For Richmond-based artist Joelle Wade, following her muse has always been more important than focusing on making money from her art. That’s what’s led her from fashion design to wood-burning to self-publishing a coloring book and beyond. George Wethington catches up with her to find out what fuels her passion for art of all kinds.
What do fashion design and change have in common? Your first guess may have been the seasons, but allow me to introduce you to another force of nature: Joelle Wade. Wade was in gifted art studies programs in public schools, then studied Fashion Design at VCU. However, since graduating, her focus has changed a number of times, and she has followed her honed artistic intuition to new points, planes, and heights. She now teaches art to children, is getting her Masters in Art Therapy, does portrait-level wood-burning, and has a coloring book she illustrated personally. She is publishing that book in the time she takes from homework, class, paint pours, wood-burn commissions, exercise, and being a person outside of that — which I’m not sure is possible. I don’t know where or how she is accessing this form of time-bending witchcraft (I like to refer to anything that I do not understand as witchcraft). As driven and busy as she is, she has a care-free attitude toward artistic exploration that we can all learn from. She took time out from her busy schedule to talk about staying motivated and fresh as an artist, and how that applies to the artist within us all.
Wade is one of the people that has always been 2 degrees of Kevin Bacon away from me. She wore her black jacket at the bohemian, hedonist, autumn bonfires where we drank cheap booze and listened to grindcore, Wu-Tang, and honky-tonk. We walked a road then that was cheap and fun, and the more I follow that road, the more I find adventure in every corner of my life and the city. My road happened to meet back up with hers — sans the black jacket, booze, fire, and musical accompaniment — and we talked about the force that drives her.
George Wethington: I feel like you are a very multi-faceted artist. There are multiple ways that you have found to express yourself. Some of them are mediums that seem to me to be the bread and butter of what drives things for you, like the wood-burn commissions you do so you can sustain your artistic life. But there are also times where you explore art simply for the sake of doing, which is one of the things that made me want to do this interview; being able to see someone that is an artist but does not restrict themselves to certain art forms, while not having an identity crisis.
How long have you been doing art?
Joelle Wade: Oh, wow, how long have I been doing art? Genuinely, since I could pick up a pencil, I have been doing art. [soft laughter] I can remember being, you know, 10 or 11, and just building arts and crafts around, and constantly having a mess around the house. You know, just making things, drawing things, coloring things. We had a shed that my brother and I played music in, and we would make big DO NOT ENTER signs, but we had fun with it and put a lot of work into them. Anything I could get my hands on to do artistically, I have been doing since I was very small. I guess I really started on my path as an artist once I left the pure fun of making from homeschooling, which I valued so much because it was my own, then went to a public-school setting around that time of 10 or 11. I got put into the gifted arts programs, and they really pushed me to do more than I ever knew existed. That was when art really started standing out to me in an “Oh, I love this” kind of way, instead of something I did for fun, because I was a kid. That was probably the point where I fell in love with art and understood it as a concept that I liked.
GW: That’s interesting. It is not only this innate calling, but it has come from this creative place of fun and exploration of identity.
JW: Exactly. I always knew it was fun, I just didn’t know you could do more with it. I learned about different art styles. A whole new world opened up to me.
GW: It’s a language.
JW: Yeah, and it was one I understood. [laughs]
GW: [Laughing] That’s cool, absolutely, those languages are important. So, you have a coloring book on the way, how did that come about?
JW: There was this picture of my cat that I really wanted to make into art but didn’t know how. I ended up taking the photo and outlining it, just starting something from somewhere, and thought, “Oh my gosh, this would make a great coloring book!” I made a coloring book of all of my closest friends’ pets that I put on Facebook, and I had so many people reach out and ask how they could buy it that I decided to actually just make a public coloring book.
All of the pictures in the coloring book are references of pictures that I have taken personally from my travels around the world. They are all things that I have actually seen, which I think is pretty cool. So there are 32 or so different images of all different animals and critters, like moths, and giraffes, all types of crazy stuff in there. I didn’t realize all the animals I’ve really seen until I was actually going through it. It was a really fun process for me. I really, really enjoyed doing it. Actually I’m in the middle of publication, it is officially copyrighted and I’m making the step towards publishing.
JW: Thank you!
GW: You’re welcome! So, coloring books themselves have become increasingly popular over the last ten or so years amongst pretty much all age ranges as a form of relaxation and stress relief. Would you encourage the average person to go beyond a passive craft like an adult coloring book, and why?
JW: Absolutely! I feel like there are so many people out there that are like “I can’t draw very well” or “I can’t paint so I’m not an artist,” but there are so many different crafts and art forms out there that really can speak to someone. Like I’m in wood-burning, and who would have thought of that as an art form when I started 9 years ago? I was a fashion designer before I was doing that, and sewing is an art form. There are so many types out there. It is really important for people to step outside of what they consider the norm and try new things that can speak to them.
