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Joan Shogren: The Hidden Figure of Computer Art

It is an honour for us here at Sometimes Gallery to share this wonderfully researched text by Brad Fregger, shining a light on an unknown figure of digital art history. We had the honour to interview Brad on the Sometimes Show.


When one thinks about the pioneers of the computer industry the name Joan Shogren never comes up. But, if you know the true history of computer art you very well may have run across Joan's name on the Internet. Joan was the primary pioneer to two very important and long-lasting areas of computer art.


In the Spring of 1963, just before Easter break, Joan was discussing computer potential with graduate student Jim Larson, and suggested that computers should be able to "design a picture." They presented the idea to Dr. Ralph Fessenden, assistant professor of chemistry, and they began work on the project immediately. Joan provided the "rules" of art and Ralph and Jim translated them into computer lingo.


"It was Mrs. Shogren who thought up the whole idea in the first place." (Chemists Turn "Electronic Artisits" at SJS, Spartan Daily, May 3, 1963)


"The idea came from Mrs. Joan Shogren, secretary in the Chemistry Department, who persuaded a graduate student and computer programmer named Jim Larson to work up a way to instruct the computer in art. (Art by the Numbers, San Jose Mercury News, May 4, 1963)


On April 17, 1966 the San Jose Mercury News did a followup article, "Computer's Invading Art World," by Vicki Reed, featuring Joan and her contributions to computer art. In the article Vicki provides more information concerning the critical nature of Joan's contribution to the project. "Cybernation broke through into the world of artistic revelation with flying colors, based on Mrs. Shogren's outlining 'laws' of art, and Dr. Fessenden with Larson translating them into computer linguistics."



Ms. Reed then went on to quote Joan, " 'Our first results were very crude, primitive. Now the computer is much more sophisticated,' she says, proud and happy."

"With a pixie smile she continues her argument that indeed Computer Art is art, 'what the computer produces comes out on a sheet of paper to be artistically and individually interpreted by the technician.' ..."


"With science and math as the subjects, she has produced (in addition to the art) a number of collages, assemblages and sculptures."


Joan's initial concept and following efforts resulted in the world's first public showing of computer art.


On May 6, 1963 Joan had the very first showing of computer art at the San Jose State Spartan Book Store.