Jo Rosenthal is one of a select handful of young women in New York right now who is using art and activism to find their voice, and getting noticed doing so. The decidedly feminist and straight forward work Jo makes is nothing if not genuine. It induces the feelings of comfort found in a middle school Judy Blume novel. Still a student at Parsons, Jo is claiming territory in the art world through unwieldy prose and various collage techniques. Her aesthetic is chaotic, but it’s also smart and confident, mirroring the artist’s own energy.
When I meet with Jo she’s wearing a huge grin and dressed in an oversized white hoodie. She’s buoyant, polite and engaging. She keeps her hood up the whole time.
I have to ask how old you are and how long have you been in New York?
I’m 22. I had just turned 18 and I moved here a little bit before I decided to go to college because I was just like, I’m from Miami and I can not be here any longer. So I packed all my stuff up, moved here and I lived with my brother.
I spy a book on the table in front of her with a big red female gender symbol on the front.
What are you reading?
Right now I’m reading this really, really, amazing book. It’s really great, it’s called Sisterhood is Powerful and its an anthology of writings from the women’s liberation movement. And it’s not in print anymore but I really want to figure out a way to get it back into print because it’s such an incredible book.
She orders apple cider.
I’m obsessed with this book… even though it was written in 1970, it’s still so relevant. And before that I read a Truman Capote short story book. He’s one of my all time favorite authors.
I ask her what she’s listening to. She metions Angel Olson being very talented, and how every now and again she likes to dance to “Groove is in the Heart”.
So, how are you? It’s been a week since the inauguration and such upheaval since the election, how are you dealing with it?
Awful, truly awful. And I keep talking to my mom about this, and it’s brought us closer, but I don’t even know what to say about it, I just feel so much negativity.
Jo goes on to tell me she’s taking in all the news, she feel’s like she has to read everything to wrap her head around it.
It’s difficult because my own happiness is so important to me but I feel like by focusing on making myself happy, I’m not focusing on the bigger picture and what needs to change.
People are saying some great art will come up from under the Trump administration. Having had such an insane week, do you find yourself inspired?
At this point I’m not feeling inspired. For me, and the women around me who are making art, we’re trying to focus on ourselves and our bodies, and it feels like we have to give that up right now to save ourselves. Everyone’s concerned with healthcare, women’s rights, trans rights… so it’s like, do I make art right now? Or do I just protest and kick and scream? I really want to make art right now but there’s still something stopping me from doing something so powerful. There are so many problems in the world right now and I know a lot of other people who make art are feeling the exact same way.
So you went to DC to march. How did it go? What did your sign say?
Yeah. I know a lot of people have said this, but I really hope all the women who marched are going to show up to the next protest and fight for the next issues. But I was overwhelmed and over-joyed to be with a group of people who wanted to fight. It was such a great experience and I’ll never forget it. There was so much love there. My sign said “Sisterhood is Powerful, Sisterhood is Forever” and on the other side it said “Burn Down the Binary”. I had a second sign, I made four hours before we left for DC, and it read “When God made men she was only joking.” I wanted to bring something funny to share some joy.
There’s a kind of cry for feminism to be more intersectional right now. With some hesitation I ask from one white woman to another, what do you believe feminism needs right now?
I think it needs a mutual understanding of each other. I think an important thing to understand is that everyone has a different definition of feminism. For me, it’s just being able to care about and understand all types of people. Any type of person who wants to care for and love a woman, there’s a sort of feminism within that. There’s still so much I don’t know about it and I’m still learning, which has been really important to me.
Getting into your work, there is a piece on your website I want to ask you about. That “ Me, Not Me” piece where you explain yourself through column A and column B. You illustrate that you are heart and not brain, and silence and not emotions. Can you elaborate on that piece?
That was actually an assignment when I was a freshman. Looking at it I feel like I’ve grown quite a lot. I now feel more brain than heart. That was 2013. That piece was quite important because I was trying to understand who I am as a person. I’m still definitely not celery.
I very carefully bring up Brandon. One of Jo’s exes and a subject of some published essays.
Can we discuss Brandon?
I think your writing about your experience with him is beautiful because there is almost no analysis. Its just your feelings at your time.
That’s the only way I know how to tell a story. I feel like I can only give my point of view and maybe not an accurate portrayal of the situation as a whole. That was a big issue for Brandon. He read my story and he didn’t think it was accurate. Now, I’m writing a book of memoirs, and I’m trying to consider other points of views in each situation.
I also think its important regarding these essays and this relationship that you highlight the emotional abuse you went through, specifically while he was sick, and I think many women don’t acknowledge it when or even after they are enduring it, and especially if it’s someone they still love.
I feel like it was difficult for me to comprehend I was going through that because I thought it was something wrong with me. But looking at it through therapy and writing, I was able to know better and begin to like myself again. Now that I’ve experienced that though, I can look at it in other relationships and I can know the difference between something I’m at fault for versus something their putting on me. I think it’s very common. It kind of destroys your life and you have to rebuild. It’s important you come to terms with that and find someone who treats you better.
In the same essay you briefly mention you found yourself essentially praying for Brandon, asking the universe to take care of him. I’d love to know your thoughts on that because it seems like most young people claim atheism now. But there is also this wave of a spirituality or the metaphysical movement. I think because religion comes with such stigma for our generation. Can you tell me about the belief system that you subscribe to now, if any?
If anything now I find mediation most important. It’s difficult. I stopped taking the focus off others and focusing on my own well being and mental health right now. I grew up Jewish but my parents are moving into yoga and meditation more than going to temple these days. But I’m very festive- I love holidays and we celebrate everything.
Has making zines helped you grow as an artist?
Whenever I make a zine it’s my life’s work. I use it to express myself in between big projects. I like using zines as messages and it will always be something I’m passionate about.
There is an urgency to them. They’re defiantly useful for activism.
They started as letters. You can make a zine in one day and you can even make it with crayons. It could be one page and say “fuck you” and you can hand that to everyone. Or it could be 40 pages with all poems.
I want to turn to your online presence and popularity for a minute. Your Instagram posts are very positive and encouraging.
I feel like I have to be confident and funny even though I might really be struggling and want a hug.
Yeah. It’s that filter we all use. I think there’s something to be said for keeping a part of yourself to yourself.
Yeah but what’s funny is when people have second accounts. I don’t like this idea of not wanting to lose any followers so you have two versions of yourself on the same platform.
Who or what are you seeing online right now that you find inspiring?
I’m following a lot of accounts right now of people posting about activism. And they have a shit load of followers so they can use their account for that and be heard. As much as I want to make art right now, activism is a more of a priority for me, and bridging the gap between art and activism. It’s so much more important to work on “we” instead of “me” right now. I used to think protesting was just something anarchists did, which is funny, because I wake up and I’m like, ‘What protest can I go to today?’ Through art I’m trying to connect to something way bigger than myself.