While JoAnn Cox dabbles in other genres, abstracts have always been her passion. She creates colorful, bright acrylic paintings, but what admirers may not know is that underlying her pieces is a monochromatic framework: charcoal lines on a stark white canvas.
“I don’t even think about color at first. Just balance. I start drawing lines, just letting my hand go wherever it wants to go. The more I can let it be uncontrolled, the more interesting it is — it’s not so tight and rigid, ” she explains. “Then, I stand back and assess what the lines are telling me. I smudge out those I don’t like and add more if I need them.”
The process enables Cox, opposite, to identify her center of interest. Then she begins to establish its relationship to the rest of the painting. “When I start to lay my color down, I’ll work it in three areas, not all on one side. I’ll do reds here, here and here. Then, maybe the greens. But that’s primarily at the beginning. In essence, that first layer is my undercoating.”
Cox strives to take full advantage of what she sees as acrylic’s inherent versatility. Some acrylics are opaque. Others are transparent. All can be diluted with a viscous medium that appears white, but dries clear.
“When I mix it with the pigment, the paint thins but doesn’t become watery. So it glazes beautifully, ” she explains. “I brush it on top, and it lets whatever I’ve done underneath come through. The two marry.” This allows her to create a strong sense of depth without piling up thick layers of paint.
Challenge and Change
Ordinarily, Cox uses charcoal to map out the lines of a painting on the canvas before she picks up a paintbrush, but occasionally she dives right into the pigment. “I’ll let the paint flow, and consequently it often becomes more fluid, ” she says. Cox drew from nature’s warm color palette of reds and purples for “Summer’s Garden.”
While recent paintings carry the same “abstract” label as those she did years ago, the work itself is quite different. “My earlier paintings were more linear, more segmented. In the corners there would be a little movement, ” she says. As her style evolved, the movement got bigger and the lines became curvier.
She points to a commission from a customer, who wants a new painting to complement one of Cox’s older works. “And she wants them to have some continuity, ” Cox says, laughing. “It’s like asking me to grow black hair again.”
Despite her hesitations, Cox seems to be enjoying the challenge. And if, for some reason, the client decides not to buy the finished product? “You never really paint for the other person, ” she says. “You have got to satisfy yourself first.” As long as she’s happy with her work, she can put it in the gallery with the expectation that it will sell. (Nearly all of her paintings do.)
But sales aren’t her only measure of success. “When people who don’t know anything in particular about abstract art are drawn to it and they don’t know why, to me that means I’ve had a success, ” she says. “Whether they buy it or not, it’s spoken to them. I always like that. I think that maybe I’ve made one person look at the world a little differently.”
The flip side is the prospect of failure. Does she ever do something that just doesn’t work? “Oh yes! Sometimes I get so frustrated with the ugliness of it, ” she laughs. “I paint over it, or turn it upside down and paint over it, because I still see those lines. They still influence me.”
Such failures are rare, and generally surface early in the process. If she finds a canvas to be balanced and intriguing when she starts applying color, she’ll nearly always be satisfied with the finished piece. Of course, that’s not always been the case. “I graduated from high school in 1965, so by ’66 I was at Moorhead (Mississippi Delta Community College) taking everything I could get from the art department, ” she recalls.
“One of my earliest memories is sitting in Jean Abram’s office crying. I was trying to learn how to do abstracts, and I felt like I was groping in the dark. I wanted her to give me the manual on how to paint abstracts.” Cox smiles at the memory.
“She was head of the art department and such a wonderful teacher, so patient with me. She said, ‘Just keep painting, and you’ll figure it out. You’ll know what works, and you’ll know what doesn’t work. You’ll know when it’s finished.’ That was good advice: Just get in there and do it until you figure it out.” Cox has most certainly figured it out.
The cool tones of “Aquamarine” are an unusual choice for Cox. She attributes the palette to living near the water: “Every once in a while, that aqua’s just got to come out.” She also used visual tricks to create interesting proportions. “It’s a square canvas, but it’s not a square painting because everything is off center, ” she says.
Leila and Friends
It wasn’t until the early 1990s, when Leila Hollowell and Cathy Dunning bought Gallery 54, that JoAnn Cox made the transition to full-time working artist. “Leila said they needed some artwork to fill an empty space on the wall, ” recalls Cox. “I had just finished a large painting for my dining room and offered to let her borrow it. Well, she sold it. Of course it made my year when she said that somebody actually paid money for my artwork.”
She loaned the gallery a replacement painting, which also sold. Cox kept filling those empty spaces on the wall for nearly 20 years.
Soon after our initial interview with Cox, the Mobile arts community lost a true friend and ardent supporter. Leila Hollowell died in late December, and Gallery 54 has now closed. As Cox notes on her website, “There has been a gallery at this location since 1972, and it was a hub of art, artists, patrons, good conversation and, always, good friendship.”
Cox and other key Gallery 54 artists have joined Ashland Gallery, which is welcoming them with a special exhibit. “Leila and Friends” will showcase recent works by JoAnn Cox, Missy Patrick, Susan Downing-White, Elizabeth Haskins, Bob Haskins and Bertice McPherson.
Hollowell’s photographs will be included in the show, with proceeds from the sales of her work (along with a portion of other sales related to the exhibit) going to Chemo Sabé, the patient support group she started at the USA Mitchell Cancer Institute.
“In addition to welcoming these artists long associated with Gallery 54 to Ashland, it’s also a tribute to Leila, ” says gallery owner Cathy Collins.
Where to Purchase
2321 Old Shell Road. 479-3548.
Leila and Friends Show Opening
6 – 8 p.m. Ashland Gallery, 2321 Old Shell Road. 479-3548.