Jo Braun: From Anthropologist to Artist

jo braunYou hear about people being born into politics or show business, but what’s the precipitating factor that stirs an interest in anthropology?  For Jo Braun, she believes the seed was sown for her first career at birth. Born into a fundamentalist Christian family, “the Jerry Falwell kind of fundamentalists,” Braun always felt like she was missing out on what was happening in the world beyond. “We were very isolated from the outside world; even for South Dakota, we were the conservative of the conservatives! We were taught to ‘be in the world but not of it.’ Anthropology gave me a model for understanding subcultures and enabled me to accept that I was from one.”

She precociously began to suspect something was “abnormal” about her church community at 10 or 11 years of age thanks in part to her frequent visits to the public library. Despite having no access to television, movies, secular music, or any popular culture, she was given carte blanche at the library. “When you’re raised without television but have free access to the library, you seek out the ‘dirty books’ at an early age. I was that kid who brought Judy Blume’s Forever to school. But even more subversive, I discovered scholarly theology that cast doubt on Christianity’s most basic tenets. By 12 or 13, I was pretty sure I didn’t believe in it.”

But Braun kept her secret discoveries and observations to herself. “I was very quiet about my questions with everyone except my brother. I was biding my time until I was old enough to go find the ‘normal’ people.”

But the rules loosened up a bit when Braun was approaching her teenage years. By the time she was ready to begin high school, she was able to convince her parents to send her to a new school, one that was less stringent, and more challenging academically than the non-accredited Christian schools she had attended up to then. The alternative? The local Catholic High School. “When my Catholic friends tell me they went to strict schools, I laugh! The nuns I encountered were into liberation theology and seemed so open minded to me.”

By the time she decided to go to The University of Minnesota, Braun was more certain than ever of her field of study. “In anthropology, I had a paradigm – there were other groups of people who isolated themselves from the outside world for various reasons; it made me understand that my religious upbringing fit into a larger pattern. We were unusual, perhaps, but not ‘abnormal’.”

Braun’s studies carried her through undergrad at the University of Minnesota and then on to the University of Iowa for a PhD. She was especially attracted to the cultures of the South Pacific and conducted research in both Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. In the former, she was surprised to discover fundamentalist Christians who believed in doctrines that were similar to those she was taught as a child. For her dissertation, she spent a year in the Solomon Islands comparing five Christian denominations. She assumed throughout that she would go the path of most anthropology majors and become a professor.

“I loved the experience. I had great professors and mentors. I was doing well and was treated like someone who was going to be successful.”

Despite loving her field, Braun never considered the practical side of becoming a professor – actually landing a job. “I didn’t really realize until I passed my comps that jobs were few and far between.”

In addition to that not-so-minor detail, Braun was growing uncomfortable with the political climate in anthropology, which was characterized by a culture of guilt. “Everyone agonized continuously over being a white Western scholar studying these so called ‘others’. Then by the 1990s, Pacific Islands scholars were getting social science and humanities PhDs and maintaining that they should study their own cultures instead of being objectified by others. I saw their point.”

Hearing rumors in anthropology circles that many big companies liked to have anthropologists on staff, Braun attended seminars on “how to use your anthropology degree outside of academia.” But Intel was the only example anyone ever cited. Or was that an urban legend? “No, it was true that Intel had an anthropologist on staff because I met her. What wasn’t true was that lots of companies were desperate to hire anthropologists.”

So, while she searched for that elusive corporate anthropology gig, she and her boyfriend moved to Seattle and got married. In early 2002 Braun found a job at Starbucks, but it was in a traditional marketing research department that employed anthropological methods only occasionally. One day, as she sat behind a one-way mirror listening to a focus group of women talk about their cravings for sweets, she could no longer deny that she was using her research skills in a way that conflicted with her values. “It felt slimy, working to leverage people’s desires for things that aren’t good for them. I knew I couldn’t stay there forever.”

At the same time and with her dissertation behind her, Braun felt she had endless amounts of free time, even while working a full-time job. So she started experimenting with art as a hobby in the evenings. Surrounded by empty walls in her new house, Braun decided she’d make a mosaic.

