Joan Hall: Collage and Assemblage Artist

Joan Hall grew up in a household dedicated to the arts. She first pursued a career of mime and acting. But after a decade of performance, she turned her attention to the visual arts, creating collages and assemblages. Those creations led to her success as an illustrator for the New York Times, Time magazine, and Der Spiegel, among many other clients. At the same time, Hall was also doing fine art, exhibiting her work in the US, Latin America, and overseas. Her most recent piece is a playful collage representing her vision of Istanbul for an exhibition in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Terry Stoller spoke with Joan Hall in December 2018 about her beginnings as a theatre artist, her career as an illustrator, her work with collage and assemblage, her illustrations for the first book ever written by a computer program, her lectures in the history of collage, her friendship with artist Barton Benes, and her lifelong love of travel.

Terry Stoller: Both your parents were artists, and you’ve said they influenced the choices you’ve made.

Joan Hall: My mother did fine artwork, but she made her living from painting portraits. My father was a great photographer and a sculptor. He taught himself music as well, but his photography was wonderful. He would take pictures of people, and my mother would paint portraits from the pictures. And people would come for sittings. So I grew up in this environment.

I was born in Brooklyn. At that time, Brooklyn didn’t have the glamour that it has today. I couldn’t wait to leave. My parents put me in art school from an early age. I went to Saturday classes at the Brooklyn Museum. I remember drawing a copy of the Venus de Milo. My parents were very encouraging. They put me in ballet school. I studied modern dance at the age of 14 with May O’Donnell and company. Because of that early training, I got into Juilliard years later.

You left Juilliard, though, and went into mime. What led you to join a mime company?

I got into Juilliard as a modern dancer, studying the Martha Graham technique. I was terrible at ballet, and Antony Tudor flunked me. I couldn’t go back the second year. But I was very good at stagecraft, lighting and set design, which goes to the artistic roots. I had a class once a week in stagecraft that dancers were obliged to take. The teacher spent one entire class talking about a performance he had seen by The American Mime Theatre directed by Paul J. Curtis, and how terrible it was and how much he hated it. Afterward I went up to him and said, Why would you spend the entire class talking about The American Mime Theatre if it was so terrible. It must have left an impression on you. Art is not about being indifferent. Art is about making an impression. And the first thing I did when I left Juilliard was to go to The American Mime Theatre. I saw the director Paul J. Curtis, and we spoke and I got into the class. Within a few months I was in the company. I also taught at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and made a living teaching mime to actors.

How long were you with the company?

About nine years. I met my husband Harry McCormick there. We left for Europe for a year, and we traveled all over Europe. When we came back, I got into acting more. I was an actress for quite a while, and I did modeling for advertising and different things—a lot of True Confessions and True Detective magazines. And I studied Aikido and became a blue belt.

Joan Hall in her acting days, 1960s.

I got out of acting because of a very painful experience. I auditioned for the Actors Studio three times. The third time I finally made it. It meant so much to me to get into the studio. I was studying with a teacher named Frank Corsaro. Frank hated me. He always tore me apart in class. For several reasons, we didn’t get along. Frank called Lee Strasberg and told him I wasn’t ready for the studio, and I shouldn’t be in it. I got a call from the studio telling me that Frank had mentioned I needed more time and work and they had to retract my acceptance, even though the jury had voted me in—Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and some other people. It devastated me. I called Frank up, and I said, Frank, I want to thank you because you just helped me make my decision to completely leave acting forever. If this is what a career is like, I don’t want any part of it. It’s too devastating. You broke my heart. I never looked back. I went back to the mime company for a while.

You didn’t consider that acting?

No, it was more acting through movement. When Jean-Louis Barrault came to New York—before I was in the company—he met with Paul J. Curtis, and he said, What do you call this? And Paul said, Mime. And Barrault said, This is not mime. Why don’t you call this American mime? So that’s how the company got its name.

Joan Hall and Paul J. Curtis in The Scarecrow by Paul J. Curtis. The American Mime Theatre, New York, early 1960s.

And you were in a play there called The Scarecrow.

Paul wrote the Scarecrow piece for me. It was three people: the scarecrow, the maiden, and the prince. It was a cute little fable. It’s still in the repertory, and the company is still going. Paul died, and the company was taken over by Jean Barbour. It was a big part of my life because it has influenced my art today. We had to do characterizations, and we would try to give them a feeling of dimension, not just a sexpot or an introvert or a schemer. The way we would get our characterizations was we would take an emotion into the body, feel the emotion, and let the body translate what we felt; then we’d develop a walk or a posture. Now I have a series of assemblages called Icons, which are archetypal characterizations. I have the Fashionista and the Worshiper. I know that came from my mime experience. But I think with everything you do, nothing is wasted. Even if it’s a terrible experience, somehow it’s translated later into something.

