The thought-provoking wit of a postmodern graphic archeologist
Joan Seed elevates the postmodern art form of collage to a wickedly defiant level. Scavenging through old print magazines, she dismembers the existing visuals into components and reengineers them into darkly provocative tableaux. Masterly crafted, Joan Seed’s art challenges the viewer to make sense of the present through the confluence of oppositional images from the past. Her visual critiques unearth festering issues of contemporary culture including consumerism, human rights and environmental issues. But do not fear venturing into her world, Joan Seed’s objets trouvés are sweetly candy-coated in a soothing blend of wit and humour.
Heads Lifestyle: Hi Joan, nice to see you again. Tell us about your pandemic? We hear it’s been both disappointing and incredibly inspiring.
Joan Seed: The pandemic cancelled many of my plans to get merchandise and prints into Montreal stores. I was lucky enough that Montreal Images was still on board in spite of the lockdown. Just like many other small business owners, my sales suffered from the drop in demand for nonessential goods. However, I must say that 2020 was a good year to get noticed on social media. With the long confinement periods, there was nothing preventing me from jumping completely into my collage work. All the angst and uncertainty I felt somehow generated inspiration. I got a unique opportunity to practice my craft without interruption. Blocking all the outside noise helped me compose and conceptualize, and attain the higher level I was striving for.
HL: For those who have yet to experience Joan Seed, can you tell us about your vision?
JS: My vision is to create art that can be applied to everyday items like clothing, home decor and giftware. E-commerce is just the beginning. I'd like to have pop-up stores and concept stores. Down the road, I'd like to publish a coffee table book and even make a film.
My fortune cookies are essentially memes. They are meant to share the wit and humour I've accumulated in the back of my mind over the years.
HL: Your artwork is deceivingly sophisticated—at times simple (fortune cookies) and at others, very complex (collages). Can you explain these two approaches?
JS: My fortune cookies are essentially memes. They are meant to share the wit and humour I've accumulated in the back of my mind over the years. They always feature snippets of text that are merged to give new meaning. The primary text takes on a different meaning as it clashes with the secondary text. It's like rerouting someone's thoughts in order to turn them into something ridiculous and absurd. The resulting humour has been very successful on social media and I'm proud to have brought comic relief to people all over the world. I wanted to create a vehicle for social media platforms. Social media is supposed to be social. Humour is how I've always lubricated my social interactions. As a child, I often disrupted the class by completing the teacher's sentences and derailing her train of thought. Today it helps me be relatable to my followers.
The collages are a profound exploration of colour, composition and meaning. I draw on the symbolism of images that defined our western culture during a 50-year period. One could call it “graphic archaeology.” Most of the time, the reengineering process reveals the dark side of our society as hindsight reveals lies. My collages are not meant to convey precise information. If I wanted to communicate specific facts, I'd use words and numbers. My work is an invitation to a journey, not a destination. I love listening to different interpretations. Everybody has a different way of experiencing what they see. Interestingly, no one is ever indifferent to my work.
HL: Your collages are extraordinary. Have you always been artistic?
JS: Thank you. I've always had an artistic penchant. I've spent all my life making art. I have a bachelor's degree in Fine Arts and another in Art Education. I studied at the University of Ottawa and Québec University in Montreal.
HL: You’ve compared the act of creating visuals to playing an instrument. Can you explain?
JS: I believe that when you pick a medium whether it's painting, sculpting or drawing, you have to approach it in the same way that an aspiring musician would the piano, the violin or the saxophone. In order to produce good work—work that is deeply personal and groundbreaking—you have to practice everyday at least one hour a day. This is the only way to get in the creative flow. No one ever made great music within a few hours of picking up the saxophone. The same goes for collage work. Good work only comes when you're truly passionate about your instrument or medium. Some naysayers told me that collage work already had a huge presence online and that it was dead. I simply tell them that many virtuosos have excelled at the saxophone over the past 100 years but if someone in 2021 plays it in a deeply meaningful way, then that becomes art in the most relevant sense. The same goes for collage work and painting.
HL: Do you work in any other media?
JS: I've explored painting and drawing and created a substantial body of work. I love drawing and how it can be done almost anywhere without any fuss. I like the direct nature of drawing. You can record emotions just by using lines and you can rework a drawing almost indefinitely.
