Coffee Shop Curator is a regular feature focusing on DC’s most accessible art galleries–its coffee shops. Each post will highlight an artist whose work is on display at a local cafe.
Joshua Korenblat at Modern Times Coffeehouse at Politics & Prose Bookstore
Writer and artist Joshua Korenblat shares the process behind his portraiture (made on an iPhone!), his local and cross-cultural influences, and the definition of his word “mallardine.” (Hint: What are ducks’ most admirable qualities?)
Q: How long have you been living and making art in the District?
A: I’ve been living in DC, and making art within its cozy borders, since 2000—with a few sojourns in other cities: Providence, Baltimore, and Brooklyn.
I moved here immediately after graduating from college in St. Louis, to work in the Art Department at National Geographic Magazine. I was lucky to work in a quirky environment with extremely smart people who supported creativity. My boss, for instance, was an illustrator who had a fictitious dinosaur named after him (it’s a long story).
On occasion, we’d leave work on a Friday to spend time looking at Old Master paintings at the National Gallery of Art. In this spirit, I took part-time classes in creative writing at the DC campus of Johns Hopkins University, culminating in a master’s degree in writing. I’ve always considered writing to be the heart of my creative practice, so the extensive time I’ve poured into writing flows into the same place as any visual art that I might create.
Q: Tell us about the work on display at at the coffeehouse.
A: I called my show at Politics & Prose “Hurry Slowly,” which was the motto of one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino. This is a curious body of work due to its origins: I fingerpainted all of it on my iPhone screen, using the Brushes app. Most of the portraits in this show are of actual patrons of the store, created live and on-site; I even discovered that one man I painted was an artist who had shown his work here two shows prior to mine.
For this show, I created some rules for myself: the work would be completely unmediated, meaning I would not alter it outside of the given moment in which I painted my subject; I would stop painting if my subject would leave, which accounts for the varying levels of finish you see in the portraits; and finally, I would not use any photographic references to render my subjects. I kept in mind a simple process: See it, paint it, and share it. However, I would experiment with how I would print and enlarge the images, since they have never lived outside of my iPhone until now.
For years, I’ve been taking my art on the go with me by using this app, often painting portraits and landscapes using the unlimited palette of digital color and a miniature screen as my canvas. I became increasingly fascinated by the swiftness of this new way of working, which reminded me of sumi brush painting, an Asian form of art that I have practiced, which values swiftness and capturing the essential moment. For me, iPhone painting is a way to work with immediacy, with no self-consciousness on my part or from my subject, who often does not know that he or she is being painted—after all, what can be more common than a person immersed in the glowing screen of an iPhone? I prefer this way of portrait painting, because I can capture candid, subtle moments in my subject more easily, without interruption.
I’ve often enjoyed artwork created in-the-moment—it just feels so much more authentic to me. For instance, I’ve always enjoyed Rembrandt’s sketches of beggars in Amsterdam, and his quick brush paintings of children and parents. And Hokusai, the famous Japanese printmaker best known for his Great Wave print, also created a voluminous body of work called Manga, which roughly translates to sketches from life.
In particular, such artists can capture the character of a subject, or suggest a person’s essence. As a writer, I’m mindful of the fact that portraiture can’t tell the whole story without more context. Characterization and character are quite different—it’s the difference between the content of a book and its cover.
Hokusai recently led me to read classic haiku poetry from Japan. The immediacy of the poems—however honed, they still feel immediate to me—suggested a path forward for the Politics & Prose show. I would show my iPhone paintings; it felt like a risk to me, considering I had options to show more traditional work, but the community space called out to me, and these fingerpaintings from direct observation seemed to be at home at a quintessential DC literary hub defined by its people.
Q: How would you describe your work overall?
A: I am most interested in storytelling created by writers and artists who have distinct narrative voices, and I hope to tell stories that feel natural to people, with playfulness and humor.
I enjoy projects that combine art and writing, or have writing at its heart. As a writer, I believe that visual art is a universal language that transcends the boundaries of geography and time, and for that reason, I find my inspiration from an array of cultures—Dutch painting, Japanese prints, and early twentieth century American cartoonists. I read a lot too. I try to integrate my studies in art history without directly quoting from them.
Although I have oil painted in the past, I have narrowed my painting technique to sumi brush painting, combined with water-based crayons, oil crayons, and some work with pen-and-ink and marker. I often work quickly and in multiples, producing much in a short span of time, not only because I have a full-time job and teach part-time, but because my art seems to benefit from working swiftly, or from a series of swift revisions that culminate in a piece that I might consider final.
