20 Questions with Megan “Meg Jo” Jordan
Kathleen Boyle, Red 225 Blog, 1-30-2023
When I first saw Megan “Meg Jo” Jordan’s paintings in a coffee house, I immediately wanted to learn more about this work. A self-taught artist who recently earned her PhD in Sociology from Vanderbilt University, Jordan creates imagery that confronts paradox. Her art is sharp, illustrative, bold in its depiction of social justice topics via polychromatic palettes, color choices that appear joyful and perhaps atypical for notably serious subject matter. Yet Jordan is able to synthesize such seemingly confused elements in a manner that appears effortless, thus creating a space in which topics such as racism, sexism, mental health, climate change, etc. feel safe to discuss. It is clear that this is the work of an informed artist, one who understands the complexities of her subjects, but is unafraid of any challenges they may pose—artwork that moves toward resolution by raising awareness. What struck me most about Jordan’s paintings was the sense of hope that they evoked. At a time in which the nation’s problems seem forever bleak and unyielding, it is both comforting and inspiring to witness one’s raw acknowledgement of said conflicts. It reminds me that we’re all in this together.
In the following interview, Jordan discusses her artistic explorations.
What is your earliest memory of your burgeoning interest in art?
Growing up my dad used to draw a lot. I had a fascination with lines and a competitive streak to draw everything better than him. So, we would compete over who drew the best horse or car or person or whatever. That’s what got me hooked. I also had an obsession with Dr. Suess books. The use of lines to elicit emotions were super cool to me.
How have you witnessed this early interest reveal itself in your current work?
I would say the whimsical nature of Dr. Suess’s works are a goal of my current work on nature and activism. A lot of the subject matter of my works (racism, mental health, economic inequality, acceptance, humanity, prison abolition, etc) are depressing and disheartening topics so I try to bring in whimsical shapes, colors, and elements to make the topics more inviting for a wider audience to reflect on.
What motivated and/or inspired you to pursue painting?
First, I truly love color, and sought out a medium that allows me to play with bright colors and create a range of textures. Second, I used to make keychains and jewelry from elementary school through college. I sold in shops and to friends for years. Somewhere along the way, I badly injured my wrist from overworking it. I still craved making, so I needed to find a medium that didn’t put tension on my wrist as much, and painting was it!
On your website MegJoArt.com, you identify yourself as a community organizer. How did you come to pursue this path, and what accomplishments have you achieved thus far?
I first learned what organizing was when I became a summer intern for the American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). I was working as a labor organizer organizing workers at a ‘eco-friendly’ bus manufacturing plant in Alabama. This experience changed my life in many ways and opened my understanding of people power.
As far as ‘accomplishments’ go, I don’t really like to frame experiences as ‘accomplishments’ or ‘wins’ or ‘losses’ because even in dark times and times where things don’t go as planned, we learn what to do differently the next time. Events are learning moments, which can be framed as accomplishments even if the initial goals are not met. My experiences as an organizer in various spaces over the years have taught me more disheartening things than I expected or wished. It has taught me that as long as we are segregated racially, by gender and/or sexuality, etc, we will not win. Collective action across our identity differences, connecting and supporting one another grounded in a shared humanity is the ONLY path forward to alleviating the struggles of the working class and liberating our people.
But if I had to answer I would say my time organizing with Vanderbilt Graduate Workers United at Vanderbilt University, led us to several wins. We got a Mental Health Bill of Rights passed. We successfully made demands to administrators to protect our rights and health as workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to free PPE, two raises, improved working conditions, dental care, and in some cases, extensions to our work contracts. There is still a long way to go as graduate workers can barely afford to live in Nashville even with the raises we were able to win. We still don’t have rights to maternity leave or accountability structures to report workplace discrimination to, because the university has long defined us as “apprentices” not “workers” to shirk responsibilities to protecting our rights as workers.
You are also a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University. What do you study?
I am a sociologist who specializes in power, social movements, burnout, and nonromantic love. My dissertation focuses on activists’ experiences with burnout and their retention strategies to keep going in their work.
How do your activism and academics inform your art?
I would say my art is married to my academics and activism. I take lessons I learn in my movement work and my studies and attempt to depict them in inviting ways in my paintings and digital illustrations. My goal is to take complex ideas and simplify them into inviting images.
Do you find that there is a particular voice or point of view that you are only able to activate visually, that does not translate as well through other forms of communication? If so, why do you think this is?
I worked to share my voice and point of view in my academic writing and my art, but unfortunately the folks I am most interested in speaking to are not reading academic articles, not to their own fault. Academic writing is often elitist and inaccessible. As an academic aware of this, I write to be more accessible, but my field does not reward or take seriously simplified/accessible research. So that’s where my art comes in.
In your figurative paintings, many of them appear to portray either females or sexless figures. Is there a certain motivation behind this decision?
As a Black woman artist, I like to depict feminine forms to shed light on womxn’s experiences. I say womxn with an ‘x’ to include nonbinary fems and thems. I desire to tell stories from a fem perspective, because too often our media is portrayed through a White male lens of experience and interest.
