Joan Wadleigh Curran

Voracious Visual Appetite


Joan Wadleigh Curran is a Philadelphia-based artist who features detritus as the theme in most of her works. She primarily makes paintings, drawings and some printmaking, and currently teaches drawing and painting at the University of Pennsylvania. She sells her work at Seraphin Gallery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her website is

Interviewed by Bryn Friedenberg
Edited by Linda Lin

What inspires you?

Generally, the visual world, in all kinds of ways, and anything I see that is unexpected: in galleries, museums and on the internet, even though it is different than seeing in person, it is a way to keep up with what is going on internationally. I also read novels and art magazines. My two daughters are both involved in art as well, so I have great conversations with them, as well as with my other artist friends.

Who would you say is your biggest influence?

Probably just looking at art and museums is my biggest influence. I have such a voracious appetite for looking and I think as an artist, that is where you learn the most, listening to other people’s work and figuring out what it is you are attracted to and what you are not so attracted to and figuring out why. It sort of helps you hone your individual vision.

Where do you get the trash that you work with now in Philadelphia?

I collect all kinds of stuff that I find on urban streets. I like things that have a history to them.

Cast Away, 2015
oil on canvas, 40x40

How do you know when a work is finished?

I don’t always know. Sometimes when I think that I’m done, I keep the piece around for a while, just to look at it and see whether it holds over time. Usually it is when I feel that all the parts are in sync and go together to make one unified impression that pleases me visually. Sometimes when I’m close to being done, I keep looking at it, and going away, and looking at it again to see whether it holds up over time.

What else should we know about your artwork? Something that would surprise people?

I think that my interests are fairly eclectic. I guess I look for the extraordinary within the ordinary, or find the unusual within the everyday, looking really carefully at things that a lot of people gloss over or don’t pay attention to. I am interested in inanimate objects, but mainly in relation to their life with people, things that have been discarded or that people have nurtured — there is attached to these kind of things a kind of psychology where the objects represent more than themselves. What we value or don’t value is what I’m interested in.

How do you balance time between teaching and art?

That’s not always an easy thing to do, but I have a pretty good rhythm. I’ve been teaching for a long time, and luckily at Penn I only teach two days a week, so that allows me a lot of other time to work. You have to be really organized and committed to getting the work done, because there’s a zillion things in life that can get in the way. I find teaching actually stimulating and has a positive impact on my work because of the intellectual part and the young people. Keeping involved with both the students and what’s going on in the art world can keep me updated.

Trellis, 2014
charcoal and colored pencil on paper, 20" x 22.5"

Is your identity as a woman something that you think about when you make art?

Yes, it is important in my work, because I think I do have a female point of view, whatever that means. I am a woman, and in some way I am interested in touch and nurture, and on some level finding the domestic within our urban environment. Things that are nurtured or neglected have a lot to do with women’s role in society because I think women often do pay attention and nurture things.

“Though women earn half of the MFAs granted in the US, only a quarter of solo exhibitions in New York galleries feature women.” (Brainstormers Research, 2006 and Saltz, Village Voice, 9.21.06) Why do you think this is? How can we change this?

I think that is changing. If you talk about the hierarchy of galleries in terms of the most powerful, it is predominantly male. That is the same ingrained power structure that you see anywhere else. In the art world, money speaks, too. I don’t know how that will change other than women continuing to push to get their work seen and basically trying to attack the power structure in some way. I think visibility and voice are incredibly important.

What are the best and worst parts about being a female artist?

I don’t think that life as a female artist is all that different from life as a male artist. In terms of living the way that I want to live, having a life as an artist is a luxury in that I am able to spend most of my time doing what I want to do. A worst part? I think being an artist you have to be very focused and work really hard to block out the things that are pulling you away from your work. Find a way to earn a living and still have the time to make your work is not that easy, and I think that teaching is one of the careers that many artists pursue because it allows you to really be serious about your work and still make a living.

Joan Curran
Red Net, 2015
etching, image 16.5" x 18", 22.25" x 24" paper
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