Photos: Bill Green
Originally from Poland, ceramicist, painter, illustrator and fiber artist Joanna Szachowska- Tarkowska moved to the Mojave high desert four years ago. Before Joanna and her partner, Artur, settled in this desert, they had traveled far and wide looking for that elusive sensation of an authentic home, a homecoming. They had explored India, Thailand, the Phillipines, Greece, Italy and Spain. It wasn’t until they arrived in the strange, arid landscape of this high desert that they felt able to put an end to their searching and began to put down roots here. Joanna’s art in its beautiful, multifaceted forms, evokes the stark, silent beauty of this landscape. It does so, however, without any sense of trying to. Her body of work has seemingly always come from here – she simply needed to find the home, the land from which it had been displaced.
We could spend hours speaking to Joanna about the explorations of creative space and art. Here’s a beautiful distillation of some potent medicine for creativity from this incredible, prolific and versatile artist.
LA: What is it about this desert that has you hooked?
JST: ”Beyond the edge of the world, there’s a space where emptiness and substance neatly overlap, where past and future form a continuous, endless loop. And, hovering about, there are signs no one has ever read, chords no one has ever heard.” For me, this is the most amazing description of my feelings about the desert. Thank you, Haruki Murakami.
I am hooked by my holy ”S” trinity. Space. Silence. Sun. Life is a constant dance of changes. And when you are tuned to the music of your deep longings, desires of your heart, you are more conscious and you ask questions. Do you really have to live where you were born? So one day we just left the narrow streets of Warsaw and we settled in the middle of nowhere, and we called this vast desert our new home.
Of course, it was a much more complex transition. It required big determination, courage with a hint of craziness. But we were in this dream together with my partner Artur, who also wanted to change his life and job. He exchanged his desk job in media to a potter throwing wheel and he came back to his youth passion, photography.
We were both really tired of living in a big city, being disconnected from nature and not seeing space, which really helps to unfold your own inner, spiritual dynamic. You really need to be surrounded by the calmness of vast space and silence, of deep dark night skies to know what really matters. And here, this spacious environment leads you to the journey where you are hooked forever to be curiosity, and you want your never-ending discovery to last forever, and maybe you may become one day just pure observation and not an observer.
LA: Working with clay always seems to be a process of transformation for the artist. What is it about this medium that draws you in specifically?
JST: I always had two passions: food and making things. I am a vegan cook, and I used to be a food stylist – so I was constantly in need of handmade, unique ceramic dishes. After painting it was a new medium – so as already an artist I just had to go deeply into knowing it well. I spent over 2000 hours in common clay studio in Warsaw before I moved here with the already developed brand – Dust Ceramics.
Clay is like a human body. It feels, it remembers ceramicist touch. Doing clay every day does not stop me from being in awe of it. How transformative it is by itself and it transforms the artist at the same time. I teach students ceramics in my studio – and I feel fortunate – clay attracts good souls! My recent two years of life were challenged by breast cancer and chemotherapy – which for a long time hold back my physical energy which is so required when you work with heavy-duty clay work. So I feel like a Phoenix rising from ashes of a past, ready for my new chapter in clay. I am planning my collections of tableware and other objects juxtaposed with fiber – so I will have my own world of ceramics, a little separated from what we do together in Dust Ceramics.
LA: How do you get inspiration for your gorgeous glazes?
JST: Thank you for your kind words. Yes, I am a little bit smitten with colors. I used to be a professional colorist while I was working with Scandinavian paints brand, Beckers, when I was living in Poland. They called me the ‘color doctor’. I remember hundreds of hours of color counseling for private residences and public spaces. I was often able to understand (maybe because I am Libra rising) completely oppose needs of color for him and her, and finding a middle way – I was actually reconciling the two sides and saving marriages. But seriously, I am obsessed with what Japanese call wabi sabi, which stands for embracing what it is, the beauty of the imperfect. Authenticity, unpretentiousness and becoming one with nature is the key tenet of this ancient worldview, so organic materials are moreover a primary part of the movement. Everything matters – what we eat, what we absorb, with who you surround yourself. Anyway that it is possible to live natural and simple, even now when we are all bombarded with toxicity. So for my colors I choose for our glazes (I only use food-safe materials) are based on my life philosophy and sense aesthetic, which is probably spiced with my European roots.
LA: When did you start painting?
JST: I was born in quite down to earth ancestry, where the art was not necessary. I was the black sheep from the beginning. As a kid and teenager I was always off from the mainstream, always found in some kind of my own, quiet, creative niche. My mum was always supportive, but my dad expected me to have a solid life and job – we were not the best friends – for a long time in my life I felt not understood and accepted. When I was 16 years old I moved for a while to my father’s stepmum and I was making art for hours and hours every day.
So I am a self-educated artist. My career as a painter shoot up when I was 26, I was single mama, my daughter was 4 and I got a first big custom order which allowed me to invest in my own equipment and sail wider. Then, after a few years and many successful solo exhibitions, I transport my interest to editorial illustrations and become an international illustrator, mainly working for US magazines.
For now, I don’t see myself as a painter. I always flow between mediums. I am more like a witch of natural pigments and dyes I put on raw canvases. I paint with clay, I mix clay with fiber, I weave fiber with ceramics. Everything permeates each other.
LA: Your painting is evocative of a sort of internal ‘poetry’ – what inspires your painting?
JST: Yes, you are right. There is internal poetry flowing in me constantly. Literally and symbolically. Often I paint mainly unreadable, for others, different kinds of letters and signs – kind of hidden diary, which is periodically a secret translation of my feelings or just playing with words as the background of the rest of story. I am inspired by my own imagination which is filtered by nature’s influence. I think the reason I landed here, in the desert, which is so far and so different from everything that was surrounding my before ‘desert life’ – was my strong urge to discover that place where I meant to be. I was slowly maturing to that decision – move from my homeland to find space and sunny weather where we can create things.
All my endeavors have come together to form my creative vision and my down to earth aesthetic, represented by an obsessive passion for textures, revealing layers by distressing, building organic forms inspired by natural objects such as stones, plant parts, rocks or lichen. Rough and refined, primitive and spontaneous, ultimately paring things down to become one-of-a-kind object that looks more like an element from the past.
My objects have many textures, each layer building upon fragile clay elements or fiber, reminiscent of bones, cocoons and other earthy elements, to create spontaneous collages or small sculptures that uniquely juxtapose disparate naked elements torn out from excessive decor.
I feel as I am an advocate for marginal, abandoned, unwanted elements that for me, become the essence of transformation. I am driven by the feeling that each end is a new beginning, as I track the essence of the past to become part of a future mystery.
LA: What is your most beloved desert plant?
JST: Most loved ones are Creosote, Eriogonum inflatum – the desert trumpet, and Yerba Santa. Whenever I hike with my friends in the mountains area I bring a little branch of this holy plant, Yerba Santa. You need just a few leaves to make your sun tea. The taste of the leaves is balsamic and aromatic. I love the spirit of the Creosote plant. Can you imagine that each bush is rooted in the other? No one is single. Each grows from another. I love it’s smell after a rain so much that I keep a branch of it under a shower to have its smell with me. I use it also for bath and as a natural dye for my fiber art. And then the cutest and funniest plant ever – desert trumpet! Its shape! And floated stem. So odd plant, they look more like aliens than plants. I always say hello to them when I see their funny bellies sway in the wind.