As the daughter of Hamilton booksellers Blackwood and Janet Paul, Joanna Margaret Paul was surrounded by a vibrant cultural milieu from an early age. In 1967 she enrolled at Elam, studying under Colin McCahon, Greer Twiss and Tom Hutchins, and graduated in 1969. Paul married Dunedin artist Jeffrey Harris in 1971 (later divorcing, in 1984) and began writing poetry and making experimental short films. The couple had four children, the second of which, a daughter named Imogen Rose, died in infancy in 1976. This event was the genesis of Paul’s poetic sequence Imogen, which contains the phrase “a shape to part the space.” This concept is also an apt description of her watercolours, with their eccentric anamorphic distortions and foregrounded explosions of colour.
Paul received a Frances Hodgkins Fellowship in 1983, and the exhibition A Chronology, a survey of her work, was shown at Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery in 1989. Paul was also awarded the Rita Angus residency in 1993. Despite these accomplishments, she lived her life in the margins, on the most basic of means. Her 2000 marriage to Palmerston North architect Peter Harrison, met through the Quaker community, marked a happy period in the final three years of her life.