The Spirit of Mary Jo
This collage is based on a true story. Mary Jo Kopechne was an American secretary, one of the campaign workers for Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. In 1969, she died in a car accident on Chappaquiddick Island, while being driven by U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy. The press photo of the Oldsmobile in a river and the background story haunted me when I was a child looking through old magazines. She was abandoned in the car at the scene of the accident. Such disregard for human life never made sense to me. In this collage, her spirit gazes over the accident scene as if she is trying to come to terms with it. Paranormal investigators believe that spirits often linger around the scene of the accident where they lost their lives. In the foreground, you see garbage and debris polluting the river. In the background, you see a scrap yard and a raging forest fire. The cars shown here are a symbol of the destruction of wildlife, forests and humans lives. Despite the tragic nature of this collage, the colour palette is warm and almost soothing. The "spirit" looks serene and there is something almost peaceful in the aftermath of the accident. I never meant for this artwork to be exploitative or sensationalistic. I prefer that the spectator pause silently and meditate about the death toll of reckless driving and consumerism. When I published this collage on Instagram, they wouldn't allow me to tag it as a product in my online store. Because of the name Mary Jo, they assumed it had to do with cannabis. That is just how stupid social media can be.
HL: What was the catalyst that led you to launch Joan Seed?
JS: In 2015, I'd been working in advertising for 28 years. As an Art Director, I'd jumped through many hoops for all kinds of clients and I was getting tired of it. In advertising, you're always dancing to the client's tune, as Don Draper eloquently stated. Some clients have no taste, some are dishonest, some are micro-managers and some of them are abusive. Six years ago, we were also observing the end of printing for many purposes and the transition to the Internet. The time was right to make my own transition towards e-commerce and art for art's sake. My advice would be: If you have an idea brewing in your head for an important project; if you have a book to write, per se, start writing by the age of 50. Waiting any longer to launch yourself will only diminish your chances of getting it done. I therefore pushed forward and never looked back.
HL: You’ve travelled a great deal. Tell us about some of your favourite places and why you value experiencing other cultures?
JS: I've had the privilege of travelling through Europe, Asia, Central America and South America in recent years. Each place has its own aesthetic experiences to offer. Thailand got me excited about using a new colour palette reminiscent of the local vegetation and the elaborate art that adorns the temples in Bangkok. There's no denying that my work has a strong European side to it. Visiting Florence, Italy had such a powerful effect on me that I was forever changed. I came back from my trips to Europe convinced that there were no limits to beauty and that all man-made things should be as beautiful as possible. During my trip to Argentina, I saw Iguazu Falls. The outstanding natural beauty of this site made me reflect on the importance of protecting the natural wonders of our planet.
HL: You seem to have an obsession for cars? Do you even have a valid driver’s license?
JS: I have never had a driver's licence. I'm interested in cars for the role they've played in defining who we are. So many movie scenes are shot in cars. They are often an extension of those who drive them. They are, in fact, designed to be the perfect alter egos. Cars were at the core of human existence from the moment they were invented. Automobiles are sometimes a symbol of death. The hours people spend commuting in traffic jams equate to hours of life lost while polluting the planet with gas emissions. Many historical landmarks and natural habitats were destroyed so that cars could take over with highways and parking lots. People forgo life dreams to acquire cars they can't afford in order to climb the social ladder. In many ways, cars mean death to me. In my collages I show people riding inside their mid-century American automobiles with wheels missing—metallic vessels floating around with no purpose. I create surreal constructions of car parts that protrude from floating masses like space debris.
HL: We seem to be mired in a period of artistic stagnation. What do you believe is the underlying reason for the lack of originality and innovation these days?
JS: People access art through social media, which is not a very accommodating platform. There are rules from which artists are not exempted. Facebook and Instagram police the content for nudity, while historically ignoring content that incites violence. There's also been a long cycle of what is considered "good art." The art world has a tradition of going through conservative cycles. In the 1860s, Impressionists were considered edgy. In 2020-21, I see a lot of people emulating artists. Has social media made us fit into a mould? I believe so. In order to be meaningful, art has to push boundaries and go way beyond prettiness or even reflections of society. If you have to establish a baseline for what good art is, I would say authenticity, relevance and intelligence. Without these three elements, the work has no chance of keeping its value. Aesthetics, of course, play a role from beginning to end. Good art also needs to be fostered. The countless hours it takes to be a great artist must be encouraged and supported. The financial aspect doesn't just take care of itself. If we want great art to emerge, we have to nurture it. We have to become a society that gives it due importance in the school curriculum as well.
Freeway of Love
In this landscape featuring a freeway from an aerial perspective, we get a feeling of speed. The open legs allude to the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, which has an hourly capacity of 3,800 vehicles. To me this is a reference to hook up culture. I'm not saying anything bad about it. Anonymous sex in a motel on the side of the highway or a truck stop can be very exciting. You'll never hear me slut-shame anybody. I'd love to know what Aretha Franklin would think of this tableau. I hope she's laughing in heaven.
