The Meditative Grid: An Interview with Joseph Shetler

By Jay Hendrick on April 10, 2017
Joseph Shetler in his studio on O Street in Washington D.C. in 2017, photo courtesy of Joseph Shetler

On March 18, 2017 I visited artist Joseph Shetler in his studio on O St NW in DC. We discussed the MFA, religion, the grid, and labor.

Jay Where are you from Joseph?

Joseph I am originally from Goshen, Indiana but then moved to Phoenix when I was nine then went to undergrad for two years in Kansas at a small school, Hesston College, which had 300 students. Then I transferred to Goshen College where I grew up. Then I moved to DC in 2010. Back to Arizona for grad school at Arizona State, then back to DC.

I claim Arizona and Indiana, and DC.

Jay What is your DC connection? Did you have family here?

Joseph I followed a girl and now I am dating a different girl. During grad school I was back and forth from Arizona to DC. I had a curatorial internship at the Philips. I also worked at Project 4 before that shut down. So I thought I would give it a go, and come back to DC. I didn’t want to stay in Phoenix.

Jay You came back to DC. You could have potentially gone to New York or LA or whatever. Are there other reasons you are now staying? What do you think about local art?

Untitled (Black Tyvek #4), 2017, graphite on black tyvek, 50x60", photo courtesy of Joseph Shetler
Untitled (Black Tyvek #4), 2017, graphite on black tyvek, 30×42″, photo courtesy of Joseph Shetler

Joseph I had connections here. I had a support group. I had people who were interested in my work. It was tough when I first got here. I went to a liberal arts school no one had heard of. When it comes to galleries or getting shows, and not having an MFA because when I originally moved here I didn’t have an MFA. I do now. So I thought I needed an MFA to be taken seriously. I felt like I was too young or not proven.

Jay When did you get your MFA?

Joseph Fall of 2014.

Jay Does having the MFA help? Does it inspire more confidence in our work?

Joseph Well, definitely more confidence for me. I know what I am doing or saying.

Jay I understand that concept of feeling like you need that check mark on your CV – that MFA checkmark.

Joseph Yeah to establish your dedication to art. I think, ridiculous as it sounds, it does seem to be the case, that you need an MFA. I think gallerists, curators, collectors, or dealers they want that on your résumé before they take interest or put in an investment.

Jay Have you asked those people about that? I don’t know if I have.

Joseph I haven’t asked, but it is feeling I have. A lot of that is so connected to academia. Everyone knows everyone. It is a small world. Seems like you must play that game if you want to be taken seriously in certain circles. You can be a hobbyist as long as you want—show in coffee shops and there is nothing wrong with that—but at the end of the day if you want to make a living or be in museums it seems like the route most people take. Unless you are born into those circles, it seems like you need that education.

Jay You mentioned no one knowing your undergrad. I also went to a school like that. And then grad school wasn’t Yale.

Joseph My BA was from Goshen College. I think they were a lot tougher there than my grad program, but people haven’t heard of it or dismiss it because it’s in Indiana. Then for grad school I went to Arizona State. Their photography, printmaking, ceramics programs are very competitive in those rankings, though I don’t know what those rankings really mean. I would put up the work being done at ASU up against any school in the country. Arizona was back home for me so I could live with my parents, which helped out financially.

Jay We also share some common religious upbringing.

Joseph Yes, well that’s how I got to this minimalist aesthetic, I guess. Even in undergrad I guess I majored in watercolor more so than painting. The earlier work was photo realistic narratives. They were unsettling and were about really depressing things. My teachers were saying to loosen up and let there be more motion, blah, blah, blah. So I did those experiments to make them happy but the things that made me feel like I accomplished something were always very detailed and time consuming.

When I was living in DC, I stopped going to church partly because I didn’t have a car and partly because I wanted to see what else was outside that Mennonite bubble. I worked at the Phillips Collection as a museum assistant. I lived in a small studio apartment, I couldn’t paint oils or make sculpture, so I was wondering how I could make things? I started drawing more and more. To work on big things I could work on rolls of paper and unroll as I went. When I was done I would roll the drawing up and put it away.

It took two years to make a portfolio that I was somewhat okay with to apply to schools.

Jay It was graphite on paper?

Joseph It was ink. I studied abroad. Goshen College requires that we study abroad in developing countries.

Jay That’s great.

Joseph It is for at least a semester to broaden your world-view. Part of the school’s motto is ‘global citizenship.” I studied in China and did traditional Chinese painting and water color classes. I was doing ink architectural drawings and thinking of going to architecture school. I got more into organic looking mandalas—repetitive mark making. That’s what I applied to school with. In school I asked why I was making these things, and why do I keep doing these repetitive, time based, labor based things?

I went back to Phoenix and went to church and talked with some folks in the congregation and I said I was doing an MFA, and they assumed it was all portraits or paintings. Or they assumed it was abstract art and I would say…sure. Then the conversations stopped.