GW: Right. What do you think really lies there for people to step outside of their comfort zone who would not think to? What is on the other side for them?
JW: There is a lot of opportunity for self-reflection in whatever art you are creating. I see a lot of peace. Maybe you wanted to express yourself, but you really haven’t known how. Well, you don’t want to draw, and you don’t want to paint. There are other things out there. Maybe you like doing mosaics, maybe dream catchers. There is always something to be benefited from that act of self-exploration.
GW: And always keeping in mind that it never has to be good.
JW: Well, art is funny that way. Who gets to decide if it is good or not? If you like it, it is good. When I work with children teaching art classes this is something I have to tell them all the time. It looks perfect because you made it and you loved doing it.
GW: There is always something to be gained on the other side of creating something and creating a new way of looking at something. It may not be on the walls of a museum, but it is worth something.
JW: Right. I think there is always room for growth. Nothing is going to be perfect. I don’t know that there is perfection in art, and I think that people that think their something is perfect are missing moving past that and moving to the next thing. I think that’s one of the reasons that I really like to explore other art forms outside of just wood-burning, outside of just sewing. There is always another level to be breached, there is always something on the other side of a door. I want to see what that is, and I want to grow further.
GW: It almost sounds to me like you’re saying that in art the idea of perfection is static.
JW: Yeah! It’s a really tough concept to consider something perfect, because art is based around so many opinions. So someone’s opinion of “this is perfect” could be someone else’s opinion of, “I don’t understand what’s going on here.” Also, the idea that reaching perfection means that there is nowhere else to go past there, and there is always somewhere to go.
GW: Right. I will say, as a fellow artist I have admired your ability to take on so many different mediums. Do you think all of your art is interdependent on each other and draws from this one well? Or do you think that they are all little separate things you like to access for different reasons?
JW: That’s an interesting question. I think both. I would consider that they are all from the well of my brain, but they mean different things to me, so they are faceted in that way. Realistically, yeah, both. I swear I drip creativity, I can’t not be doing something with my hands and making something.
GW: It’s true. And for people that wouldn’t necessarily know you or this is their first time being exposed to you as an artist, creativity in the applied sense of the word. Like when COVID happened, I really admired seeing that you went to work ASAP creating all these different masks from fun fabrics. That’s an applied form of creativity that is not necessarily Michaelangelo’s David, but you created something. And for what the masks were doing, how much more useful than a sculpture?
I’ve seen the different paint pours that you are doing through social media recently as well. And those are not necessarily things you are doing as commissions, like you would with pyrography or sewing, but it’s something that you are doing to reach a result that is unknowable to anyone but yourself. You know what I’m saying? It’s applied creativity.
JW: For me it’s keeping things fresh and interesting. It’s trying new things. It’s really just a creative outlet for me. I’ve definitely done everything from weaving to making dream catchers and mosaics [laughs]. Doing the coloring book, paint pours… if it is some kind of art form, I’ve probably tried it. If I haven’t and it is out there, please tell me what it is, I want to try it. [Laughs]
GW: Personally, and I’m sure there are parallels elsewhere, but in Richmond, I love that we have this person who took wood-burning to the next level. We can have portrait-level commissions from this artist that chose these beautiful pieces of wood to create these beautiful images on. How did pyrography call to you?
JW: I fell into pyrography in the most random way possible. I had just gotten back to Richmond. I went to school here at VCU for fashion design and I had left for a few years to go to Philly. I was gifted this little wood-burning set by someone right as I left Philly, and it ended up in a box that I didn’t open for a while. Because I was unpacking for like a year, because that’s who I am.
I finally got to that box, and I opened it and was like, “Oh, this looks interesting, I’ll give it a try!” You know, just that creative flow that went through me. I just loved it. I made a couple pieces, put it online, social media. Then all of a sudden, I had people like, “Hey, how much is that? Can I buy that?” And then I was like, “Yeah, I guess so, that’s fine!” And then I had somebody be like, “Hey, can you actually make me something specific?” And I was like, “Yeah, okay, that sounds good.” Nine years later, I’ve been lucky enough to have commissions and two galleries.
I love wood-burning so much; it’s so peaceful for me. It makes sense. I don’t mind sitting down and doing it for hours on end. It’s never gotten old for me. I know everyone hits those walls — like, every artist has a wall and needs a break. For me, the way I combat that is doing these other little arts for fun. Not necessarily trying to make it become something larger. Everything I do, I just do because I like it, and if it turns into an entrepreneurial activity, then that’s just a plus.
GW: Right, of course. You can’t necessarily be chasing art initially from the sense of monetary gain. You always end up falling a little short there.
JW: Yeah, and it changes your relationship with the art, too. When you put the pressure of, “I have to sell this,” or, “This has to make me money,” to me it becomes less fun. You lose a little bit of the romance behind the art. If you just love it, you see what happens. If you love it and it stays on your wall, awesome. If you love it and it goes on a friend’s wall, awesome. If you love it and someone buys it, awesome. It’s just a matter of if it speaks to you in some way and you had a good time making it.