My sexless figures, which I call “star people,” are a product of my childhood sketches. I like to use them in works that center our shared human experiences of love, fear, desire for peace, etc.
What role does the subject of nature play in your art?
I like to use nature as a foreground and background that my subjects interact with to show the interconnected nature of people to the planet. We are in nature and of nature. The cycles and symbiosis of nature apply to us as humans as well and how we function in community.
What intersections, if any, do you see between social justice and nature, and how is this revealed in your work?
In my works “Go to the Ground,” “Let Me Spell It Out For You,” and “All Hands” I depict human hands coming from the ground, surrounded by grasses. These hands represent the hands of changemakers (activists) of the present, but also the past. My use of bees in my work is probably my most powerful symbol. As many know, our survival is deeply tied to bees. One third of the world’s food production depends on bees. In my paintings, bees are pollinating the scene to show human dependency and relationship with nature. Often, I depict bees in a symmetrical way to create a feeling of harmony I wish we had with nature.
You have created murals as well. Tell us more about these projects.
I have worked on a few community mural projects sponsored by Nashville Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood of TN, Promised Land Heritage Association, Workers’ Dignity, Black Nashville Assembly, Nashville People’s Budget Coalition, PATHE Nashville, The Frontline, and Unemployed Workers United.
For each project fellow artists and I were tasked in creating an image that resonates with the mission of the organization and the collective sentiment of the time be it love for Black lives, love for those who have received abortions, or working class solidarity in a global pandemic. Our second task was to figure out ways to include the participation of community members in co-creating a meaningful work of art. For the Black Lives Matter street mural, this meant giving community members the chance to fill in the letters with paint. For the Planned Parenthood Mural for ‘Love Notes to Abortion’ this meant providing community members the option to sign their names on the figures of the mural to show love to those impacted by restrictions to abortion access. In other cases, this meant allowing community members to work with us as thought partners to create the subjects of the work.
What method would you prefer one take when making a critique of your art: a formal, contextual, or expressive approach? Why?
I’m a self-taught artist. My knowledge of art-world lingo is somewhat minimal. Being the case, I just want people to vibe with my art. Think about how it makes them feel. Context can be important to know for works I made at the height of BLM summer 2020 protests, but the sentiments are pretty evergreen. So, context isn’t too important.
Who and/or what are some of your biggest artistic influences? How? Why?
My art influences change over time. Right now, I am inspired by the works of Carrie Mae Weems, Soji Adesina, Bisa Butler, and Emma Amos. Carrie Mae Weems’ use of space and contrast and her placement of her subjects gives a sort of drama to her images. The color, use of shapes, and unhuman sizes in the works of Soji Adesina inspire me to be more whimsical in my work. Likewise, Bisa Butler’s use of color and texture to depict black skin and clothing inspires me to be more playful with my subjects. Finally, Emma Amos’s use of cultural symbols encourages me to continue to use charged symbols to promote discourse of culture and conflict.
How does your work demonstrate departure from the above influences?
I think the way I center my subject in nature is a departure. Being that I’m of the millennial generation, climate change is a leading social problem on my mind. So, my works highlight human-nature relationships.
What upcoming projects and/or exhibitions do you have planned within the next 12 months?
In 2023, I will be showing at Nashville International Airport (BNA) January through March and the Brentwood Library in February. Those are the exhibitions that have sure dates.
I have two upcoming projects I am working on in 2023. The first is on sleep and the importance of rest. The second is about women’s freedom. This second project will lean more into natural landscapes and mixed media than I have ever before.
What are your goals for your art within the next 12 months?
My goals are to challenge myself with my art. Do things I have never tried before and better document my process. I also hope to collaborate with nonprofits to use my art as a communication tool for their audiences, specifically around the topics of antiracism, abortion access, climate change, and environmental sustainability.
Non-art question time: What’s your favorite food and drink?
My favorite type of food is Thai, hands down! Panang curry. Drink: Thai iced tea with oatmilk!
Band(s) and/or record(s)?
Albums: A Collection of Fleeting Moments and Daydreams by Orion Sun, Sophomore Slump by Claire Ernst, The Debut Farewell Album by Avenue Beat, Mt. Joy by Mt. Joy
Across the Universe; To All the Boys I Loved Before; This Changes Everything; Kiss the Ground; 27 Dresses
Money’s not a factor, you will burn no social bridges, and you’re guaranteed a comfortable lifestyle no matter what—where would you live, and what would you do?
I would live near freshwater, somewhere that’s walkable and bikeable with clean air and not too much noise. A place that has forests and mountains. I would hike all day, paint landscapes, have a garden, and cook amazing vegetarian food with my partner.
Kathleen C. Boyle is a curator and writer who has organized exhibitions for galleries, museums, businesses, and private collections in NYC, Florida, and Nashville, and has been published in various periodicals throughout the US. She currently works as the Senior Manager of Exhibitions full-time for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and teaches art history part-time for three colleges and universities. She is also the owner and curator of the Red 225 art gallery in Nashville, TN.