Renaissance Woman

By Stephanie Foster / Cape Codder Friday, October 8, 2004

Joy Cuming should have been born during the Renaissance. Like DiVinci, she does several things extremely well. An architect with a degree in urban planning, she also teaches, writes songs, sings and plays the guitar.
     Growing up, she was athletically inclined, and her father wanted her to be an Olympic gymnast. Her mother preferred she become a dancer. Both dreams got crossed off the list when she turned 15. "My body changed. I was no longer a rail," she says with a wide smile, settling into a chair at the Harperspace Gallery in Wellfleet where she will have an exhibit opening Oct. 9 of her latest accomplishment: a collection of mixed media paintings and drawings.
     The attractive redhead with the large blue eyes was born in Connecticut and moved to Western Australia when she was 14. The youngest of four children, Cuming took to art and music early on. She wrote her first lyrics at age 4, formed a band at 8 and performed on the guitar with her best friend at 10.
     "I lived in my own imaginary world. I performed to the ether," she says of her childhood. She dreamed of performing and creating stage extravaganzas, but walks around the neighborhood with her father in Australia led in another direction. "My father was a mechanical engineer. We would critique houses. Tear them apart and put them back together." She found she liked the mental exercise and was good at it. Her father, whom she feels was a frustrated architect, suggested it as a career for her.
     "It beautifully combined my talents," she says, adding, "There weren't that many choices there. You could become a lawyer, teacher, or doctor. Maybe I would have become something else if I had lived here." She received a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of Western Australia in 1978 and soon was working for firms in Perth and San Francisco. To expand her education, she got a master's degree in urban design from Columbia University in 1982. It gave her a valuable overview, the ability to see the forest as well as the trees.
     "I hate it when people don't consider the environment or their neighbors when they build," she says. For a decade she created guidelines to improve towns physically and visually.
     Needing a break, Cuming and her fiance, a professional singer, came to the Cape for the summer in 1985. "I fell in love with Wellfleet. We rented a house and sang in the streets of Provincetown, trying to make a living," she recalls. "It was hard."
     Eventually she took a job with Wellfleet architect Alan Dodge, got married and had a son, Loren Vandegrift, now 18. After she and her husband divorced, Cuming raised Loren. "He was my singing partner," she says of her son. "We sang in the Provincetown Choral Society for years and as church soloists. We were a duo for a long time."
     When her father died in an accident, Cuming returned to Australia to be with her mother. As time went on, she went into private practice and became a college professor. In 1993 she took a trip to the Cape when she was on a sabbatical - and stayed. She was offered an assignment by her mentor, Alan Dodge, at Architects Studio in Wellfleet, and has been here ever since, using her training to sculpt harmonious spaces.
     Her architectural work for Harperspace Gallery so impressed owner Harper Shantz that she offered Cuming her own show - artwork unseen. "I don't think of myself as a fine artist," Cuming says. "I'm just exploring. The show is like a birthing. It's been a great experience. It's amazing how quickly it develops when you give it a chance. Most of the people who exhibit at the gallery do something else that is quite significant besides artwork. They're multifaceted. It's true of a lot of creative people."
     Cuming combines pen and ink with a watercolor wash or watercolor pencil and has experimented with dry pastel, oil pastel and acrylic. She approaches her art in two ways.
     "I start to doodle and something will emerge. Something I recognize. I start to develop it with the subject in mind. The other way, I'll look at a landscape and quickly sketch it, and put a wash over it or bring it home and draw from my memory. I work completely from my imagination or am inspired by what I've seen."
     She has found painting inspires ideas in the design realm. "Art is the muse in my life. As an architect, I can't think without a pen in my hand. It's a way of bringing ideas into the world," she explains. "I've started to explore art. I have to find time. Eke out a few hours here and there. It's a relaxation. It helps me get ideas for my buildings. All kinds of ideas come through."
     Initially, her artwork was representational - tight and graphic rather than evocative. Now she lets her feelings show through and allows herself emotional self-expression. "I find I'm moving toward being more evocative. I'm exploring."
     In a way, her artwork is an unveiling.
     "I kept stuff inside for so long. The more you do it, the easier it is to do. It's sharing." Her teaching background has given her the ability to critique herself. "When it's pure and honest, it's not about you as a person. It invites you to move foreword."
     Cuming enjoys all of her creative expressions, and doesn't have a favorite. "I love them all. They all take me to the same place," she reflects. "I love to design, play music, paint. They are synergistically intertwined."
     "Sketching and painting, music and design are my muses. They are the mediums through which I can bring my heart to my hand and attempt to capture a moment. I like to explore the relationship of basic elemental conflicts: light and darkness, space and form, silence and sound." -Joy Cuming