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An interview with artist Giovanna (Jo) Brunini Congdon



Part One/ Judith Vivell interviewed me for the blog. A fellow artist and beloved friend, Jude works in Soho, New York City. In the seventies, she hosted a radio program called "Talking About Art" on the moderately radical, listener-sponsored station WBAI. Jude and I met on Instagram over art. Please find my complete interview with Jude under "The Interviews."


My parents on a picnic during their courtship.

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Where did you grow up? Who were your parents? What did they do for a living? Tell me about your education. Were there teachers or mentors that influenced you?

I grew up in Vermont, an introspective place with a degree of isolation, home to many artists and writers. My parents were both educators, at various times in their lives, and each the first generation to receive a college degree. My father was a business manager at IBM, and later became a college professor. My mother was dedicated to civil liberties and progressive change. I have a BS in Education from the University of Vermont. I had two mentors while there; one was renowned for his methodology in the teaching of reading. He and I became good friends. Professor Lyman C. Hunt taught me to write. He worked solely in the grad department, singled me out and overwrote me as an undergrad into his classes. We had a remarkable connection. Dr. Hunt was about to retire, and my life was beginning. The other mentor was Professor Ted Brenneman in the religion department.

A goat farmer...his specialty was mythology. The buzz was that Dr. Brenneman talked to his goats—Findhorn-styled phenomenology. Professor Brenneman was short, and with a heavy-set beard, reminded one of Tolstoy. When he arrived at his Myth and Creation class, his wool plaid jacket stuck with hay, his Bean boots bore the muck of the barn. A big Joseph Campbell proponent, he introduced me to the concept of cosmology and culture married as one. Hs lectures fascinated. His grounded exploration of the metaphysical enthralled. Dr. Brenneman saw the world's religions at the point where they meet head-on.


My sister, Lisa, and me, June 13, 1982, protesting nuclear arms in New York City at a gathering of 700,000 participants. We marched with Bread not Bombs, political theater from the Northeast Kingdom, Vermont.

What are your metaphysical beliefs now? How have they evolved?

You asked question two in a timely fashion without knowing what question number one held in store. I am not surprised. As new friends, Jude, we bounce off the other in meaningful ways. As a child, I began asking the big questions about existence; my father says at age four, "Who and where is God?" Not to be presumptuous, I guess you could have called me a born "seeker." As a teen, I received a copy of Kahlil Gibran's, The Prophet, and it cracked my heart open.

According to Dr. Brenneman, by walking the path of personal growth—a youth followed the way of expansion.  My metaphysical framework at the time told me "there must be something more." And in that period I believed the search had structure and sought out spiritual teachings. I don't anymore. Though I read much needed reminders, most recently, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. In writing or painting I am most authentic, my mind quiets, and I remember to breathe. I'm trying to focus on the art of becoming compassionate, and becoming a valley instead of a mountain. 

I called Dr. Brenneman one day out of the blue a decade ago, to ask a question, having spoken after graduation only once. I'd been researching the history of Black Madonnas. I am a Virgo, and that might be why the imagery of Madonnas threads through my life. He answered the phone, and I randomly asked, "What is your opinion of the Black Madonna?", as I was researching the topic too. He nearly jumped out of his skin; having just walked in the door after arriving home from a world tour with his wife on the "Black Madonna Pilgrimage." A bit freaked by my question, he asked, "How did you know? Why did you ask that?" I had no answer. He then told his story;  peering over a hole in the ground above a site deemed sacred, he had the sensation the goddess screamed at him, in an attempt to pull him into the bowels of the earth. Terrified, he'd never experienced anything remotely close. Dr. Brenneman wore the phenomenon on his spine when I'd asked my question.

All this said, my metaphysical belief has a great deal more to do with the everyday mystical, if you will, encounters we experience than with the great hereafter. I do believe in a God, or Great Spirit, that is unquantifiable, and I believe in free-will. I think we are placed here to become mighty oaks, and that happens daily. I imagine souls return like the seasons, and there is an unseen universe above and  around us—a mirror image of the now. I think physicists one day will prove the string dimensions of time—physicists will prove if you will, the concepts of our spirituality. As I understand it, they are hot on the trail of incredible discovery now. Though that reality's far off, I imagine. The mystical is not in a book written between pages. It is in the minimal encounters we record each day. It is the voice calling from the earth screaming at us to see. Paradise is the earth we stand upon, in magnitudes of love, we can't understand, created for each living creature. 

