Remember how Joey on Dawson's Creek was obsessed with art? We critique her portfolio

Dawson's Creek turns 20 this week, so we're saluting Capeside's greatest artist — who's not Michelle Williams.

Dawson's Creek turns 20 this week, so we're saluting Capeside's greatest artist — who's not Michelle Williams

Joey Potter was supposed to be the greatest artist that Capeside, Mass. had ever seen. Then she went into publishing or something? (The WB)

Dawson's Creek premiered 20 years ago this weekend, and for six seasons, viewers followed the unusually self-aware journey of four teenagers from a generic seaside town.

More emotionally centred than the soapier hits of the early half of the '90s — think 90210 or Melrose PlaceDawson's Creek was softer, gentler and more likely to produce touchstone moments like this one.

And its hero, per the title, was Dawson (James Van Der Beek), a Spielberg-obsessed nerd who dreams of making movies.

He's running a TV show by the series finale. (The aggressively meta, The Creek.) But this article isn't about him, for once. It's about the true, unsung artist of Capeside, Massachusetts: Joey Potter.

I'm not talking about her singing, so we're clear — nothing's ever going to excuse this cover of "On My Own," or this one of "Daydream Believer" or "I Hate Myself For Loving You" featuring guest artist Chad Michael Murray.

Early in Season 2, Joey declares that art is her one true passion, and while it becomes her most defining character trait, second only to talking out of the side of her mouth, the writers forget about it somewhere around Season 4, as if her entire personality just ghosted.

And you thought sailing off with Pacey was a twist.

I've rounded up a bunch of Joey's artwork from the show. It's the portfolio she could have submitted to Worthington University's fine arts program, and two experts are going to give her the crit that never appeared on the show.

Lauren Tamaki is an acclaimed illustrator and animator and lover of pop culture. Raised in Calgary but based between New York and Toronto, her work appears in the New York Times and GQ, and she's coming at this reading with the cool, objective distance of a "casual" fan. 

"I watched it when it was first on TV," Tamaki admits. "I didn't connect to the all-white cast and their problems but it was something to do! I loved Michelle Williams's character Jen (I always prefer a Veronica over a Betty)."

Salini Perera is a Toronto-based illustrator whose 2017 series, Misspent Youth, pays tribute to '90s movie and TV icons from Clueless to A Different World. A Creek fan since childhood, she claims she predicted true love for Joey and Pacey way back in Season One. "My sister and I had a bet going."

To paraphrase Paula Cole, "I don't wanna wait" any longer. It's time to read Joey Potter.

Season 2, Episode 4 - "Tamara's Return"

Birth of a (fictional) genius?

This is really the first episode where anyone realizes that Joey's interested in art, including Joey herself, and the writers set it up in a big way. It's something that connects her to her dead mother, a self-taught artist. Plus, Joey declares that it's the first real passion she's ever had. It's such a big deal that by the end of the episode, Joey breaks up with Dawson so she can chase her graphite-smudged dreams.

The whole thing starts when Joey and Dawson check out a lecture about an abstract expressionist painter named Jarvis. Don't bother Googling it. The writers made him up just for the episode.  Afterward, Laura, the woman giving the talk, invites Joey to audit one of her classes.

Joey's shy about it, because Joey. "I'm afraid my artistic skills peaked in the 3rd grade," she mews. But Laura encourages her to show up anyway: "You don't have to be Picasso, just willing."

And willing to draw fruit, she certainly is.

Here's the drawing Joey does in class

The review

Says Perera: "For someone who says that they haven't drawn since the third grade, this seems a bit disingenuous."

Tamaki's take: "Good observation skills here, Joey! I'm seeing the start of some good form language here but everything seems to be too even: the apple is the same texture as the vessel, the fruits are melding together."

Tamaki's final comment: "Push your lights and darks next time."

What the show has to say

LAURA: "I may not be a great artist, but I like to think that I have an eye. And my eye says that you're good."

Laura the art teacher really piles on the compliments during the episode, and Joey's not even paying for the class. This chunk of dialogue is just how she gets her pep talk started.

LAURA: "I'm onto you, Joey."

JOEY: "What do you mean?"

LAURA: "How many other talents have you been hiding from me?"

JOEY: "Please, it's an apple and a banana. It's hardly the second coming."

LAURA: "You can be as self-depreciating as you want. It doesn't change the fact that you're a natural. You, my friend, have a gift."

"Laura is being really nice here," writes Tamaki. "'Gift' is going a bit far."

Says Perera: "It looks like a high school assignment. It certainly looks like a bowl of fruit. I'd give it an A."

But wait, there's more! Joey's busy in this episode, and she squeezes in one more class assignment before we fade to the credits.

A few scenes prior, Joey and Dawson have a minor blowup. Dawson calls Joey's sketching a "hobby," not a passion — like his thing for making short films about himself. So, Joey storms off, realizing they've got a major problem with reciprocity. She's spent her entire life to this point listening to his delusions of Spielbergian grandeur, and dude can't get it through his thick forehead that she has passions too.

So when Joey gives Dawson this drawing, she breaks things down. The portrait, she explains, was for class. The assignment: "Draw what's important to me. What inspires me. What I love — and this is the only thing I could think of."

Rightfully bummed with herself, and now suddenly dedicated to following her dreams — art? —Joey gives Dawson the drawing and breaks up with him. Cue sad hug and a Lilith Fair slow jam.

The portrait

The review

Tamaki's take: "I see this as an attempt at capturing your friend Dawson. Or is it your boyfriend? I can't keep track of you crazy kids."

