Ordinarily, I’m not blithe enough to attempt to describe anything in one word. But Cyndi Bellerose’s “What Would Joan Do?”, curated by Amandda Graham—though it is many things is one thing especially: cathartic. Drawing inspiration from her own experiences with toxic relationships and coming out on top, Ms. Bellerose tells the story of typical, mid-century housewife “Joan” and her bumbling, insensitive and abusive husband “Dick”. Her work speaks of broken expectations, hurt, loss, revenge and grace under fire with a compelling collection of paintings, collage, and installation. Given the weighty subject matter, I hardly expected to find her show to be funny, but as I moved from piece to piece, I found myself giggling at each one.
EM: There is clearly more at hand here than anger. You’re having a lot of fun with this!
CB: Growing up in an Irish Catholic family, having a sense of humor was important, especially during a tragedy. You mourn, but you remember the laughs and you use humor to carry on. We tried to make uncomfortable situations as positive an experience as possible. Humor has always been helpful to me, and it helps to break the ice when people don’t want to talk about sensitive subjects. Humor helps to open people up.
EM: Are people, particularly men, ever threatened or offended by your art?
CB: Only once at my first art show, a couple of drunk guys looked around, looked at me, and as they were leaving said, “Man, that’s one angry bitch!” And I just smiled, it actually felt pretty good that my art had caused someone to react so strongly! But besides that instance, it seems that almost every man that sees my art, seems to enjoy it! Men absolutely buy my art. And I think that especially for guys, there’s just something about slapstick humor and the crotch. It’s ceaselessly funny to them! I’m glad that I can make them laugh, too.
EM: Now, I don’t mean to probe you too much, because I don’t know how comfortable you are with that, but I really do feel like your art inspires me to probe you. It has to be asked—have you been Joan before and have you had a “Dick” in your life?
CB: Thank you so much for saying so, that’s really wonderful. And yes, I have had several “Dick”s! Joan is actually my middle name. When people find that out, the wheels start turning and they say, “Oh, now this makes total sense!”
EM: So Joan isn’t merely a character you invented. Would it be fair to call her your avatar?
CB: Oh yes, Joan definitely represents me. All of my work is representative of things I have gone through. In my adult life, I’ve had some really unfortunate, abusive relationships and some major betrayals in the past. That’s what really spurred all of this. When I began work on my very first piece, it turned it a form of therapy for me. I had this idea of Bitching Soda as this magical, empowering thing that you could lift yourself up with. It’s multi-use, and you can tuck it away and know that you have it to clean your world of the nasty stuff, like Holy Water.
EM: Does the Bitching Soda actually work, or is it just sort of like a talisman, a superstitious thing that inspires Joan to power?
CB: Oh, it definitely works. It’s the main ingredient in Joan’s decision making. In the cookbook, it’s often the main ingredient. Sometimes when I’m in a sticky situation, I think to myself, “What would Joan do?” Even thinking about what Joan might do with that Bitching Soda makes me feel better.
EM: So does Joan actually take action, or does she only fantasize about it?
CB: In this body of work, Joan is taking action. This is the third part of my Joan series. Joan has finally decided, “No more! I’m booting him out! I need to live a healthier life.” Joan is taking action and making sure she’s getting Dick out for good. The very first thing she had to do was recognize there was a problem. The second chapter was about all her baggage; what things were holding her back. She had to figure out where all her bitterness belonged.
EM: I imagine that you keep most of your art where you live. Is it difficult for you to have these pieces in your home? It must be hard to be surrounded by reminders of sad times.
CB: It’s true. Our house is absolutely jam-packed with this stuff and it’s funny because I have kids. When I first started the series, they were pretty small. I definitely felt the need to explain the meaning behind all of it to them, and then instruct them not to actually use Bitching Soda or flip anybody off! When their friends would come over, I would have a talk with their parents to let them know that there was some… suggestive art in the house. I was always surprised when parents would say, “Hey if you want to talk to my kids about empowerment and feeling strong, by all means, go right ahead!” But does being around it constantly make me uncomfortable? Not at all. I’ve really embraced my past, and I feel really strong now.
EM: Now you told your children not to flip anybody off. Does Joan actually go around flipping people off?
