If you walk through the vaulted sanctuary of the Sistine Chapel, as Joanna Currey did while visiting the Vatican City this summer, your head will participate in a kind of pivot phenomenon in which you can hardly control its necessity to look up at the elaborate ceiling. “He didn’t actually want to paint it,” Joanna informed me the day after she got back to the United States. Defining himself as primarily a sculptor, Michelangelo’s assignment to coat the nearly 573 square meters of the chapel was far from his to do list. But after much debate, he showed up day after day, tipping his neck back and sustaining that crude standing posture upon his scaffolding for four years to complete a piece of art we now travel thousands of miles to gaze upon with awe and wonder.
“Creativity doesn’t just happen to me,” Joanna confesses. “Two percent of the time it does, and it’s amazing, but most of the time, it really is blood, sweat, and tears, and that’s not very romantic.”
Since high school, Joanna has been balancing the combination of poetry, music, and visual art, three elements that fight with one another for her time and attention.
“The way you approach academic poetry is just not at all similar to writing lyrics. It’s based on word economy – saying as much as you can with as little as you can and having no excess,” Joanna says. But the mindset of a lyricist is different. “Lyrics have to be more straight forward because you are only planning for someone to be able to hear it. You wouldn’t write a text book the same way you write a speech,” she explains.
As a graduate of the University of Virginia’s Area Program in Poetry Writing, Joanna spent the past four years watering her poetic mind with the nutritional teachings of professors like Lisa Spaar and Rita Dove. She admits to having an underdeveloped songwriting brain as opposed to her poetic maturity because of her bold decision to take a one-year leave from music.
“Because I’m not an artist of high levels of productivity, it’s hard for me to be working on both music and poetry consistently.” Joanna realized prior to beginning her poetry capstone that she did not have to put music on hold, rather she chose to in order to concentrate on the former in a disciplined manner. “It was the first time that I didn’t feel guilty for not working on music.”
Despite making poetry her focal point, Joanna insists that the two art forms cannot be compartmentalized. “Everything that I learn about poetry teaches me more about music,” and she finds the reverse to be true as well. “I would like my poetry to be musical and I would like my lyrics to be poetic.” Her original songs are autobiographical stories interwoven with the experiences she has heard from or read about. This integration results in an emotional sound resembling the folksy anguish of The Civil Wars’ break up. Though she sticks to basic guitar chords, her punch is in the shapes she forces her lips to make to release the ballads of disappointed lovers or fallen friendships.
This past spring, passersby spotted Joanna tidying up after an eight-hour shift at Shenandoah Joe’s coffee shop in Charlottesville. They likely heard her listening to Imogen Heap, The Naked and Famous, or Bon Iver, so the may be surprised to hear her rave about jazz music while she slides you a cup of coffee across the counter the next morning. She points to Tyler Hutcherson as an enthusiastic jazz pianist, whose companionship has widened her appreciation for the otherwise completely foreign style. “[Tyler] has always been excited about doing jazz covers of pop songs, and he’s gotten me to do a lot of those with him.”
Outside of reading for class and preparing pour-overs for sleep-deprived students, Joanna found Eunoia to be one place she could integrate her passions for music, writing, and painting. Consisting of weekly gatherings and open mic nights, Eunoia provides students and townspeople alike the opportunity to explore the arts while experiencing the presence of God in creative facets. Endearingly referred to as “the Island of Misfit Toys” by its regular participants, Joanna says the community “fed me as an artist.” While Joanna received inevitable praises from friends and family, the individuals that passed their hours at Eunoia were either fellow artists or genuine and well-educated art-appreciators who would provide brutal honesty. “You could walk up to them with a song and say, what do you think, and they would have helpful feedback.” Finding herself unrestricted to music, Joanna recited her poetry at Eunoia’s Open Mic Nights as well, and encouraged others to share their art in this capacity as well.
“More than anything, there are few places you can go and be around people who are going to nag you to write a new song, and that’s good for me. I need people to nag me,” Joanna says.
Unlike most musicians, Joanna speaks about her continual writer’s block with an incredible freedom. “Every time I sit down, I’m like, ‘oh wait, I don’t know how to start.’” She describes inspiration as most commonly resembling the Michelangelo-style discomfort rather than the romantic, Instagram portrayals of a pristine desk adorned with a vase of flowers and fresh paintbrushes.
“The way that inspiration works is I sit down, I show up, with the pen in hand, guitar in hand, whatever, even when I’m not feeling like it, which is most of the time. I have to sit down and realize, I’ve done this a million times and this is still hard. I don’t know where to start. I don’t even have a first word,” Joanna admits. If ever there were a time to bang a head against a brick wall and burst into Sondheim’s “Agony,” this would be it. “But I have to stay there and write some first words and cross them out and write some more and just stick with it until something starts to happen, and then it becomes really fun and I get into it and that’s when I sit there for five hours and don’t realize any time has passed.”
Prior to her three-week trip to Italy, Joanna, with the company of five fellow artists, adventurers, and intimate friends, gathered for ten days in a wooden cabin along the James River. Each individual brought with them a personal goal to faithfully achieve while living in the primitive setting. “I’m lazy and I always have something else to do. Supposedly,” Joanna explains about her past attempts to yield fruit from her summers. During her time in the woods, her goal was to journal every day in order to embody the steady nature of the God she worships – a quality for which humanity tends to accept defeat. “You have to be dedicated and disciplined enough to show up, even when you don’t feel like it. The biggest thing is to try and cultivate more discipline,” Joanna encourages. “For some people, maybe [discipline] comes really easily and naturally. For me, for whatever reason, art is what I love and it doesn’t come naturally.”
Though Joanna continues to cultivate habits for artistic productivity, the routines of her heart are evident in the content of her writing. “I never try to write about God. I just can’t help but write about God,” she says when asked about how her faith impacts her art. This manifests itself, not in the “Shine, Jesus, Shine” Vacation Bible School format, but rather through raw and often uncomfortably honest lyrics. “I’m trying not to be afraid to write stuff that maybe a lot of Christians wouldn’t love to hear. The Bible is gritty and full of people doing the wrong thing, and that’s the truth of human experience. To be afraid of that or to create art that paints an idealized picture of life doesn’t speak to anyone.” By committing herself to this work of sharing truth with others, the mistakes of humanity are presented, yet harmonized with God’s inescapable presence.
This desire to share not only exists in the realm of the classroom or open mic nights. According to Joanna, one of her all-time favorite moments revolving around music took place during her second year of college, where her and her housemates found themselves playing covers and singing together while the rest of the world was long asleep. “[We played] them very imperfectly and haltingly – messing up and having to restart – but no one cared because they just wanted the music to keep going,” she recollects. Her eyes, which are lighter and softer than her dark, voluminous hair suggests, illuminate as she reminisces on these instances of “true freedom.” “I’ve never been good enough to actually ‘jam,’ but I imagine that’s what it feels like.”
Just weeks ago, prototypes of Joanna’s final poetry capstone arrived at her doorstep in Fairfax, Virginia. The anthology marries two of her three loves, with her watercolor paintings tucked between every few pages of intimate stanzas. When the 22 year-old artist shares her art through the presentation of her poetry or music, recipients of it find that their head pivots left or right to catch the music in the crook of their ear, or their necks tilt down to invest in the words or brush strokes upon the page. Yet this art is not romantic in its making, and much of it is not truly romantic in its completed state either. “I’m not the best musician in the world, or even close. But you have to decide what you want to be committed to, and pursue excellence, and glorify God in whatever you do. And I think God is glorified by excellence. Especially, especially, good art.”