Forging her own path

Ulster County artist Jo Andres finds her voice in dance, film, photography

Author: Deborah J. Botti
Posted: Friday, February 01, 2008

Jo Andres thinks she really alarmed her mom as a teenager in the early ’70s when she covered her bedroom ceiling with PosterTAK adhesive – to which she affixed dried flowers. Instant meadow above.

“They didn’t know what to do with me,” she laughs, referring to her teacher parents. Dad was a professor of veterinary medicine at Ohio State; mom taught home economics.

Her creative free spirit often clashed with the conservative suburban Ohio culture that she grew up in, a culture woven with blue-collar General Electric workers, teachers at Ohio State and Amish farmers. Sometimes even her three brothers and younger sister thought this free spirit was weird.

Jo crafted her own eclectic wardrobe and decorated her surroundings, as if choreographing her future. And while her parents were very much about “doing,” pursuing a career in the arts was not considered a viable option. Jo’s father was downright disturbed by what he perceived the theater environment to be.

This proverbial square peg, determined not to be crammed into the conventional round hole, took classes unbeknownst to her parents at the Columbus Junior Theater of the Arts. 
Unfortunately, her father passed away before he could understand that his daughter was acting on her true gift. Through grants, scholarships and jobs, Jo acquired a bachelor’s degree in dance from Ohio University, followed by a master’s degree in film and dance from the same school. Her formal education was the ticket that would lead to New York City, Europe and the Hudson Valley.

The sizzling arts scene  

Realizing it would be a long leap into her chosen career from Ohio, in her mid-20s Jo relocated to New York City to immerse herself in the dance world. Her first apartment was a rented room in someone else’s house in the Upper West Side – but several apartments all over the East Side would follow.

Waiting tables helped pay the rent. She also worked in an art supply store for extra cash and to position herself in proximity to the people she wanted to rub shoulders with. She had her own dance troupe made up of fellow college performers who made the post-graduate dash to the big city. She dabbled in visual arts – filming and photography – but she had no idea where it would all lead.

Her first break would come via performance artist Tom Murrin, also known as The Alien Comic, who incorporated quick costume changes into his comedic repertoire. He was aware of Jo’s work from mutual friends in Ohio – Mimi Goese and DANCENOISE, comprised of Lucy Sexton and Ann Iobst – and included them in his Full Moon Show, a compendium of 15-minute performances with two invited guests whenever the full moon occurred on a weekend.

“I used simplistic technology and perceptual trickery,” says Jo. Against a backdrop she describes as live paintings made with light, Jo and her dancers would swirl in synchronized passion against what appeared to be floating colors or holograms.

“’How did you do that, with lasers?’ people would ask,” says Jo, of her technique of using a film projector and slides projected on a background of three-dimensional objects. Just as important as the visual images was the appreciation of the human body. Many of her subsequent downtown venues (The Performing Garage, P.S. 122, La Mama E.T.C., The Collective for Living Cinema) grew to include the shapes of two 70-year-old women and a 6-year-old boy. As Manhattan’s performing arts scene exploded in the ’80s, drawing audiences from as far away as Europe, so did appreciation for Jo’s film-dance-light shows.

“I was invited to tour in Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland,” she says. “I taught in Budapest and Holland.”

Jo lived to perform. She kept a notebook by her bedside to record those frequent ideas that seemed to come out of nowhere, ideas that eventually became bodies of work titled “Lucid Possession,” “Dreaming Out Loud” and “Ghost Fish Speak,” to name just a few.

She worked her odd jobs to save enough money for the next tour. She became versed in grant-writing to acquire funds to pay expenses.

“I lived hand to mouth, then I’d stop working in order to make time for my ‘real’ work,” she says.

The dance of love
Although she describes herself as living the life of an “art nun” during this time, not every moment was devoted to her calling. In ’83, the guy who lived across the street from her in the Lower East side caught her eye. He was an aspiring actor by the name of Steve Buscemi. Between casting calls, rather than waiting tables, he filled his days as a firefighter.

“He would walk his dog, a scraggly terrier named Chief, as I was coming home from work,” Jo says.

She’s not sure who altered whose schedule first to optimize those “chance” meetings – the attraction was fast and mutual. They married four years later, and recently celebrated their 20th anniversary.

