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In the Flesh 

Joyce Jonté at Arcata Artisans

She's framed by an angled heel on the left and a blaze of ruby curls on the right. Lying back, her bare chest rises into a field of deep slate blue. One hand rests on her ribcage, winding a tawny shadow toward her lavender underwear. Ochre tones trail from beneath her penciled form as ruddy brush strokes define the curves of her body. "Fragile," one of Joyce Jonté's distinctive figurative watercolors, flows seamlessly across the paper.

Jonté, July's featured artist at Arcata Artisans, has built a life around her love for drawing and painting figures. On a rainy afternoon, Jonté is dressed in black with a striped scarf loose around her neck. Silver curls fall across her shoulder, but her bangs are trimmed neatly above her glasses. As children, Jonté and her five sisters would make things for hours at a round table in the kitchen near a cupboard stuffed with paper dolls and art supplies. On summer backpacking trips when most kids would be fishing or digging for bugs, she would curl up next to a mountain stream and paint wildflowers. "When I was 14," Jonté says, "I decided I was going to be an artist and never looked back."

In high school, her teacher arranged a working scholarship for her to teach younger students how to paint in exchange for weekly adult life-drawing classes. "Every chance I got to figure draw, I was doing it," she says. Graduating in three years, Jonté traveled to Humboldt with the boyfriend her parents disapproved of (they're still together) and attended HSU, eventually earning her art degree and becoming an integral part of the arts community.

Now firmly rooted, Jonté has created a life that revolves around artistic activity. Laughing, she admits that she should get out more, go see art shows, travel to big city museums and rub elbows at local art openings. "I'm a little selfish about making art," she says bashfully. "I just want to paint all the time!" Running or attending at least four figure drawing sessions each week, as well as frequent workshops and classes, allows her to work the way she likes to work best: from life.

While many painters create work from their imaginations or rely on photos for inspiration, Jonté prefers to sit with live subjects, be they flowers or people. There's an intimacy and immediacy to the process, a connection that she feels transfers into her work. "If I have to look at a photo, it's like they're farther away," she says. Painting directly from live models demands timeliness; flowers wilt and models can only pose for so long. Work from these sessions contains an energy that comes from giving up a certain amount of control over the process. A breeze blows the flower or the model moves, but, as Jonté says, "it's more beautiful when there's a give and take" to the process.

To illustrate her point, Jonté fetches a still-wet watercolor painting of strawberries from her studio desk. In the image, a bowl overflows with ripe red fruit, which are given life through gestural strokes and loose, fluid color. The vibrant red hues overlap to create the forms without outlines or precise details. She points to a strawberry next to the bowl, noting how much stiffer it is than the rest. "I was working from a photo to add this one in," she says. The difference is striking — whereas the original berries are nearly abstract, the new berry is stiff and tight, each seed singularly defined against red flesh.

Jonté's embrace of figures and flowers is quite natural. After all, flowers, too, are living, curvy, colorful, individual and full of life. There's also a practical side. Even in our enlightened contemporary culture, nude paintings can be difficult to exhibit. "I've had times when I've loaded my whole car with paintings and been told I can't show them there," says Jonté. Our American puritanical residue continues to link nudity with sex, she laments, adding, "It's sad that there are businesses where people will quit buying coffee if there is a nipple in a painting." Still, she pushes forward undeterred, simply because she loves creating art and the community her art creates. For Jonté, art isn't meant to be confined to a studio. It's a social process connecting artists with each other and radiating out into the larger world.

Models work hard and don't come cheap, so local life drawers join forces and create groups where many people can draw and paint at once. Jonté, a group leader, enjoys the social nature of these sessions — people coming together and learning from one another. One of Jonté's favorite workshops is with teens from Arcata High School's Arts Institute. Through a grant from the Carl Nielsen Memorial Fund and Arcata Rotary, Jonté says she is "giving back the gift that was given to me."

Arcata Artisans holds a reception for featured artists Joyce Jonté and Kris Patzlaff on Friday, July 11, from 6 p.m. during Arts! Arcata.

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Ken Weiderman

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