Joanna Booth ’19 is framed on my computer screen like one of her portraits: placid before a natural landscape. “This one is called Come Home,” she says, gesturing to the fabric behind her. It depicts the houses and apartment complexes she has inhabited over the years, all nestled in the tidal hills of Philadelphia.
This is the test fabric made during her apprenticeship at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in January 2020, just months before the pandemic sabotaged our collective sense of time. The print effectively captures a feeling of temporal fluidity, with its hills ushering you through the landscape non-chronologically, the way memory might.
The piece represents an overarching theme in Booth’s work: paying homage to personal and family history. “I like to focus on familial ties and how we create and perceive relationships through our first interactions,” Booth says. To her, this means looking at family, both “chosen and blood.”
Her honors thesis at Amherst, titled Relative, delved into this idea. While her initial plan was to pursue a research-based project, senior resident artist Betsey Garand offered another option. “The most powerful work you’ve made is personal,” Booth remembers Garand saying. “So I turned inward and started making portraits.”
Those portraits—of Booth’s relatives and a beloved childhood dog—function not only as a tribute to her subjects, but also as a map of the self. Family members arranged in jumbled harmony on the wall, stitched together on hand-dyed fabrics, suggest a cohesiveness that is not automatic—one in which the seams of effort (labors of love still being labors) show through. Looking into the spare, stark beauty of these faces, you’re prompted to consider your own family narrative and the mending that has (or hasn’t) transpired.
Printmaking is a physically arduous process. It begins with the creation of a design by cutting and carving wood. Most often, this woodcut is not displayed with the final print, but as someone fundamentally interested in the idea of origins, Booth made the unconventional decision to display the woodcuts alongside the final prints in her thesis exhibition.
A former member of the women’s tennis team at Amherst, Booth sees a connection between her background in athletics and her interest in printmaking. “I like the physicality you can get in printmaking. It’s a lot of repetition and cranking the press and carving into the wood. And it all felt familiar to me in that way.” Tennis is also largely responsible for her bond to Philadelphia. Sixty-four years ago, her grandfather helped to found Woodford Tennis Club, the first Black-owned tennis community in the city. “Tennis is integral to how I perceive Philadelphia,” she says, “and how I have become familiar with a lot of these natural spaces. As a kid, they felt safe to me.”
Booth has a multipronged career as a printmaker doing freelance and commissioned work, coordinating events at a small studio in Philadelphia called Second State Press, and serving as a visitor services assistant and gallery guide at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in the city. When I asked about her next project, she gave an answer that stayed with me for days: “My better ideas come from just living life and paying attention to what grabs me.”
Diaz has an M.F.A. in fiction writing. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Joyland Magazine and elsewhere. She lives in Nashville and is at work on a novel.