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Joe Shannon
Joe Shannon with two of his “Persona Variations”
Joe Shannon with two of his “Persona Variations”

“Oceans and eons,” I found myself muttering, hours after my interview with Joe Shannon. Oceans and eons there are to this man’s creative spirit. How do I portray this manifestly talented painter, composer, and poet in a way that does him justice? Ah, no place like the beginning, I suppose.

Though the drawings of his childhood led him toward a preliminary stint in architecture, Shannon’s first disciplined foray into the arts was a musical one. While attending Juilliard School on scholarship, he composed several operas (with his own libretto), ballets, and pursued an active career as pianist and organist. Increasingly, the joy derived from “drawing beautiful title pages” for his musical compositions tugged him toward training in the visual arts, at Pratt Institute and the Art Students League.

The span of Shannon’s accomplishments in the visual arts is impressive. He has been art director for several record companies, graphic designer and consultant for a string of high-powered New York corporations, and a professor of art at SUNY, Columbia University, and the College of New Jersey. His solo exhibitions in New York and elsewhere have brought him acclaim: his paintings are in collections in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Montreal, London, Tokyo, Paris, and Copenhagen, garnering awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities and similarly prestigious foundations.

Later in life, Shannon found a natural outlet in creative writing. His poetry, a favorite of our Writers Gallery readers, has appeared in journals across the country.

My own introduction to Artsbridge, three years ago, was through the writers group, of which Joe is a member as well.

In this interview, I asked Joe a question that has been nagging me: With such a broad spectrum of artistic expression at your able disposal, how do you know whether to paint a canvas, write a poem, or play an instrument when inspiration strikes?

Though he has certainly made drawings and poems inspired by the same natural elements, Shannon explains, the impulses are quite different: “The writing impulse wells up out of human experience, and, like music, it uses a time sequence to help the reader understand your message.” As music uses motif, and loud sounds, then silence, to build excitement and drama, he says, so too does poetry use “the long phrase, then cut phrase” for impact. In contrast, Shannon says, “the impulse for visual art is an appearance. An image becomes a symbol for other meaning. Paintings are frozen music; they unfold a time sequence in the way they lead the viewer to discover the space, and the meanings of the subject matter.”

Shannon’s poetry often utilizes the device of simple, honest conversation in which the speakers reveal themselves: Joe’s goal is to put forth “whatever illuminates the human experience” and thereby “increases the sensitivity of my audience.” He abides by the tenet Robert Frost put forth: that good poetry “begins with delight and ends in wisdom.” Joe’s dialogue format, playing one character off another, can raise the genre to the level of mini-drama. “Good poems,” Shannon says, “help us understand people.”

Joe’s most recent paintings investigate the mystique of art created by tribal societies. “We educate our artists,” Joe says, “toward self-expression. The Western emphasis is on the individual. This has its benefits, but the risk is that we can lose our sense of community. In tribal societies, groups create art for the glorification of the gods and of the clan—not for the promotion of self.” Joe fears that in modern society, we have lost an important raison d’être for art: “We get into ego trips, or commercial promotions, not into serving higher goals.” There is a compelling reason, Joe reposes, why tribal art “continues to inspire and even intimidate us.”

Joe, an avid hiker whose celebration of nature is a frequent focus of his work, theorizes that our modern separation from nature has skewed our spirituality in a lethally selfish direction.

So artists should realize their ability to help mend that spiritual breach? “Oh, absolutely,” Shannon declares, “which is why if I taught art again, I’d start with tribal societies.” We talked about the tendency of universities to urge artists to create increasingly complex pieces that only fellow academics can appreciate. Our discussion comes neatly full circle when Joe pronounces that “the remedy for that academic isolationism belongs to a group like Artsbridge because Artsbridge is tribal. What we do is all for the greater glory of the clan.”

I ask in closing for Shannon’s best advice to young artists. His reply: “Try to understand what you do and why you do it. If you have the talent to enlighten the human condition in what you do, that is its own great reward. Most importantly, set your goal as spiritual success first. If commercial success comes first, you will have to do it over and over again until you find the spiritual success that is yours alone to achieve.”

When do you work and why?
My mornings are filled with obligations of daily business. I need tranquillity for creativity, and I usually don’t get that until the afternoon.

How do dreams affect your work?
My best ideas come while I’m lying on the floor, taking a brief nap. I’m semi-awake and conscious. I like to push ideas around, and you can’t do that when you’re asleep.

Who or what influences your work most?
It’s a very mixed bag of different poets, artists, and composers but I love variety, and that’s what so wonderful about art: the incredible variety of so many viewpoints.

What was the most memorable response to your work?
The most memorable response came after a reading, when a man came up to me and said: “That poem is about things I value but didn’t know how to put in words.” It’s a great honor if a poet can serve as a voice for someone’s inner feelings.”