HL: The world has been hit by massive disruption as a result of the pandemic, and closer to home, the new administration in the U.S. will undoubtedly usher in change. What are you expecting in the coming years?
JS: During the pandemic, the confinement and the uncertainty forced people to be reclusive and austere. It's an unnatural way for humans to be. We humans are gregarious by nature. Before the pandemic even began, America was trapped in an oppressive administration elected with a promise to build a wall. There were times when I was very worried to see where we were going as a society. America lost its moral high ground. Trump created division and hate. After four years of what seemed like endless darkness, I feel we can finally be optimistic.
Historically, if we look back at what happens when negative pressures are released, humans go wild. When the First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic were over in 1918, what happened soon after? The Roaring 20s! Our resilience and survival depend on our ability to bounce back. After periods of oppression we are inclined to make up for what we lost and we have a better focus on what is essential to us. People will want an unconstrained way of life. We will seek new levels of freedom. I have a good feeling about what's coming. People will drop their smart phones more often to enjoy each other's presence instead.
HL: Do you believe Joan Seed’s time has finally come?
JS: Some people were interested in my work from day one. But like any inventor, I was also dealt a lot of criticism. My work didn't fall in a familiar comfort zone. Even street art culture in general, aside from being autodidactic, is very traditional. I had to do a show in Chicago in order to get even the slightest recognition in Montreal. My art deals with sensitive issues. It needs to be viewed with an open mind. I will always be a risk taker and my work will always be thought-provoking. My followers are in a niche of their own. I knew it would take time to reach out to them but now I feel like I'm finally making connections. Truth be told, I have no desire to please the general public. Walmart and Costco do that very well without my help.
HL: What first inspired you to create Pop Art?
JS: Pop Art is a category of art that most people can relate to. Advertising has been so prevalent everywhere around the world for the past 100 years. When you think about it, we've created a visual language that everybody learns at a young age. From Barbie to Aunt Jemima, we are force-fed commercial images from so many directions that it overtakes reality. I was exposed to Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein during my childhood. I had a subscription to Interview magazine throughout the 80s. The recontextualization of commercial art is as pertinent today as it was in the 60s. We are bombarded with so many images of consumerism; it's like creating art with found objects. I feel it's my responsibility to put it in perspective to help people grapple with its overwhelming presence. The two-dimension culture eloquently describes how we see ourselves. A contrived image is often more revealing than a raw image. Today, in social media, photo retouching is used to such an extent that it ends up being the focal point of the image. I'm fascinated by the huge discrepancy between the facade and the backstage of all the images I see. It was Pop Art that sparked that in me.
I like the word fascinator. “A fascinator is a formal headpiece for women, a style of millinery” (Wikipedia). The TV fascinator is a woman whose many facets are shown through a multitude of screens. The fascinator is so big, it hides her face. Indeed, she can only become fascinating by hiding who she really is with an overwhelming display of vanity. Here she is turning her back to a sunset. I believe we all know that person. This is open to many interpretations. Women in our society have always been under pressure to perform on a multitude of levels. From Tinder to LinkedIn, social media has us addicted to screens constantly showing a variety of aspects of ourselves.
HL: You source the images for your collages from printed magazines from a specific period —1955 to 1970. Why this era?
JS: I'm interested in that period because, first of all, I am a product of that era. It's my personal quest to understand the effects of unprecedented economic expansion with the confidence and arrogance that ensued. It explains how we got to where we are today. Just as the women's liberation movement started to take off, women became the prime targets for cigarette and alcohol companies. With liberation came a wave of commercial stalking. There's clear evidence of this in the evolution of ad placement in Newsweek magazines from 1955 to 1970.The expansion of car ads that offer an escape to the perfect world spawned an unquenchable thirst for fossil fuels. That timespan is a roadmap of how we got to where we are today with global warming, human rights and gender equality.
HL: Why is it so important for you to examine and literally dissect the culture of this time period?
JS: This period saw steady economic expansion. The Western world, particularly North America, was emboldened by victory after the Second World War. Sexual liberation followed and consumerism reached an all-time high. We are all products of the incredible changes that were happening in this era. We have a lot to learn from taking a look back in order to understand how our value system came to be.
HL: In revisiting the advertising campaigns from that period, you’ve noted that they were filled with rampant lies. Do you believe consumerism is more honest today?
