Faculty Profile: Jo Yarrington

Submitted by Lisa Calderone MFA '11 on October 27, 2011

I’m always most excited about my latest project. The last piece builds on everything else I’ve done before. It deepens my understanding of myself and the direction of the work that I’m exploring.

Jo Yarrington

Title: Professor of Visual & Performing Arts
Hometown: New York, NY
Website: www.joyarrington.com
Appointments: Chair, Department of Visual and Performing Arts; Studio Program Director; Chair, Committee on Rank and Tenure; Chair, Educational Planning Committee; Chair, Faculty Research Committee; Director of Core Pathways of Creative and Aesthetic View
2012 Robert Wall Award; Fellowships from the Pollock Krasner Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Brandywine Institute, the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, and the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism; Representative of the United States at the Sharjah Biennial, United Arab Emirates (2001)


“I’ve always been interested in liminal places, areas of the mind or reality that blur definition, that exist somewhere in between …. It is these elusive, shifting planes, these fluctuations in our psychic core and physical being, these changeable and charged arenas that I explore in my visual art.”– Jo Yarrington

The pathway of Jo Yarrington’s illustrious 37-year career in the arts has led her to unusual places – on foot and in faith, from memory to prophecy, in the crevices between subconscious and unconscious. To follow her exploration of “liminal places,” you’ll travel not only to chapels and museums around the country and the world, but to the prism of her mind – where she invites others to reflect on individuality, community, and time.

One of her latest projects, “Beating Time,” has led Yarrington to the threshold of yet another ephemeral experience – a night of dancing and dining among royalty at a modern-day ball. On the evening of October 21, 2011, she stepped into the Hilton Hotel on the Avenue of the Americas in New York City to celebrate 100 years of Nordic-American friendship at the Centennial Ball of the American-Scandinavian Foundation (ASF). Among the guests were the King and Queen of Sweden, the King and Queen of Norway, the Presidents of Iceland and Finland, and the Prince and Princess of Denmark.

The Centennial Ball culminated a year of special events celebrating the 100th anniversary of ASF and the Foundation’s ongoing efforts in Nordic-American exchange and in moving the work of researchers and artists forward. Yarrington’s presence was requested to thank her for her participation as an American-Scandinavian Foundation Fellow in their Centennial Video Interview Project, which debuted at the ball.

“What’s fun about something like this,” says Yarrington, “is that it’s rare to have this kind of celebratory aspect to your work. You don’t usually get to meet the kings and queens of countries. I feel lucky and honored to be part of the selection process.”

Yarrington recently sat down with us to discuss working at Fairfield, her students, and the career that has led her to this “liminal place” in time.

Why fairfield?

I started working at Fairfield University 20 years ago, when I was interested in teaching at a small, comprehensive university. I also liked its proximity to New York City and a variety of regional museums, and the fact that I could extend my classroom out into the discipline so that students could see art on a world-class level.

What I’ve come to enjoy the most about working at a university that’s committed to integrative learning like Fairfield is the opportunity to discuss a variety of topics outside my field. Working here is like being in a think-tank. I could sit down at lunch with other faculty and talk about chemistry, physics, history, the classics, and learn something I never knew before – and that can happen on a daily basis. Most people who teach at Fairfield are lifelong learners, and that’s what we like to impart to our students.

what’s your teaching philosophy?

My focus is teaching students to understand the nuances in our culture so that the production of their artwork is an intentional reflection. I always enjoy the surprise on a student’s face when they understand and articulate a particular concept, and their pride when they’ve picked up new skills and put them into context, culminating in an exhibit in the Lukacs Gallery. It’s exciting to see my students making connections, both in their physical art production and in their writing, as they articulate a response to a particular work of art with clarity.

I’ve been teaching since 1975, and in truth I’ve learned more from my students than they have from me. They keep me present and grounded.

At what age did you know you were an artist, and when did you know you were going to make a living at it?

In second grade I entered a poster contest and was dismayed when I was the runner-up and not the winner. In my little 8-year old mind I told myself that I never wanted this to happen again. So for me, ambition was born in the second grade!

It happened again in college, when my sense of self and who I could become was challenged. One of my professors at Ohio State University asked what was I planning to do with my dual undergraduate degrees in art and art education. I explained that I wanted to go to graduate school and then teach as a professor. He looked shocked and replied that no one ever gets those positions, and suggested I start at K-12 and work my way up. I looked at him and said, “Someone gets those positions. Why can’t it be me?”

How to you handle the curiosities and ambitions of your own students?

If one of my students mentions to me some high-reaching goal, I say let’s start working on a plan so you can get there. Some students come in as freshmen with the intention of becoming an architect, so we work on how they can research the field and find an internship with an architect. We discuss research initiatives both inside and outside the classroom to help fund those interests, and I point them to specific exhibitions to see and articles to read that will build on that knowledge so they can reach their goal. And I’m right behind them when they get there!

With your long record of creative accomplishments, which is your favorite and why?

I’m always most excited about my last project. The last piece builds on everything else I’ve done before. It deepens my understanding of myself and the direction of the work that I’m exploring. And much of my work, whether sited in architecture or the physical structure of a book, references life’s fragmentary and ephemeral nature, and how we grasp, lose, and refashion ourselves and sense of place  – individually, in community, and over time.

I think for me it’s all about exploration. I’m interested in the interrelationship between things – the interplay between luminality and light, the moment of pause before a responsive act, the state between conciousness and unconsciousness, between dreaming and waking – all of those unfettered moments of freedom when anything’s possible. When you’re conscious, there’s a sense of control, but when you’re unconscious, your body controls you. It’s that moment you release preconceived notions and allow yourself to drop down and float. To me that’s the state of creativity.

Not sure that’s what my work is always about, but that’s my process.

So what’s your next “latest project”?

I am currently working on completing the third and final book of a 3-book series, Global Mapping, a 10-year interdisciplinary collaboration with Professor Kim Bridgford. Global Mapping is a unique creative project in that Professor Bridgford and I are responding to a shared journey rather than to each other’s work. The strength of the collaboration is in the way we have chosen to structure the convergence of art and poetry – a process that provides an additional experience as we explore odd balances, a way to somehow hover between the two disciplines. Completing the third journey (a trip to Bhutan, scheduled for March 2012), compiling and developing the images from that journey, and working toward finding a viable venue for publication of all 3 book are some of the goals for which I was awarded the 2012 Robert Wall Award, following my 2011 sabbatical leave.

Interdisciplinary collaboration has been a focus in much of my art work, from my site specific projects such as the 2010 Ocular Visions at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., in which I collaborated with scientists at the retinal scanning company, Topcon, to my work with architects developing a number of public commissions. I have enjoyed a particularly successful interdisciplinary collaboration with Professor Bridgford resulting in a number of projects, pedagogical initiatives, conference presentations, and a symposium.

I’m also proud to participate in Evolve The Conversation, a movement that honors the transformational power of conversation through a salon series in which artists from all disciplines speak and perform about transformative topics like liminality and paper roads. The salons are being filmed for web, broadcast, a documentary, books, and educational templates for schools. The intention of ETC Founder and Director Kelly Coveny is to take the movement global, challenging communities everywhere to re-examine the art of language, conversation, and human connectivity – and the power inner transformation has to change the world.

Tiny URL for this post: http://tinyurl.com/c6b82yx