Questions with an Educator: Tomiko Jones

by | Apr 27, 2020 | Questions with an Educator, Strictly Business Blog

This week’s Questions with an Educator features Tomiko Jones.

Tomiko is a photographer, as well as Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Photography with a Certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Arizona in Tucson and has been recognized with awards such as 4Culture and CityArtists (Seattle). Her work studies transitions in landscape, and here, she explains how this focus came to be. She also details how her teaching career began and describes her recent project Waterlines.

We asked: Please describe how your work came to focus on transitions in the landscape? How do you recommend that your students find their focus?

Tomiko said: Almost every summer, my father would pile us into the car and take us to explore the treasures of the nation, our public lands. In the most classic of touristic gestures we would set forth in a camper. We visited “feats of human engineering” – dams, bridges and buildings were favorite stops on our way to admire “feats of nature” such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and Niagara Falls. Many miles of open land lay between our excursions, and watching the American landscape pass by had a profound effect on me over the years. I would want to stop and explore, but there was never enough time. This created in me a longing to return.

When I first started making photographs, cultural and political history were an integral part of my anthropology studies, made real by the environmental movement and the emergence of resistance groups such as Earth First. I was uneasy as a documentarian of one–dimensional tragedy or disaster, and over the years my photographs took a more nuanced position. Working in the landscape is instinctual, familial, cultural, memorial; looking at the perception of belonging to a place as visitors on the land, not following the norm of straight documentary nor presenting a loss narrative common in photography.

Photography, as an invention and tool, played a significant role in Manifest Destiny, in stories of how the west was made, identified and conquered. From early photographs made for the USGS, to privately funded expeditions in search of resources, to the photographs of Edward Curtis’s attempts to document the “vanishing race,” photography is linked to the settlement and colonization of the American landscape. Photographers came to be heralds of conservation, such as Ansel Adams and his tireless work with the Sierra Club. In a famous visit to Congress, he presented a book of photographs, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, which prompted the creation of Kings Canyon National Park in 1940. This work continues on in contemporary photographers; these voices are important, yet at times remain a version of how the land is defined, protected, and seen from a western perspective.

Transition in the landscape, that’s a good question. Let me reflect back onto my experience again. As a multiracial kid growing up in 80s I was keenly aware of my mixed identity. Home was abstract. It felt impossible to locate myself belonging to any particular place. This search for a sense of belonging has ultimately defined my practice; I am able to find connection everywhere, yet do not belong anywhere. Transitions in the landscape echo the inner terrain: in-between places where change is actively happening, places that are neither here nor there or this nor that. They are liminal spaces, where dark meets light, land gives way to sea, sea to sky, where a scar on the land repairs itself, where a mountain has been transformed into a pit of mined earth, where a stream finds its way under a housing project, where a forest springs up after a wildfire.

I explore transitional spaces and human connection to the sites we inhabit, utilize, work and play in. I source material from each location to create a conversation between place and image, using source water to process, or inking and imprinting found objects onto paper surfaces.

I am aware of the desire and need for respite from the landscape. In a way, we ask for so much from nature, to give us a sense of peace, to help us get away from the trivialities or stresses of life, to renew and restore us. I have dwelled on these ideas for decades, yet now it is exceptionally interesting to address it, when people are slowing down, walking, and finding calm in the outdoors during quarantine. We ask for so much. What do we return?

Let me speak to the second half of that question. Teaching is a different experience for each person, as is artmaking. I feel I have done the best I can at my job when a student leaves my classroom knowing better who they are, what they care about, how they can share that in the world, and have the confidence to do so. I guide students to develop solid concepts in their work through rigorous inquiry and exploration, realizing that the everyday is a complex combination of our lived experience and our expectations. I place them in a position of self-responsibility through requiring independent research, writing and responding, to understand how their work fits within larger social, cultural and political frameworks. I emphasize the importance of becoming a critical autonomous researcher and a resourceful practitioner, valuing engagement both within and outside of their communities. Does this lead to focus? Ultimately, yes. Will you lose focus along the way? Absolutely, yes. Once you are “there”, are you set? Never! So much of it is about staying the course while staying true, keeping your curiousity while being flexible, and knowing it will get better, you will get better.

We asked: Please describe your project Waterlines. Do you find yourself changing the way you work when you are doing a collaborative project?

Tomiko said: The collaboration of Waterlines happened organically. I had been ruminating on a project for an exhibition about water, and in conversation with curator Cecily Cullen about making new work around the recent floods in California.  After more than five years of severe drought, the winter storms brought an incredible amount of rain and snowfall. Come spring, the unprecedented precipitation brought relief to the drought-stricken region, but along with the water came a new set of concerns: floods, infrastructure damage, cracking dams, and overflowing reservoirs. The previous year, during my yearlong curatorial residency in San Francisco that centered on water as a theme, I was introduced to Jonathan Marquis’ work. That Spring, I saw his exhibition, “Geology of the Senses”. I was struck by how he invoked environmental themes in his work in an indirect and poetic manner, and the way he integrated the cyanotype process into his paintings and installations. The conversation deepened, and it didn’t take long before it turned to talk of collaboration. Prior to meeting again, we did readings and reflections together to gain focus. Created on-site in an intensive two-week residency in Northern California, the series of cyanotypes thread together a correspondence of water and human activity. The immediacy of the cyanotype engages both photography and painting, presenting an appropriate medium to collaborate and examine the issue of water.