“I have no idea why I started with the mosaic medium,” said Braun. “I would have to explain it with something hokey like a past life; there’s no rational explanation. I had never been to Italy or even seen a classical mosaic in a museum.”  An inspired mystery…

Her first mosaic, Two Trees, was made from glass tile purchased from an art supplies store. The result was remarkable. “When I look at it, I can see that I intuitively used the rules of classical mosaic, the rules the Romans used, using quadrangular tesserae,” says Braun. With no formal training whatsoever, Braun realized she had a knack for the medium and she wanted to make more.

In January 2004, at age 32, she attended her first meeting of the Society of American Mosaic Artists (SAMA). It was her coming out.  She felt a sense of her true Self. “I came home and told my husband: ‘This is who I truly am. It’s why I’m here. I have to do this.’”

Together they agreed on a “five-year plan” where Braun could slowly build up a portfolio while still working at Starbucks and her husband developed his law career. That plan got a turbo injection 18 months later when Starbucks eliminated its entire marketing research department and Braun was laid off. At first, she didn’t know whether she was ready to take the leap. “But my husband said, ‘Jo. Do it,’” she recalls.

“When you get the layoff notice, people in the office avoid you. They treat you like you have a communicable disease, but I was happy because I knew I was going to become an artist, and I told everyone,” says Braun. One of Braun’s coworkers handed her a book called The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield. It turned out to be one of the most catalyzing forces of her new career, a manifesto for how to succeed in a creative field.

Braun initially considered taking a more gradual approach, perhaps finding a job at a tile store, but it turned out that she didn’t have to do that. She applied for a few small public commissions and landed her first within a year. It was a mosaic of a small creek for a transfer station near Seattle. Soon after, more sales and commissions started coming in until her schedule was full.

Today Braun works full time as an artist, working in her studio, giving lectures, and traveling to install her commissions. She recently installed artwork in a secure unit at a juvenile detention facility in Anchorage, AK. “It’s the most meaningful project I’ve completed to date,” she states, “because the people who will live with it are at such a critical juncture in their lives.” Does she carry anything from anthropology with her into her visual arts career? “I think so,” she answers. “I grew to appreciate humanity in a profound, big picture sense, with all our paradoxical craziness. Anthropology was the bridge I needed to go from religious-based cultural isolation, to being a creator of visual culture in my own right. I came to understand that human beings need beauty. We need the connection it fosters. That’s what I want to contribute.”

Jo Braun’s Tips for Success

  • If you’re laid off from your job, know that the severance package they’re offering you is hush money. They want you to take it in exchange for signing a contract promising you’ll go away quietly. Don’t be afraid that if you ask for more, that they’ll send you away with nothing. They won’t, because then you’ll be a loose cannon over which they have no legal leverage.
  • If you feel compelled to pursue a creative field but don’t know where to begin, start by maximizing the resources you already have, even if they’re just the corner of your garage and a leftover can of latex primer (or whatever). Use what you have to get a feel for your creative impetus, to see if it resonates on a cellular level. Just don’t invest any serious dough until you’ve read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
  • Don’t expect your creative work to be fun. Creative work is work. It’s lonely, boring, exhausting, and thankless. If you find yourself doing it anyway because you’re inexplicably driven, you’ve nailed it. You’ll have a sense of satisfaction, even if you end your day with nothing but an overflowing trash can.


Have you ever had artist inklings that you considered testing out as a possible career?

One thought on “Jo Braun: From Anthropologist to Artist

  1. I’ve just found this article and am happy to have discovered Career 2.0. At 52 years of age I’m in my third year of a similar, transformative experience. Everything Jo shares resonates deeply because my own life trajectory uncannily parallel’s hers. I had the pleasure of meeting her briefly many years ago without benefit of getting to know her better. I was heading to graduate sociology school and she was working on her Anthro PhD. Seemingly out of the blue and for reasons unknown to me I recalled her earlier this year and looked her up which ultimately led me here. I appreciate her unfiltered candor. Even for the strongest of women these stories are vital and empowering. I’d be more than happy to share mine as well. Thank you.

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