Heather Joi. Photo by Philip Laubner

“I was the best shot in my group, I maxed out my physical training score, I was a high-speed soldier,” remembers artist Heather Joi. She grew up in a military family and from an early age she realized she would be an artist. To give back to her country, the free-spirited painter joined the service. In contrast to the concrete reasoning, rigid lifestyle and strict discipline of the military, her art work is abstract, flowing and natural. If you look closer, the contradictions seem to dissolve.

Heather is prolific. The first show of her work I saw stretched over an eighty foot wall. It takes discipline and a strong work ethic to create such a large volume of layered, lacquered and consistently beautiful artwork. Heather is often told that her kinetic paintings remind people of mobiles, that there’s a physicality and motion in them, just as there was a physicality and motion in her military service.

A self-taught artist for the most part, Heather has had mentors like painter Ron Smyth. She’s been drawing since she was a child, but Ron took her into his studio nearly ten years ago and taught her the physical properties of paints and varnishes, the history of the medium and an approach for the execution of her craft.


Photo by Matt Kelley

Heather’s work is abstract and moves towards form, but it begins as textures, feelings and colors. She didn’t start producing this way as a natural progression from realism. “One of my favorite things to say, in order to describe my process, is something that my high school art teacher Larry Mattingly said to me, ‘You are working backwards. Artists start with realism and move into abstraction. You are starting with abstraction and moving towards realism.’ I doubt that Larry Mattingly knew how much that statement made sense to me or even that he said it to me… it’s my process with all of my art forms.”

There’s a difference between creating a single painting that seems natural and the consistent effort that’s required to create a body of natural, abstract art work. Heather’s process for this is two-part: 1) Action and intuition and then 2) Conscious discovery, in that order. As she creates, the meaning of a work can be unknown, even to her, and she — like a tolerant parent — has to allow it to form or grow-up. In a linear world, with deadlines and landlords, this process of not knowing takes courage and faith.

Heather is an intellectual woman. In her life she’s had to adhere to the structure of military service and she even speaks with reverence for the tradition and craft of painting, but she consciously tries to limit thought while creating her art work. “If I have a pre-determined idea it can get in the way of what wants to be revealed or unveiled. The less I try to enforce the better.” In this way Heather’s approach is like meditation in that her focus is to let go of thought. From this process she hopes what remains is natural.


Photo by Matt Kelley

The work is organic and seems to draw equally from nature and humanity. One of Heather’s favorite quotes is from E.E.Cummings: “An Orchid…whose velocity is sculptural.” It’s a fitting line for her to mention as the sound of it, the dramatic visual it conjures and the natural pageantry of the orchid are mirrored in her art work. In some of the paintings I also see dance, I notice strong vertical lines that act like spines for her sensual forms to dance around. I asked her about the figures. “I always want to do figures because people really like figures. The face is the first thing our minds recognize from our mother’s face, so we see faces in everything. That’s the first image that we can identify and whenever we’re looking at anything abstract, ‘oh I see a face’, or ‘oh, the man on the moon,’ we’re always projecting that. We want to see ourselves.”

In addition to painting, Heather is an imaginative performance artist, often combining elements of modern dance, theater, poetry and music. Her performance art pieces are bold and stylized, they often remind me of Kubuki theater or the stark, conceptual drama of Butoh. I asked her how the different art forms she uses relate to each other. She answered, “I feel that all art forms are expressions and extensions of each other. When I look back through art history, I see that the explorations and discoveries of a particular period/culture are reflected in each of the various art forms; the music sounds like the paintings, the paintings are reflections of and are reflected in theater/dance, fashion, decor, architecture…poetry and literature follow the aesthetics and conceptual preoccupations of all of these. All art forms are expressions of the mind and heart of a people. Painters have also used each of the art forms as studies and subjects of their work, so I apply this to myself.”

No matter what the medium Heather uses, the art she creates is always recognizable and distinct. Her training and approach has brought her a large body of work that is abstract, sculptural and undeniably feminine. Her forms have music and they dance with the sensual, rhythmic certainty of nature and humanity.

Heather’s work is currently on display and available for purchase at Minas Gallery and Boutique, The Brewer’s Art and at Gallery 788. On April 1st she’ll be exhibiting at Maryland Art Place for the Out of Order auction. On April 9th she’ll be a designer and model for the LBD (liberation by design) benefit at the Silk Road Cafe. Funds raised from the event will go to a local woman’s shelter. She’ll end the month on April 27th with a closing for her current solo show at Cyclops Books. And in May, she’ll be exhibiting at Market Centre Design. In addition to these shows, her artwork is on the cover of Christophe Casamassima’s new chapbook, Of, dropping April 1 from Splitleaves Press.

Heather Joi

Heather Joi


Photo by Matt Kelley

“seamless,
unnamable,
it returns to the realm of nothing.
form that includes all forms,
image without an image,
subtle,
beyond all conception.”

~the tao…14…Lao Tzu

Photo by Matt Kelley

saturnious presenting the soul
of dostoevsky to “Thou”

Heather Joi

Heather Joi

Heather Joi

Photo and story by Philip Laubner.

About The Author

Originally from Boston, and then New Orleans, I moved to Baltimore in 2007. In addition to being the full-time Photo Editor for Catholic Relief Services, I'm also a freelance photographer, writer and event producer. My passion is portraiture, but i've worked professionally as a photo-journalist, event, corporate, aerial and wedding photographer. I was lucky enough to meet and become friends with the dynamic duo of Brooke Hall and Justin Allen shortly after they created What Weekly. I'm proud to say that I was their first contributor in 2010. Since then my photos and occasionally articles have appeared in over one hundred issues of the magazine