On a rainy October day, Joan Needham walks out to her deck, surrounded by lush greenery. On the wooden planks are two long green curved “things,” snuggled up against each other. The Italian squash plants, suggestive of Needham’s long, tall sculptural works such as “Boojums,” grew beyond her imagination in the well-tended garden. Although the Sourland Mountains are known for inhospitable soil, they have proved fertile ground for the artist.
Needham has left the nesting oblongs for her grandchildren to discover. A bright yellow butterfly has perched nearby, as if to bid adieu to the season. The artist picks up the expired creature, examines the pattern of design on its frail yellow wings, and sets it back down, as if it is part of the sculpture of life.
Needham, 77, and her husband have lived here for 37 years in a house designed by architect J. Robert Hillier. Through the D&R Greenway Land Trust, they have preserved 49 acres. Jon and Robin McConaughy farm the preserved land with vegetables and cattle. “I live in nature,” says Needham, who draws and writes in a journal every day and takes long walks in the woods.
Back inside the studio, where Needham is preparing for her exhibition “Alterations: A Retrospective”— on view at Rider University beginning Thursday, October 25 — one wall is hung with four large works in handmade paper. Mostly black, with hints of reds and yellows, they are scarified, as if by the hands of a human gone mad, confined in a dark cave with no way to get out. Needham had cave paintings in mind while creating these works.
A professor at Mercer County Community College for 33 years, Needham ran the printmaking department before retiring in 2004. She is credited with introducing papermaking to central New Jersey, after studying with master papermaker Laurence Barker in Barcelona. She has exhibited throughout the United States, Japan, China, Spain, England, and France and is the recipient of a New Jersey State Council on the Arts fellowship.
In the years 2007, 2010 and 2011, Needham accompanied Bernstein Gallery curator Kate Somers to South Africa. They volunteered with Philani Child Health and Nutrition Project in Khayalitsha, teaching linoleum block printing to women.
“Every day the women would show up dressed in their beautiful bright colored clothes and heads wrapped in turbans,” writes Needham in the catalog accompanying the retrospective. “They would smile and sing and make the most beautiful prints we had ever seen. Some had serious problems to contend with, and family members with HIV/AIDS, and yet every day they showed up. Mothers would start singing and dancing. They tried to teach me, but I wasn’t very good, and they would giggle.”
After developing their skills, the women were given the opportunity to sell their prints and provide an income for their families.
While in South Africa, Needham came across a bed of seaweed that inspired a four-part sculpture, “Thing in Itself.” Looking like monstrous tangles that washed up from the sea, they are composed of manmade objects — ropes, silicone rubber, surgical tubing, metal, handmade paper, waxed leather, thread — yet exude the organic disarray of nature. It can be hard to distinguish what is organic from what may be, say, medical waste — and that seems to be the point of “Thing in Itself.”
“I started photographing it. It was fascinating — beautiful and ugly all at the same time, right up my alley — and all about pollution and accumulations and stuff connected to other things,” Needham writes. “I would constantly draw it in my journal at night and started making it as soon as I got home — it was something I had to do. It’s the most alive I’ve ever been.”
Experimentation has always been important to her. “I don’t mind failing and starting over again,” she says. “In fact, failing is part of the process. My sculptures can exist by themselves, and if they fall down I try to come up with an idea similar to that of an engineer, to fix them. It is important that you interact with my work: the sculptures attract attention and provoke curiosity. I want them to be open and sometimes welcoming, but impenetrable. I envision a relationship between the outside and the inside as it appears to the viewer. You can walk around them and look at them from all sides.”
In the Rider Gallery one whole wall is filled with a photo mural of her sculpture “Puffer.” The actual work, weighing more than 1,000 pounds, is site specific on her rolling Hopewell landscape, where deer and nine grandchildren climb in and out of it like a jungle gym. It was inspired by the interlocking patterns and seeming weightlessness of Ai Weiwei’s Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, where the 2008 Summer Olympics were held.
“I wanted it to look like a drawing in stainless steel,” she says. “It has no main entrance and invites discovery and play.”
In front of the photo mural is “Creeper,” a 23-foot-long stainless steel form that suggests a caterpillar with windows and knotted sections of screening. Needham’s husband, Joe, races Porsches, and helps to move these works with his trailer. “The next time he marries, it will be to a jeweler,” she jokes.
At the center of the gallery is an environ Needham has created from threads and strings and wire, as well as vines from her woods, intertwined to form an enclosure. “My ongoing interest in infusing man-made materials like metal and plastic with organic materials has always been important to me,” she says.
Needham grew up in Merion, PA, just down the street from Dr. Albert C. Barnes, founder of the famous Barnes Foundation museum in 1922. Her father, a shoe designer, and mother encouraged Joan’s artistic abilities, as did teachers.
With ancestors from a part of Russia near Poland, Needham describes her family as “closet Jews.” “Jews could not belong to the Philadelphia Country Club or the Manufacturing Club of Philadelphia. We were the first Jews from the city to the Main Line so we didn’t talk about it,” she recounts. “We had a wreath and a Christmas tree that my mother removed when my grandmother came to visit.”
At Moore College of Art, she set out to major in fashion design. She made swirling skirts with crinolines and wild taffeta tops with “monstrous” sleeves. Visiting the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, she explored the other galleries and discovered sculpture. “I would create elaborate dresses and add lots of texture to the fabric by way of pleats, smocking, and buttons,” she writes. “It would take way too much time sewing. I really did not like to sew. Painting, drawing, fashion design, illustration, and life drawing classes were not enough for me.” Ultimately, she says, she wanted to create “small strange abstract sculptures.”
Graduating in 1957, Needham had six children by the time she was 29. “Motherhood taught me to be disciplined and consistent,” she writes. “Motherhood was the first event in my life that put me in charge. I was surrounded by wonderful women artist friends and a supportive husband. I never felt limited by staying home and felt that I could divide my time between having children and creating a body of work.”
Those women artist friends worked out of a former bank building at Nassau and Bank streets in the 1960s, making etchings, collographs, lithographs, and photographs. The group included names now familiar to the regional art scene: Judith K. Brodsky, Margaret “Maggi” Johnson, Susan Hockaday, Clare Romano, Dorothea Greenbaum, Jane Teller, Lonni Sue Johnson, Trudy Glucksberg, Helen Schwartz, Mayumi Oda, Naomi Savage, Ophelia Garcia, Linda White, and Marie Sturken.
After all these years, Sturken is still Needham’s regular companion to Dieu Donne Papermill in New York City. Carrying all their art making supplies, the friends take the train to Penn Station and walk the several blocks, then don rubber boots and aprons for the messy work of paper pulp.
Joan B. Needham’s Alterations: A Retrospective, Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, Lawrenceville. Opening reception Thursday, October 25, 5 to 7 p.m. Artist talk Thursday, November 8, 7 p.m. Exhibition continues to December 2. www.rider.edu/artgallery or 609-895-5588.