A Visit with Joellyn Rock of the Sophronia Project

Ed Newman

Joellyn Rock teaches digital art and filmmaking classes for the Department of Art & Design at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Rock is one of the faculty members who helped establish UMD’s new Motion and Media Across Disciplines Lab. It’s a video studio and motion capture lab with options for interdisciplinary research.

EN: Your creativity is expressed in a range of mediums. Can you briefly describe the various phases of your life as an artist?

Joellyn Rock: My medium of choice has shifted over the past three decades, but one constant has been my desire to tell stories with images. After college, I lived in Seattle for about 15 years, doing drawings (colored pencils, sgraffito) and paintings (oils and acrylics) while working a bunch of day jobs (cook, bookstore clerk, daycare teacher, whatever paid the rent). During those years I did illustrations and designs for posters and print publications, like The Rocket and The Seattle Weekly. My aesthetic was influenced by the visual culture of that time: punk, comics and outsider art. I also did some collaborative and performance works, installations in gallery windows, experimental theater, shadow puppetry. Duluth actually reminds me of Seattle’s art scene at that time… small enough and remote enough to be really friendly, open-minded, and supportive of new-comers. Smaller galleries and cooperative spaces gave young artists the chance to show our work and build community.

Eventually I started moving into more mixed-media sculptural works (found objects, glass, clay, wood) and hand-built ceramics. I began to transfer my narrative imagery onto the surface of these ceramic works, stories disguised as decorative paintings in underglazes on clay. I also lived briefly in Paris and New York, where I continued to make art, living hand-to-mouth on part-time teaching gigs and sales of artwork. Then, in 1995 I had a baby and moved to Duluth!

Maintaining a ceramic studio proved difficult, so after that I made the leap to digital media. I was drawn to the creative potential of the web and emerging interactive formats that offered diverse ways to tell stories. Since then I have done a range of projects that use tools like Photoshop and digital video and web software. Most recently, I am exploring various ways to reintegrate tactile materials and physical interaction into my work with digital narrative.

EN: Do you have a primary medium you like to work in?

JR: For me, I switch the medium to accommodate the project, and also in response to contemporary culture. As a digital artist, sometimes I miss working with clay and other tactile materials. I think the culture in general is overwhelmed by ubiquitous technology. My next work will probably try to grapple with that imbalance.

EN: How did you become involved with the Sophronia Project and what is your role?

JR: I drafted the original proposal to create the project for Northern Spark this year. Northern Spark is an annual all-night interactive media event presented by Northern Lights and curated by Steven Dietz in the Twin Cities each year. Kathy McTavish and I had been looking for a chance to do some collaborative work in digital media. We were both using digital tools to remix text and image, but in very different ways. The call for Northern Spark proposals gave us the idea to develop this project together. The theme of Northern Spark this year was : Projecting the City, taking inspiration from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In the book, Calvino spins a series of tales about imaginary cities. I liked the story about Sophronia, a place made up of two half-cities, part circus and part stone. Our project proposed to create an interactive installation by making use of Kathy’s graffiti angel software for projecting text, my digital art and video mash-ups, and netprov writer Rob Wittig’s technique of crowd sourced text in twitter.In the multimedia installation, a glowing tent serves as canvas for a mischievous mix of digital video, text, and live silhouettes that disrupt, subvert, and create a playful participatory space. Projections include remixed digital collage, video mashups, and text fragments gleaned from the project database and at #sophroniatwo.

EN: What have you found to be the most gratifying facet of Sophronia?

JR: I am especially grateful to have the chance to work with generous collaborators willing to take the risk on something so experimental. At the Walker, we had to change our entire plan overnight because of the forecasted storms. It’s both nerve-wracking and exciting to be able to reinvent a complex multimedia work like this, and to allow it to morph to various conditions and spaces. In each location the work took on a different mood, integrating the wildly different architecture and audience each night. It was fun to discover how we could adapt the project to these strange variables, and enjoy the interactive experience it provided at each location.

Most gratifying of all, was the fact that the piece was appealing to such a wide range of participants. The glowing, mesmerizing projections seemed to entrance toddlers, teens, moms and grandpas… They all wanted to take a turn and play with their shadows.
And of course, I am Super grateful to work with all these people:

multimedia projections Kathy McTavish,

additional video by Lane Ellis and Lizzy Siemers

soundscape by Kathy McTavish

electronic music by Tobin Dack

words by Rob Wittig, Kathleen Roberts, Sheila Packa, Katelynn Monson, Mark Marino, Cathy Podeszwa and #sophroniatwo on twitter

silhouette performances by Cathy Podeszwa, Emma Harvie, Gary Kruchowski, Lizzy Siemers, Jamie Harvie, Jay Sivak, Joellyn Rock, Rob Wittig and the audience participants!

set decorating by Ann Gumpper, Nancy Rogness, Karin Preus tech support by Ben Harvey

EN: How many locations have you been at with Sophronia and how were they selected?

JR: The work was originally presented at the Walker Art Center for Northern Spark in June 2014. Funding was provided thanks to cooperation between Northern Lights and Walker Art Center. I also wrote an Arrowhead Regional Art Council grant to fund two additional shows which were staged at the Free Range Film Barn in Wrenshall in August and at the Duluth Art Institute in September. The Walker location was made through our Northern Spark application. The barn and depot locations were made possible by the generous curator Annie Dugan at Free Range Film Fest and Duluth Art Institute. I’m so thankful that these funders and venues are open to experimental works like Sophronia!