Left: Worshiper. 2013. Mixed media assemblage, 8 x 9 x 2 inches. Right: Fashionista. 2014. Mixed media assemblage, 12 x 24 x 5 inches.

At some point, you left mime.

I wasn’t creating anymore. I was repeating myself. Also I had gotten into my artwork when I was in Europe. My husband was a painter. We were both in our twenties. When we were in Europe, I collected a lot of stuff, and I began making collages.

Why did you choose collage and assemblage as your art forms?

I had been painting and drawing, but I had collected a lot of stuff, and I found it was easy to do this work while I was traveling. After we came back, I put a lot of this together—made three dimensional pieces out of memorabilia also.

How did you get into illustration?

Harry and I broke up, and I ended up living with a friend of ours, Ken Nisson—and we got into Westbeth. Ken was a very good illustrator. Eugenia Louis, a photographer friend, saw my work and said, Why don’t you let me photograph your pieces because they’d make great illustrations for book covers and record jackets. She took photographs of some of my early work, and I went to the New York Times Book Review, and I got a job, and I got the cover.

What was the early work like?

I began with collages, and I went on to box constructions as well. For instance, I’d find a piece of lace and then I’d see a vertebrae bone from a chicken or turkey, which would look like the pattern in the lace, and I’d put that with a Victorian photo, and I’d juxtapose different elements. I went around, I got one job, then I got another job. I got in with the New York Times pretty steadily. At the time I was doing mostly black-and-white collages because they didn’t have color. I’d use the old engravings from the turn of the century because line reproduced very well. I would make collages from the old engravings.

Photo collage illustration for Der Spiegel. Jan. 7, 2002.

What kind of articles were you illustrating?

I did a lot of work for the Book Review, the Home section. It wasn’t just the New York Times. I did illustrations for many magazines. I did some advertising work. I got a commission from LaLaport Tokyo-Bay, which is a large shopping mall—a big, big job to do, a huge PR campaign for them.

I didn’t have an agent, but I advertised in illustrators’ annuals, and I got a lot of calls. And everybody saw my work in the New York Times.

Was collage for illustration as widespread then as it is now?

There were maybe three of us who were doing collage at the time. An artist named Carol Wald, another named Jim Harter, from Texas, Anita Siegel, and myself. Airbrush was very popular. Watercolor was very popular. Very few people were doing collage. I wanted to create a look of photographs. When I got into the color work, I wanted the collage to be seamless. I disguised the cut lines with marker so they didn’t show. Even though the piece was totally surreal, I wanted it to look like a photograph. This is way before Photoshop, but this is exactly what Photoshop is about. Nobody was doing this. It was completely off the wall. So I got a lot of work creating these fantasies that looked like photos.

Mixed media artwork for New York magazine. 1980s.

You did a wonderful assemblage for an adult education illustration in New York magazine.

I think that was in the late eighties. The idea was I had to illustrate classes in adult education that were being offered all over New York. They listed the classes, and I had to choose elements. The wooden figure—that was a class on break dancing. There were also classes on wine, computer graphics, and navigation.

Did you ever imagine you were going to get into journalism?

No. Living with Ken was a big influence because of his illustration knowledge. Also, I didn’t realize that what I was doing would catch on and that I would make a living out of it and get any success from it. I had that career for many years. Around 1978 Milton Glaser asked me if I could create a class called Collage for Illustration for the School of Visual Arts. I taught that until around 2010. I was a continuing ed teacher. I didn’t want to do full time because I preferred to make my living from my illustration. And at the same time, I was doing fine art for myself.

You did an assemblage for a Time magazine cover of President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

First, I want to say that people say illustration is not art. My feeling is that it’s all creative work, and the only difference is whose problem are you solving, yours or theirs. Because you have to do what you’re commissioned to do, and you have to understand the requirements and the limitations. But it’s all art. The Time magazine cover was on the Carter presidency, and they supplied me with the bust of President Carter to incorporate somehow in the piece. I had to work around it. They gave me a list of what they wanted me to incorporate. And I thought, this is impossible. It’s going to be so cluttered, so busy. How could I do this? It’s a very good example of how I approach my work in illustration. I take the feeling, and I internalize it. So I think, this is President Carter. What do I feel about Carter? He’s kind of down-home, folksy, a little quaint. I thought of a dollhouse. I thought of a box construction with compartments. And in each compartment, I could put one of the things that happened in his presidency. And that would also give it structure without the whole thing being so organic that it would just disappear. I put peanuts at the bottom, his family’s portraits underneath the sculpture and a red toy phone—the hotline. That was how I solved the problem, and that worked for me.