JS: When you look at the staggering amount of lies that have circulated in the right wing media, it's obvious we haven't gotten more honest. Lying takes on many different forms. Today, the biggest lie to consumers is planned obsolescence. Everything is so candy-coated, it's no wonder we've become terrified of clowns. I hope Ronald McDonald is reading this. One of my former advertising clients was a borderline psychopath, lying was his oxygen. This is one of the reasons I left advertising. When the pandemic started, airline companies had P.R. people minimize the risk of exposure. Making money was more important to them than acknowledging the fact that we were faced with a crisis. A passenger on board a flight was sick with Covid-19 during springtime before masks were mandatory. A spokesperson for the airline said there was nothing to worry about. No epidemiologist had been consulted. Their assessment of the situation was totally biased and devoid of scientific evidence. I don't even want to get into all the lies one can encounter on dating applications, which fall under my definition of advertising. It is safe to say businesses are still struggling with basic ethics.
Time Slip off the West Coast
In this collage, you see a woman sitting on the ledge of an antique four-poster bed, reminiscing. The bed frame seems to be a portal to memories of her youth. One could think of days gone by when the seashore was a summer vacation spot. The black and white photo of the young woman diving reminded me of the many old summer vacation snapshots families used to take throughout the 20th century. In the background you see a big ominous wave approaching. Further in the distance, you see an offshore oil platform. The vertical lines guide the eye through this image. The diver's legs, the oil platform and the bedposts stand out vertically in the composition. The juxtaposition of these clashing images conveys different stories in the time-space continuum. In the spectator's eye, it's unsettling to see these elements connecting so quickly. But when you think about it, the change in how we perceive our oceans occurred very quickly as well. This is an image of paradise lost. The restrained colour palette of teal, aqua, grey and charcoal are meant to bring peace to this image. I wanted the colours to allow for a pause and reflection like the woman in the collage.
HL: There’s a spectre of death in many of your collages. Is this intentional?
JS: The irony of our culture is that we value feelings of invincibility and invulnerability. But it is only when you truly understand the opposite that you can start to appreciate life to its fullest. Consumerism has had a damaging effect on how we perceive life. When you figure out how small we are in the universe, it has a sobering yet liberating effect. Life is short and precious. The clutter of past lives and present ones is a monumental testimony to how much we let things control us, often to the disadvantage of loved ones and life experiences. Mourning has always influenced art. We mourn for all kinds of loss. Death does not always bring sadness and mourning, however. Death can symbolize the end of an episode. When it so happens that the episode was a bad one, death comes as deliverance.
In my art, I like to depict time slips. Time slips are glitches in the time/space continuum when two completely distinct moments in time collide. Life and death are illusions in this parallel universe. In some of my collages, I portray car crashes. They make a great metaphor for the loss of control. Death is something we can't control. Most of the time, however, symbols of death appear purely by chance. I wonder sometimes why they consistently appear in my work.
HL: Who do the women in your collages represent?
JS: In my fortune cookies, I give voice to the many women I know and admire. They are typically open-minded, cultured and intellectually curious. I also like to pay tribute to survivors and rebels. The women in my fortune cookies are all stand up comics sharing jokes that have made people laugh out loud all over the globe. In my collages, I prefer the subjects to be open to interpretation. Each spectator should relate to my art on a personal level. I focus on what our facades say about us. Social media perpetuates the longstanding tradition of the contrived image.
HL: There is also a current of homoeroticism in your work? Where does this influence come from?
JS: Homoeroticism has been on the rise in advertising for over three decades. Gay-for-pay is a thing. Men are now just as objectified as women. On a personal level, there's no denying I'm a big old fruit fly. My first pop-up store was in a prominent gay nightclub in the Village. It was very successful. Gays are open to my work. Without their support, I wouldn't have gotten this far. They have a sensibility for art. I also admire the guts it took for the LGBTQ community to gain respect over the past 50 years. Survivors of all kinds can relate to my work. Queers know a lot about survival.
Butt Plug Delivery
Here's one that isn't as sombre. Something big is being delivered to a nice suburban bungalow. Mother looks flabbergasted, the kids seem excited and Grandma drops her knitting to look through the window to see what the commotion is all about. The only family member missing is Dad. Something tells me he's going to have a lot of explaining to do when he returns home. This is also a commentary on closet homosexuality and how hard it had to be to keep such a big thing secret. The clean facade to the perfect suburban home often hid gay men struggling with an intolerant heteronormative society throughout the 20th century. The size of the sex toy also shows our ever-growing need for bigger pleasures: bigger hamburgers, bigger drinks, bigger penises. In this case, it's as big as the secret—so big, it can't fit in the house.
