Jo Dunham, The Living Rainbow

jo dunharm artist

I met this gorgeous vision, Jo Dunham, a year ago. Jo had asked a group for expressions of interest for a theatre outing. I was the only one who turned up, and as soon as I saw her brightly coloured hair, I knew I had found a rainbow, a sun-catcher if you will. Jo designs clothes, theatrical sets, and is an astounding artist. This is the story of a human rainbow.

When did you realize that becoming an artist was in your veins?

Mum tells me stories of when I was three years old and I’d argue with her in shops ‘cos the clothes she chose didn’t have enough colours on them. In kindy, I couldn’t just have the 12 pack of pencils; I needed the 72 pack. I’ve never been one to leave things alone – they always needed more pockets, or more colours, or more zips. Art has always come out of non-art places. ‘I have no paper, that’s fine, I’ll draw on my leg. Got no canvas, I’ll paint the rocks in the garden.’ When I met my neighbours at a party, they told me that I’m the reason that they have to paint rocks. They have two young girls who loved the colourful rocks in my garden. It just seeps out, regardless of what I’m doing. When I’m bored I draw, when my head is busy I colour in, when I have a few spare hours I sew or paint.

I wasn’t even school-aged when I told mum that when I grow up, I want to be an artist at the zoo! (I have always loved animals too, so was combining them).

I was always encouraged in my art, growing up. I had the high school art teachers come to deliver a message at my primary school, and when they saw what I had done in class – I had coloured in all the negative space, instead of inside the lines-they made a big deal of it. My grandmother was showing off my art to her friends, and one was an artist, and she got excited. ‘Now I don’t normally say this, because I get too many wannabee brats trying to impress me with their work but that is fantastic! She needs to make more of those.’

I didn’t think anything of it, because I didn’t think it was anything special. It was just like breathing to me, really. More and more I would get comments, and I can be a little slow sometimes to get the hint, but I finally decided I should do something with this.

jo dunham kookaburra mosaic

Tell us about yourself: your hobbies and dreams

I love Hapkido (martial arts-nothing like punching your friends to get out the frustration of a painting not working out the way you planned). I love gaming; my keyboard and mouse are rainbow-coloured. I read comic books, skating, jigsaw puzzles and playing with my kitty, Taco.

Dreams and visions… Oh I used to have so many, but life can throw you a curve ball, making you forget you had any, so currently I am trying to remember what they were. I do remember one though, with my wanting to be so good, I didn’t need to introduce myself. I’d love to walk into someone’s house and see my art on their walls, or see someone walk by in one of my outfits. I’d love to expand into different branches of art. Sewing and painting, writing and illustrating funny/quirky books/comics. I’d also love to publish my grandfather’s biography (seriously, his story is insane! He grew up in Italy and was about ten when the war ripped through Europe. The stories of survival and his eventual move to Australia are hair-raising)! I’d love to crochet quirky toys for kids (or adults). Seriously, have you seen Monster High Dolls? Finally, a doll for girls that grew up hating Barbie!

I tend to find I naturally sway toward being nocturnal too. At the moment, I need to force myself to keep semi-reasonable hours because I home school my son. In five years, once he’s off doing his own thing, I very much look forward to letting the nocturnal reign; painting all night and waking up at midday. I have a lot of artist friends, and they all seem to be the same. Must be an artist thing.

When did you start designing clothes?

I remember the high school uniform had no pockets, which I thought was stupid, so I cut a rectangle out of an old table cloth and sewed it onto my old school shirt. Growing up I always had friends and family buy me clothes whenever they saw something colourful or crazy and they thought of me. I have always hated how kids get to have so many fun designs, but the moment you hit puberty, women get to choose from pastels. I’m left thinking, ‘I’m sorry, but did my personality just go down the toilet when I hit fifteen?’ I want Ninja Turtles, I want superheroes. When you look at cocktail dresses and beautiful formal wear, you see bright colours and designs are coming back! It’s a belief of mine that this is why so many women feel tired and depressed-they need more fun in their lives, and vibrant clothes are a little step toward that! Looking in the mirror and seeing beige is depressing. Looking in the mirror and seeing electric blue, yellow and red, that will make you smile! Screw the social expectations; buck the system and enjoy your life! Wear some real colours!

