Spokane artist Joyce Wilkens lives by the motto, "If you don't ask, doors don't open."
After running Bloomsday every year for 25 years, each time dressed in the Raggedy Ann costume she made for a Christmas play, Wilkens knew her body needed a break. To celebrate her retirement from the race, she convinced event organizers to let her perform at the tradeshow where she completed a large painting of Raggedy Ann, live and in costume. Afterward, she took the finished piece to the top of Doomsday Hill so the beloved character could cheer on her community even in her absence.
Wilkens is a multimodal artist, working in photography, painting, and poetry. Her work focuses on the hinges — those connections we forge with other people, unique objects, natural beauty — and she's made a practice of pushing doors open for herself. She returned to Spokane in 1985, after living in Walla Walla and Loma Linda, California, and is deeply embedded in local artistic communities.
Her first book of photography, Teacup Art (2011), is a catalog of her fascination with the power of delicate, everyday objects to form connections between strangers. It all started when she attended a woman's teacup party. Each guest brought a teacup that was important to her, and explained why.
Listening to these stories, Wilkens thought: "I am closer to all of these people. Now I know something about them, and we're on the path to becoming friends."
She knew she wanted to center her second book around an object like the teacup: Something that was beautiful in its own right while also signposting deeper storytelling. She thought of her husband's walking stick collection. He started collecting them in 1982 while they were living in Zambia and Zimbabwe.
"If you ask somebody about their walking stick, they'll tell you their story," Wilkens says. "They'll tell you why their back aches, or how they got it from their grandfather."
Walking Sticks, published in 2013, combines photography of unique walking sticks, some of them carved by Wilkens herself, and the scenic locations they can take you.
Her newest work, Poetry Pie, was seven years in the making. Under the guidance and mentorship of the long-standing South Hill group the Poetry Scribes of Spokane, Wilkens started composing poetry inspired by her own paintings and making paintings to accompany poems. She picked the title for its rhythmic structure and the feelings of warmth it evoked.
"I wanted it to be something delicious, inviting you to a table, inviting you to a book," Wilkens says.
The cover of the book is a bird's nest with two different colored eggs inside. "The circle represents the pie; what's happening inside is poetry," she explains. The painting corresponds to a poem about two bird mothers. One dies, and the eggs are nurtured by the other.
"It's the poetry of life," Wilkens says. "Things are beautiful, and sometimes they're not. It's about finding a positive in the negative."
That's certainly what she's been doing in response to COVID-19. When asked how she is handling the isolation, she admits it's been challenging, but the pandemic provided her with necessary quiet time to focus on her book and finish the paintings.
Still, she is finding ways to connect. She recently participated in an event called Art on the Go where artists took paintings to specific locations so people could drive by and view them from a safe distance. In a few weeks, she will also take part in carrying her paintings in front of the windows of senior citizens' homes.
"For that, I will dress up as Raggedy Ann one more time," she says. ♦
Joyce Wilkens Poetry Pie Book Signing and Art Exhibition (masks required) • Sun-Mon, Oct. 18-19, 1-6 pm • 3010 S. Southeast Blvd. • joycewilkens.com