Intersection A n J: The Real Meaning of Collaboration

An interview with alice yujing yan and jay joo

By: Pasha Moezzi
Published: 2019/03/18

In the very cold afternoon hours as I walked down Bloor Street West in Toronto, I could not stop thinking about Alice Yujing Yan and Jay Joo, the power couple behind JJ Gallery and Studio. As artists, gallerists, and soon-to-be parents, they have an interesting history and an exciting future ahead. I sat down with them in their gallery to discuss their exhibition Intersection A n J, which opened in conjunction with Design TO Festival in January, as well as their process of collaboration in art and in life.

Hollowware and tableware by Jay Joo

To provide a bit of background information, Jay graduated from OCAD University in 2012 and immediately after, became an Artist in Residence at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. Jay has a very calculated and systematic style, as his work is very much based on geometry and traditional metalsmithing techniques. He is very well respected in the community regarding his flawless technical work and also does a lot of stone setting for other jewellers.

Alice has a fine arts background from her time back home in China. Later on, she attended NSCAD University in Nova Scotia where she received her training as a metalsmith. While she explored a lot of enamelling techniques at NSCAD, she also became acquainted with other methods of jewellery making and colouring, like powder coating. Given her background in fine arts, she has always been drawn to colour, shape, and their combinations as a whole. After obtaining her degree from NSCAD, Alice also became an Artist in Residence at Harbourfront Centre where she and Jay met for the first time.

Walking into JJ Gallery and Studio to view their collaborative show called Intersection A n J, Alice and Jay are both there to greet me. Right away, I notice a collection of Alice’s bright, architectural, almost animated brooches on five canvas boards placed along the wall, with each composition thoughtfully curated. The three boards to the left are all in her trademark style, one that I am familiar with from her Harbourfront days. Standing out with their bold colours and attractive shapes, the pieces gradually move through the space. A shift occurs from her powder coated forms to her meticulous enamel works, which speak directly to her fine arts abilities.

Right across from the wall of Alice’s pieces are a row of five cases holding Jay’s work, intentionally mirroring the placement of the wall panels. Each case has been grouped with different bodies of work. Representing different periods of his artistry, this shows a clear evolution and progress. There is a smaller wall bridging the space between Alice’s and Jay’s work. On it, their collaborative pieces are mounted. With this series of brooches, all but one piece possess the same circular shape with different colours of enamel encasing their curved surfaces. We begin our conversation by discussing this collaborative work.

Powdercoated brooches by Alice Yujing Yan

Enamel brooches by Alice Yujing Yan

Intersection: A n J brooches (2019)
Alice Yujing Yan and Jay Joo

Pasha: Thanks for having me guys! So tell me about this collaboration and how it came to be.

Alice: Well this was originally planned to be a part of Toronto Design show and it was me who initiated the idea! Jay did not want to do this at all.

Jay: (Nodding his head in approval) She is right! With everything that was going on and the changes we were going through I did not think this was a great idea! But Alice insisted and after a while I thought why not give it a try.

A: (She winks at me) It was not easy to convince him but I succeeded at the end.

P:  Would it be safe to say that Toronto Design Festival was more of a reason to have a deadline and get things going? And also what do you mean by changes, could you elaborate please?

A: Indeed, it would be correct. You are an artist yourself and you know how challenging it is to get things done without a deadline and I always wanted us to do a collaboration because I thought the outcome would be very exciting so I saw the call for application and figured why not! We had enough time (laughs)!

J: Well, we just opened up the store last year and with all the work we already had from the studio, now add the store to it and not to forget to mention that a month after we submitted our application to Toronto Design Festival we got news of Alice’s pregnancy so that is three major projects to handle.

P: Oh that is fantastic news! So you’ll be three now. This actually gets me to my next question which is how difficult is to do these things especially when you are a couple? You live together, you work together and now you also maintain a gallery together and on top of it all there is a little one who in joining you very soon too! How does the dynamic of it work and how do you overcome obstacles?

(Both are laughing and looking at one another waiting for the other one to answer.)

A: Well let me tell you that it is hard! Especially when you have different work ethics and have very different approaches to situations, but we very early realized that this is what married life is about! Now add a business and raising a child to it. Jay has a very calculated and planned out system which is very evident in his style and body of work. As for me I operate very differently! I am an experimental kind of a person! Also the medium I work with requires me to be that way! I can not be too hard on myself with my enamel and powder coating work as things change, temperatures change and outcomes are different than expected so I have learnt to not be so hard on myself. (Looks over at Jay) that was the hardest part of us! To get used to one another’s working habits and also respect it.

J: There are a lot of sacrifices in the sense that you might have to lower your guard for once in the sense of what you know and are used to and see what the other person is doing in respect to what you have planned as an outcome for a collab. It was the most challenging for us to meet at the perfect middle ground! One we are both happy and comfortable with.

P: So I am guessing there were lots of changes along the way? And how far off where you at the end from what you had planned?

J: Interestingly enough we are not too far from what we had in mind initially but certainly not the same. There were some changes and adjustments we had to make along the way but that is with every major production and especially collaboration. Let me show you.

Jay gets up and goes toward the board, detaches a few of the brooches and comes back to us.

He brings to show us one oval-shaped brooch and three circular pieces. They are all slightly domed and enamelled.  On the enamel surface, there sits one of Jay’s geometric shapes and I can see that it is set from the back. The whole enamel piece is then set into a very nice frame and based on my knowledge of Jay’s work, I can tell the setting has been done by him.

J: We initially wanted to do an oval form but for a number of reasons and setting being one of them, we figured round is a much better option and also sits better as a brooch and visually was more pleasing with the contrast between the geometric shape I made and the organic gentle shape of the domes.

Intersection: A n J brooch (2019)
Alice Yujing Yan and Jay Joo

Intersection: A n J brooches (2019)
Alice Yujing Yan and Jay Joo

P: May I ask about the setting? I’m assuming it is Jay’s superb work?

A: Yes, it is! I only get Jay to set my enamel work. After seeing how great he is with setting I don’t go to anyone else and only trust him to handle my work.

P: Jay what about you? Anything about Alice’s work that was intriguing to you or you learnt from?

J: Oh for sure! I am not very experienced with enamelling so learning from Alice and watching her work and learning some secrets was very exciting for me. For example, in my brief experience with enamel at OCAD, I never knew about sugar finish and that is what we mostly used with this project.

P: Why were you drawn to it?

J: it was very different from what I have seen with enamelling and we both thought that it was the right choice for this specific project and again the contrast it created was of much interest to us.

A: I should also say that when we decided to do this I did not even have a kiln! We had to source one out and Jay helped me a lot to set it up as we did not want to get a brand new one and the one we found needed some taking care of. He even drove to Buffalo to pick up a part for it! So in the midst of dealing with the store, studio, orders on the side and the baby coming Jay really helped out in the biggest ways and was very accommodating.

P: That is the definition of a perfect power couple!

Our conversation shifts toward the baby, how they are expecting in a month, and how things are going to be even more different. We joked about how this has been a serious collaboration year in every sense for them, and for me, to see this from an outsider point of view is beautiful. Collaborations are not for everyone, but once a match is made, amazing things can come, like this lovely exhibition. They also told me they are definitely keeping a brooch for “pudding” who will be joining their family at the end of the month.

Images by: Pasha Moezzi