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ASU digital art grad activates and honors Indigenous perspectives

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

After graduation, “I plan on working with Indigenous communities because that is important to me,” said Herberger Institute Outstanding Graduate Student John Joe. “I think it is vital to growing our people in good ways, and I feel that I can contribute to their success and development with the experience I have to offer.”

John Joe is an Irish and Diné (Navajo) student graduating this spring with an MFA in art (digital technology). He has been creating art for 30 years and has slowly integrated digital technology over the past decade. 

He was named one of Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts’ Outstanding Graduating Students for 2021 in the category of Excellence and Innovation in Creative Practice. His work is currently on display in the Harry Wood Gallery.

Joe’s MFA thesis exhibition, "Our Way, Route 2021,” features a soundwalk project with a route that is Joe's journey traveling from his family home in Naschitti, New Mexico, to Hweeldi-Fort Sumner, New Mexico.

The project “offers a 2021 route to be held by the land, honoring our way of life, family, traditions, tribal community and ancestors,” according to Joe’s website. “The Fort Sumner site holds a painful past for Diné people where they were marched from their homes. These collective routes are known as the Long Walk. ‘Our Way’ is a personal route navigating cultural ways of being and honoring protocols while speaking to the resilience and strength of our past and present through the humble act of walking and listening.”

The 2021 route aims to activate Indigenous perspectives and dialogue about connecting to the land and place using the body, digital technology, audio mapping and locative media. 

The exhibition can be viewed by appointment during regular gallery hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, through May 7. To schedule an appointment, contact galleries@asu.edu

Joe received scholarships and fellowships from the Navajo Nation, American Indian Graduate Center, American Indian College Fund and Arizona State University.

“Receiving this funding has been exceptional in helping me attain an MFA degree, knowledge, experience and honing my creative practice,” he said.

After graduation, Joe will continue his creative practice and working with Indigenous communities. 

“I plan on working with Indigenous communities because that is important to me. I think it is vital to growing our people in good ways, and I feel that I can contribute to their success and development with the experience I have to offer.” 

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?  

Answer: When I started looking at graduate programs, I noticed myself gravitating towards architecture, industrial design, art and technology. I also took digital fabrication courses that influenced my searches for graduate programs and observed that the art and digital technology avenue was the perfect direction. The ASU MFA digital technology program had a sound degree track, and after visiting the school, felt it was a good fit for me.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective? 

A: I'm surprised at how my creative practice has shifted. I came into the program with fair experience creatively and professionally, but the move towards working with sound and digital technology as a medium has been a surprise. I also think that through the shift, I have become more engaged in finding a way to balance my cultural practices and digital technology.

Q: Why did you choose ASU? 

A: The ASU MFA digital technology program was a good fit for me. The entire faculty of the intermedia department sent a warm welcome, which was something I felt thoughtful, and that gesture sealed my decision to come to ASU. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? 

A: I think all professors I have had exchanges with have positively impacted my education at Arizona State University. My thesis committee — Adriene Jenik, Garth Paine, Gregory Sale, Dan Collins and Wanesia Misquadace — have all been excellent and supportive of my thesis project and creative practice. I also have to include Lauren Hayes and Liz Cohen for their contribution and guidance in growing my creative practice. Their collective knowledge is vital in my overall success. Thank you, professors!

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school? 

A: Stay focused and be dedicated. Dedication is the gesture that moves you forward. I also think you need to be gentle with yourself in your development and embrace the unexpected. It would be best to embrace moments that feel like a failure, because they are more important than the final goal. It is through these moments that we learn and grow. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?  

A: When we were not quarantining, my studio at Grant Street was my favorite place. I spent my first year and a half in the studio, and it was great. Currently, my home serves as mission control for everything online going on in my life.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle? 

A: A move to tackle the digital inequality, connectivity and access that Indigenous communities face. I think the pandemic shift to homeschooling revealed that this is lacking in tribal communities. Access to better computers and basic internet connectivity in rural areas needs to be addressed. 

lstreed@asu.edu