I have always been interested in portraying reality and the commonplace in a new light, with an edge of tension and pleasure added to the mix.
— Jo Ann Callis

Interview by Amanda Quinn Olivar, West Coast Editor

A central figure in the Southern California photography scene since the 1970s, Jo Ann Callis is known for her provocatively staged scenarios with a poetic dimension. In her work, the inner world of the artist finds material expression through creative juxtapositions, bold colors and playful constructions. Jo Ann Callis enrolled at UCLA in 1970, where she began taking classes with Robert Heinecken, among other prominent artists. She started teaching at CalArts in 1976 and remains a faculty member of the School of Art’s Program in Photography and Media. She has continued to photograph, draw, and paint, and her work has been widely exhibited in such venues as the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Hammer Museum; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 2009 a retrospective of her work, Woman Twirling, was presented by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Callis has received three NEA Fellowships and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

What was the aha moment that led you to art... and did Los Angeles play a part in your career decision?

I knew I wanted to be an artist since childhood when I was praised for artwork I made. It was that simple, and of course I always loved making things. It is hard to say what might have been had I stayed in Ohio but I am sure my career would have been very different if I had not moved to Los Angeles in 1961. I finished my education here and the art world opened up for me here. 

How has living in LA informed your approach and aesthetic? 

I studied at UCLA and was mentored by Robert Heinecken, who introduced me to photography and encouraged the work I was making at that time. My interests really began in my teenage years, and in many ways the core of my work has not changed over time even though my projects may not look the same as they did before. I have always been interested in portraying reality and the commonplace in a new light, with an edge of tension and pleasure added to the mix. I work in a theatrical mode, setting up scenes with which I make photographs. I also make objects, either to be photographed or to exist on their own, and I have also painted with the same intent.

In my photographs I sometimes use people as models and sometimes I make still lifes, but everything I do is set up with a keen interest in the formal aspects of picture making. Composition always matters to me. There is a challenge in making photographs in which the subject matter is clearly seen meanwhile the meaning or emotion of the photograph is also achieved through metaphor.

Jo Ann Callis
Performance, 1985
Signed in ink on verso
Vintage Cibachrome Print
96.5 x 109.2 cm
38 x 43 in
Photo: © Jo Ann Callis

When and how did you first feel embraced by our LA art community?

My photographs were noticed by the photo community practically from the time I started making them when I was in my 30s. I don’t know about the wider art world because there was always a division between photography and other mediums. That is less true today than it was in the past however, but I think it somewhat exists, even today. 

The exhibition speaks about the vitality of our art community. Which pioneering LA artist influenced you the most? And whose work do you find intriguing right now?  

The pioneering LA artist that influenced me the most was Robert Heinecken, not so much by the art he made but by what he taught me about finding my own voice and exploring that to the fullest. Paul Otterbridge influenced my artwork from the beginning of my career. I find inspiration from all the arts and from looking at everything from graphic arts to design, sculpture, painting and photographs.

What is your favorite art accident?

My favorite art accident(s), literal accidents:

There was the time when I was a student and was posing in the nude for my own photograph, which I rarely did, and I sat in a bed of poison oak. That was most unfortunate to say the least.

There was another time when I was acting as my own nude model and almost fell down a laundry shoot from the second floor to the basement of a fancy home in Holmby Hills. The housekeeper saved my life, but who knows what she thought of me when she answered my cries of help?

Jo Ann Callis
Woman with Blue Bow, 1977
Printed in 2018
Signed on verso
Archival Pigment Print
61 x 76.2 cm
24 x 30 in
Edition of 5 plus 2 AP
Photo: © Jo Ann Callis

How They Ran
Over The Influence
August 12 - September 5, 2018