In a more professional capacity, I started making clothes from scratch about five years ago. I saw something online I liked and decided to copy it. My son loved it and he claimed the first one. Friends claimed the items about ten times before I got to keep one for myself. We were trying to think of a name for them. Mosaic Jumperlings is the name that stuck since they look like mosaics (lots of bits of jumpers all cut up then sewn back together to make one jumper). Frankenstein jumpers sounded cool too, but also kind of ugly.

Tell us about your latest projects.

My crazy adventures this week are to do with GISHWHES (Greatest International Scavenger Hunt something, something)! You get a list of about 200 challenges, many relating to getting involved in your community, random acts of kindness and general silliness. One challenge was to dress up as a Bellossom, and plant some flowers at a Pokestop. I had all my petals intact and painted myself green then went to the most deserted Pokestop so I wouldn’t draw too much attention to myself. Still, people walked past, and you could feel this kind of amused embarrassment. It brings a smile to people’s faces and you all laugh as you hopelessly try to explain yourself.

Creativity seeps into everything I do. Most recently, I have started painting. My favourite ones are a UFO abducting a cow, and the Ogopogo (the Canadian version of Loch Ness), in the lake. I haven’t sewn in a while, due to space restraints, although after just adding another room to our place, I plan on taking it up again shortly. I actually get a little sad when I sell my jumpers. I love them so much I want to keep them all, but it would be awesome to see someone walking around with one.

jo dunham collage

Your hair is such a statement piece; why does it bring you such joy to colour and style it?

I just love colours! When I have a rainbow Mohawk- even if I am wearing black that day- I can still look in the mirror and smile. My hair loves to stand on end anyway, so long hair is never going to work for me. I think I’ve had such wack hair for so long that whenever it’s not coloured, I start getting questions as to when I am going to do it again. It’s always fun to see how it’s going to turn out.

Do you think you are an introvert or extrovert?

I definitely have attributes of both! Amongst people I feel comfortable with (creative/fun people), I will be very loud and animated and feel super-energized and hyper just from being around them. In the right company, I’m game for any kind of mischief. I can be very drained by people too, and tend to avoid some types. I have fantasies of taking all my good friends to a little commune where we can all live together and our kids can play and we can have cheese and olives and BBQ’s every afternoon together and our friends are always around when we want to hang out. That, in my mind, would be heaven!

What sort of people make you feel alive in their presence?

People who are very accepting and non-judgemental. I’ve been pretty quirky since always, so if you have a lot of social rules about how people are supposed to act and talk and sit, I’ll just find you exhausting to be around. I love people who are free and not too serious. I love people who love to laugh; people who welcome you into their world. People who have fun and quirky ideas of their own. People who are not easily offended.  I love being around people who love to have fun, rather than always worrying about doing the laundry or vacuuming the carpet. I mean, I know that has to get done eventually, but don’t let a pile of laundry stop you from inviting your friends over!

What can’t you stand?

Judgemental people with too many rules on what a person should or shouldn’t do is probably the most draining for me; people who force you to walk on eggshells when they are around. More and more I’m learning that I’d rather have no friends, than those friends. I really hate it when people put down other people or are rude or disrespectful just because they are different to you. If you don’t agree with someone’s choices, you don’t need to tell them, and you don’t need to make them feel bad about it. Stop focusing on the things you don’t have in common. I’m not professing to be an expert in this area; people can rub me the wrong way too, but I won’t be rude to them. I just won’t necessarily go out of my way to seek their company.

What does art bring to your life?

It’s my calm in the midst of a storm. When I stop to paint or sew, or even just colour in, everything goes quiet. There have often been times where I’m like ‘wow, I made that! That looks so much better than the picture I had in my head!’ I get a lot of personal development out of art too. Lots of little ‘aha’ moments. I remember one of the first moments I had was when I kind of stuffed up a seam and the seams didn’t line up the way I wanted them to. I ultimately decided how to fix it as painlessly as possible. My solution actually turned out to be my favourite part of the jumper and there was just this little voice in my head saying ‘see, sometimes the mistakes in life turn out to be the best bits.’

I’ve also learnt never to brag about talent. Just as easily as it comes, some days it just won’t come and everything you do is garbage. It can be a humbling experience.

I think art can also help you to accept yourself more. I was bullied pretty severely at school for being weird (my preferred term these days is quirky). When I was creating, it was those very quirks that I got hassled for, that made my art unique. It’s those quirks that allow me to make people smile or stare in awe. It’s those same quirks that the popular girls in school made fun of me for, that once again became my favourite bits. All my favourite people are quirky.