A Life Revealed through Art

Painter and printmaker Joan Snyder brings a vibrant expression to her paintings, etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts—many of them richly autobiographical. This year, she was honored by her alma mater for her artistic accomplishments with induction into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni.

Joan Snyder’s art exposes a lot about her life. Sorrowful canvases with totems and trees symbolize the loss of a miscarried first child, and stark woodcut faces stamped on velvet and silk tell of AIDS victims’ deaths. More of her art, though, is optimistic. Vibrant expressionist works that celebrate the birth of her only daughter, Molly, or the artist’s 10th anniversary with her partner, titled My Maggie, are among her many themes.

Snyder DC’62, MGSA’66 has been a painter and printmaker for nearly 50 years. Having grown up across the Raritan River from Rutgers, in Highland Park, she took her first art class as a senior sociology major at Douglass College in 1962. “For me, it was like speaking for the first time,” says Snyder, who abandoned a career in social work and embraced the fine arts. “I was very lucky to be able to make the jump. I told myself, ‘Someday, I’m going to be very good at this.’” She earned an M.F.A. four years later and, as a young artist, urged her alma mater into starting a women artists series at the library, the only one of its kind in the nation at the time. The Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series continues today.

For me, it was like speaking for the first time. I was very lucky to be able to make the jump [from sociology to fine art]. I told myself, ‘Someday, I’m going to be very good at this.’

Joan Snyder, artist and Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni inductee

Snyder’s paintings, etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts hang in some of the nation’s most celebrated museums, among them New York City’s Guggenheim, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, which have her work in their permanent collections. She was honored this year with a print retrospective at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum—Dancing with the Dark: Joan Snyder Prints 1963–2010—which showcased her long printmaking career and was well received by arts professionals and the public. The artist, delighted with the four-month-long exhibit, described the show as “over the moon.”

Snyder has been labeled a feminist artist. Although the themes of motherhood, sexuality, and social injustice have appeared, she says she doesn’t often think consciously about the symbols in her work. Instead, she borrows psychologist Carl Jung’s term—collective unconscious—to describe how certain brushstrokes, words, or images might wind up in her paintings and prints.

She sketches prolifically but edits judiciously; only pencil drawings that hold her interest over time become paintings. Rising before dawn and spending several hours a day in her Brooklyn studio, Snyder delights in art-making. “You never know what it’s going to end up to be,” she says. “In the middle of the process, hopefully magic happens.”

(This story is excerpted from “Star Gazing” in the Spring 2011 issue of Rutgers Magazine.)