Artist Joanna Learner reflects on social issues in exhibit at KCC

Joanna Learner

There are fires burning in the newspaper read by the woman featured in Joanna Learner’s acrylic painting “The World Comes Home,” and there are flames visible on the screen of the television placed across the canvas.

These are the ways most Americans view war – removed by miles and protected by newsprint and satellite images sent from afar. But in Learner’s image, the flames also transcend these boundaries and are featured on a larger scale, viewed center stage through each pane of glass in the windows framing the clean, yellow room.

Inside the sparsely furnished space – white curtains drawn, empty chairs standing silently still while the world burns outside – is a globe, which is also on fire. Outside the walls, the domestic scene is flanked by images of soldiers.

Speaking of peace

The painting is one of a series Learner created in the early stages of the war in Iraq in the years following 9/11.

“I really felt the horror of that war in Iraq,” Learner said during a recent interview in the gallery. “I was deeply opposed to it, and I could just imagine the tragedy that was going to unfold, which has unfolded.”

A self-described naturalist who has used her art to comment on political and environmental issues since at least the 1960s, Learner has included “The World Comes Home” among the 30 or so pieces of art that make up her exhibit, “Reflections,” which is showing through Dec. 14 in the Eleanor R. & Robert A. DeVries Gallery in Kellogg Community College’s Davidson Visual and Performing Arts Center, 450 North Ave., Battle Creek.

There will be a closing reception with the artist from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6, at the gallery, which is free and open to the public.

Learner is no stranger to the awareness of war and its effects, or to using her art as a way to express her opinions on the subject; both have been a kind of lifelong attribute. Learner gestured to another acrylic painting in the exhibit, titled “Ending the Game of War,” which she said compares war to a game.

The painting is of a checkerboard hovering over a landscape; the game pieces are adorned with missiles. Below, a dove flies, casting a large shadow on the ground below. Pools of water are outlined in red, hinting perhaps at bloodshed.

Learner painted this piece in 1967 in response to what she feels was an unjust war in Vietnam.

“If you read the paper, and I read an enormous amount, you really are just depressed by the amount of violence that’s going on constantly in this world,” she said. “I have throughout my life spoken of peace.”

Detail from Learner’s “The World Comes Home.”

The natural world

Environmental issues also feature heavily in Learner’s “Reflections” exhibit, and she says these concerns – pollution, global warming, the practice of fracking to pursue natural gas – are even more critical to address because many people aren’t paying attention to them.

The exhibit includes a series of paintings commenting on such environmental issues. In one pair, “Fire – Air – Water – Earth I” and “Fire – Air – Water – Earth II,” these title elements are represented as an ideal in the first, which is subtitled “The Ancient Physical Universe,” and are juxtaposed with what Learner views as humanity’s exploitation of such resources in the second, which is subtitled “Destruction of the Natural World” and features imagery such as natural gas drilling sites and factory smokestacks spewing pollutants into the atmosphere.

Another painting features Mother Nature as a giant “Colossus” overtaking the landscape, while yet another features a flooded New York City, complete with a Statue of Liberty waist-deep in an ocean dotted with glaciers.

Learner said she views these pieces, as well as several landscape paintings free of political commentary – images of wetlands, a beaver pond, a stunning view of Lake Superior – as a way to call attention to the treasures we have in the natural world.

“I love to kayak and to hike, and nature is very important to me,” Learner said. “So these are in protection of what I love.”

Learner, who lives with her husband Bob on the Kalamazoo River, has spent much of her life surrounded by nature. The pair often spend time at her family’s log cabin based on 60 mountainside acres in Colorado, and recently returned from a trip to Canada, where she said she could be perfectly content settling down in the wilderness.

“I could just totally withdraw from all these other things and live happily,” she said, “but I feel that as human beings we have sort of a responsibility to speak out and kind of build awareness to the things that are going on.”

Detail from Learner’s “Global Warming — Play On.”

Awareness through art

In addition to her paintings, Learner’s exhibit also includes several photographs and pieces of ceramic art. A former art teacher with Battle Creek Public Schools, she’s a mother of two and has four granddaughters ranging in age from 11 to 23.

She said she and her three brothers were well aware of social and environmental issues growing up, and she’s trying to encourages her grandchildren to express their own ideas, positive as well as negative, through art.

It seems Learner herself hasn’t slowed much over the years. While she said her exhibit spans art created from when she was in her 30s to her 70s, many of the pieces are dated to this year. She’s been working full-time in her studio, and continues to enjoy it.

“Life is very different from when I started out,” she said. “I’m really worried that our society needs to stand up and become aware of what’s going on.”

“Reflections,” featuring art by Battle Creek artist Joanna Learner, will be on display through Dec. 14 in the Eleanor R. & Robert A. DeVries Gallery in Kellogg Community College’s Davidson Visual and Performing Arts Center, 450 North Ave., Battle Creek. Gallery hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

For more information about the “Reflections” exhibit, contact Kellogg Community College art professor Ryan Flathau at 269-965-3931 ext. 2559 or at