I also work digitally. Beyond my iPhone paintings, I work full-time as an art director and illustrator, and I paint in Photoshop for animation and motion graphics projects. I also work as a graphic designer with a specialty in information graphics, where seeing the shape of the story through visualized data becomes paramount. In the future, I’d love to work on a project involving live white-board drawing as well, and to complete some languishing illustrated book projects.
Q: Favorite part about making art in DC? Biggest challenge?
A: My favorite part of making art in DC is definitely its intercultural nature—I have friends from all over the world here, and given my belief that visual art defines cultures and can unify human experience, I find this aspect of DC most inspiring.
I read somewhere that DC is the most well-educated city in America, and I believe it. Given the fact that I see visual art as a form of reading, this aspect of DC also inspires me, because in a way I’m surrounded by an ideal audience, people who read.
Also, DC is located close to other dynamic cities of quite different character: Baltimore and New York City. If I ever need a change of energy, from the quirky charm of Baltimore to dizzying pace of New York, it’s easy to fulfill that wish. The greenery of DC, and its smallness, makes it easy to walk, and many of my best ideas seem to appear naturally when I am walking to and from work—for instance, I chose as my personal logo a gingko leaf, with its stem curved to suggest a J, after finding just such a leaf in Rose Park, while walking to my part-time teaching one fall day in Georgetown.
The biggest challenge of DC is that it’s not New York City. The rents have more than doubled in my favorite neighborhoods since my arrival here in 2000, which means I work out of my 400 square-foot studio apartment. As a Midwesterner, it’s still a bit of a jolt writing out my rent check each month, and it could make any artist wonder if an equivalent investment in living in NYC, with its own universe of creative energy, makes more sense.
Creatively, NYC believes it’s the center of a Pre-Copernican universe, with tiny planets, like DC and Balitmore, and every other city, orbiting dimly around it. There is some truth to NYC’s long-held claim to centrality. NYC is more likely to have a restless energy that you can feel, of people building and creating their own lives; traditionally, the energy in DC is found in steady jobs and climbing hierarchies inside offices. That energy can at times conflict with being an artist. But DC is changing every day, and there are many vital creative places in the city, and a diverse audience that appreciates art and culture. In particular, DC is home to a documentary filmmaking community, and many journalists, photographers, designers, and writers.
Regardless of what a city might offer creatively, as an artist, my hope is to create art anywhere—be it a bookstore coffeehouse, my studio apartment, at the bus stop, or in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa, if need be. In many ways, art is its own form of travel, and DC has allowed me to build a life as a designer as I try to support my creative pursuits.
Q: How did you get involved at Modern Times Coffeehouse and where else can people find your work?
A: My friend Lance Kramer put me into touch with them. Lance is a documentary filmmaker and a cofounder of Meridian Hill Pictures, a wonderful creative firm dedicated to social documentaries and working with nonprofit causes.
I’m fortunate to have such thoughtful friends; self-promotion has never been my most comfortable skill. In DC, I’ve also showed my work at Pepco Edison Gallery in Chinatown, as part of The Joe Bonham Project, founded by retired Marine Corps artist Mike Fay. With a team from the Society of Illustrators, we draw portraits of soldiers who have been wounded in war, helping to tell their story.
As an art director and designer for Graphicacy, a design startup, I participate in the creation of information graphics art, and I believe you can buy some of posters in the gift shop at the American Museum of History right now. These posters, created by my firm’s founder Nathaniel Pearlman, show the history of the presidency in information graphic form, so we hope to have more info-art there soon, too. Much of my work is boxed-up in my apartment. I hope to incorporate it into a few illustrated book ideas that I’ve been working on for a long time now.
Q: What do you do in DC when you are not making art?
A: Outside of work and my part-time teaching, I like to run long distances, read, write, and visit the museums, and I like to spend time with my friends here, too. Politics & Prose is my favorite place to read and attend book readings, so it’s really an honor to put some work up there, and I also like Ching Ching Cha, an authentic Chinese coffeehouse in Georgetown.
DC has a small town feel to it. The cherry blossoms transform and rejuvenate the city each spring, and I even enjoy the less celebrated seasonal qualities of the region: the languid humidity of the summer and the sudden rainstorms. There’s no better sound to accompany reading than the pitter-patter of rain against the windowpane.
Also a non-human element comprises DC; the diversity of wildlife seems even more noticeable in city surroundings. My favorite DC creatures are the mallards, which paddle their way through the rivers and canals—you always see the male and the female together, with their respective turquoise and brown heads bobbing along the waters. They show such fidelity to each other that I coined my own word for this quality—“mallardine,” which means constancy and dependability. I don’t think I would have created this word, which always seems to make me smile, if I weren’t living in DC. During my many walks around town, I try to appreciate what’s happening around me.
Last Coffee Shop Curator: Ross Ruot at Dolcezza Dupont