Mixed media artwork for Time magazine. Aug. 18, 1980.

When did you stop doing illustration work?

In 2005. Photoshop kind of killed me because I didn’t get into it. I wanted to do just hands-on. At that point the whole computer illustration thing was coming out with Photoshop. And with Photoshop, people got crazy about copyright. If you’re using scrap material that somebody else created—someone else’s photograph or a calendar of classical artwork—you could be responsible because of copyright. So I got out of the business because it became too much of a difficulty, and people were taking my jobs for much less money doing Photoshop collages that looked just like mine.

For the past thirteen or so years, you have devoted yourself primarily to your fine art.

While I was working on my art, I was also collecting slides from different museums and different sources. I wanted to put together a slide show of the history of collage. I researched the earliest collages on record. Of course, they weren’t called collages until 1912, when Braque and Picasso incorporated found materials into their art. I researched works with pasted pieces and what countries they came from and what they looked like. I collected an early one from 12th century Japan, which used handmade rice papers to illustrate calligraphy. I developed a show that went on to Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Cornell, Rauschenberg, and many others. The talk covers collage and illustration, including the illustrators in the seventies, and my own work in collage and assemblage. The lecture is about an hour. Around 1976, I went to the American Cultural Center on rue du Dragon when I was in Paris, and I showed them my art. The next year, the American Cultural Center sent me back to Paris to do my lecture and to have a show of my art. Since then, I’ve done the lecture at the American Cultural Centers in Brasília and New Delhi, and several universities and art clubs.

With the popularity of ecology and recycling, I thought collage would be a good way to teach children about those subjects, using found objects or scrap images from magazines to recycle into art. In 2001 I received a Mexican/American Cultural Specialists Grant to teach teachers in Mexico for ten consecutive days about how to teach children recycling by making collages. They bused in teachers from different areas of Mexico each day, and they supplied me with a simultaneous translator. Everybody had earphones. It was maybe the best experience of my life. And it was a wonderful feeling at the end. These teachers were for the most part resistant. They said, We’re not artists. We can’t make collages. I said, Just pretend you’re kids, and play and have fun. At the end I was moved to tears. We had a show-and-tell, and some of the pieces that these people made—people who had never done art in their lives—were so moving and so beautiful. I would love to be able to continue this whole series and the lectures, but I don’t hustle. I did the National Arts Club a few years ago, but I haven’t pursued it that much. That’s what my main interest would be now if I was going to relaunch a career. That’s what I would love to do.

You said that you like to do things hands-on. But in the mid-1980s, you worked on the book The Policeman’s Beard Is Half Constructed, and you did use computer graphics.

I did, but I didn’t generate the computer graphics. I used computer graphics that were scrap, that were already generated. I combined those with turn-of-the-century engravings because they’re both line, but it was the juxtaposition of the contemporary and the old.

The text of the book was generated by a computer program.

An old friend of mine, William Chamberlain, is a great computer programmer. He synthesized prose and created a program called Racter, short for raconteur. He brought me some of these insane ramblings of Racter—limericks, writings. I said, Bill, I would love to illustrate these. This would make a great book. I worked on it and showed him what I had done, and we both were very happy with it. I said, OK, what are we going to call it? He said, Let’s call it something that Racter said. The first thing Racter ever said was, Hot wines are destroying our cold expatriates. That’s not a good book title. The second thing he said was, The policeman’s beard is half constructed, and that’s the title. We took it to an agent, and Warner Books published it in 1984. Unfortunately, it was published at the same time as The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco [in English translation] and The Color of Light by William Goldman. So we were upstaged, even though it was the first book ever written by a computer. They didn’t know where to put it—Was it poetry? What was it?

A hot and torrid bloom which
Fans wise flames and begs to be
Redeemed by forces black and strong
Will now oppose my naked will
And force me into regions of despair.

The Policeman’s Beard Is Half Constructed. 1984. Text by Racter; illustration by Joan Hall.

Your own collages and assemblages are imaginative and playful in spirit.

