Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Joseph Ostraff: Answers are Good, Questions are Better

“You’re just an appropriator.”

That’s what a young, huffy art student said to Joe Ostraff in 1993 when he was a finalist for his current teaching position at Brigham Young University’s art department. Negative comments like that typically bounce right off him. In fact, although he’s sure he has received criticism about his artwork, he doesn’t remember anything specific. But this comment has stayed with him. What he remembers is standing there after she walked away and asking himself, “Well…who isn’t?”

Ostraff believes we all appropriate through our past. “I know I’m built on a lot of other people’s efforts. To deny it would just be arrogance.” He’ll be the first to tell you his aesthetic is a conglomerate of his history, people he’s met, and other influences. Ostraff looks at everyone he meets as someone who can shift him — and he’s not afraid to engage them in conversation to move that shift along. This is why much of what comes out of his studio is collaborative work. There are times when he wants to “talk to himself” rather than someone else, but there is no doubt that Ostraff’s energy comes from fellow artists, his students, his family, and anyone else he might meet. There really is no limit to whom he’s willing to work with on an art project. “I’m out somewhere, I meet someone, and now we’re going to do something,” he laughs.

It sounds funny, but if Ostraff wants to work with you on a project, you’d be wise to say yes. Over his career as an artist, he has built quite the portfolio. Almost 70 of Utah’s best visual artists have been awarded the prestigious Fellowship Award from the Utah Arts Council, but only Ostraff can say he’s won it three times. He estimates that between him and wife Melinda (a repeat collaborator of his) he has been awarded half a million dollars in grants. Apparently, being an appropriator has served him well. As a professor at BYU, he has directed or codirected multiple collaborative projects, including ones with institutions in England, New Zealand, and Ireland — partnerships that have involved hundreds of artists and resulted in more than 30 international, national, and regional exhibitions. Frank McEntire, a Utah artist and friend of Ostraff’s, has collected his work and traveled with him and his students. “He is a critical witness of our time and deftly folds his observations into paintings, installations, teaching, and community work,” says McEntire. “In 2003, as an Art Access board member, he launched the 300 Plates fundraising project, an ongoing legacy that has involved hundreds of Utah artists over the years and raised thousands of dollars that provide creative outlets and exhibitions for people with disabilities and others.” Ostraff came to the conclusion early on that he needed to be around people who think differently than he does. “Being around people from different backgrounds expands me, moves me, and makes me a better person,” he says.

As with most people, his influences begin with his parents. His father was Russian Jewish and quite gregarious. His mother was from English and Scottish Mormon pioneers. Both parents were very much embedded in an active society. They always asked questions and were curious about the world and people around them. “Answers were OK at my house,” Joe explains, “but questions were better.”

Ostraff grew up in the art colony of Laguna Beach, California, at a time when you could go downtown by yourself and nobody worried about you. It was during the middle of the Vietnam War, and his father would bring home Marines on leave for dinner all the time. “There wasn’t a week when we didn’t have someone at our house,” Ostraff remembers. “Dad just wanted to love everybody and add something good to the world.” After the children were born, his mother went back to school to study biology and she would take Ostraff with her to hunt for insects. Undoubtedly influenced by his mother’s interests, Ostraff took every science class he could in school. He was all set for pre-med to UCLA and even won a four-year scholarship, from the Laguna Beach Arts Festival, to help him get there. Ostraff ultimately decided to attend Utah’s Brigham Young University, however. “I figured I’d go to school in art, get my degree, and then go to med school. But by the time I finished, I decided I didn’t want to go to med school. I guess I thought more about the quality of life I wanted and realized I didn’t want the life my friends’ dads who were doctors had where they were gone all the time. I wanted to be home.”

After BYU, Ostraff went on to earn an MFA at the University of Washington. He then worked several odd jobs, started a family, and taught art in high school for seven years before he found himself back at BYU, as a teacher. When he was first hired, Ostraff was one of very few professors creating contemporary work. It’s not easy work to describe: frequently it’s painting, where he often uses layers of simple patterns and colors, but Ostraff might turn to video or installation or something else, depending on what he’s doing or whom he’s working with. Thematically, the works are pulled together by observations and reflections on place and the natural world. Twenty-five years after they hired Ostraff, BYU now admits and graduates scores of students working in contemporary art. “Now I don’t look so crazy,” he says.

His time in Provo has enabled Ostraff to lead the life he wanted. “[BYU] has allowed me to do so many things with no strings attached.” One was taking a leave of absence to be home with his kids while his wife, Melinda, went back to school. She eventually earned a Ph.D. as an ethnobotanist and the two have collaborated on projects where they utilize their respective expertise. When she did field research in Tonga, which is where Joe served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he would translate research materials; and Melinda began creating artwork alongside Joe. Making those professional and educational decisions together united them in purpose in a way that continues to direct their creative projects. One of those projects came about during a residency in Ireland. “We got wind that the natural geography in the little town where we were staying influenced the way people there saw each other,” he explains. “We noticed how the people talked about each other in a divisive way. Melinda and I walked the river on both sides for about 2 miles and picked plants to embed in our paintings.” The project showed how people create arbitrary standards when it comes to how they value each other, but nature could really care less about the differences people have.

