A Profile by Jere Pfister

Jo Zider was raised in a Detroit suburb in a family who were members of a conservative branch of the Baptist religion known as Primitive Baptists. Despite the Christian foundation of the church, she observed the members’ behavior of hypocrisy and prejudice against those who were different by virtue of race and religion, and with her open and curious mind she fought against that hypocrisy. In college at Michigan State University and later at the University of Houston, she broadened her mind by studying world religions and immersing herself in the art and culture of diverse peoples. She was attracted to the void of figurative references in Shinto and the eastern religions of Iran and other Muslim countries which used deep blue paisley and geometric designs to surround worshippers as they prayed. Jo became a pantheist and a believer in a kind of reincarnation that might be guided and predestined by an omnipotent power.

It was the Native American Indians’ worship of the natural world where God is found in all things, including the rocks and formations of the land itself, that most attracted and informed Jo's eventual drive to take up the art of clay and fulfill her religious quest. She believed that the art of clay with its use of fire releases the spirit and turns “earth” into something both utilitarian and a vessel for the soul.

With degrees in education and fine arts, Jo began teaching art, first in the Aldine District and then in 1989 with HISD at Bellaire High School. Throughout her 35 years of teaching she was making and exhibiting her own creations. Her final exhibition for her degree at the University of Houston was entitled “FIVE NATIONS OF MEN,” a grouping of tall hollow clay forms with slightly contour references to human totems. The final project was displayed in the Blaffer Art Museum where her works have been shown many times thereafter in various exhibits. These forms eventually evolved into the abstract figurative Kabuki sculptures that she envisioned and made while studying the traditional theatre of Japan.

Jo traveled twice to Japan, at one point living with a Japanese family for a short time, while also finding time to thoroughly immerse herself into the theatre experience. Out of this intense study came her most beautiful works of design and color in the form of cast paper relief paintings of Kabuki theatre characters who represented iconic figures involved in the human struggles against greed, treachery, and manipulation. In the 1990s, Jo's work grew in a new direction and shifted from representing beautifully decorative forms to ones associated with social justice. Literally, she was painting over the decorative color patterns to reveal the heart of the issues that now concerned her. In this regard, the death of activist Ken Saro-wiwa in 1997 was the impetus and defining moment for her shift in subject matter and intensity.

Ken Saro-wiwa, educated in England, was a Nigerian writer and activist. A member of the Ogoni tribe who lived in the rich farm and fishing region of the Niger Delta, he was one of ten activists wrongly blamed for the deaths of workers and guards on a Shell Oil platform off the coast of the delta. Jo took up the mantle of his struggle in the only way she knew - through her art - to illustrate the regional yet universal injustice of deaths caused by human greed. Many issues were focused eventually into representation of what Jo has called: “A Few of My Favorite things: Earth, Energy, Water, and Air.”

While working on a Challenger relief painting in collaboration with writer Jere Pfister, Jo had already started making clay bones to perhaps simulate the only tangible remains that were found of the deceased astronauts. A pivotal opportunity for Jo to express the theme was an exhibition of these bones at the Art League of Houston in a show entitled “The Bone Palace Banquet.” Dressed in black, Jo was a silent mime inviting her guests to partake in the “banquet,” offering handmade red bowls into which participants could place and take as many bones as they wished from the twenty-foot steel table with bone-filled platters of abundance. The art had an underlying message: That we partake of the human effort, the bones, of others.”

Jo’s making and installations of bones have continued in multiple shows around the city, in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and in a giant labyrinth installed on the plaza of the Rothko Chapel. Over time her work has transitioned into something she will not sell but is her pleasure in how the works have spiritually helped others.

Read about our past featured member Ima Oduok.

"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you
into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost."
Martha Graham



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