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Newly Appointed Department Chair Joe Ostraff Brings Passion for Collaboration to His Work

Ostraff views his art as a catalyst for personal change and a celebration of relationships

On July 1, Joe Ostraff replaced Gary Barton as chair of the Department of Art.

Ostraff received an MFA from the University of Washington and taught high school art for seven years before joining the art faculty at BYU in 1993. At the time, he was one of the more contemporary-minded professors working in the department, making experimental art. Now, contemporary ways of working have become a critical component of a BYU art education.

Projects and Awards During his time at BYU, Ostraff has primarily taught painting, drawing and advanced studio courses. He has directed or co-directed numerous collaborative projects involving his students and peer institutions, including the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), Wirral Met College in England, Limerick School of Art and Design in Ireland and Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi in New Zealand. These partnerships have involved hundreds of artists and resulted in more than 30 international, national and regional exhibitions. 

Ostraff is also the only one of nearly 70 fellows to be awarded the prestigious Visual Arts Fellowship by the Utah Division of Arts & Museums three times (in 1993, 1998 and 2010).   Together with his wife, Melinda — an ethnobotanist, faculty member in the College of Life Sciences and repeat collaborator with her husband — Ostraff has received roughly half a million dollars in grants over the years. He estimates that 60 to 70 percent of that grant money has helped fund dynamic art opportunities with other artists, including fellow faculty members and students. These grant funds often go toward covering travel costs for his students to collaborate with artists in other locations, or to bring students from other universities to BYU. 

Method for Art-Making

When working solo, Ostraff often makes paintings that are layered with simple patterns and colors — a representation of the layers of thinking and meaning that he explores in the process of creating.  Through art-making Ostraff examines the human relationship to time and place, in order “to cultivate a sense of appreciation, gratitude, and empathy, and not become desensitized to the overload of history,” he said. “I want to remember the individuals that have lived as real people in real places.”

For one project, Ostraff traveled to England to observe where his ancestors lived and walked, and made a series of drawings based on the lines formed by their paths. “It was a shared moment with 600 years between us,” he said.

When collaborating with others, the positive friction that comes from working with other people is more important to Ostraff than the physical outcome. The process itself can build and refine people. “The definition of the perfect work of art for me is a piece where people are unified in a way that makes ownership dissolve,” Ostraff said in a 2018 lecture for the college, titled “We Breathe the Same Air.” “We realize that everyone was essential to the work and the final product is owned by everyone.”

Upcoming: A Glacier Funeral Exhibition

Ostraff’s most recent collaborative project features an announcement for a glacier funeral 200 years in the future. The project becomes active this August and will be exhibited simultaneously in multiple art venues around the world, including The Peace Factory in Tel Aviv, Israel, and the book arts collection at Yale University Library. "The definition of the perfect work of art for me is a piece where people are unified in a way that makes ownership dissolve."

Ostraff and his collaborative partner, Melanie Mowinski, a professor of art at MCLA, were inspired to plan the funeral after participating in an intercollegiate research trip to Reykjavik, Iceland in August 2019. That same month, a team of scientists secured a plaque to Okjökull (Ok) glacier, which was declared dead in 2014. The English translation of the inscription on the plaque, penned by Icelandic author and poet Andri Snær Magnason, reads:

A letter to the future:

Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you will know if we did it. August 2019

The text concludes with “415ppm CO2,” the ratio of greenhouse gases on earth recorded in May 2019. As residents of the U.S. — one of the leading contributors to global warming — Ostraff and Mowinski were deeply impacted by this message. Together they created posters announcing the funeral for Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland and presumably the last to go. They printed 12 sets of posters, made from materials collected in downtown Reykjavik last August, with 200 posters per set. Each poster will be exhibited for one full year leading up to 2219.   “Theoretically this performative activity will go on until the actual death of Vatnajökull or until there is a reversal in the current trend,” according to Ostraff’s and Mowinski’s proposal. 

Art as Catalyst for Personal Change

In “We Breathe the Same Air,” Ostraff discussed his motivation for reaching out to others and learning from them when making his own work. 

“Most of my art projects are to help me,” Ostraff said. “I see an issue in myself and use art to eradicate it. I hope that as I am involved in collaborative processes I will knock off some of my rough edges in the process.” Collaborative work is a celebration of our relationships, Ostraff said. Even his individual work is the product of a lot of other people, in a sense, because that’s how Ostraff describes himself. More important than making art that is “flashy” or “cool,” Ostraff said, is making art that feeds and sustains him. “I’m not trying to make masterpieces,” Ostraff said in a BYUtv episode of Artful. “I’m trying to make myself a better person and to have a positive relationship with anyone I meet. To me, that’s as much art as a good painting.”