"Good try! Likenesses are very hard and I commend your attempt. Things are looking a bit 'mushy' here — you're being too hesitant with your mark making."

Adds Perera: "I would have avoided drawing him in profile. That is a lot of forehead."

Tamaki's final word: "Push your lights and darks next time."

Season 2, Episode 10 - "High Risk Behavior"

Good for Joey, she's still taking art class, and she and Dawson dish a little about her latest assignment: live sketching nude models.

Dawson teases Joey a bit, which is weird. He also calls her "Little Joey Potter" a bunch, which is weirder.

DAWSON: "Little Joey Potter doesn't blush? Not even a little."

JOEY: "OK, I've broken 12 pencils. But it's getting better."

Here's that too-hot-for-high-school drawing

The review

Says Tamaki: "Interesting! I'm forced to wonder if this is a deliberate nod to the rigid forms of de Kooning — or maybe you haven't seen a naked man before?"

Perera's thoughts: "12 pencils seems a little much. This looks like a Ken doll. I don't think this is actually from life. I think this might be the worst one."

Parting shot from Tamaki: "Push your lights and darks next time."

What the show has to say

Joey's new friend Jack, who doesn't study art but magically knows a hell of a lot about it, is very excited about the sketch.

JACK: "Wow! It's a good use of light and dark, especially around the side. It's very dramatic. Shading's excellent. Lines are strong. Everything seems to be in proportion."

Tamaki's take: "I disagree with Jack's assessment of lights and darks."

Jack's advice isn't useful, but his junk definitely is.

To make up for destroying her homework, Jack volunteers to pose in the nude so Joey can get her homework in on time, which is a little extra, but this is the WB and somebody in the writers' room really wanted to do a Titanic homage.

While Joey tries not to get lead poisoning from all the pencils she must be breaking, they talk about the things that scare them — art! sex! — before eventually making out a little because there are still a few episodes to go before Jack comes out of the closet.

Besides plenty of sexual frustration, here's what comes out of their magical evening together

The review

Says Perera: "No, THIS is the worst one. I actually remember this episode. The pose is so bizarre, with his weird, dead eyes — she's captured his intense discomfort." 

"It looks like it was drawn by a completely different production artist. Why are the couch cushions bulging up like that?"

Tamaki's reading: "I think this is a step back, Joey. I appreciate the detail on the couch cushions, though."

"I feel that television fetishizes life drawing," says Perera — and this article doesn't even cover the episode where Rachel Leigh Cook plays the class model! "It's never this big of a deal."

Adds Tamaki: "Push your lights and darks next time."

Season 3, Episode 15 - "Crime & Punishment"

It's been a minute since we last dropped in on art class, but Joey seems to still be into it since she's painting a new mural at Capeside High.

The assignment: represent "school spirit and unity," and at the big unveiling event, she tells the entire student body that the theme of her design is something that that unites them all more than any Paula Cole song ever could — "possibility."

This one seems to have a lot of emotional heft for Joey, and she talks about it with Pacey a bit, telling him that when people look at it, it'll be like they're "looking right into my soul."

What they shall find there is tattoo flash art from 1998.


The review

Says Tamaki: "I like how big this is! But the best art comes from life experiences, Joey. This has a strong whiff of cultural appropriation. Do you even know any Chinese people?"

Adds Perera: "Oh, LORD. There is so much wrong with this one. I forgot how trendy it was to appropriate Chinese culture in the '90s. This is an embarrassing reminder."

One last tip from Tamaki: "Push your lights and darks next time."

What the show has to say

Pacey's got some real talk for Joey at the beginning of the episode, while he watches her put the finishing touches on the mural.

PACEY: "No offence, but this looks like something you'd find tattooed on Kwai Chang Caine's forehead."

JOEY: "You don't like it." 

PACEY: "I didn't say I didn't like it I'm...Pretty sure the rest of the murals, will be a little more traditional but..."

JOEY: "What, like football players and lighthouses? And what do they actually say about the high school experience?" 

PACEY: "Jo, this is the U.S. of A. We're a very prosaic nation, and when we have art in public places we want it to be about as subtle as Godzilla."

Tamaki's reaction: "Agree. Look up Diego Rivera and then we'll talk, Joey."

Perera's take: "This mural is problematic, but instead of calling her out for that, Pacey's reaction is somehow more racist? Gross."

And because actions speak louder than words, there's also this — not so much a review as straight-up vandalism. Joey's mural is destroyed before it's unveiled.

Says Tamaki: "This looks awesome. Now THAT'S mark making! [slow clap]"

Perera: "This is an improvement."

Season 5, Episode 17 - "Highway to Hell"

Dawson's mom is throwing a birthday party for baby Lily. Joey's gift? A sketchbook featuring hand-drawn portraits of the family. Joey's at college studying English and swooning over Professor Ken Marino by this point, and since her artwork hasn't really popped up since Season 3, it'd be fair to think her dream was completely obliterated by that high-school vandal way back when. It didn't even matter that Pacey, weirdo dreamboat that he is, rented her a wall in Season 3, Episode 16, for a do-over.

But no! Looks like Joey's still drawing, and giving the painter from the Family Ties opening credits a run for his money.

The review

"I feel like Joey's drawings are like the Sears Portrait Studio of Art," says Perera.

Tamaki's feedback: "Your likenesses have come a long way, Joey! You're even capturing the unique proportions of your friend's forehead!"

"But the compositions could be more dynamic and you have yet to really COMMIT to the way you apply the graphite."

Final comment: "Push your lights and darks next time. I won't say it again."


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.