I describe my work as non-objective. The conversation stopped because to me, Mennonites are very pragmatic. If it isn’t a pot you can use, then it feels very useless to them, hence why most Mennonite artists are potters. There is a utility to it. There is a tradition of quilt making, craftsmanship like woodworking, or tradesman. There is a labor aspect to it. At the same time I was trying to figure out why I was making my work.

Joseph Shetler's studio, photo courtesy of Joseph Shetler
Joseph Shetler’s studio, photo courtesy of Joseph Shetler

Growing up I worked construction, I built a boat, I restored an old Volkswagen, the idea of labor, time, details, craftsmanship, and quality of materials helped with a love for materials and that came into the work. I was wondering how I could communicate both with my community and the wider art world. Making marks and this whole post minimal whatever, I like making references to Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, Agnes Martin, the Albers, both Anni and Josef.

There are those references but also references to my upbringing. I was pulling visual cues from quilts, the pattering and piecing. I was using hand-made paper. I was making concentric circles within those patterns, which referenced the stitch. So viewers could see that and maybe appreciate that. Going through that process I was planning the designs on gridded paper. For my thesis, I built a room; this is where my construction background came back in. The room that was four by eight by twelve feet and inside was one drawing and it rotated each day it was open. The silhouette of the shape was the same but the inside patterns that made up the shape were different. So if you came back every day it would change. It had a five foot doorway so you had to duck your head and quiet yourself with the intent that it would remove all distractions outside that room. Hopefully that was enough to see the subtle changes each day.

In that piece there were references to being a guard at the Phillips in the Rothko room and site-specific installations that I had seen there. It all kind of came together. Through working with the grid and the plans there was this progression in the patterns. I started playing with the grid more and seeing the grid as more of a subject instead of a tool; then I started to see grids everywhere.

My work has developed more into variations on the grid and seeing compositions. I can manipulate it and discover something new with this basic structure that society uses everywhere. So I see my work as a reflection of who I am and parts of society. I don’t reference any pop culture besides art, minimalist art. I don’t reference any of that. I don’t want to give power to the references that I think might be a distraction or complication to my space and my thoughts. I don’t want that in my studio, that noise.

Joseph Shetler's studio, photo courtesy of Joseph Shetler
Untitled (Black Tyvek #1-4), 2017, graphite on black tyvek, photo courtesy of Joseph Shetler

I come to the studio to escape the rat race, and then try to put it back into the rat race, and hopefully make some money at some point, maybe it becomes an escape for someone else.

Jay There is a common thread I am hearing about—time and labor. Are those things related to growing up with the Mennonite world view?

Joseph Indirectly I think. Maybe it’s just me. A funny thing was, in my second year of grad school we got a list of incoming grads. There was someone from Indiana with a Mennonite name and I saw he had shows in the place I came from. It turned out we were from the same town of 30,000 people. It was very strange. We didn’t know each other. We were both influenced by landscapes, and ended up having many of the same tendencies with aesthetics and labor.

For Mennonites there is this unspoken pressure–we are supposed to serve. There are a lot of farmers.

Jay Efficient professions.

Joseph Yeah a lot of professions that help or have that potential. Some take it quite literally–Jesus was a carpenter so many are carpenters. A lot of trades people. It is less so now, with farming as it is but there is this aspect of labor and working hard. Putting in time then resting. A balance.

Jay Is labor itself worship? Are you engaged in living or working as some form of worship?
Joseph Right, I think those ideas are so ingrained in me that they come out in the art but I don’t necessarily think of it as worship, more as a reflection.

Jay You don’t reject where you come from? I reject a lot of my background or at least I dissent.

Joseph That was also a struggle. In grad school I kept discovering why I was making the work. I continued to see that it was directly influenced by being brought up Mennonite and our values, I wondered if I should let people know that? Do I want to be known as a Mennonite artist? Am I worthy of that? I don’t go to church every Sunday? Would I be a disappointment to part of that community if I don’t live up to it? I don’t know. I do not reject it.

It was a great way to be raised. I think my value structure is solid. I think I know the difference between right and wrong, even though I know there are likely gray areas. The thing about Mennonites is they don’t discourage you to question and debate. Perhaps not to have doubt, but to not be afraid to have doubt. I think you are free of judgment to choose for yourself. I don’t reject it, I name it because I see it.

In school I had a studio visit with Jeffery Gibson. He teaches at Bard or used to. He is gay and half black and half native American. He does a lot of collaborations with Native American artists from many different tribes. His work focuses on those issues. He told me to name it, to own the Mennonite thing. He told me to let them reject me and to own it because it is who I am. It made sense to me.