GW: Not to be too blunt, but: get over yourself and just enjoy something.
JW: Yeah, just enjoy it! If you enjoy it and it brings you peace and brings you happiness and brings fulfillment, that’s really for me what art means. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love that people like to buy my things, but it makes me happier knowing that they love it. A lot of the commissions that I do are usually people’s loved ones, or their pets, or someone that has passed away, things that are really important to them. And that’s worth more.
GW: I like how you’re doing these burnings that are not only something that is natural but something that is quasi-permanent. For as long as you would think to pass it down, it will look the way that you made it. Eventually, it will decompose, but for all intents and purposes it is this permanent thing.
JW: That would take a long time. [Laughs]
GW: I really love as well that it is a monochrome medium. You can only make it darker. To me that is where a lot of the real talent as a trained artist is evident: in those pieces, which I really love to see. I would like to ask you, what goes into a productive burn? Like, not one where you’re wrestling with it, but one where it is working with you, and you are working with it.
JW: So, my process with wood-burning is a four-part process. For one thing, I have to find the wood. Unlike a lot of other art forms, finding the canvas is a whole part of my journey. It comes down to size, and shape. If there are knots, do they want a live edge? Do they want dark wood? Light wood? Do they have a specific type of wood they like? Are they fine with whatever I find? That’s just step one.
I’m really particular about the images that I allow myself to use. If it is not a photo I’ve taken or something I have specifically drawn myself, then they have to be a photo someone else has taken and given to me. I refuse to do anything off of the internet. It kind of feels like plagiarism. So everything has to come from a really natural kind of set up for me.
Then I do a lot of line work. It is very similar to tattooing in that I will go in and do all of the line work, and then let it sit for a second. Last, I do the shading, because it is a different… feeling? I guess I would call it a feeling. Using your eyes for line work is a lot different than using your eyes for shading. If I can have a piece that has a good balance of line work and shading, they are usually my favorite pieces to work with. I totally love heavy shading and heavy line work, but I really love the ones that have a nice balance, because it works with my process well.
GW: I can only hope that the line work and shading doesn’t hurt the wood like tattoo does. Some of these boys around town will light your ass up. [Laughs]
JW: The amount of people that have asked me to get into tattoo work is actually pretty astounding at this point. It is incredibly similar, it’s just not on skin.
GW: Before you get around to making money tattooing, you’re still on commission wood burning. What is your favorite wood burn you’ve done so far?
JW: I really have a few. I do have favorites. I genuinely do love all of them because they either mean something to me specifically or they mean something to someone else. And that just makes me feel really good about it, that they are loved. I have a favorite dog wood-burning that I have done; I have a favorite portrait that I have done. Random pieces as well. One of my first commissions, somebody asked me to wood burn a cat surfing, on a slice of pizza, in a wave. To this day it’s one of my favorite ones, because that’s ridiculous. [laughs]
GW: That’s just fun. Well, you’re chock full of knowledge, ten different fighting stances… what would you tell young artists, like 15-20, who are starting to develop their artistic voice but can either come across as totally inspired or embarrassingly ham-fisted? What is good advice on the path to finding and refining your voice?
JW: Really the advice I wish that someone had given to me would be, don’t give up when your path changes. Just go with it and don’t feel guilty. I started in fashion design and I’m in wood-burning, and that’s really random, and it just happened. Go with the flow of your changes.
GW: Don’t forget that you have a coloring book coming out, which is random compared to fashion design or wood-burning.
JW: Absolutely. It feels like everything I ever do just seems random.
GW: But inspired, and I think that is the important part, right?
JW: Yeah! That is important. Don’t hold yourself back by not allowing yourself to try new things. Don’t beat yourself up when something doesn’t work out. Just keep moving on to the next thing, you know? What’s really important is if it makes you happy, you should do it.
GW: Hell yeah. So, from here, what are your next moves?
JW: Well, I am currently in school for art therapy, so I’ll be able to actually use art to help people through various mental health or personal life issues. I am, once this semester is over, starting on my next gallery lineup. I have commissions in the works right now, publishing this coloring book, working on another project. I don’t know, I feel like I have my hands in all the honeypots right now.
GW: Well hopefully that’s a good thing for Mama Bear.
JW: It’s just fun. It makes my days feel brighter. It gives me this feeling of… not like enlightenment, that’s a little over the top. It’s just very rewarding, even though I’m sure I’ll feel more rewarded once I get to therapy work. Even the work I’m doing now, teaching art to kids, is rewarding. Being able to do wood-burnings for people that love them is rewarding. Doing something just for me and no one else is rewarding. I just feel very joyous in whatever I’m working on all the time, for different reasons.
Photos and art courtesy of Joelle Wade