Always Touch the Art

IMG_0010A year ago tonight my friend Joel Jonientz suddenly died. Over the past year, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to think about the mark that he made on our community, friends, and my life.

At his memorial service, his colleague Lucy Ganje made a stack of letter press cards that read: “He Loved a Bad Plan.” This is absolutely true, and was a common, endearing, and supportive (in a backhanded kind of way) remark that he made often enough during the 5 years or so that I knew him.

But one story he told has stuck with me even more than his love for a bad plan. A few times, Joel told me about his habit of touching works of art. Apparently, he would go into museums and wait for an opportune moment to go up to paintings and touch them. At first, he argued that as an artist, he was interested in encountering the artist’s technique in a firsthand, tactile, haptic way. But in a few conversations, he told me that he just enjoyed that immediate encounter with art.

As you might imagine, I was equal parts horrified and jealous of his willingness to make physical contact with objects in a museum. As an archaeologist, I’ve been schooled to understand that even prolonged looking at certain works of art will lead to their rapid demise. Photographs are almost always forbidden (and photographs of people posing with objects threaten the very soul of the artifact).

Jonientz Mural Unveiling 50This is a photo by my buddy Tim Pasch which I have ruthlessly cropped. The hand is Joel’s daughter who is being held up by his son, Oskar, to touch his mural in downtown Grand Forks. Tim recorded a great version of The Grateful Dead’s “Ripple” to memorialize Joel.

The more I thought about his habit, however, the more I think I understood what it meant. Joel was willing to try his hand at nearly anything. He was first-and-foremost an artist, but he also developed a video game, he co-produced a podcast, he was planning to score a “space opera,” he rebuilt my porch, he co-founded an academic press, he worked with Mayan children to produce animation, he co-founded an “arts and culture conference,” directed the Working Group in Digital and New Media, he wrote academic papers on the history of animation, he actively sought out collaboration, and he still had time to be a good friend, a good father, and supportive member of the community. In short, Joel made sure that he touched as much art as possible in his life. In a world where we regularly encounter people who are too busy or “really working on saying ‘no’”, Joel was actively touching the art.

People who read this blog know that making time to collaborate is is a bit of a pet cause of mine. I suspect that I got some of these ideas from hanging out with Joel for a few years. Here’s a tribute that our friend Brett Ommen produced for Joel based on their work together on Professor Footnote and some conversations that Brett, Michael Wittgraf, and I had shortly after Joel’s passing:

So, as a little tribute to my late friend, I invite everyone to touch the art. Go and check out Joel’s blog, go and watch one of his insane little videos, go and listen to one of his podcasts, or go and leave some flowers by his mural in downtown Grand Forks (but if you do that, be sure to touch it!). Or listen to his laugh.

Or, go and download a copy of Punk Archaeology, which he designed and laid out, and we dedicated to his memory. (Or go buy one here if you want to touch it.)

Or at least read his chapter from Punk Archaeology:

It’s funny, the month Joel died I had learned that Paul Worley was going to leave town to take a job elsewhere; Brett Ommen had decided to resign his position at the University and put his house on the market. I was worried that Joel would go on sabbatical and leave me stranded by myself in Grand Forks. The reality was much worse.

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