01: Vessel   02: Burning   03: Foil
Maria Joranko: Healing as violent, passionate, shattering and painful, Liz Roberts
December 2023

Maria’s dog Kevin outside of MINT on the collective’s last day at the warehouse. Courtesy Maria Joranko 

Maria Joranko is a mixed media artist+performer, dancer, musician, and researcher who is specifically interested in examining how healing, transformation, and change can be presented as possibilities within an arts context. She is currently based in London where she maintains a practice that is integrated with meditation, bodywork, and sculpture, while using soil and plant based materials as the main conduits for connection with the Earth, ancestors, and those who are yet to come.

Maria and I met in a gigantic warehouse in midwest USA, called MINT. The space was home to the collaborative and interdisciplinary artists of MINT Collective. We had a mission: to be abidingly fresh, adaptable, dynamic and to support underrepresented and developing artistswhile cultivating relationships within the community, embracing alternative projects, and remain persistently disobedient to traditional thinking.

When our space was shut down by the city government, Maria and Icontinued to work together collaboratively as MINT members left the area. Throughout the pandemic, we got together outside for intense workouts and to support one another as chosen family. We encouraged each other to continue making artwork in 2020, which we workshopped in an online critique group VIRTUAL VULNICURA with artists Sa’dia Rehman and Umber Majeed.

Maria relocated to London for graduate school and I quit my teaching job and moved to California. I currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area and am continuing work on the project that began in VIRTUAL VULNICURA which has evolved into a feature length film series called Midwaste about harm reduction and the drug war in America. Maria is an artist who doesn’t buy into art capitalism and competition. She is truly community focused and causes people to believe in themselves, their work, and the possibility of liberation.

Liz Roberts: We first met at MINT, a warehouse space that was an important time and place in both of our practices. I'm thinking about the work you made for Rita in 2017, and of course the Armor Amor (2017) dresses, which repurposed some materials I had used at MINT in such a stunning and exquisite way. Can you talk a bit about that time, and how the work for Rita was informed by it and took shape?

Maria Joranko: That time was so difficult, painful, transformative, loving, and held. I was lucky to be in a place like MINT. I had just escaped a really abusive relationship with another artist where so much of my work was sabotaged and discouraged. I was never allowed to grow past his success. I was living in a new town where I didn't really know anyone outside of my studio community or job. MINT Collective was the only stable place I had, and where I met so many generous people, who didn’t even know me that well, yet were the ones who cared for me and believed me through everything that was going on.

After being gaslit for so long, it was so beautiful to be held by this community of people with no hierarchies, believed in the impossible, and with insane amounts of intensity and magic. They taught me so much about community building, organizing, and how important it is to just show up for the people you love even if you don't know them yet. I was so lucky to be there. Maritt from MINT took me in and helped me to get back on my feet in a time that was really dark and upsetting. They were also the one who guided, incubated, and hosted this body of work and without them it wouldn't have happened. It actually took place in the huge backyard of their storefront home that we were living in (which has now since been gentrified and the community evicted), and I definitely consider this show to be the moment where I started making the work I knew I was capable of and where I excavated so much of myself to begin to blossom.

The body of work/exhibition was called Rita, after Rita Hayworth – a Latina pin-up and movie star from the Golden Age of Hollywood who changed her name/identity, and surgically altered her appearance to conform to beauty standards in the US set by whiteness. She died young after struggles with mental health and substance dependencies. I felt that this was something that had been exacerbated by the insidious pressures to assimilate. I wanted to make a series that weaponized beauty and touched on what she and others experienced, and present a moment where these conditions wouldn't have been the case. I have since done more research into her, Latine issues, and identities. My approach to these themes has shifted, but it was an important step at the time. It was where, after making lots of subpar paintings and sculptures, that I blossomed and finally dove into making full-on sculpture, installations, sound pieces. Much of it deals with high femme aesthetics, disco, body-land connections, and also hard fragility.

