For artist and curator Fran Joy, curating is a political act

A curator carefully selects the works and organizes the presentation of a collection.

A curator carefully organizes or displays the materials of the collection.

A curator also interprets the collection to inform, educate and inspire the public – and may even conduct public service activities to promote the institution’s collection.

Evanston’s Fran Joy does it all, and she does art too.

In 2019, she received the Artist of the Year award from the Mayors of Evanston at a reception at the Block Museum on the campus of Northwestern University.

Fran Joy, featured here, is an artist and curator who lives in Evanston. Credit: Meleika Gardner

She won it, not only for her artwork, but also for her social justice work and advocacy for women’s rights, topics her art often deals with.

In her trademark hats and headwear, Joy is a well-known figure in Evanston. His daughter, Meleika Gardner, is the founder of EvanstonLive TV.

Through a Second Baptist Church connection, Joy became acquainted with Garrett Seminary in Evanston on the Northwestern campus, as well as the Black Experience Church.

She became Garrett’s unofficial artist-in-residence for four years. There she had a large studio overlooking Lake Michigan. She has curated exhibitions for Garrett, held her own exhibition there, and made a five-panel piece for them that is part of their permanent collection.

Much of Fran Joy’s art has a message – for example, strong statements about the murders of young black men. She paints portraits of colored notables whom she admires. Some of his works are spiritual in nature, often featuring the figure of a woman, sometimes a landscape.

Joy is sought after for her knowledge and contacts with artists of color and her expertise in organizing exhibitions and events. The choice of artists and of the art to be shown is crucial for the whole exhibition, its reception by the public and its influence. The placement of art, the highlighting of one room over another, could be an act of political significance, at least of artistic significance.

Joy draws attention to artists who may have been marginalized in the past, excluded from local, regional and national exhibitions, in the same way that the women’s movement and some writers and artists have drawn attention to marginalization women artists in New York at the turn of the last century.

Emmett Till (oil on canvas) by Fran Joy Credit: Provided

Born in southern Illinois, Joy has lived in Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Evanston. In Evanston, she worked for Michael Phillips, owner of Special Things, a gallery specializing in African art on Greenleaf Street in what is now, and has been for some 45 years, an “arty” neighborhood.

There, she says, she first learned about African art history, learned to see African culture and history as valuable.

“It was an important time for black artists, a time of great awakening,” she said.

It was at Special Things that Joy met her future husband, Al Joy, a friend of the owner and his classmate from ETHS and the football team. They lived for 10 years in Los Angeles, where they collected African art and built a successful life coaching business together. This is where Fran Joy had the time and opportunity to work on her own art.

Their return to Chicago was dictated by Al Joy’s deteriorating health and a desire to be closer to the couples’ elderly mothers. Al’s second son, Ra Joy, lived in Bronzeville at the time, in a three-story house filled with art. Fran Joy curated and set up three shows for events at Ra’s. Ra Joy is now chief of staff of the National Endowment for the Arts, appointed by President Joseph Biden.

While living in Hyde Park, Fran Joy wrote a column for a liberal online newspaper, PoliticsUnited Statesabout former President Barack Obama, when he ran against Mitt Romney.

Fran Joy gained political consciousness much earlier, in the 1960s, a time of protests and violence, much like now. She returned to Evanston on her husband’s death.

Black Angel is an oil on canvas painting by artist Fran Joy.
Credit: Provided

From 2015 to 2021, Joy served on the Evanston Arts Council, where she was appointed by then-Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl. In 2016, she organized and produced justice for peace, an exhibition and event at the Cultural Center of Noyes which included spoken word, spiritual singers and election activists.

At the end of her six years on the arts council (the maximum time to serve), Joy remained on the public art committee, now called the “task force”.

Joy’s work appeared in the traveling exhibition Chicago/Evanston Unforgotten faces to shed light on young victims of gun violence. women speak, Joy’s exhibition and inspirational event celebrating women at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center in 2018, drew over 100 attendees. His portrait of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy lynched in 1955, was exhibited for the first time at this event.

Joy has coordinated various art installations throughout the greater metropolitan area, including co-curating WORKS OF THE SOUL with Rose Cannon at the Evanston Art Center, a collection of art from renowned and emerging artists of color in 2020.

She also organized the show, What is racial justice, at the Noyes Cultural Art Center in 2021 and co-organized the powerful exhibition Visible/Invisible with Indira Johnson and Lisa Degliantoni at the Noyes Cultural Art Center in 2022. She served on the Community Advisory Board for the current exhibition, which is open until July 10, A wrestling site at the Block Museum at Northwestern.

A member of the Evanston Art Center’s exhibitions committee, Joy recently suggested an unused corner in their first-floor gallery exclusively for work by Black, Indigenous, or artists of color, also known as BIPOC. She is now curator of the exhibition.

Opening this month will be an unusual exhibition by Evanston Made, an annual event at the Evanston Art Center, hosted this year by Joy and running until June 30. But this time, the exhibition will be limited to BIPOC member artists, with all profits going to the artists, rather than sharing commissions with the Art Center.

Also there are a full month of events related to the exhibitionconferences, visits and a participatory workshop.

Although it is not common for curators to exhibit in an exhibition they have curated, Joy has three paintings at the Art Center.

“All three works have something to say about reality right now,” she said.

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