Artist Joan Slack creates a unique life
When meeting artist Joan Slack for the first time, it doesn’t take long at all to see that she is an uncommon woman, one who lives a life that a lot of people might envy. In a society where many people settle for what they believe are “safe” occupations, Joan knows that a person really can make a living by following his or her passion – or in her own case, passions.
A friend, she recalls, once said to her, “’Leap and the net will appear’ is kind of how you live your life.”
That quote does a pretty good job of describing Joan’s approach to her art and her life. She has combined her love for art with her affinity for history, mythology, the outdoors, archaeology and travel. She has figured out how to share her interests with others, and how to live on her own terms.
It all started when she went to college to pursue an English degree. “I took my first pottery class in college,” says Joan, “and fell in love with it.”
Art, she says, “nurtures our souls. It gives us a glimpse into another realm.
“Art is nurturing, healing, uplifting, disturbing,” she continues. “It’s amazing to me how something could speak on all these different levels.”
After college, she taught English, but returned to school in 1998. She earned a master’s degree in visual arts with an emphasis on ceramics. Her art history component focused on prehistoric art. “I really found whole new dimensions to my work,” she says. Armed with her talent, her education and her love of learning, she set out to build a career doing what she enjoyed. In the process, she defied conventional wisdom.
“In college, we were given the idea that we really couldn’t support ourselves as artists,” Joan says, explaining that while art students receive training in art, they don’t receive training in business. But Joan, it seems, is as much a natural in business as she is in art. “You have to diversify as an artist,” she says. That’s what she’s done since she built Riverrun Center for the Arts in McNaughton. There she offers her own work and that of other artists for sale, and teaches classes in ceramics and fiber art.
“I built it so people could come in and see me working,” Joan says, adding that education is very important to her. She likes to encourage young people and offers apprenticeships to budding artists. Joan has also studied prehistoric pottery extensively and creates replica pieces, including a line for museum shops and galleries.
Joan’s love of learning is apparent, and so is her willingness to share her knowledge with others.
“I love educating people about the process,” she says. “Over all these years, I’ve tried to do a lot of community events here.” Her efforts to share her knowledge extend well beyond the walls of Riverrun. She helped start the Northwoods Art Tour, a self-guided tour of studios and galleries in northern Wisconsin that allows visitors to interact with artists.
Joan’s extensive experience in the art world includes a stint as the curator of the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota Duluth. It was a fun experience, she recalls, and true to her curious nature, she loved the research involved. But it wasn’t what her heart wanted.
“I enjoyed the city, but I’m a country girl,” she says. And there was something else missing: “When it comes down to it, I love working with ideas and my hands.” After more than a year as curator, Joan left the position so she could devote more time to her own art.
Riverrun Center for the Arts is located on Bridge Road, just off Hwy. 47. People go there to learn and express their creativity through art, and to purchase works by Joan and other artists. On this particular fall day, greenware (unfired ceramic pieces) is drying on a table in the studio. The ground level gallery fairly bursts with pottery, tiles, paintings, fiber art and much more. Upstairs, a variety of sculptures is on display in an open, airy gallery. Riverrun even has an upstairs apartment where an apprentice can live.
One thing that’s immediately apparent in Joan’s work is her affinity for the natural world. Landscapes, trees, fish, birds and other animals predominate in her sculptures, ceramics and fiber art. But more than the area’s natural beauty inspires her. Her love for history, culture, archaeology and mythology also come through in her art. Ravens and crows, with their uncanny intelligence and the mythology that surrounds them, are the inspiration for a lot of her work. Her Irish roots also play a role – her mother’s family came from Ireland – and Joan creates striking tiles with intricate Celtic designs.
Joan’s love of travel is another significant influence on her art. Although she has led a number of study tours to different countries, including Mexico, Scotland, Ireland and France, the trips are still learning experiences for her. “They also inspire my work in really unexpected ways,” she says, adding that she takes a lot of notes during her trips.
“I’ve been able to take this love of archaeology, history and art, and customize tours,” she says. She taught Irish art history at Nicolet College and led study tours to Ireland through the college. In time, she began leading small groups independently.
In France, she has taken groups to see prehistoric cave paintings, and her reverence and enthusiasm for the cave tours are infectious. She has seen people become awestruck when they see art – in essence, translations of feelings – created by someone who lived thousands of years ago. It can be a life-changing event, Joan says. It’s inevitable that group members will wonder about that artist and what he or she was trying to communicate so long ago. “To me, it’s such a thrill to give that to people.”
She wants to be able to offer people more opportunities like that and has decided to put Riverrun Center for the Arts on the market. Her decision doesn’t mark an ending, but a beginning.
“There are so many things I want to do,” Joan says. She still plans to teach classes and create art, but she wants to lead more tours and do more of what she calls “soul work.” Joan has built a number of connections over the years in this country and overseas, and more tours are on the horizon, including an upcoming trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Carving out the kind of life that one wants doesn’t just happen.
“That kind of attitude toward life takes constant reevaluation,” Joan says, quickly noting that she’s not a discontented person by nature. But she explains that it’s important to regularly assess whether one is where she wants to be on her life’s journey.
Joan’s own approach to life was greatly influenced by her mother’s death at age 60. “She still had so much left to do,” she says. As a result, Joan is perhaps more mindful than many of life’s finite nature. “’How do you want to spend your time?’ is a good question to ask.”
Joan Slack is making the most of her time here. She has found what eludes many people – a career doing what she enjoys most and a way to have a positive impact on others’ lives. She is also enjoying a sense of freedom, choice and creativity.
“I am master of my ship,” she says. “I enjoy getting up in the morning and thinking to myself ‘How do you want this day to look?’”
For more information about Joan’s art and study tours, visit riverrunarts.com.