The Armor Amor dresses were inspired by your windshield cube (also recycled the materials!) and by the ways in which high femme people weaponize through their clothes and being: Love and Armor. I was tired of people feeling like they could always do whatever they wanted to me and my friends and felt that we needed a garment that would say “fuck you” but also have full agency over the display of a potential body. I enjoy wearing clothes that are on the hyperfemme and sexy spectrum and was sick of people making assumptions over my intelligence, ability, and presumed docility or subservience to representatives of cis-heteropatriarchal systems. Fashion and presentation are political and don’t ever let anyone tell you that the way you dress and affirm yourself isn’t important. These dresses were needed because they were literal armor for a sexy dancefloor spirit. Spirit that would dance with danger, blood, passion, and who is in complete control of who they are and their presence. They were complex tension-based sculptures and given proper temperature conditions and the right amount of tension, they would rip themselves apart and shatter. I look back at them with major love and have been thinking about re-visiting them now.

Maria Joranko, Armor Amor I, Windshield glass on steel frames, dresses are size retail 4, 2017. Courtesy of the artist
Dresses are made from shattered windshields and constructed through tension hang from the trees in an effort to keep from tearing themselves apart.

I'd like to trace a line from the Armor Amor (2017) dresses to Cenote Rising (2022). Can you tell me how your relationship to the windshield as material changed and evolved as it moved perhaps more from sculpture to performance?

In the beginning, I wanted to transform the material to create something that would fit the form of my body and that I would have wanted to wear. The Cenote Rising pieces actually originally came about because I was searching for a way that I could make a wearable pair of wings made of windshields inspired by Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I'm someone who is very connected to my body, movement, and I wanted to find ways where I could further connect with this material. They are very loaded objects because they are all broken from use, and they are all at once fragile, strong, hard, and flexible. I realized that I was looking for a way for me to interact with them, so I decided to step back and allow the windshields to be themselves. They became very watery yet solid objects when backlit. This created refractions and pathways of glass.

In my experience, being submerged in water is the closest that one can feel to being in space, death, birth, and feeling both everything and nothing at once. It’s a place for supreme transformation, healing, and release. In considering this, I wanted to create a space that could be an incubator and conduit for this kind of energy. It’s supremely primordial and I wanted to push the windshields as far as I could take them. One of their amazing qualities is that they also reverberate sound really well. I began to think of the possibilities of playing bass guitar, singing, and then walking on the windshields to create the intense sounds of cracking and change. With the deep bassline reminiscent of a slow heartbeat, the performances were very much about connecting with people and beginning to brainstorm ways for sustained emotional and spiritual restoration.

Maria Joranko, CITADEL (collaboration with musician Allison Balanc, performed by Foxy Azucar), used windshields, bass guitar, rose leaf bodice, kanekelon, hi-vis fabric, incense, snakes that breathe incense smoke made from earth and windshield grass, lights, amps, performer, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

I want to slide back in time again to 2019 and the show To Bring You My Love. I'm thinking about the grass arrows tipped with arrowheads carved from windshields and raw honey. Remind me about the spell these arrows held? I was so struck by the work and also the placement of them on a windowsill which is such a portal.

Those arrows came to me in a dream. I saw myself shooting glass-tipped arrows made from grasses and they were spiritual connections and conduits between these deeply elemental materials. I remember seeing them so vividly and waking up thinking that I needed to make them immediately. It was a time when I was also feeling more connected to the landscape I was inhabiting and feeling really close to the other organic life around us. I think a lot about the way the body inhabits the world and how our culture blurs the idea that our bodies are parts of nature in favor of cold and disembodied rationality. This cuts off many of our senses that are in tune with understanding even small shifts in barometric pressure in relation to rain or humidity. I wanted these pieces to be a love letter to the bees, grasses, and soil. Through their arrow shape, present as bladed tips that could cross through realities. With this in mind, I also sought for them to be spiritual tools for the user to liberate themselves and see some form of their own truth and liberation.