I had another studio visit at ASU with Angela Ellsworth who was raised fundamentalist Mormon and is a lesbian art professor now. Some of her work referenced that and said I would be pigeon-holed. She said she was pigeon-holed and that it was tough to break out of, so there was this debate.

Also, Mennonites don’t evangelize. They live by example. They serve and they aren’t supposed to be prideful. So to have a show that is, “Mennonite this, and Mennonite that,” is very un-Mennonite. It was kind of this contradiction but what is life and art without contradiction. I decided to go for it and let it be a reflection of those contradictions.

Jay Ok, is there contradiction in your work?
Joseph With these gold leaf pieces, yes. Gold is very much a no no. In Mennonite churches there is no gold. Just wood and plain. Pragmatic.

Untitled, 2017, graphite powder and goldleaf on paper on wood, 36x48", photo courtesy of Joseph Shetler
Untitled, 2017, graphite powder and goldleaf on paper on wood, 36×48″, photo courtesy of Joseph Shetler

Jay No icons.

Joseph No icons, no idols, etc. No crucifixes. We have a cross. So the use of gold is a contradiction for me. Mennonites traditionally didn’t even wear wedding bands because jewelry is worldly. This is me coming to terms with having one foot in and one foot out.

Jay So then it would make sense to have real expensive gold leaf?

Joseph Maybe. Part of it is also me going outside my comfort zone and using a material I would typically never use – taking it and trying to reconcile and redeem it. Make it simple. My preconception is that gold leaf is worldly, gaudy, and tacky.

Jay Donald Trump.

Joseph Yeah. So how do I take that and make it simple? There are aspects in how it interacts with the light and that fascinates me. It is part of my fascination with the graphite. I think they pair well, the graphite and gold.

Jay And graphite is metallic and shiny.

Joseph Right. It is graphite powder so the shine disappears.

Jay Then you carve with a blade.

Joseph I cut with a blade before I add the graphite powder.

Jay Why carve?

Joseph I mount paper then cut into the paper. I like the texture. There are variations. If I screw up a line I use it. I use a ruler but I let the mark of the hand come through. That hand is also there with the blue grids. To read a drawing and know it is hand made and not printed.

Jay That is a question I think with your work: why not make them with a machine? You could put in labor and time with making a machine, but you do it by hand.

Joseph I think it is me being obsessive compulsive or just enjoying working with the materials. I enjoy the way the knife feels cutting through paper. It is part of why I enjoy using graphite and mechanical pencils. I like how it feels when I put that pencil to the paper. That is part of the reason I don’t paint anymore. I don’t enjoy putting the brush to a flimsy canvas. I don’t like the canvas bouncing. I like the physicality of the knife and pencil.

Untitled, 2017, graphite powder and goldleaf on paper on wood, 48x30", photo courtesy of Joseph Shetler
Untitled, 2017, graphite powder and goldleaf on paper on wood, 48×30″, photo courtesy of Joseph Shetler

Joseph I have three bodies of work I have been doing. These works on panel that are about reconciliation and the grid. Then I have these blue grid pieces were I am taking isometric grids and mount it on larger paper with duramount or tyvek. The white tyvek doesn’t take graphite very well, so I thought I would mount the paper. Depending on how I mount and trim the grid paper, diagonal lines meet up differently. Every line I make is a continuation of the opposite piece of paper. I give myself rules like I extend a line three inches. That ends up giving me patterns. So it is still referencing quilts and patterned grids but also Bauhaus and weavings and it is still subtle.

Untitled, 2017, graph paper on tyvek and blue pencil, 50x60", photo courtesy of Joseph Shetler
Untitled, 2017, graph paper on tyvek and blue pencil, 50×60″, photo courtesy of Joseph Shetler

I like making things that you have to spend time with. That comes form being a guard in the museum and being around paintings I hated but, by the end, they were my favorites because I spent hours and hours with them. That time aspect comes in. Subtleties in works, and spending time with it or finding that maybe it is the wrong time of day to see it.

Jayy Are the iterations planned?

Joseph No. I haven’t done enough of these. I am giving myself rules and whatever happens is okay. It is a release from my other practices where everything is very much planned.

Jay You sketch them out first?

Joseph Yes, like the gold leaf ones are sketched before. The others allow me to improvise and not think and be okay with it. I am also doing graphite on tyvek. Each of them spur on more work.

Jay This one seems like it can slide into something representational. Is this one drastically different?

Joseph I don’t think so. I made a point to make it the way I made it. They are blue lead from pencil. Like colored pencil.

Jay It all seems very meditative. It is like a record of your meditation.

Joseph It is very quiet.

Jay Lastly, what do you have coming up?

Joseph  Saturday, April 22nd we have the Neighborhood Beautification Day Block Party Open Studio at 52 O Street NW, Sunday June 4th, 11am-5pm IPW Open Studio and finally Pyramid Atlantic in Hyattsville, MD August 11-September 22, 2017.