Joan was born in Jamaica, West Indies to American parents who had long ties to Wellfleet. She came to the US to study in the 1950s and received a B.A. in illustration and art education at the Rhode Island School of Design and later received a M.F.A. in painting from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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Much of her early work is informed by the aesthetics of abstract gesture painting and it often takes landscape as its subject.

In the early 1980s, she turned to memories of her childhood in the Caribbean in her paintings: from remembered gardens, to women at markets, to still life compositions that recall the saturated color of the tropics. Imagination and personal association are at the heart of her images.

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