- Courtesy Of Joelen Mulvaney
- "Schadenfreuden" by Joelen Mulvaney
Joelen Mulvaney has some issues with the art world. Throughout her 50-plus-year career, the 72-year-old visual and performance artist has been a vocal critic of the machinations that drive art scenes — and stifle them.
"There's a lot of disrespect," Mulvaney recently told Seven Days, citing everything from stodgy, gatekeeping institutions to morally bankrupt economic structures as barriers between fine art and the community at large.
Mulvaney, whose work has been exhibited in Vermont, throughout New England and in New York City, sees the root problem as one of curation. So she's come up with a solution: Ask her patrons to curate her art.
In April, the artist will give away 300 of her own pieces through a project she calls Free Joy Art. Each weekend that month, Mulvaney will host a series of sessions at her studio at the Mathewson School in Barre. Anyone and everyone is invited to visit, browse and select one piece from her collection, which includes colorful abstracts in various sizes and mediums, including oil paintings, pastels and prints. There are two catches, one clerical and one philosophical.
Interested patrons are asked to schedule an appointment between now and the end of March via Mulvaney's website. Anyone who signs up and takes one of the artist's oil paintings or drawings must sign a contract promising never to sell the piece. Should they give the artwork away, the recipients are bound by the same obligation in perpetuity.
"This is kind of like an autobiographical performance piece," Mulvaney explained. "The performance part is all of these people who have to get involved — not just for now but forever. These paintings can last a few thousand years."
Mulvaney cited two events that inspired her giveaway. The first was a 2010 presentation from curators at the Brooklyn Museum touting the next 10 years as "the decade of women in arts, or some such thing," Mulvaney recalled.
- Courtesy Of Joelen Mulvaney
- Joelen Mulvaney
"Wouldn't you know it, there was no one in the audience but women," she said with a chagrined chuckle.
Irony aside, a recurring theme of that presentation was that many older female artists wonder about their legacies and what to do with their work.
"I know artists my age, in their seventies and eighties, and I know artists that have passed, and I've seen how their collections have been handled," Mulvaney said. "So that got me thinking about my own work."
The second formative event occurred when Mulvaney hosted a 70th birthday celebration for herself at her studio. The party featured 70 paintings, representing what she called an "artistic autobiography." Knowing that children would be in attendance, she made a point of hanging several paintings lower, at kiddo eye level.
One piece in particular caught the attention of a young girl named Cora, who, according to Mulvaney, was transfixed. When Cora visited the studio a few months later, the same thing happened with the same painting. Shortly afterward, Mulvaney wrapped the painting, went to the girl's house and gave it to her.
"She took one look at it, knew what it was right away and started jumping up and down, clapping and laughing," Mulvaney recalled. "I thought, Wow, this feels so good."
Over time, she put her thoughts about her legacy together with the satisfaction she felt giving away her painting, and Free Joy Art was born.
"I'm not gonna burden any one person or foundation or family with my legacy," Mulvaney said. "I had to figure out a way to do it my way.
"Visual artists aren't supported in a number of different ways," Mulvaney continued. "But I want to cut through all of that and say that none of that matters."
What does matter, in her view, is offering creative work to community members "in a way that they can kind of 'own.'"
While some artworks, such as community murals, ostensibly belong to everyone, Mulvaney wants individuals to take ownership of her pieces. Her theory, she said, is that people who appreciate her work in a personal way will be more apt to take care of it than museums or wealthy collectors might be. Those people are also more likely to share her work, Mulvaney said, so that her artistic legacy will belong "to the whole community and not an institution."
"I'm grateful to whoever takes a piece," she added, "because ... they'll take care of it in some way and appreciate it before it gets passed on to someone else."