Alibi V.29 No.10 • March 5-11, 2020 

Arts Interview

A Pirate in the Desert

Juliana Coles at Ghostwolf Gallery

Juliana Coles.
Juliana Coles.
Photo by Clarke Condé

Juliana Coles’ pirate name is Captain Morgan Le Fay. She would want you to know that. She would want you to discover your own pirate name, too. She paints pictures of female pirates (among many other things), including one of the 19th century Cantonese pirate Madame Cheng that is included in the group show Women’s Work opening this Friday at Old Town’s own Ghostwolf Gallery. Weekly Alibi sat down with Coles to talk about pirates, scars, blue skies and her paintings. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Weekly Alibi: Is Madame Cheng really her name?

Juliana Coles: So to speak. Madame Cheng had a name, but she was a very young prostitute. Then she takes on the name of the husband. So, in Chinese it's “Wife of Cheng.” That's her name.

“Madame Cheng” by Juliana Coles.
“Madame Cheng” by Juliana Coles.
courtesy of the artist

What drew you to all things piratical?

Since I was a kid, I’ve been drawn to all things romance and adventure. So, cowboys, pirates, that sort of—I'm going to live life the way I choose. I'm daring, I'm a rule breaker, fierce, free—I think freedom's big. When I teach these workshops, I develop a process of visual journaling, which is combining journal-writing with art-making in a book, which is essentially art therapy. I made a pirate's code workshop. Pirates have lots of scars. I have lots of scars. Scars can be emotional wounds and we work with that using metaphors of the sea to help us express those things that we may be uncomfortable or afraid to dig in and discover.

Scars are what you did. Tattoos are what you thought about.

“Unlandscaped Landscape” by Juliana Coles.
“Unlandscaped Landscape” by Juliana Coles.
courtesy of the artist

The scars could be anything, right? Maybe the reason behind the tattoo or what comes after the tattoo. Everyone has a different level of self-awareness and ability to go within. In the context of the workshop, for many people it might be literal; for others it may be about emotional wounds. Maybe a combination of the two. Then I say, okay, now your scar is going to write you a letter.

Tell me about “Unlandscaped Landscape.”

What I love about being an artist is that I can take all these remnants and scraps and put them together. So much of life is just really disconnected and disjointed and its follow-through is hard. Just knowing where I am at any given time is hard.

“Settlement” by Juliana Coles.
“Settlement” by Juliana Coles.
courtesy of the artist

“Unlandscaped Landscape” is about giving up. There's a theme of the horse in there. Like the horse kicked down the fence and ran away and I watched her go. I didn't even try to stop her. I didn't even have it in me. She needed to go. She needed to get the fuck out. She needed to be free. And I just watched. It's like you're watching someone else's bravery and making your own wounds worse because you're incapable of exacting any kind of energy on your own behalf. So, it was just like a pain of giving up piece. But then, within it, it says, “the power to be new.” I know the relationship of the words, but of course the audience doesn't, so they're really making their own story from it.

How do you feel having them read into your work?

People will say, “You said this or this piece is about this.” Great. We're kinda in this together. Especially when it means something to somebody and it's not even what I meant. That's very rewarding. We're all part of telling the story.

What is it about New Mexico that inspires your work?

Everything. I absolutely love it here. I love the desert. I love the dryness. I love the heat. I love the terrain. I love how life just sort of lives in spite of itself. It's such a hard place to live and yet you have to seek it out. I'm an epileptic. When I moved here, it was the first time in my life that I felt safe and calm. In spite of this consistent, strange brain activity. Underneath this blue sky, I can see. I can feel the space. It's calming. It's comforting.

The desert is sparse. Obviously, the landscape has a huge effect on you, but your work is definitely not sparse.

I fill my house. I fill every space. Space is not something that's in my work.

It's horror vacui.

Exactly.

Are you afraid of empty space?

I think for me, they work together. I'm out here, I'm under this blue sky. There's nothing there, but in the work, that's where the words go. For somebody else, negative space might be something that assists the composition. For me, it is just a place to put my words.

Women’s Work

Opening Reception March 6, 5-8pm
Ghostwolf Gallery
2043 South Plaza St. NW
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