The sense of connection between the immaterial realm and the material one that has haunted art-making since its beginnings. No matter what medium or approach an artist takes, there is an implicit hope of earthly and spiritual intersection. As far back as the classical world, Pliny writes about the origins of drawing in these terms, crediting its origins to a lover who traces the shadow of the beloved as a hedge against loss. From holy relics in the Middle Ages to Surrealism's embrace of the "found object" as a pivot between the conscious and the unconscious, this obsession remains a deeply embedded value. Early modernist Wassily Kandinsky called it the search for "significant form."
This quest stands at the core of what has motivated a lifetime of production by artist Joy Floyd, whose exhibit "Unto Us a Gift Is Given" will be displayed at the Franciscan Center for Urban Ministry in Hartford from Oct. 31 through Dec. 29. The 18 new works being shown represent Floyd's singular approach, a method that stands somewhere between collage and "assemblage." Visually, her images have great formal beauty — compositional balance — but their real beauty is in their material warmth: the "lived-in" qualities of her collages, and the tenderness with which they are put together.
Floyd works from cast-offs and detritus — things she finds and things she is given: objects (old books, wooden bits of game boards, tree ornaments), materials (men's ties, yellowed doilies, smashed and rusted tin cans, time-worn quilts), inadvertent records of human activity (painters' drop cloths, origami, crocheted collars and worn-out denim), and things she collects and sometimes inherits (a trove of well-worn fabrics and found objects). Floyd worked for decades as reference librarian in the CT state library. "When they would [purge the collection]," she says, "I would glean what I found interesting from the trash."
"These are things that have nothing to do with one another and have mostly been thrown away," says Floyd in a recent studio visit. "But there's a life of this stuff that's being discarded — and it's so beautiful. What attracts me is the stuff itself...and then the search. It's holy. [Joseph Cornell called it "the sacred search."] It's there, waiting for you, in somebody's scrap pile. You couldn't make something this beautiful. There's a life there that inspires me."
Remarkably, Floyd is without formal art training (she studied library science), though she did take some art education courses, while her children were young. She relocated many times as her husband (a minister) found work, first in Bridgeport, then Waterbury, then Hartford. She's been a visible member of the Hartford arts community for decades, showing regularly. She operates out of an orderly, cozy studio on Arbor Street. She took up art later in life, learning art-making from children:
"[A]t this time I worked with kids in the north end of Waterbury. There was a little art center in the church next to us. We would scrounge for art materials to make collages. We did a lot of stitching stuff together. I became interested enough to want to do it for myself."
She began by gluing materials to plywood scraps. Then her husband built boxes for her. Now a woodworker builds her custom boxes. The evolving imagery dictates the frame, not the other way around. And, while her finished piece may come about in a process similar to that of Joseph Cornell (who built little "stages" for memorabilia) or Swiss Dada artist Carl Schwitters (who, to make a nihilistic point, assembled bits of trash into images), hers is not a three-dimensional approach and there is nothing cynical in her motivation.
Floyd embodies the Utopianism of early modernism. She has a purity of spirit and deep innocence of heart — a quality Kandinsky prized in artists like Henri Rousseau who also worked from the commonplace — and a decidedly feminist thread in her process. As she showed me these works, she talked about the fabrics, the ribbons, the tatting that came from a woman who had died, but wanted her to have them. Her materials are living things to her, animated by the lives they touched. She sees her work as giving them life again. She is an older woman, recently widowed. Her work addresses limitations, and richness of experience, of caretaking, of memory.
Her art is a reflection of her tender engagement with things carefully observed and closely felt. She came to this work by way of teaching children to find beauty by scrounging for it in the discards around them. What she has discovered is the most human — and spiritual — of connections.
Joy Floyd: "Unto Us A Gift Is Given"
The Franciscan Center for Urban Ministry, 285 Church St., Hartford, October 31-December 29, 2013
Artist's talk and reception: 5:30-7:30 p.m., Thursday, November 7
Joy Floyd image