One of the considerations I had was about adapting the myth of Eros and Psyche. Eros was struck with one of his own arrows to fall in love with a mortal. I wanted to push this idea and have spelled arrows that instead would be ways for us to pierce our own souls for radical self-love and liberation from oppressive mental/spiritual structures imposed by a racist, homophobic, capitalistic system. The honey and arrow tips used within the artwork were charged with a love spell for rebirth and regeneration. Honey is a deeply healing substance and after learning about how it is formed within the bodies of bees, have come to believe that it is one of the most magical. It can be used for burns, colds, and preservation. It's a substance of regeneration and I wanted the arrows to carry that energy.

Many people comment on the use of weapons in my work and ask why I utilize such items for themes of healing, rebirth, and regeneration when they’re most often associated with death, killing, and violence. I consider these readings of the work to be shallow as they come with an assumption that the actions of healing are passive or completely peaceful processes. They are not. They are violent, passionate, shattering and painful. You must pierce the self and soul to begin unlearning and relearning the parts of yourself that you must either shed or embrace. Liberation is not a peaceful activity. It may be so for white people who get to perform revolution and liberation. However, in conditions in which most people find themselves having to fight, it has never been this way. Each step is a long hard battle where you use every tool at your disposal.

When I look back at these arrows, I still think they’re such a gorgeous piece, and I remember how much I love them. They were a collaboration with my brother. He shaped the arrowheads while I wove the arrow shafts together from foraged grasses. This was the first instance where I made something entirely of plants and foraged local materials. It signified a big shift, becoming the seed for artworks to come.

Maria Joranko, To Bring You My Love (in collaboration with Frank Joranko), grass arrows tipped with arrowheads carved from windshields, and raw honey, 2019. Courtesy of the artist
Shifting to 2022 and the spearheads in CITADEL, tell me about the way the spears interface with the charging stations. I really wish I could have been there, it's been difficult to live so far away and not able to be in your very immersive work in person.

I wish you could have been there too. I think it actually would have been so much fun for us to play bass together in the piece and join forces as guardians and facilitators of the space. The spears are definitely a direct descendent of the arrows because they are also made with foraged grasses. However, these were 3D printed spearheads that also had braids with my personal hair jewelry wound around them. I placed the spears around the room in groupings wanting them to look like spiritual and magical weapons that would activate when the time was right and they were needed.

The work came about at a time when I had been feeling severe depletion from years of racial violence, microaggressions, and sustaining years of protest, organizing, and advocacy. I had been losing much of my inner fire and living in London felt disorienting as I didn’t have the same restorative connection to land that I had cultivated in the midwest. However, I knew that I did have community and friends here and that radical rejuvenation requires being with and connecting with your people. I also knew that I wasn’t alone in this feeling and that I wanted to create a space where we could physically be present with each other and connect with literal earth and sound. I picked up where Cenote Rising had left off and decided to take it even further. I brought back my weapons, bass guitar and voice and facilitated a meditation that focused on the earth as a container for the communal consciousness of our ancestors and all organic life that comes into contact with earth. In harnessing this energy, I hoped to re-invigorate our spirits with a sense of rock n roll action, glam aesthetics, and somatic breathing. We made space for the ghosts we carry and the strength of everyone in the room fortified all of the participants in this moment. I do believe that our passion for life and collective freedom must be nurtured and that fire requires community to remain lit. We must all rise from ashes together to create change. 

Maria Joranko is a mixed media artist+performer, dancer, musician, and researcher who is specifically interested in examining how healing, transformation, and change can be presented as possibilities within an arts context. She is currently based in London where she maintains a practice that is integrated with meditation, bodywork, and sculpture, while using soil and plant based materials as the main conduits for connection with the Earth, ancestors, and those who are yet to come.

Liz Roberts makes artwork that is often collaborative and rooted in moving image and sound. Her work has shown widely with galleries, museums, alternative spaces, and film festivals. She currently has one nonfiction feature film in production and another in development, both addressing the drug war in the United States. Roberts lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.