HL: In the last year, you’ve had two gallery shows—one in Chicago and another in Tokyo. Can you tell us about these?
JS: I was given the opportunity to show my work in Chicago at De La Foye Design Studio and in Tokyo by Tricera Art Gallery. I feel very humble about exhibiting. It pushes me to give the very best that I have to offer. The works were created exclusively for these exhibitions. The Chicago show also featured a fashion show where retro pinup models paraded mid-century fashions. Other artists from a variety of visual art disciplines showed their work as well in other studios during the open doors event. I got the chance to discover very talented people and get acquainted with art aficionados from the Windy City.
The show in Tokyo with Tricera will remain virtual until the end of lockdown at which point it will be held physically in a gallery setting. I'm thrilled to have a small spotlight in a country that has inspired me so much. I hesitate to consider myself a high-end artist because I want my work to be accessible to everybody. I need to make art. I'll never be able to stop. Some people might consider that a curse. But I'm confident that my work will captivate people for many years. I want to give humanity something to enjoy.
HL: How do gallery exhibits compare to displaying art on social media?
JS: Collage work is always better to view physically on a wall. Computer screens don't offer the same experience—let alone smart phones! My art prints are now available online at 52 X 52 inches. A Montreal collector recently acquired one and the effect is breathtaking. Social media is not an ideal way to show art. Although it has many advantages we couldn't have dreamt about before it was invented, it remains somewhat of a zoo. Some of my art was censored for nudity while paradoxically Instagram allows a plethora of influencers selling sex. Everything is controlled by the famous algorithms that were devised to keep your eyes on the screen for as many hours a day as possible no matter what it takes.
HL: What inspires you?
JS: I used to think only beauty could inspire me but as it turns out, so does melancholy. When I look at beauty, I instantly feel happy. When I feel emotional pain, I experience a completely different aspect of life. Both feelings, however opposite to one another have an impact on my creative exploration. Art is a distillation—in goes the bad and out comes the art. No matter what happens to me, I know it will be broken down into art. Then it will be out there for someone else to discover. That person will feel touched and connected. That itself is inspiring.
The Virgin Mary with her halo is not a real person; she is an ideal of purity. On the left we have a suburban neighbourhood and a school; on the right we have a peaceful landscape. Keeping one's virginity until your wedding was a major concern up until the 70s. Girls who got pregnant before marriage were shunned by society. The term “love child” refers to a child born out of wedlock. This euphemistic expression always left me wondering why all children weren’t love children. It was my mother who told me that it was an alternative word for bastard. In this collage, we have a child holding another child. With her worried look, it's obvious she's had to grow up fast. Her long red nails show another side of her. Perhaps it provides a clue as to what she does to support her love child. The Virgin Mary is often depicted holding a white lily symbolizing purity, but here we have a cannabis leaf or the devil's lettuce, suggesting a completely different trajectory. This collage shows a Catholic way of life gone wrong.
HL: Cannabis cameos appear from time to time in your artwork. What has legalization been like for you?
JS: I've always been in favour of legalization. I've been an avid cannabis consumer all my adult life. I wouldn't want any form of authority telling me not to do something that saved me during a long episode of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Cannabis helped me in my love life and my professional career. Cannabis allows me to tune into my inner voice, the one that holds the keys to the art room. As long as I have access to that room, I have a reason to live.
HL: Whom do you admire?
JS: I admire survivors. I admire the plants that grow in seemingly impossible conditions like small cracks between asphalt and concrete. I admire people who have that power. I've had the privilege of knowing such people who rise by their own true merit.
HL: Shotgun questions:
JS: Sage green
Favourite way to consume cannabis?
JS: The Black Widow Vaporizer
Favourite movie star?
JS: Joan Crawford
JS: 1954 Cadillac Eldorado—hearse or convertible
Favourite piece of music?
JS: Beethoven String Quartets
HL: What does the future hold for Joan Seed?
JS: Joan Seed is unstoppable. We’ve sold items to customers from 96 cities in North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and never had a bad review. My work is always improving. The expectations I have towards myself on a creative level are very high. A book is being written and there are many more pages and chapters to come.
Follow on Instagram at: @joanseed
Listen on Spotify
Curious to know what Joan Seed listens to while clipping images from vintage print magazines? Us too! Listen to our custom Joan Seed-curated "Timeslip Mix" on Spotify.
You may also like:
Where mood and movement meet
Arrowhead Vintage turns estate sale trash into reclaimed treasure
Through the artist's gaze, a mugshot becomes art, otherness turns to affirmation