By VICTOR SLEDGE December 22, 2023
During his sophomore year at Boston College, artist Joe Taveras roomed with the president of the Buddhist club on campus. It was from this roommate that Taveras was introduced to the Buddhism concept of anatta.
“We have this idea that we are the same person throughout our lives, but according to this philosophy, that’s merely an illusion,” Taveras explains. “The concept is that there’s no unchanging, consistent self within our entity.”
It’s an idea that interrogates how we navigate the ego and releases us from the idea that we are tethered to any parameters of who we were even a day ago. Anatta is one of the ideas that has propelled Taveras forward in his lifelong journey and exploration into the self-actualization that bleeds so heavily into his art practice.
“It all comes back to self-actualization to approach the highest manifestation of what myself in that moment needs to reflect,” he says.
There has always been a sense of discovery that is integral to how Taveras navigates through the world. “Other kids were playing outside, and I was dissecting frogs. So I’ve always been interested in the idea of discovery,” he remembers.
Being an artist that is both seeking and accepting discovery while also being introspective enough to lean into self-actualization lends itself to a rather introspective and open style of art.
Taveras’s art interrogates the ego and self in a way that strikes a balance between being reflective without being self-consumed. Through his work, he seems to question the self openly as a blank slate, ready for whatever it may reveal. But in doing so, he isn’t overtaken or jaded by what the self reveals. He doesn’t let the ego become too powerful.
However, this is not to say that Taveras doesn’t value ego, but, with his work, ego becomes a passenger on the ride rather than the driver.
As an artist who works with portraiture and the human form, albeit often abstracted, it may seem difficult to strike such a fair balance with the ego. However, Taveras isn’t taken over by this conundrum. He has a sense of awareness in his work that doesn’t prioritize his own ego. He simply becomes a sort of kaleidoscope that reflects his interpretation of life onto canvas in a way that gives voice to the general ego in the frequencies around him more than his own ego itself.
“Oftentimes when I paint, I just sit back and watch my arms move. I’m almost separate from myself. That’s how I know I’ve reached the flow state,” he explains. “It’s almost as if I’m placing not my ego but an ego onto the canvas.”
Taveras is aware of how using portraiture can welcome people to look into themselves to feel that same sense of discovery that’s driven him.
“When people see portraits, they see themselves and a reflection of who they could be. That reflection does something really special in the subconscious,” he says.
For Taveras, these portraits also don’t keep him tied to any version of himself. Even the one present in his own self-portraits. He has found freedom in the idea that who he once was doesn't restrict who he is or is becoming, and it’s helped him grow into himself as an artist without being concerned about the past iterations of himself.
“The biggest thing that keeps us from growing today is the person I was yesterday,” he explains.
Even his distinct style speaks to Taveras’s release of self in his practice. Although he has only been painting for a couple of years after leaving his career in robotics, his voice and style feels clear and sure.
That’s because when you’re focused on growing into a pure version of self, that inner voice becomes louder and lets itself be heard in whatever ways necessary. The voice comes naturally, without any forced changes or alterations to satisfy anyone or anything else.
For example, Taveras may be influenced and gravitate toward different styles, but it’s all indicative of wherever he finds himself at that moment in time.
“It should be noted that this push and pull between different techniques and the development of my style was not intentional. It stems from this excessive need to self-actualize. I have something in my brain that needs to exist outside of me and it’s going to move my body in such a way to make it exist,” he says.
That’s why leaving robotics wasn’t so much of an end as it was a beginning. Self-actualization gives way for the opportunity to see the throughlines through yourself and the world around you. You start to connect dots that once felt so far away.
“Before I’m an artist, I’m a scientist,” he says. “Before my art is a pretty picture, it’s technology.” While he’s let go of his career in robotics, the root of that endeavor still informs his art practice.
It’s easy to think of robotics and painting on two totally different planes. One feels exact and calculated while the other feels subjective and abstract. But at the root, Taveras sees things differently.
“I’ve come to understand that everything is math,” he explains. “Even the things that may seem abstract, they’re only abstract to our concrete packing minds. The math that generates our emotions when we look at art is not abstract. It’s a very concrete science.”
This is only one example of the ways in which Taveras has fed off of interconnectedness in his work.
It’s the same idea of discovery he felt dissecting frogs. Although a different species, the frogs still lived, breathed and bled like a human. Similarly, although a different career, art and how people react to it boils down to the same science and math that went into robotics.
In this way, there’s a confidence in Taveras as an artist. There’s a confidence in letting go and trusting where life and the energy around takes him and how that allows him to think about the moment and the art it calls for rather than how it impacts the self.
Taveras isn’t interested in what his ego has to say about any given moment. Instead, he opens himself up to the input he receives from the energy and frequencies around him through his own experiences and becomes a vessel of sorts for that moment.
“When I work, my goal is to get to a certain frequency where Joe Taveras doesn’t exist anymore. I am just channeling information around me to translate all that energy,” he says.
In many instances, Taveras’s practice of taking it all in and releasing it onto a canvas has created work that may be darker or tougher to digest. However, as an artist who releases himself to the energy around him, it becomes an occupational hazard at most for Taveras.
“For some subjects, the translations need to be more direct,” he explains. “I’m not afraid to acknowledge the darkness in the present moment because there’s so much pain and suffering throughout the world that only through acknowledgement can we learn from that.”
You can see that in 2020, a time where the world was in turmoil from every angle, his work felt shadowed and weighty. It mimicked the brooding weight of the zeitgeist that spread through an egregious time of loss, pain and uncertainty. As you progress in the time since then, his pieces feel lighter and less burdened. It’s all a reaction to the world around him.
In other instances, this practice seems to make Taveras play with the idea of humanity itself. As in his recent HERE NOW collection, which exhibited in Paris in November, you can see in some works where the human form is recognizable, and for the viewer, it feels like a welcomed familiarity.
Other times, Taveras’s work is more abstract. You have to search for the familiar, and you may never find it at all. But that’s all reliant on how human he actually feels as he creates the work.
Whether he’s feeling human or not, what matters is that Taveras is still present with himself and the moment he’s in. This obsession with self-actualization has opened doors for work that creates a harmony with ego in the present world and invites viewers to do the same.
Taveras doesn’t shy away or search for a moment. He simply voices it.
Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia. He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic.