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An interview with artist Giovanna (Jo) Brunini Congdon



Part One/ interview by Judith Vivell, Soho, New York City. In the seventies, Jude hosted a radio program called "Talking About Art" on the moderately radical, listener-sponsored station WBAI. We 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 was raised in Vermont, home to many artists and writers. My parents were both educators at various times in their lives, and each the first generation with 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 into his graduate classes. We had a remarkable connection. Dr. Hunt was about to retire, and my life was beginning. Professor Ted Brenneman was in the religion department.

A goat farmer, Dr. Brenneman's specialty was mythology. The buzz was that he talked to his goats. 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 Joseph Campbell proponent, he introduced me to the concept of cosmology and culture married as one. His lectures were a grounded exploration of the metaphysical. 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?

As a child, I began asking the big questions about existence; my father says at age four, "Who and where is God?" As a teen, I received a copy of Kahlil Gibran's, The Prophet, and it cracked my heart open.

According to Campbell, by walking the path of personal growth—a youth follows 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.  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, ages past, 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 Madonna imagery threads through my life. He answered the phone, and I randomly asked, "What is your opinion of the Black Madonna?" He nearly jumped out of his skin; having just walked in the door after arriving home from a world tour with his wife—the "Black Madonna Pilgrimage." There was a pause, 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, (Greece or Italy) he had the sensation "the goddess" screamed at him, in an attempt to pull him into the bowels of the earth. 

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 hereafter. I do believe in a God, or Great Spirit, that is unquantifiable, and I believe in free-will. I think we're placed here to become oaks, and that happens daily.  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're hot on the trail of discovery now. The mystical is in the minimal encounters we record each day. It is a voice calling from the earth screaming at us to see. Paradise is the earth we stand upon.

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

I am all in when working. 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. 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 create.   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.  Never a Cloud, published November 15, 2022. 


Simonetta's Blue Veil, 2019

What is the relationship between your painting and your writing?

I like my painting 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. Boy Posse, 2018, is inspired by time spent in Mexico my nineteenth year. I like realism and beauty in my writing and my art.   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.


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 lifelong. 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 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. I love them like attractive, complicated people I want to meet. I laugh a lot at myself. I love writing dialogue and painting pictures when I write.

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, and Frederico Lorca.