The project began with a 4×5 field camera to document sites of water containment, regulated flow, and public use. The locations follow the winter floods from mountain to reservoir, to river and finally, to sea. The negatives from the field camera were then exposed onto cyanotype sensitized paper. Next, a second layer of cyanotype solution was painted on top and around the existing image, and brought to the transitional shore of the Pacific Coast. Here the works were completed in collaboration with the sun, sand, rock, and sea.

He has a responsive, instinctive way of working with both the process and the elements. I loved how it freed me up to be looser in my own practice. Photography can instigate a need to control things technically, and I found his intuitive meander liberating. I continue to carry this with me.

Do I find myself changing the way I work? Absolutely! I love collaboration, because it is an exchange of ideas and perspectives, at times a debate, and you are always changed as a result. My experimentation with mediums expands, I often try new things, and am able to speak in a different voice. I find collaborations often give me the space to turn my attention to a particular topic other than what I might be working on in my individual practice. It’s like having a chance to have another conversation simultaneously. I have a long history of working together with people. It comes from activist days, where you primarily accomplished things as a group, and often with anonymity. In my early twenties I established a collaborative art project, WAAC, with Damian Puggelli, and since have collaborated countless times with other artists, writers, musicians, scientists, engineers, historians, and city officials. Other collaborations of note are multimedia installations with Chris Dacre, the immersive theatre production The Gretel Project with writers Catherine Chung, Lauren Alleyne and composer Sidney Boquiren, and the tactical music ensemble, Infernal Noise Brigade. Working with Jonathan on Waterlines was exceptional in terms of it being an integrated on-site collaboration produced within a short amount of intensive, focused work.

We asked: How did you begin your teaching career? How has teaching affected your own photography and business?

Tomiko said: I did not set out to become a teacher; in some ways I felt like it came to me. I was always working with and learning from people–when I worked in a photo lab, there was always someone teaching me a new trick that I would pass along. When I was establishing my business, I worked with other women photographers. We helped each other assist jobs, did gear swaps, recommended one another, shared studio rentals and other costs. I would hire less experienced women to assist me to share what I knew, in an attempt at a non-hierarchical structure. I had also mentored in after school youth photography programs. By the time I went to graduate school, I had experienced so much, from working in community darkrooms, a professional photo lab, apprenticing in studio and on location, assisting on highly produced commercial shoots, to having my own business.  I didn’t go to graduate school to become a professor, rather I saw it as the gift of studio time with mentors and colleagues who could support my intellectual and creative growth. Well, one thing leads to another, and after a few years of residencies, grants and odd jobs, I was invited to New Mexico State University to teach full time with David Taylor, my first teaching mentor. Since then I have taught at universities, community colleges, intensive summer graduate programs, workshops, and as visiting artist; some were contractual, and some with tenure-track promotion. Teaching is a gift; helping others learn and get closer to their own work pushes you to do it more yourself. I also learn so much about new artists and current trends by all the homework I give them! In many ways it is an exchange, and I am constantly pushed to be open, compassionate and flexible while also delivering rigor and discipline.  In business, I rarely work commercially, but maintain an active professional art practice of exhibiting, speaking, publishing with an occasional public art commission. It is hard to answer how teaching has affected it all,  but I do try to integrate my business into my teaching, and when possible, work with students as assistants or interns, for them to gain experience. I serve on the board of directors for the Society for Photographic Education; having an advisory and functional role in a volunteer, membership based non-profit organization is service to the field, and in many ways, part of the business of being an artist and educator. I involve my students through SPE membership and encourage their active participation.

We asked: What is one thing you share with your students that you wish you knew when you were in their shoes?

Tomiko said: The field has changed enormously since I was in their shoes, or their age, so I think the most valuable things I can share are more philosophical. When I started out there was much misogyny, inequity, hostility and arrogance in the field. (I like to believe that has changed significantly.) The relationships you build now, with your teachers and your classmates, should be models of how to be in the larger world. Be nice, stay cool, be flexible while standing your ground. Don’t be afraid to express your opinion, it can be done respectfully, honestly and with integrity; allow others to do the same. Don’t let people talk you into doing things you don’t want to, or ask you to work for free because it will be good exposure. In return, do not ask that of others yourself. Let’s ask each other to do less, and care more. I spoke so long on question 1, but to paraphrase– you will make mistakes, and it will be okay. And yes, learn from them. Trust yourself. It will get better!

We asked: How difficult was it to begin incorporating video into your work? Do you find that having this ability has been advantageous to you?

Tomiko said: Moving image was an easy and natural segue from still image. I began to incorporate video during my graduate studies at the University of Arizona (my MFA Thesis was a timed three-channel sequenced video installation with kinetic parts and sculptural objects). Much of my work is performative, loose rituals that unfold over time in the landscape, or durational gestures commencing as the color bleeds from the sky. Video offers a medium to express these gestures over time. It also provides the potential of a narrative framework as a story unfolds over time. At times, I use video to be solely an atmospheric element, and attempt to have no beginning or end, only the essence of place. Having multiple mediums to work with is a joy for me; I work with the best form for the content of the work or project. 

Find more of Tomiko’s work on her website.

If this article was of interest to you, take a look at some of the other articles in the Questions with an Educator and Questions with a Pro series.