• March
  • 31
  • 2017

Alumni Spotlight / Joe Sinness ’05

This month, we caught up with Joe Sinness ’05, and asked him some pressing questions about art and life.

“Juxtaposing portraits, still-lifes, theatrical sculptures, and cinematic panoramas, Sinness’s works display the performance of sexual desire. Sinness visualizes desire and pursues a vision of utopic queer spaces and characters—portraying his subjects as tender and worthy of desire.” Sinness is a 2017 and 2013 recipient of the Minnesota State Arts Board Grant, the 2013/2014 McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship, and the 2015 Fire Island Artist Residency.


Where did you grow up, and how did that influence your career path?

I grew up in Devils Lake, North Dakota. There weren’t many working artists in our community, and the arts were considered more of a hobby. I did, however, spend a lot of time playing piano, bass violin in the orchestra, and participating in drama and speech events. My dad operated a frame shop called Wings Over Water — first, out of our basement and then later into a store front, which no doubt led me to appreciate the photorealistic art prints that he specialized in. Sadly, he sold the shop right before I decided to major in art!

What’s something you learned as an MCAD/MFA that surprised you?

After graduating with majors in Studio Art and English Lit from St. John’s University (MN) in 2002, I spent about a year teaching English in Shenyang, China. During that time, I wasn’t able to produce more than a few drawings and paintings. When I entered the MFA program in winter of 2003, I was shocked to realize that I had no real plan for what my career in the arts would be. I had told myself, “You’ll be an illustrator!” and then over the course of the first semester that plan was put on hold when I told myself, “You’ll be a portrait painter!” I still haven’t really pinned down what my career is, but it was helpful to have a temporary space to take risks and not feel like I was creating to serve an end goal.

Who is your favorite artist?

That’s not a fair question. Jim Hodges, David Hockney, David Park, Paul Cadmus, David Lynch, James Bidgood. No wait: Dolly Parton. And Maria Bamford.

What inspires you lately?

I’ve got a really incredible community of artist friends from around the country who surprise and amaze me. This is a really challenging career, so to see loved ones succeed, stay passionate, and constantly improve is really uplifting and helps to get through those dark times of doubt.

When you look back at your tenure here, what do you wish you would have done more or less of?

I wish I’d done more investigating into career choices outside of tenure-track teaching positions. I also wish I had listened to my advisor and taken a damn course to learn Photoshop (but in my defense — we were still using slides when I graduated!).

What have you learned since graduating?


What do you do when you feel creatively blocked?

I love historical nonfiction, anything Tennessee Williams, and Queer theorists. Sometimes I’ll put on an old Hollywood classic film while I’m working if I feel blocked.

Tell us about your current company. What is your role there?

I am a freelance illustrator, working primarily with a company who provides front-end innovation assistance to Fortune 500 companies. My role is to quickly turn around illustrations of new product concepts that are developed — usually overnight.

How did you get the job in the first place, and what was the interview process like?

I had no idea a job like this even existed until I was introduced to the company through a friend. There wasn’t one or two classes that could have prepared me for this work. I think having great communication and listening skills, the ability to visualize complex ideas with very little art direction, having a lot of patience, and the ability to work under the pressure of a limited timeline are as necessary as merely having the ability to draw. After doing this work for over seven years I’m better able to anticipate the client’s needs, especially when dealing with people who are mostly not visual thinkers. All of my jobs have prepared me in different ways for this weird gig: big box retail, waiting tables and bar tending, gallery assistant, college art and English instructor, etc.

What’s a favorite part of your job?

Variety! As a consumer, it has also been interesting to be in a space where predictions are being made for what we might see in two to three years. And yes, it’s all entirely confidential.

What scares you?

Evangelicals with guns.

What makes you fall in love?

Sensitivity and intelligence.

How do you keep challenging yourself in your art?

My personal challenge is to keep trying new things, even if something (a drawing, a technique) already worked or proved successful. When I expose more of myself and I’m being honest with viewers, the work will improve. If I repeat past tricks, the work suffers and stagnates. I’ve had to become comfortable with the fact that no one genre can tell every story.

Do you have any tips for applying for grants?

As a person who has served on grant panels and read thousands of applications, I’d say stick to the script that they give you. When you are on a jury, reading so many applications, it’s noticeably helpful when artists follow the guidelines provided. Don’t be overly poetic, and don’t try to impress with a blizzard of art jargon. The application is not your art. The application is merely a way for you to clearly identify your plan for your future art, without repeating or contradicting yourself 45 times. Seeing the process as a juror has been incredibly helpful to better understand what artists do that can be eye roll-inducing.

What’s next?

I’m in the last stretch of completing work for my solo exhibition (still untitled) at the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program space at MIA. The show opens July 20th and I’ll be showing 15-20 new drawings and some sculpture. The drawings are a mix of portraiture, still life, and panoramas and the work is focused on themes of gay cruising and desire.

All images shared with permission © Joe Sinness 2017

For more information:
Joe Sinness
Upcoming MAEP Exhibition

Interviewer: Jodie Burke
Illustration: Alanna Stapleton

Master of Fine Arts in Visual Studies

Master of Fine Arts in Visual Studies

Alumni Links

Current Mentors

MFA Program Overview

MFA Print Portfolio