The best thing about this simple salad, is how complicated it was to make. Are you wondering how a basic green salad could pose a challenge for three women as accomplished as illustrator Joana Avillez, her mother, painter/photographer Gwenn Thomas, and Gwenn’s closest friend, legendary performance artist Joan Jonas? So many brains and personality in one kitchen, a complicated salad does make. And I even brought the dressing from home.
Scheduling was our first hurdle; I had been trying to coordinate this meeting for over a year, unable to work around conflicting deadlines and travel agendas (Biennale’s, solo shows and major art fairs are tough events to move). Finally, together in one room on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the prompt, “make a salad,” proves to be an unforeseen contest of wills. Consensus is a foreign concept to this trifecta, whether the topic is the meaning of a work of art, or the “right” way to cut a radish. As a person who has never shied away from conflict or dissent, this is not uncomfortable for me at all. Instead, it is a deeply affirming tableau — These women I so admire, in easy disagreement, focused on lunch as if it were their greatest work of art.
Gwenn Thomas: Usually what I do when I make my salad —
Joan Jonas: So we are all going to pitch in or what?
Julia Sherman: [Laughs] however you please.
Gwenn Thomas: Normally, when I make a salad I make the dressing inside the salad bowl, and then I add the greens.
Joana Avillez: Why don’t we make one salad with Julia’s dressing and then you could make your own dressing Mom? Two salads?
Gwenn Thomas: Alright, if you’d like. But I think we should just make one salad.
Joan Jonas: Should we toss the salad before we put all the stuff on top?
Gwenn Thomas: This reminds me of when I took a cooking class with Fluxus artist Jean Dupuis. He was a wonderful cook…
Joana Avillez: Let’s put some of this goat cheese in it.
Joan Jonas: No, no. Well, I mean, I have it if you want it.
Gwenn Thomas: Alright, I will slice the radish. Joan would you like to do some of this?
Joan Jonas: I’ll make the first cut.
Joan Jonas: [Joan takes the knife] oh, this is not a good knife for cutting. [Joan passes the knife back to Gwenn] give me the goat cheese, I’ll put it on a plate.
Gwenn Thomas: Joana do you want to slice more radishes and decide where they go?
Joana Avillez: Yeah, I know where they go — in my mouth [Pops a radish in her mouth and smiles].
The dynamic amongst these three artists is well trodden. Joan and Gwenn have been friends and peers for over 50 years, and they have shared countless salads along the way. While Joana and I only recently cemented our friendship, I would like to think it echoes that of Gwenn and Joan – built on a foundation of dry humor, ambitious projects, and mutual respect (we really are off to a roaring start). Just 30 years old, Joana has published her drawings in the New York Times, The New Yorker and Vogue. This year she sold a book to Penguin, a collaboration with writer Molly Young, and most recently she illustrated my forthcoming cookbook. Joana is a modern day flâneuse, with the ability to depict the tiny details and the texture of everyday life in a way that will make you laugh and blush at once. Her work is incisive; her drawings of me are more me than any photo I have ever seen. Let it be known, Joana Avillez is paying attention.
Joana was raised in the company of artists. Her childhood was set in a sprawling loft above the late Fulton Street Fish Market. Her father, Martim Avillez, published a journal on arts and culture called Lusitania, which merged political writing, theory, art and comics into a visceral, collage-like anthology. Her mother, Gwenn Thomas, has been an artist and teacher for over 40 years. While Thomas’ work found its beginnings in photography, documenting artist’s sculptures and performances, like Jack Smith and Gordon Matta-Clark, she eventually moved on to use photography as a framework to investigate and challenge the ways in which we view reproduction in the context of painting; what makes a picture a picture?
All the while, Joan was staging avant-garde performances and video experiments that resulted in mediated live performances that would come to define her signature style. She played with mythology and female identity, using her own body as her material. Gwenn was often there, documenting these seminal happenings. Her photos still hang on the walls of Joan’s studio and home, a record of a time when being an artist was not a “career,” it was a role in a community, a way of life not yet romanticized or professionalized. As I watched Joan tie a frilly apron around her tiny waist, I felt as if she was getting in costume. This was not the kitchen attire I imagined for one of the toughest women I’ve met, and I couldn’t help but feel like this art and life were blurring together just the way they should.
Now imagine this as the context for one’s childhood, and Joana Avillez makes sense. After she finished her painting degree at RISD, she even parodied this urbane upbringing in a satirical web series, Delusional Downtown Divas. The show was created by and starred Joana and her childhood friends, ceramicist Isabel Halley (painter Peter Halley’s daughter), and Lena Dunham. Joan Jonas was even a guest on the show, playing “The Jonas Mother,” an all-knowing performance artist that Joana’s character—a self-proclaimed “private performance artist”—sought out for guidance. At the time, Joana was working as Joan’s studio assistant, an experience that she greatly valued.
Joana: There was something about the way you interacted with people that, I don’t know how to put it into words exactly, but you had a very clear vision of what you wanted. That was exciting to be around. But then I decided not to be around it, and to go back to school.
Joan Jonas: You had to do your own thing.
Joana Avillez: I did, but I actually learned a lot from you, Joan.
Joan Jonas: And I could learn a lot from you now.