Joe Conforti on Life as an Artist, Activist, and Creator

When life throws you lemons, make art.

Joe Conforti originally dreamt of being an art teacher, initially majoring in art and education at the University of Richmond in Virginia. However, Joe changed his major to marketing and public relations, when he saw others becoming interested in the exciting world of business in the early 1980s. After graduating, Joe worked in advertising, one of his projects being designing toys for fast food restaurants. Life turned upside down for Joe in 1992, when he was diagnosed with the AIDS virus and was told that he only had 18 months to live. Quitting the corporate world, Joe knew that he needed to return to what he loves: art. After his partner gifted him a class at a local ceramic studio, Joe realized this was the push that he needed in order to start creating his own art again. 

Screen Shot 2020-09-18 at 6.55.08 PMJoe’s ceramic wall art

Joe frequently gave his art as gifts to friends, which even caught the eye of designer Donna Karan, who reached out to Joe to create pieces for her new home collection. Joe’s pieces were soon seen all over Barneys and Bendels in New York City- an artist’s dream I think! Keeping up with demand, Joe quickly got an art studio in SoHo and even began experimenting with wall mounted ceramics. Joe used the traditional Japanese Raku style in his ceramics, showcasing organic textures and colorful tones. Joe mentions that much of his art is inspired by the hectic pace and colorful landscape of New York City, a city he loves to call home. At the same time he was pursuing his art, Joe became heavily involved in the ACT UP movement, an AIDs activist group, as a street activist and cites the rapid improvement in the effectiveness of AIDs medications in helping him to continue to live and focus on his art. 

Joe’s art practice has changed dramatically over the course of his art career, the most significant change being in his medium, as he transitioned from ceramic to painting. Joe notes that he was gentrified out of his ceramic studio, as it was made into office spaces, and, shortly after, took a hiatus from his art to take a screenwriting class. Despite writing two screen plays, Joe missed the fine arts too much and enrolled in painting classes at the New School. Joe hadn’t turned from paints since, until this summer. 

Screen Shot 2020-09-18 at 7.00.12 PMMy favorite paintings from Joe’s Color, Order, and Choas collection 

In the earlier part of the year, Joe had planned on having a show called Color, Order, and Chaos and found a gallery that was going to show his latest collection in May. This collection of 14 paintings was inspired by today’s political climate in The United States, the textures and bright colors captured in his ceramics carrying over into these paintings. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in Joe’s husband losing his job, the pair packed up their New York City apartment and moved to Fire Island, a small island just off the coast of Long Island. In Fire Island, Joe and his partner sought some much needed space from crowded New York, but, unfortunately, Joe couldn’t fit his paints and canvases into the packing. Nevertheless, Joe found a new creative outlet- sculpture. Joe spent his quarantine building a 40 foot long beach sculpture out of driftwood he calls Serenity, which helped to bring Joe an incredible amount of peace during such a challenging time. On the island, Joe also held a gallery opening for his loyal followers, during which he sold almost all of his pieces from his Color, Order, and Chaos collection. 

When asked about the best piece of professional advice someone has given to him, Joe recalled the comment of a fellow marketer, who told him early on in his career to bring something physical for his audience to touch and see when giving a pitch. Joe credits much of his experience in marketing and sales to helping him tremendously in his art career, especially when it comes to selling his art. Joe mentions that the most important thing an emerging artist can do is just get their art out into the world in any way possible. When Joe worked out of his studio, among a community of artists, he sold significantly more than all of the art students in the lofts. Joe says that the difference between himself and them was that he was not afraid to go to the local coffee shop and give them pieces on consignment or even give his art away as gifts. Exposure for Joe was key to building a reputation in the New York art community and what he suggests other artists do in order to stand out.  

What about the future excites Joe? “Young people like you,” he says “the energy of young people to be able to change the world for the better excites me.” What excites me? The boldness and fearlessness of artists like Joe, who have chosen to pursue an unconventional path to paint the world a brighter place. 

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