Jo credits their conscientious commitment to family cohesiveness as a key ingredient to their successful marriage. After the birth of their son, Lucian, in 1990, they agreed that they would go no longer than three weeks without seeing each other – a family rule that was broken for the first time this fall when Steve was in China for six weeks filming a Geman film titled “John Rabe,” in which he portrays an American doctor during the Japanese invasion of Nanking in 1937.

“We just couldn’t make the commute from China every three weeks work,” she says.

 “I was still doing shows when [Lucian] was first born,” she says. “I got my last grant when he was 2 and then decided it was time to hunker down and be a steady mom.”

They moved to a child-friendly neighborhood, and began weekending in Ulster County. Jo’s focus began to shift.

Jo has never regretted her decision to put her family first, although she admits to sometimes having felt frustrated with the responsibility of holding everything together at the expense of her creative endeavors.

And while her father would be proud of her priorities, she has not ignored her inner fire. She’s painted. She’s photographed. She choreographed the ’97 Stanley Tucci film, “The Imposters.” She has been an artist in residence in art colonies including The Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, Italy and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, NY. “It’s a great working environment. They provide food and quiet hours so you can stay in your head. There are no to-do lists,” she says. “But they want you a month. I won’t do more than three weeks, usually two, because of the promise to the family.”

As a filmmaker, in ’96 she produced and directed the acclaimed film “Black Kites,” which aired on PBS and played at many prestigious film festivals, including Sundance, Berlin and the Human Rights Watch. While touring with her dance troupe in Spain, Jo met Alma Hajric, a Bosnian visual artist, with whom she kept in contact. During the subsequent siege of Sarajevo, Alma survived in a basement shelter, and her experience became the foundation for the film. Its distributor, Women Make Movies, describes the work as “a testament to artistry, imagination and the resiliency of the human psyche.”

Although Steve appears in this film, there are no plans, nor burning desire, to collaborate on a major project with him. “What we do together is raise our son,” says Jo. “Besides, we have very different styles. I’m more visual and less based in reality than he is.”

Jo taught Steve how to dance – “he’s a natural” – and how to use a camera and edit film – a requirement for his character in “In the Soup.” She also edited his debut directorial film effort, “What Happened to Pete.”

And much of her creative energy was poured into renovating, decorating and creating homes for her family.

Lucian, too, has found his own creative outlet – music. He plays the drums and bass guitar. He’s a member of the high school jazz band, has his own band, Fiasco, and the support of his family.

“Although they don’t want any parental involvement,” says Jo, “they’ve had gigs in the city. They play hard punk music, and they’re good at what they do. I love it.” Check out myspace.com/fiasconewyork

Jo Andres' work shown at local exhibits
A couple of years ago, Jo had an exhibit of her Venetian-plaster and acrylic paintings in the village of Catskill. Using lots of layers and the add-and-subtract method, landscapes or perhaps a still life would appear.

Her current exhibit of cyanotype photography, “Darkness & Delight,” was on view in December at Jamie Midgley’s Raintree Gallery on Main Street in High Falls. The show heads to Manhattan in the spring.

“Last fall, we went to Spain,” she says. “While Steve works, I travel with my camera.”

Happened upon during one of those excursions were the antique dolls, photographs of which are part of the exhibit. “I think it’s important to admit there is a dark side, even though it is unsettling,” she says.

The dolls are a good example. “What the hell is going on inside … giving little girls these dolls with sharp teeth,” she asks.

She calls this body of work creepy, but funny, dreamy and surrealistic. “Some people would say nightmarish,” she adds. 

But given the reality base for many nightmares – and the prominence of war and aggression throughout history – Jo believes it’s important to explore these negative roots, which she does through the cyanotypes, a technique that she learned while at an art colony in Santa Fe. 

Phillip Harris, a local artist, furniture maker and framer, framed the work. “We wanted to keep everything local,” Jo says.

There’s a similar thread in the semi-autobiographical script “Melody” that she wrote while at the art colony. The story takes place during one month of a creative teenage girl’s life – but weaves in elements of the Vietnam War and the draft.

And so, the multidimensional Jo Andres is poised to continue to craft bodies of work that reflect life’s layers. For nothing is ever just as it seems.

Deborah Botti is a freelance writer living in Orange County.

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