Joyce Cutler Shaw: ‘Fierce’ La Jolla artist shines in documentary


For over 40 years, multimedia artist Joyce Cutler-Shaw, who has called La Jolla home since 1959, has been exhibiting her drawings, artist’s books and installations at museums and libraries around the world. She is now the subject of “She is Fierce,” a new 30-minute documentary that was screened Nov. 14 at a launch party in U C San Diego’s Geisel Library.

The filmmaker, Becky Cohen, best known as photographer of the Getty Center’s Robert Irwin Garden in Los Angeles and the gardens of André Le Nôtre in Paris, has known Cutler-Shaw since the 1970s, when they were both graduate students in the early, glory days of UCSD’s Visual Arts Department.

“I was 20 years old and running around in cutoffs and long, loose hair: a non-druggy flower child who liked thinking so much she never wanted to ingest anything mind-altering,” Cohen said. “Joyce — 15 years older than I — came to class dressed like Jackie Onassis: little black dress, pearls, high heels. Nevertheless, we fell in love with each other’s brains and became very good friends from then on.”

Cohen had originally done a documentary on Cutler-Shaw for “UCSD Conversations” in 1991 and thought it was high time for an update. Lynn Burnstan, UCSD-TV’s Managing Director, agreed, and assigned John Menier, an award-winning Arts and Humanities producer, to handle the shooting and editing.

The November screening brought old friends and local artists together to celebrate Cutler-Shaw. In his introduction, University Librarian Brian Schottlaender praised her as “wicked smart, gracious, and generous with her time, her art, and her money.” Lynda Claassen, Director of the Library’s Special Collections, called her “a fierce, independent spirit,” and, in fact, the film’s title comes from Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where Helena describes Hermia: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

These days, though the onset of Corticobasal Degeneration has slowed down her speech and mobility, Cutler-Shaw’s mind is as sharp as ever. “All my work is about three things -- survival, evolution and transformation,” she says in the film. “The life cycle and death of the human body, and hope and the cosmos itself.”

“She is Fierce” shines a light on her impressive body of work, honoring her as an artist, a humanist, and a true Renaissance woman. The UCSD-TV staff were so pleased with the documentary that they asked Becky Cohen for more. The next three will be on artist Patricia Patterson, poet Jerome Rothenberg, and art couple Kim MacConnel and Jean Lowe.

“I’m really overjoyed with this new phase of my life, writing and directing these films about dear friends whose work has thrilled me and changed me,” Cohen said. “And if anyone in the community wants to help fund the documentaries on these beloved artists, please feel free to contact UCSD-TV!”

Watch the documentary: “She is Fierce” airs on UCSD-TV (Time Warner Channel 1231) 10 p.m. Nov. 24; 9 p.m. Nov. 27; 5 p.m. Nov. 28. Additional dates in December. (858) 534-3535.