I agree. The last collage I did is for a show opening in January in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. I was asked to contribute a collage about a country I had visited in Europe. The show is called 300 Years of European Landscapes. Most of them are classic paintings, but there’s this contemporary part of the exhibit, and I chose Turkey. It’s a big piece, and it is kind of playful. It’s called Magic Carpet over Istanbul.

Magic Carpet over Istanbul. 2018. Collage.

In your Strings Attached assemblages, there’s one of artist Barton Benes flossing his teeth.

I took a photograph of Barton, and I reproduced it using heat transfer onto burlap. Then I put it in an embroidery hoop, and I used embroidery thread to make the floss.

Flossing. 2009. Wooden embroidery hoop, thread, burlap, digital photo, 13 x 13 x 1 inches.

Barton Benes was your neighbor.

He was my neighbor, but Barton and I met each other in 1965. I had a piece in a gallery in the East Village. There were four artists—Barton was one, and I was another. (I was doing art all the time I was acting and modeling. I don’t remember it being serious, though. I was playing.) Later he was my neighbor in Westbeth. The first art acquisition I ever had was a watercolor painted by Barton when he was 16. When I was 18 and dating Wolfgang Zuckermann—who made Zuckermann harpsichords—he took me to Princeton to an art show, and I fell in love with a watercolor of thunder or wind or a storm—and that was Barton’s. When I moved, it was lost. Years later, I told Barton this story, and he said, I’ll make you another one—but he never did. Years passed. I said, Barton, you said you’d make me another one. He said, I can’t be bothered to do that. I’ll give you one of my pieces. Would you mind taking Paintbrush? Isn’t that a nice history? After that he gave me many more of his beautiful pieces.

Joan Hall and Barton Benes. 1990s.

Barton worked through the night, and whenever I’d go on a trip and return, I would stop at his apartment just two doors down from me, even before I dropped my luggage off! He would make us martinis, no matter what the time. He was like my significant other, minus the sex. I miss him so. He died in 2012.

In spring 2018, you received the Miriam Chaikin writing award. You said then that you’d been writing since you were a girl. You also did visual arts as a girl, which you pursued as an adult. But you didn’t pursue the writing.

When I was 8 years old, I wrote a poem called “Spring” in my class, but after that I wrote for myself. It was my secret between me and me, and I never thought to share it. I kept a book of poems. But I saw the contest and the $500, and I figured, what the hell. I knew Miriam Chaikin and had liked her so much. I thought it would be a fun thing; nobody will know. I sent in a manuscript of poems, and I won. I was surprised. Then I had to come out of the closet as a poet.

Was that why you decided to join the writers group? Or were you already a member?

I had asked to join the writers group, and I was rejected because they said they had enough people, and they weren’t taking anybody new in. So I gave it up. After I won the award, I went back to Karen Ludwig, and I said, OK, now maybe you’ll take me seriously, and they said, Come next week at 11, and I was included in the group. We meet every Wednesday, and we’re given a prompt as a theme for the following week. I’ve been writing stories now in addition to poetry. I’ve been enjoying the writing, and maybe doing less collage because of that.

You recently did the collage for the show in Mexico. Are you working on anything else at the moment?

I am. A very dear friend asked if he could buy a piece—a particular piece I had done, the first of the Icons. I thought about it. I said, I don’t want to part with that piece now—it’s the first one. I feel sentimental. But I’ll give you another one like it, which I’ll make for you.

What was the piece?

It’s the Master of the Icons series. It’s with a pitchfork and a crab shell. I’m working on the piece for him now. I love juxtaposing manmade objects with organic natural objects, like the horseshoe crab against the piece of forged metal. My color palette is very muted. It’s usually monochromatic.

Master. 2012. Mixed media assemblage, 14 x 32 x 5½ inches.

You’ve been living at Westbeth since 1971.

Getting this apartment was the best thing that ever happened to me. When Ken and I split, he had a studio already. I didn’t have a place to go to, so I stayed. I have no intention of moving out.

Any other thoughts?

Basically, the idea of children comes up. I’ve chosen to be child-free as opposed to having kids because all my life, I’ve been more devoted to the arts. I don’t believe it’s easy to have a career in art and do both. I think it’s a difficult life. I also like to travel. I have been to many places all over the world, and that’s important to me. The freedom to come and go is very important to me—to experience new adventures, which I think feeds the art but also feeds my soul. “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” That’s a quote from St. Augustine. I feel that way. It opens your heart and your mind to other people’s ways of living and thinking.

To see more of Hall’s artwork, go to

All images courtesy of Joan Hall.

Profiles in Art, Copyright 2019 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council

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