What is your writing process? In painting? Do these activities feed back and forth, or are they separate?

A born doer, I take my paintings to bed, just joking, and spring from bed to write a storyline. I am all in when working. Passion consumed, either writing, painting, house design, or furniture, I often forget to eat. If examined, there is little separation between the disciplines in my life. I've cut a hole in the wall, and boarded up an original door. I cut and paste and edit. The walls of my house appear as an oversized canvas, and so I paint a floral frieze with dragonflies. When it no longer resonates, I paint it over. Very little is static in my life. I've been known to rearrange the furniture in a hotel room even though spending one night. Anything ugly goes in the closet and comes back out  before we leave. My demands might make me the last person you'd want to live alongside indefinitely.  It could be said, I seek or prefer "blank documents" that perpetually ask me to write.  Writing and painting, occupy many hours of a day. I can't say I've ever experienced writer's block, and am never bored. Please don't hate me for that admission. Blue, yes, but not bored. I give credit to my mother who encouraged creativity. (My debut novel, Never a Cloud, published November 15, 2022.) I move between brush and pen until one discipline screams "basta"—enough is enough, get back over here.


Simonetta's Blue Veil, 2019

What is the relationship between your painting and your writing?

I like my work to tell a story. I guess you could call me a realist with a vivid imagination. Often my work references my love of history, either universal or personal. My most recent canvas Boy Posse, 2018, is inspired by time spent in Mexico my nineteenth year. Leda and the Swan, 2017, is an interpretation of a  carved frieze from 9 BCE at the Roman temple Ara Pacis, now a museum in Rome, Italy. I like realism and beauty in my writing and my art. In this way, I self-soothe the darker aspects of my inner world.  Writing and painting are oxygen. Artists are complicated; we think the rest of the world understands us, and this naiveté lands us in trouble. It is also our gift.

June 2012


Portrait from "The Blue Series," 2012, by my eldest son Johns H. Congdon III. I painted the room in three layers of hand ragged color to produce a turquoise abalone shell effect.

How would you describe the process for your painting day? Is it the same for writing or a poetry day? Do you intermingle them or does each get its day—space—time?

In all honesty, art isn't something I structure—it's something I've done all my life. It's time that's the problem. That said, I drive my life with structure, things don't fall apart so quickly.  Running and yoga are my meditation. When young, I gave the children my full attention. Now I've returned to my art and writing. I hate to leave a project, in either camp. Though writing needs to rest. In my absence, a scene or protagonist has gained strength. I get a kick out of my characters; they are alive. I love them like attractive, complicated people I want to meet. I have a blast. I laugh a lot at myself. I love writing dialogue and painting pictures when I write. 


The three kids and I, Rome, Italy, 2000. I took a sabbatical from my marriage and taught first grade at an international school in the fabled Castelli Romani hills, south of Rome. 

Who are your painting, writing, and poetry gods?

Painting: Da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Hammershøi, Modigliani, Chagall, Wyeth, and William G. Congdon. (There are so many...)

Writing: Anna Karenina, Tolstoy, In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust, Issac Bashevis Singer, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, Joseph Campbell.

Poetry: Tennyson, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Louise Glück, and Frederico Lorca. 

I've loved Tennyson forever. I wish I'd found Lorca decades earlier.

Jude and I began a discussion on the place of women in art and the world. The following is part of my response which will pick-up in Part II. I will ask her the same questions in Part II of her interview.

Women are asked to set a higher bar of perfection than men. Women don't get the same breaks. As Bette Davis said, "When a man gives his opinion, he's a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she's a bitch." I'm intrigued by the differences between how men and women are expected to present themselves in the world. I seek frankness and simplicity. To be continued. Thank you, dear Jude!