Joan Mazzeo, energetic, spunky, and wiry, meets me in her Avondale home to discuss her ceramics. I had seen (and purchased) some of her pieces at October’s Isle of Hope Art Fair and saw them again at a Christmas pop-up show at Ology Gallery. But little did I realize that ceramics are just the tip of this woman’s creative iceberg!
Mazzeo’s cozy home is chock full of artwork – paintings, sculptures, ceramic pieces large and tiny, drawings, needlepoint, knitting, jewelry…. As a child today, Mazzeo might be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder: “If you look at my stuff, it’s all over the place. It’s not focused on one thing. I complete projects now, but years ago, I would go from one thing to another.”
Mazzeo grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Newburgh, a small town situated 60 miles north of Manhattan in Upstate New York. Her dad was a doctor, and her mom was a nurse who gave up her career upon marriage to raise 12 (!) children. “My mom painted landscapes in oils and acrylics. She helped me with school projects. I was doing sculpture when I was 12 years old. I had this excess energy and she helped channel it into creativity.”
Thoughts of art school were never on her radar; She just wanted to leave home as quickly as possible: “My dad was extremely patriarchal. My mom was very Catholic. I needed to be strong for my older brother and sister who had emotional problems. I was the one who became the caretaker. So, after high school I went to a two-year nursing program but took three years to complete it as I also took art courses – I was in ceramics at that point.”After graduation, Mazzeo began her nursing career at Lennox Hill Hospital in New York and sold art sporadically at art fairs and shows. At age 30, she moved to Burlington, Vermont (to live in a teepee and then in an insulated yurt with an outhouse!) and finally enrolled in an art degree program at the University of Vermont. It was here that she fell in love with art history, and today, she will start her day by researching artists’ work online and exploring their historical context… “I spend an hour every morning on the internet looking at mostly ancient art. Every moment that we have experienced in life allows us to produce something that’s based on a previous moment – just like history. So, it’s an accumulation of all the information and events that have gone before us, but then are synthesized in that moment when we create something. Not every piece is a representation of our life. It’s just a screen shot. A fragment of life.”
While in Vermont, Mazzeo taught papermaking and made huge paper sculptures which she exhibited in an installation for her graduate show. Later, returning to New York to nurse again, Mazzeo continued showing assemblages and sculptures made from doll parts, sold her own jewelry, and found parttime work at the BrickHouse Ceramic Art Center in Queens, monitoring classes and loading kilns in exchange for studio time.
A lifelong caregiver, she finally retired from nursing to look after her son, currently in remission, who developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2018. She then cared for her ex-husband after he too developed cancer and had a stroke. By now, Mazzeo had lived through the horrors of 9/11, the stress of the pandemic, the burden of caregiving, the exhaustion of “working my ass off in the medical field,” and the frantic pace of living in New York. She gave up her loft and embarked on a three-and-a-half month, cross-country trip (with her harness-trained cat!), ending up in Savannah where her sister, Mickey, and her husband have a home on Oatland Island.
Moving here in 2022, Mazzeo has committed to a full-time art career. I look at a collection of beautiful handmade earrings set with semi-precious stones, and at the many bits and bobs of ceramics on her kitchen table. I laugh when I hold up a tiny three-legged pinch pot where one of the legs is quite phallic: “I am seriously weird. They’re funny, right?” she asks. With hopes to have her own kiln eventually, she currently fires her creations at nearby Clayer and Company, where she takes classes one day a week to have social connection with other artists.
We go into a bedroom converted into the studio where she creates her funky dinosaur heads on springs, dishes painted with leaves, a platter that will be painted with the head of an ancient Mesopotamian goddess, a copy of an Egyptian dresser-like piece from the Met. “I just keep making stuff.” Most of the work is hand-built; she rarely throws on the wheel. Almost all her pieces are somewhat irreverent, humorous, and quirky, often incorporating metal, paint, or fabric.
Next, we look in another room that she calls her painting studio, but that also contains shelves and shelves of completed ceramics. There are canoe-like boats, architectural forms that resemble townscapes, animals that have morphed into carts or wagons with huge wheels, creatures that have wire appendages that may or may not reference hair, ceramic snails incorporating seashells gathered on Tybee. We look at a life-size pair of boxing gloves that took over three months to create. “People do not have a concept of how long it takes to make ceramic sculpture!” she says. “This is inlaid porcelain in a speckled clay and then the gloves were laced with leather. Aren’t they fabulous?”
On the walls of this room are paintings in gouache, acrylic, and oil. “I haven’t really shown them yet,” she says. The subject matter is varied (as I would expect!): landscapes, birds, a copy of an Ashcan School riverscape. Most evenings she is knitting, or sewing needlepoint on patterns that she creates herself, and most days, she is sculpting, painting, making jewelry, or hiking. “My work comes from a playful place. Most of my ideas come when I’m hiking. Like today, I’ll go down to Tybee to walk on the beach, because that will give me inspiration.”
How this artist puts the elements of her work together is magical, quirky, and unique. We finish up our interview in her little kitchen where she is preparing to add cabinet pulls that she will create herself out of oyster shells. And finally, she shows me a dragonfly-like sculpture she is finishing up for her hand surgeon (she fell off a ladder trying to cut down a tree) which incorporates a fragment of the metal plate he placed in her wrist
Mazzeo is currently developing a website; in the interim, follow her on Instagram @rhinoeyes3. (Always intrigued by elephants, “I think they are a very sympathetic mammal, very matriarchal,” Mazzeo visited South Africa in 2014 and ended up falling in love with rhinoceroses - hence her Instagram handle. “I was 15 feet from two white rhinos - a mother, and a baby. I looked into their eyes and later learned more about their nature.” ) She plans to participate in the spring 2024 SLAM, Savannah Local Artist Market, on April 13, and can occasionally be found selling her wares in Forsyth Park.