if people relate such beauty and ase to my work but I would never claim to capture such spirit in my imagery. It is up to the viewer what is reflected back at them through a piece.

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Oakulture: In your promotion for this show you posted a series of hashtags – #heal, #grow, #extend, #evolve and #be – as your month of painting progressed. Can you tell us about what those themes meant for you? How were these themes represented in the paintings?

Joanne Ludwig: Some artists are so talented, they can plan a piece and/or a series, sketch it out and then execute it. I have a hard time staying interested or repeating anything twice. I tried my best to stay in one lane, but it doesn’t tell a story for me or allow me to evolve. Change and transformation is what inspires me. So I’d do about three pieces and then need to break out of that style… then another three or four… and so on. I saw in the first three, I was honest, hurt and reflective… I was healing. The next three, I really freed up and got loose… this was me growing… The next three I came with some new geometric shit I never done before… I was evolving… and the last two “eye people” I did… this was me returning. #heal #grow #evolve #return

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Oakulture: Eyes are a consistent presence in your work. Often times they evoke the evil eye or other sacred imagery. In this show two large eye people greet us as we walk in the door, like guardians. Can you speak more about this?

Joanne Ludwig: The eye is a positive symbol that represents to me both protection and The All Seeing Eye (GOD). There are two large eye figures that greet you when you walk into the show. They represent twins or a couple, and they are the pillars/anchors of the show. Across from them on the right wall there is one other eye figure and he is a shaman or magic man holding a drum and a staff. He is the time keeper.

Oakulture: In recent years, you curated an all women’s group show that I was very inspired by. What do you enjoy about working with women artists?

Joanne Ludwig: I like working with both women and men. Producing the all-women artist, “Til Death Do Us Part Art Show,” I wanted to remove men from the conversation to see what women would produce. Would it be more honest, less competitive, female-centric?  I really enjoyed the different stories and the individual edge each artist displayed. I was proud to include a diversity that often isn’t represented – ethnicity, age groups, subject matter, styles and mediums. Originally I was intimidated to ask artists for their work to include in the accompanying “Til Death Do Us Part” zine. As artists started saying yes and sending me images I began to ask for more until we had 60 women artists, the eldest being 70+ years old. The experience helped me overcome a huge obstacle in my growth of being afraid to ask for help. The most memorable experience was the Artist Talk and hearing the empowerment come thru each artist’s story. The room felt like no other room I’ve been in before. It was tingling, honest and bad-ass.

Oakulture: In your curating and promotion of art exhibits, what approach or strategies do you use for creating and maintaining an inclusive space?

Joanne Ludwig: I was an art teacher at EOYDC for 4 years and I have a background in sports so I’ve always been a team player and motivator. I’d rather shine with others. You have to be humble and inclusive to reflect the community around you. My motto is to do it for the love and save a little bit of time for yourself and your health. Do it for the love and do it with those you love and admire. This isn’t a hustle for me. I do art, music and community events for the collaboration, to be around other creatives and fun people. I do it to challenge myself, to learn and grow. I want to be a better me.

Oakulture: Much of your work has played with courage, vulnerability and women warriors. As an artist how important is vulnerability to you? As a woman, how important is courage to you?

Joanne Ludwig: My painting teacher at CSUEB, Dickson Schneider, mentioned to me after three years of instruction that he still didn’t know who I was. That resonated with me and since then I’ve tried to dig deep and to be less of a superhero and instead be open to being vulnerable and honest in my work. I wanted to ask myself how my voice or art could be significant to the community. It made me question my purpose and my identity. What was I, beside a woman, besides being Thai, or an artist? Who was I when I stripped these labels away?  It took courage to remove my armor and lay down my sword.

Oakulture: How does your cultural, ethnic or spiritual heritage inform your work as an artist?

Joanne Ludwig: I didn’t grow up in a very religious family. My mom is from Thailand which means she grew up in a Buddhist community, but we don’t consider Buddhism a religion. In fact Thailand has a very shamanic cultural history.  When I was in high school, I moved in with my friend Iliana and her family from Honduras. This was my first introduction to ancestor worship and the Orishas via her mother. I related the candles and offerings to what I saw growing up visiting SF Chinatown and the shrines I saw which were set out for Gods, nature spirits, or ancestors. I started seeking out more information on ancestor worship in different cultures. When I moved to Oakland in ’98, I was immersed in the spirituality out here.  However, I was taught not to speak on the sacred in order to keep it magical. So this is new to me sharing sacred with the public.

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Oakulture: Your work reminds me of Audre Lorde’s infamous essay “Uses of the Erotic,” in which she spoke about the erotic as a creative and spiritual force in women’s lives. How do you stay engaged and honest with the erotic in your work?

Joanne Ludwig: I associate the erotic with power. When I draw a nude woman she is powerful and claiming her body. It’s not necessarily enticing or sexualized. It’s an expression of power. I’m actually pretty shy with my sexuality but I enjoy looking at Japanese Shunga (erotic print art) and adult manga. I think my art was coined feminine and erotic after I did a series of women that had fruit as torsos and long slender limbs. I was trying to relate the womb and life to that of a fruit. I was making a nod to Vanitas art and addressing my own womanhood and aging.

But my pieces weren’t meant to be erotic. It was a dialog I was having about my own femininity and my womanhood and finding my purpose. In one of my paintings there is a nude woman examining her vagina (which I drew as an eyeball). I was posing a philosophical question to myself: What am I if not a women? How do I fit in and find purpose besides from having a womb? Am I still significant if I am not a mother?

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Oakulture: Role models? Who do you admire artistically and why?

Joanne Ludwig: My role models are innovators and mavericks. A few favorites are the late bassist Jaco Pastorius who was the first to play melodies on bass as the lead. I also admire Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix who I share my birthday with. They remind me not to follow others on their path but to make my own. Do not follow the masters before you. Be your own master.

Oakulture: What is exciting to you about Oakland culture right now?

Joanne Ludwig: I’m excited by the amount of culture and growth we have here. I’m enjoying the shift from the Too Short pimp mentality to the Women Runnin It movement.

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Oakulture: Any upcoming projects or collaborations you’re particularly excited about in Oakland right now?

Joanne Ludwig: We have the Artist Talk for “Time Is Irrelevant” on Wednesday July 15th at SoleSpace from 7-9pm with selections from Cyn Digs. And then a closing dance party for “Time Is Irrelevant” with AFRO DEEP DJs Kobie and Dedan on Saturday July 25th from 8pm-Midnight.

After that I’m looking forward to hanging out with my pit Bella, getting some much needed beach time and exercise before we dip into another AFRO DEEP party. Art wise, the multi-talented Paris Delawarr has something up her sleeve with me in her Skill Series and I am curating another group art show at SomaR Bar in October with artist Melody Shaiken. If Oakland Flamenco Sessions would have me, I’d love to improvise with the musicians and dancers again. The energy was so amazing.

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Artist Talk with Joanne Ludwig
Wednesday, July 15th 7-9pm

First Friday Fete Dance Party
August 7th, 8-12pm

Guided Art Making Workshop
August 19th, 7-9pm

All events located at:
Solespace Shoestore + ArtsLab
1714 Telegraph Ave., Oakland

Follow Joanne Ludwig:


Get to know the women previously highlighted in the series, including Candi Martinez, Chaney Turner, Nina Menendez, Gina Madrid aka Raw-G, DJ ZitaSoulovely crew Lady Ryan, Aima the Dreamer and DJ Emancipacion, Ramona Webb, and Naima Shalhoub.

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