How do I even begin writing about Joanna Dane: artist, mother, poet, flutist, blogger, river-lover, vocalist, muse, yogi, wife, nurturer, illustrator, dreamer, instructor, dancer, improvisational-ist, arts-promoter, peace-corps worker, former Nebraskan then rambler then Wisconsinite, co-founder of multiple community artist organizations, really kind swell beautiful woman that I can’t really wrap my head around, and so much more.
You said it would be a tall order, but sheesh.
She ordered a vodka tonic when we met up. There’s a start.
* * *
She had brought me a recording of her, Tad Neuhaus and Loren Dempster performing river-odes to accompany her “Take Me to the River” installation. Its five short tracks have been ambling in the background for hours.
She improvises from her notebooks to Tad and Loren’s own extemporaneous playing. Her voice floats along slow pop rhythms interlaced with gregarious chanting and water trickling. While her lyrics soothe with their trance-like unraveling, there’s this raw, plaintive edge in her voice sometimes that elbows in reminiscences of old Daniel Johnston cassettes—but it’s more like Joanna Dane and the anti-Devil. You should really ask her for a copy.
* * *
She started blogging years ago to fend off a kind of impasse, some writer-artist block. Initially resistant to the idea of blogging, she was convinced by a friend to use a blog as a kind of basket into which she could throw whatever she was creating. It worked.
Her blog posts range wildly in content. Start anywhere. Tags link to series like “Zen Ox Herding Pictures” and “Left-Handed Journals” or “Yiddish Lessons” and “Day Dreamer Excursions.” Some are reflective, some pithy, others humorous, others sad. Some contain poems, others recordings of her performances with Tad and Loren. Most divulge intimate and often stunning visual content. Her 2012 interpretations of John Cage’s Zen Ox Herding Pictures, a book she cozily admits to having “returned late” to the library, are particularly interesting.
Actually, start with October 26, 2016: “after the storytelling.” Bookended by two, evocative scribble-sketches (maybe self-portraits) are the following lines:
a woman came up and told me how much she liked my story
i said thank you
she said she wouldn’t have liked it if i wasn’t such an odd person
and i believed her
Her blog en somme reflects the dizzying expanse of her interests as much as her engagement in community arts projects. She is as likely to pay homage to Apollinaire’s Calligrammes or postulate on aesthetics as she is to post pictures or video of her family at a local event.
* * *
Her responses to my questions were pointed, relevant, and humbling—
Is there advice you’ve given your daughters that you wish you could give to every girl? Every woman? Every person?
“I think it’s important for girls in this society to know that you don’t have to be nice to everyone. How many times have I heard grown women bemoan, when having to deal with an aggressive, inappropriate, or creepy guy, ‘I didn’t want to be rude.’”
Why the Peace Corps? And how was the experience compared to what you expected?
“I was interested in exploring other cultures, languages, climates. I didn’t expect to spend so much of my time thinking about my own culture. I didn’t expect to think that a family with a bike and radio was well-off.”
What is the most difficult thing about teaching for you?
“Coming up with the right thing to say only on the way home from class.”
* * *
Her installation at the Grand Kakalin is an exercise in fluidity.
Poems wrap around broad concrete pillars and celebrate the affinities of the river, of verse, of being. A wall of questions written on long, thin strips of paper dangle from a cord, which binds the pillars, and spill onto the slab flooring. It’s an ironic evocation of both the paper industry, which literally shaped and continues to shape how we interact with and conceive of the Fox River—for better or worse—and the spilling, mirroring, fluttering, vibrating, inspiring flowage that insistently calls out to anyone willing to listen: won’t you come down and contemplate “What makes a river what it is?”
Thank you for sending me off to meet this lovely person.