by Saffron Forsberg
Arts + Culture Editor
art by Joaquim Stevenson-Rodriguez
[originally published Summer 2021]
Joaquim and I finally meet on the last day of June; it’s a soggy, midterm-laden Wednesday night. He joins me in a dim Wilder booth, and we laugh obligingly as I rifle through a carcass of a spiral notebook, fool with my sooty cup of coffee. Joaquim Stevenson-Rodriguez is a multimedia artist—a soft-spoken third-year art major with a project always in the works. I’d been acquainted with him first through his unmistakable sound at house shows and cool-guy parties around Oberlin, where he spins as DJ Sour for creaky floorboards and shared Camels and the smell of warm bodies. At his last set, he’d spun following a host of harsh noise acts at the apartment of a friend of mine. I admitted that I hadn’t been all there. I sunk in my seat, threw my head back, and said in a dopey drawl that mimics what I think I sound like sloshed: “Man, I don’t know anything, but that felt great. I can dance to that. That was incredible, man.” He laughs easily. It’s all very collegiate. We reek of Oberlin, of intersecting social circles. I’d known the sound of his name through word of mouth, friends of friends of friends—yeah, we should go tonight. Joaquim’s spinning.
Joaquim is from Brooklyn. It’s where he grew up, deemed himself an artist: painted his first paintings, printed his first prints, worked on his first beats, picked up spinning at 17. He laughs as though guilty of something. “Yeah, I’m from Brooklyn...just like everybody else here.” I smile and place tally marks in my head as he tells me who he went to high school with—all people with whom I’m acquainted, who bump shoulders, at least peripherally, with Oberlin’s tiny DIY-art-major-house-show-Guy-Who-Knows-About-Music scene.
“Yeah, I dunno. It’s a little weird seeing mad Brooklyn people here.” Indeed, Joaquim’s tight friendships—NYC, Oberlin, etc.—revolve, at least somewhat, around shared passions, a longing to create. He tells me about passed-around sketchbooks and chummy jam sessions, those he “bullied” into exploring DJ-ing, and those that pushed him further into painting. He didn’t really start meeting many DJs until Oberlin. I’m fascinated, and Joaquim just nods, “yeah, yeah. We kick it.”
His attitude is a warm divergence from the sometimes individualist careerism that absorbs the serious, private college artist; those who have made “creative” a noun, a marketable identity to which nobody and everybody belongs. He is an artist eager to collaborate, and we speak of this extensively. His last release was a collaboration with DJ Printer—two tracks on Screen-Glo Records’ summer compilation.
Joaquim, too, like a lot of up-and-coming artists, is shy to call himself one. He’s mellow, laughing at the eyes. “I don’t really know what I’m doing. I just wing it,” he says, gazing past me. His demeanor is one of reticent confidence, soft-spoken self-possession.
“It does not come across,” I tell him.
Joaquim started DJ-ing in high school, in around 2017. “I have, like, a family friend who’s an artist. And he did a...kind of...I guess it was performance art. He lived in a storefront for like two weeks, in Manhattan. And he was like ‘do you wanna come do something? I’m just having, like, guests.’ And at this time I was making music and stuff, I was making tracks, but I didn’t really know how to showcase them or anything? So I was, like, alright I guess I’ll learn how to DJ. So I learned how to DJ [laughter] in a really short amount of time. Not well but…that kickstarted me, pretty much.”
S: How did you figure that [DJing] out?
J: Uhhh. Just YouTube. [laughs]
S: [laughs] Really!
J: I feel like I just had, like, VirtualDJ, just free VirtualDJ on my computer for a while. But that was the first time I sat down and tried to DJ.
S: Oh wow. That’s always a comforting thing to me, when people tell me they just learned [something] from YouTube. Because it always seems so unattainable!
J: I love YouTube. Like so much.
We land on the subject of social media. Obligatory. Joaquim has a fairly indifferent relationship with Instagram; he has an art Instagram because he feels like that’s what one does as an artist, but the platform itself is not a motivating one. His account houses a tight portfolio of visual art pieces, Bandcamp links, and graphics promoting shows in Oberlin. He mainly enjoys social media for viewing other people’s visual art. I ask him who and what he’s been digging lately, and he takes out his iPhone.
“So there’s this guy Hugh Hayden [@huthhayden].” I am handed a screen gridded with bright, textured sculptures of everyday items—ladders, frying pans, a classroom desk. Some gleam with oily studio light, others are constructed of jagged wood. Their gnarly branches bust forward. We pay special attention to some lustrous frying pans in red, green, and yellow enameled cast iron. They take on dramatic human expressions. “And you can, like, cook in them, too. Which is pretty nice.”
Joaquim prefaces another artist with: “Ok, so this is an artist I...I don’t...I haven’t figured out if I like her.” We laugh. “You know what I mean? I’ve paid attention to her for so long. Do you know Katherine Bernhardt [@kbernhardt2014]?”
“No.” I’m eager.
Bernhardt’s captionless page is alight with large-scale fluorescent paintings. They’re loud and spry, occupying flat, perspectiveless planes. I am directed to an acrylic painting whirling in electric blues, oranges, and the green of Nickelodeon slime. I see sloths and papayas.
“...It’s literally just random shit. I kind of don’t like her. I kind of don’t like it because it’s ...meaningless, and I don’t really care. But I kind of just like to look at them.”
