An Interview with Jann Rosen-Queralt

Students in Rinehart School of Sculpture recently sat down to talk with Jann Rosen-Queralt, director of the program.

Jann Rosen-Queralt, Director of the Rinehart School of Sculpture

Rinehart Students: Hi Jann, Can you tell us about your background? How would you like to introduce yourself ?

Jann Rosen-Queralt: I was born a middle child to first generation Depression-era Americans, the products of Eastern European immigrants. My grandfather was a tailor and my grandmother a hatmaker. They met when my grandfather bailed my grandmother out of jail during a union organizing event for garment workers. My father realized his potential devoting his life to the manufacture of plumbing fittings and my mother was a homemaker. I get my pragmatism from my father who told me never to give up my day job, and if I can’t take a joke, go to my room. My flights of fantasy are gifts from my mother. They both passed their love of life and curiosity about the world on to me and my brothers. Along with those notions, they included another one: if I worked hard, I could achieve whatever I desired. I did not discover until I went out into the world and met all the fish in the big pond that this was a bit overly optimistic. Generally this is offset by my sense of adventure that continues to
feed my awe and wonder of life.

The focus of my creative practice is the integration of artwork into the diverse fabric of urban areas, revealing the character of each locale while maintaining environmental sensitivity, exploring the poetry of voice, and expanding our capacity to learn. I am not bound by any particular medium or technology, allowing the concept of the piece to shape the work. Often guided by LEED specifications and looking to the efficiency of natural processes, I incorporate recycled energy and found materials wherever possible. This “low-impact” sensibility assures the creation of an environment that takes both the natural world and our place within it into account.

Artwork in the studio centers on personal and public investigations, often inspired or based on collaborative thinking with engineers, scientists, fabricators, design professionals, and communities. My interest in art, planning, and design team-work developed naturally from the knowledge that there is unique value to individual input when it becomes part of a group effort. I believe that the role of an artist is to produce innovative ideas while functioning as a visionary and aesthetician, walking the edge between collaborator and provocateur. Frequently my exhibitions include outreach programs complementing the artwork. Such events have included workshops and speaker presentations, discussions and performances with musicians, poets, and scientists.

RS: How long have you been teaching?

JRQ: Officially I have been teaching since I earned my M.F.A., forty-one years ago. Establishing relationships has always been important to me, and I feel that sharing information and skills is integral. A little-known tidbit is that I began organizing 4th of July parades with kids on our block when I was seven-years old. My next memory is summer camp teaching swimming and horseback riding.

RS: What themes do you pursue in your artwork?

JRQ: I tend to layer themes and find that some are in your face and others more subtle. My approach to developing artwork reflects an avid curiosity and commitment to the environment and interventions that foster sustainable practices while revealing natural systems. I believe that art should be driven by site and context, informed by history and looking to the future. An example of this is a park project I am creating in Pittsburgh. I have created an intricate artwork that captures stormwater and weaves it through the site which terraces in a rainwater garden celebrating the importance of water, interpreting the geology of Pittsburgh and the spirit of the Hill District community members’ daily lives. These
elements are simultaneously visible and invisible, which is why it is important that park visitors be aware of the role they play in a sustainable environment. The rain water is visible as it flows in a trench gutter through the park. In some areas the trench is covered by a grate design inspired by the braids of Mami Wata, the African Goddess of Water. In others, the water flows submerged below the ground plane out of sight and people’s consciousness.

The rain garden’s terraced walls are gabions fabricated with recycled materials such as glass cutlet and indigenous rock, referencing a cut section of the landscape. The gabions serve a double function as wall and seats. I have created panels to be secured on the terraces in the garden that depict elements inspired by:

  • fossil impressions made millions of years ago when Pittsburgh was underwater,
  • networks such as train tracks and root systems, and
  • maps exploring Pittsburgh’s coal seam, hydrology and settlement trends.

These are enhanced with text extracted from poems, which address abolitionist activity of the
Underground Railroad, the settlements during the Great Migration to Pittsburgh and African
Americans who worked the rivers and coal mines of Pittsburgh.

RS: What attracted you to create work about water?

JRQ: Wonder and curiosity initially drove me beneath the surface of the water, which is where my method of discovery begins. Wonder agitates, mesmerizes, and can be shocking while curiosity centers on fact-finding and explanation. My experience leaves me with a desire to find reconciliation.

Submersion in the ocean makes me aware of my insignificance feeding a sense of awe and a desire to explore. We live on a planet where people who do not share a language share one ocean. I want to share my experiences and advocate for public awareness for our earth’s water. The supply is limited and our access changes as it cycles through its states of being a liquid, solid, or gas. My artwork promotes, fosters, and encourages awareness so that all people have access to clean water and it might support the inhabitants of the marine ecosystem.

RS: How do you approach the research behind you work?

JRQ: Research is the gathering and collecting, filtering, and distilling that occurs while I stream ideas and play with materials and methods of fabrication. This adds to my awareness and comprehension about the world I inhabit. Eventually I develop a focus after including and excluding information, sometimes re-including it and even editing further. When I feel an edge of excitement, which sometimes is more like fear, I know I am going in the right direction. I like to believe that my approach is like a ‘tabula rasa’, but I know that is not totally true given the aesthetic palette, knowledge and past experiences that are in my tool bag. It is probably more genuine to say that I take stock and inventory a situation, observe site-specific characteristics and listen in order to comprehend context and the challenges before me.

RS: What do you find unique about the Rinehart Sculpture program?

JRQ: The program has attracted students from many cultures who are exploring diverse technical skills and conceptual ideas. They are encouraged to interact with one another sharing artwork day-today. The result is a respectful community where it is safe to experiment and express opinions, whether they are similar or at odds.

R: What are some ways in which you think about your teaching philosophy?

JRQ: Two words come to mind when I think about my teaching philosophy. Teaching suggests the imparting of knowledge or skill in a subject and mentoring implies wisdom and trust. There is a hierarchy implicit within these terms, but I feel it is a bit like dancing where there are steps to learn which improve with practice and improvisation. The flow between who is leading, listening, and imparting ideas needs to be flexible. My objective when teaching is to empower a student, providing them with the resources, materials, techniques, and concepts that will charge their own individual decisions. I feel it is important to stress the many elements that compose a creative practice: play, experimentation, research, historic precedence, one’s instincts, respect, awareness, and success, failure, and reflection. Over time the outcome will be fruitful and rewarding when done with vigor and determination.

Sharing insights and challenges when forming relationships is integral to the educational process. I learn from students, they learn from me, I learn about myself, and they learn about themselves. This leads to the benefits from knowing how to ask questions in addition to recognizing answers. Lastly, a sense of humor is essential.

RS: What was the best advice you received as a grad student?

JRQ: “Go as far away as you can from this institution and create your artwork.” Faculty from all of the different programs at Cranbrook where I was a student reviewed each graduate student’s thesis exhibition. Rather than ask me questions about the work, faculty from several departments began to defend and criticize the merits of my work. I realized that I had created a mature body of work and it was time to move on.