How to cope with unprecedented technological advancement, massive social shifts and a warming planet? In the turning 20th Century, the modernists worked to contend with rapid industrialization and broad societal transformation. As we witness the adverse ecological effects of such industry a century later, Reno-based abstract artist Joanna Drakos has turned to her own non-representational practice to weather the present.
Born in Athens, Greece, Drakos and her family relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina in 1970 before her second birthday. The artist later graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte with a degree in painting. Her senior project had been a series of large-scale, Fauvist-inspired acrylic portraits, including the self-portrait that graces her business cards and online presence. When the artist’s husband, who Drakos met while studying at UNC Charlotte, was accepted to a graduate program in Reno, she had never been West of the Mississippi but “left most possessions behind and drove 3,000 miles to Nevada, sight unseen.”
Such a move required some adjustment. “It was quite a shock … the climate, the general landscape— it’s so different. It’s like coming to another planet almost, you know, coming to a desert environment from a very humid, foliated place,” said Drakos. “I also left a professional career. I was working in publishing as a graphic designer for a magazine, and it was a really good job. It took me a few years to find employment here that was commensurate with what I had been doing.”
Eventually, Drakos went to work in custom publishing for the Reno Gazette-Journal, which produced Reno Magazine, and later left the publication to go freelance. After she and her husband had their two daughters she devoted roughly 10 years of her life to focusing solely on their upbringing. “But in the back of my mind, it always nagged me: you’re not painting. You need to paint,” she said.
“During the pandemic, I had some blank canvases in a closet that hadn’t been touched,” she said. “One day I went to that closet, grabbed the canvas and started painting. It was like a flood of artistic energy came out of me, and I remembered why I loved it so much.” The period that followed was one of intense intellectual stimulation for Drakos, during which she became engrossed in consuming media about the Modernist movement, the Abstract Expressionists in particular. She rescued her undergraduate self-portrait from a family member’s shed back East and resumed her practice.
2023 marks Drakos’s 20th year living in the high desert, but last summer’s intense heat presented the artist with a period of unexpected re-adjustment. Faced with the onset of a heat-related illness, she found herself trapped indoors as strings of hundred-degree days passed outside. “It really started to affect me mentally,” she said. “Then, I started listening to sounds of snowstorms and wind to put me in a place where I felt I was in a cold environment, just to dissipate some of the heat and try to heal my body. I was using painting as an escapist thing. I just went deeper and deeper into imagery of coolness.”
From this meditative state, Drakos completed “Winter’s Realm,” and later drew inspiration from winter sunsets for works like the hazy “Solstice.”
“From the sunsets, I went to a birch forest,” she said, speaking of a series of paintings titled for the paper-white trees. “They were how I emerged from all of this to a better place at the end of a year cycle.”
The large and small-scale acrylic paintings produced during the artist’s year of cooling constitute her current exhibition, Artifacts of Introspection, up through Sept. 30th at Sierra Arts Foundation’s Riverside Gallery. Elsewhere, Drakos leads the Downtown Modernists, a local artists group she co-founded with fellow Reno abstract artist Susan Handau. Currently meeting privately, the group hopes to evolve into a more community-facing project. “We want to put a spotlight on people working in non-representational styles for folks who want to patronize that type of art,” she said. As of now, two local group shows by the collective are on the books for next year.
“In a plastic world, an original work of art connects us to our humanity,” reads the home page of Drakos’ website. The words float over a close-up of “Isolation,” one of her larger acrylic works. For Drakos, a “plastic” world is one wherein everything, especially art, is mass-produced. “I think it makes an original work of art that much more precious, because a human hand touched it, created it,” she said. “There’s no other one like it, right? It’s literally impossible for the artist to create exactly the same painting over again. So they’re just absolutely unique.”
Artifacts of Introspection by Joanna Drakos is on view at Sierra Arts though Sept. 30 with a reception this Saturday, Sept. 23 from noon-4.
Photos of artwork courtesy of Joanna Drakos