Joaquim’s own visual art is a mingling of styles. Lately, he’s been working with acrylics, but he thinks himself a printmaker. Collaged elements and ink details scatter across bold planes of color. They hang in the foreground as though belonging to the painted set of a play. Being a painter myself, I’m invigorated by his freedom with color. Greens, oranges, pinks, reds, and pure blacks dash across panels, unabashed. Snakes spit fire. Mountains stand in shades of Pepto Bismol. Flowers seem to have their own visible auras. Even in his monochromatic ink projects, figures are bold and gesticulating, disinterested in stagnancy; negative space holds its own electricity. In his latest, a graphic, street art aesthetic is on display. A figure named DYSTOPIA sprays a brick wall: “COVID 19”.
At one point, Joaquim takes out his phone and shows me one of his newer works: a birthday gift for a friend.
S: You work very much on a flat plane.
J: Yeah. Actually yeah. Definitely.
S: Where do you think that comes from? Do you think that’s just, like, how you think about painting?
J: I feel like...I guess part of it is that I did print-making for a while. Like a lot more than I painted. So, I guess thinking in layers [is a part of it.] And I guess, sort of deviating from the flat part: kind of thinking about music, like electronic music. Like on the computer, you have rows...like your instruments are basically in a row, stacked on top of each other.
S: Yeah, yeah.
J: So I guess that kind of ties into the flatness. But I guess, also, now there’s something—well, I’m not sure actually, but there’s a painting I started—I get, I dunno, it’s very flat, but has its own space. The space is created by the arrangement of things even if the perspectives are false. That makes like no sense.
S: No, no. It does. There’s dimensions, even though it's flat. I get it.
J: [laughs] Yeah, no, there’s dimensions. There’s no horizon line in this piece. And then there’s no shadows, there’s no shading, really. And then sometimes when I want to try to make space in the flat I’ll try to—like this one has a river going through it. It winds around from top to bottom, but tapers a little bit [to create that space, even if it's physically impossible]. I dunno I just like to fuck with perspective.
Indeed, there are no cheat codes to Joaquim’s depiction of space; perspective is built without the typical “tricks of the trade”—inky shadows, gooey highlights, sprawling horizon lines and perspective points. There is pure, musical movement in his works, no maps of quiet space, no background nor foreground, only matter. His visual art, in this way, reminds me of painters like Jacob Lawrence, Jammie Holmes, and Peter Saul; those who play with what it means to create and occupy space. Joaquim’s inkling toward layering, too, speaks to his thoroughly multimedia process. Painting ties to printmaking which ties to music which ties back to painting.
We return to music. Being a relatively private ~artist~ with immense stage fright, I can’t help but ask Joaquim about the shows he DJs. He, too, though beloved by his cluster of arty buddies, likens himself an introvert with little hesitation; it’s something that, he finds, can be hard at Oberlin.
I nod. “Yeah, yeah. Very much so. There’s this constant weird pressure here [to network, to perform, to be witnessed as someone who does things]. I get it.” To be a sincerely quiet person at Oberlin can often feel like bending unspoken rules, despite the institution’s reputation for attracting those afflicted with goofiness, freakiness, awkwardness, and a pointed intention to be “out there.” Gawkiness and strange pants can only humble the Obie so much when the competitive allure of LA and NYC leers from a distance.
Joaquim, though more apt to barbeque with a few friends, tells me he doesn’t really get so nervous anymore about his actual live performances—not like at his childhood piano recitals when he’d be, admittedly, “buggin’ out.” Joaquim smiles, struggling a bit with my question of viscerality, the way I lean forward on the table between us, trying to glean just a bit of what it feels like to so actively perform one’s art. “It’s, uh, it’s validating. Definitely.”
S: Do you feel like, DJing, you kind of have—you’re kind of the background of an atmosphere, or do you think you’re “all eyes are on you”? How does it feel?
J: I think it depends on where. I opened for a couple shows at the ‘Sco, just DJing, and I think that’s definitely more background. Like I remember once, I was doing a set and everyone was going super hard...and I felt like, yeah, [somewhere like that] everyone’s paying attention. It was good.
S: It was good?
J: Oh yeah, yeah. It was good. I think part of being a DJ is navigating that consciously.
Another thing I can’t help doing: asking artists if they have a moment where things seem to shift for them, when they felt invigorated by their place in a medium and the way they understand what they’re “into.”
J: Oberlin had kind of an overnight program for [high school] Juniors. And it was on Thursday, Friday, Saturday. And I went. And I had a friend who I stayed with and knew. And do you know [electronic artist] Yaeji? She did a set at the ‘Sco.
S: Oh wow!
J: Literally when I was touring. And it was before she got famous. And I was like, ‘whoa.’ This blew my mind. And I was like alright I know I want to do more electronic music. ‘Cause I was just, y’know, fucking around...I was what, sixteen? Everyone was making beats in Logic. And my beats were nothing special...they were pretty terrible [laughs]...but I was like: I feel like I can do this.
My hour with Joaquim was warm and frank. His sincerity as an artist is what makes a place like Oberlin one to occupy. And I think he and I are on the same page about this. Friendship and collective creation—as well as just hanging out, swapping non-sequiturs, consuming legal substances—is what keeps the strange bubble that is Oberlin alight with something all its own, even when (often warranted) cynicism beckons.
Joaquim Stevenson-Rodriguez—or DJ Sour—can be found on Instagram @stevensonrodriguez8 and Bandcamp @djsour.bandcamp.com. His next DJ set is a rave featuring DJ Thank You, Le Milieu, and Lysol, on July 16th in Oberlin.