CB: Oh no. That wouldn’t be proper. Joan is in the late 1950s to early 1960s, when it was all about appearance. Joan is into appearance. She can have an evil, destructive thought but with a beautiful, dazzling smile on her face with her hair done just right. You can send a stronger message without using bad language and gestures. If I’m going to have a vigorous debate with someone, I’m going to speak strongly, be diplomatic and present evidence. That’s the thing about Joan. She supports her case with evidence and I’m very much like that.
CB: My mother is my heroine. I grew up in a “Leave it to Beaver” home. It was a perfect childhood. My mom was the strongest woman, and you’d never know because she always had that perfect smile. And even as her health failed, she maintained that perfect strength. She would see some of my work and giggle, and then say, “This is all very nice, but I’d love to see you do a landscape or something!”
EM: There is a really interesting dichotomy in your work. It is fairly crass in the way you wield Dick’s name, and the crotch-centricness of it, and yet there’s a lot of glitter here, too!
CB: Well, Dick had to be “Dick”, he is a dick! But it’s also a very common name for men of that time. And as for glitter, well, as I mentioned, for Joan, it’s all about presentation. If you can send a difficult message to someone with grace and gentleness, it’s easier for people to accept and understand. Glitter makes everything happy! I carefully select where the glitter goes, because it represents where the magic happens, such as on the handle of a pair of scissors, or on the tip of the can of Dickticide.
EM: I love that some of the objects that you’ve created, appear again in your paintings. You’ve created a whole reality here. The feeling that these objects actually belong to Joan is very real.
CB: There’s my set design background in action! A lot of these things formerly belonged to me, or my parents or friends. The suitcases were in my parents’ house. I actually used them on trips as a little girl. The ironing board was from a friend of mine who’s vintage iron finally died, and the tables and chair were from a friend who called me up and said, “There are chairs on the street here, but they’re in really bad shape and totally ugly.” But as soon as I saw them, I knew I needed them to be my “kiss my ass” and “eat my box” chairs. Joan didn’t have a place to take a break yet, to sit down and have a cigarette and plot her next move.
EM: Were you making art before Joan?
CB: I wasn’t doing fine art. I was focusing mostly on illustration, graphic design work, and some set design as well. I was having some difficult emotional times after a series of toxic relationships. I started to write and doodle again, and I was just spewing out this emotional garbage. I looked at it and I thought, wow, I am so burdened with this. I gotta get it out. So I started to consciously devote parts of my week to painting and I just kept going with it.
A lot of my early work depicted a knife, which played a part in some of my previous trouble. The more I painted this knife, the more I exorcised my demons. I started having fewer and fewer nightmares until they finally went away. I learned that if you don’t get your anxieties out when you’re awake, they’re just going to come back and haunt you in your sleep.
EM: Your art is definitely therapeutic for you, do you think it is for others as well?
CB: Joan has brought a lot of stories my way from women who have been abused. I feel like my art encourages us to speak openly with eachother. Women who have been abused will very often say they were afraid to speak out and tell their story. Even after leaving the situation it feels like such a secret. We don’t get anywhere until we accept what happened, find strength, and move forward.
EM: What’s next for you and Joan?
A lot of people have asked me about creating a Joan book, so that’s what I’m working on right now. I hope to have it ready for Christmas ordering. The cookbook is one of my favorite things; it’s a “revenge” cookbook. People are always contributing recipes to my book and I love to add them– I love that they even are thinking about it! I love audience participation, so I think my next pieces are going to be more interactive.
As for Joan, I’m working on Chapter 4 of her story. Joan has gotten rid of Dick, so now she needs to start finding out who she is. Joan is becoming a little more sexually liberated. The next body of work is going to be a little inspired by the vintage pin-up girl. She’s going to be breaking the stereotypes of what she’s supposed to be. She’s not the dowdy little housewife any more. I haven’t got it all worked out yet, and sometimes the objects I find lead me down new paths I hadn’t considered yet.
The night of Ms. Bellerose’s reception was very well attended. She played the role of cordial, stylish, Joan-esque host well, sporting a wiggle dress and a bouffant. She was surrounded at all times by men and women eager to speak with her and no wonder. She is one of the very few who is able to tell genuine stories of anger, violence and resentment with honesty, grace and humor, no Bitching Soda required.