While being a professor allows Ostraff quality time with his family (he has six children and eight grandchildren), it also allows him plenty of time with art students, which he never takes for granted. “The energy and interaction of the students motivate me and their ideas rub up against mine,” he says. He’s not afraid to admit it’s an exchange. He recognizes how important it is for his students to not only develop a strong work ethic in the studio, but also to get their artwork out in the real world. He encourages them to submit portfolios for gallery exhibitions outside the university and apply for grants just as he does. He tries to teach them that it’s a numbers game — if he wins more grants it may be because he applies for so many.

“Between Two,” 2017, oils, 5 x 6 feet

Ostraff also recognizes that out of every 100 students, only about 20 will end up pursuing art as a career, so he sees his students not just as future artists, but as people — kids who often need a parental figure. “I give life lessons and worry if they’re happy or not. I just want them to become authentic, intentional, kind, and productive people. A lot of students will unload on me because they know I’m not going to judge them. They may not be sure if I’m making sense, but they know I love them.” As he’s gotten older, Ostraff finds that his approach has changed when he notices their work isn’t strong. Instead of jumping on them, he builds on their strengths and helps them feel “heroically able.” He wants them to feel what they’re doing is valid. “I tell them not to accept anyone who says their ideas are insufficient. That would be someone they don’t need to listen to. Some of the things that look clumsy at the university level can become their heart and soul later if they hold on to it long enough.” He teaches them how to ask the right questions to get out of being stuck. They practice creating reiterations of something they’ve done rather than throwing it out. He says, “If you don’t consider anything the end, then nothing is worthless.”

It’s a lesson he has had to apply to his own life. In February of 2018, Ostraff found himself in an artistic rut. “Melinda and I got in a serious car accident. She broke some ribs and my knees were blown out — it took something out of me,” he says. “I had been working on paintings, but I hadn’t really felt it.” Later that same year, he was in New York with his students and walked into a show of Armenian Christian art from the 11th century where he found some beautiful illuminated manuscripts. “They had these strange frame things over the top of the pages and I thought, ‘That’s going to make my paintings work.’” He took pictures with his phone, went home, and spent the next three weeks in the studio. “They gave structure to the paintings I was working on — and where I got the images and how they came to be really meant something to me.” So, his energy returned.

It can be surprising where you rediscover your energy. You can be moved by the oddest things. But sometimes, it takes almost a lifetime to look back and recognize the most obvious motivators and how they shaped you. In 2011, Utah artist Namon Bills asked Ostraff to participate in an exhibition he was curating for Salt Lake City’s Rio Gallery that asked several artists to create work honoring a mentor. It was called Homage. Ostraff didn’t choose an artistic mentor or even an artist whose work he admired.  He chose his father. “I wasn’t always connected with my dad as a kid,” he explains. “He was silly and did things that embarrassed me. When he got older, he lost his hearing and was more difficult to talk to.” One of the things his father always did was fold cranes out of paper. “I asked my friend Chris Klunker to make a birdhouse for me and then I videotaped my dad making the birds.” My Father Makes Birds is still in his office at school, a wooden structure that stands about 4 feet off the ground. If you look inside the circular opening, you’ll see a video projection of his father’s hands folding tiny pieces of paper. Lined up in several rows inside the house are the cranes, quietly observing their maker. The night of the exhibition opening, his father arrived in his wheelchair and sat next to the birdhouse making birds for everyone that walked by to see the piece. “With this show, my mind went to who molded me the most — not which artist molded me the most — so I kind of missed the point,” he laughs. “But I’m glad I did. At this time in my life, I had to admit it.” His father died a few months later.

It’s clear that Ostraff learned to be gregarious from his father. He learned that life should be fun and you should continue to welcome people into your ever-expanding circle. He learned to seek outside himself for answers, but to also remember that “answers are OK, but questions are better.” When he and Melinda did their first residency in Ireland, he met other artist residents including Joanna, an Irish woman, and Fernando, a Basque man from Bilbao. “We just had a blast,” says Joe. “We became friends. We shared dinners with them and their friends; Joanna taught Melinda encaustics. It was fun to see how if you get out of your own studio and start interacting, all these amazing things happen.” From all these interactions come more collaborations. Joe and Melinda, along with other collaborators, (12 of them, including others from BYU) are currently writing a proposal for a residency in Iceland. “I’m the only one that really knows everyone,” he says with a laugh, “but a few of us were talking in the studio — an artist from Ireland, an artist from Santa Fe — and the term ‘odd nature’ came up out of a silly conversation. We decided we gotta do something about that. So now, we’re going to get together and decide what that means.”

“My Father Makes Birds,” 2011, portable installation, 36 x 24 inches


This article was originally published in Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists (Vol. II), published in 2019.

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