How do you experience light? Over the course of the past few months, my attention has been focused on a small patch of the dense woods visible from the side window of the house. I am fascinated by the play of sunlight on the base of conifer tree trunks and lower, draping branches of a cedar tree before reaching the forest floor littered with dead branches, leaves and rocks. Sunlight does not simply flood through the thick forest canopy. It penetrates through narrow spaces before harmoniously spilling on this small patch. Each day the light takes on distinctive shades. Sometimes the shades are soft, other times the light has a golden, honey quality to it. At different hours the light is various shades of contrasting white, or there is a silver clarity contrasting with shadows. This richness of tones of brightness also either deepens or softens the interior shadows as the hours wax and wane. Most intriguing to me is that on no two days are the weavings of shadows and light identical.
In his 1918 painting Interior with a Violin (Room at Hôtel Beau-Rivage), Matisse captured light by painting in black. The black works in the painting, doesn’t jump out at us, because in the composition Matisse created a harmony and balance through simplified forms. In other words, the viewer experiences light as a subtle, indirect force that is delicately balanced within the scene.
Look closely at the paintings by Janet Vanderhoof and one experiences light in the contrast of bright colors, particularly red. Light radiates thinly through her cityscapes. Allow your eyes to linger and you discover how the light shifts, moving among the pedestrians in a crosswalk, reflecting and refracting through the streets of Chinatown, or is held in the petals of flowers.
In Janet’s paintings, as in Matisse’s and Edward Hopper’s work, there is an absence of unnecessary elements. The viewer’s eyes are free to roam. As the eyes travel over the canvas, a careful viewer will experience how the bright colors create a dichotomy that animates the scene. In part, this animation comes from the physical movements of the people in the environment of the cityscapes. As in Hopper’s works, there is a psychological tension that animates Janet’s paintings of people going about the routines of daily life. That tension is rooted in their solitariness, the divides of self-constructed barriers that separate people. Look carefully at the figures held in suspended animation moving through the crosswalk in “Twitter Followers”. They are closed off from one another even as they share a common path. There is another element weaving through Janet’s paintings as subtle as the light she captures. This is her faith. Examine closely her painting “The Empty Chair, for example. There is a sense of community, participation in, if not a common meal, a communion of sorts. Her faith is also articulated by the warmth of the colors she has elected to work with.
Whether we are looking at a cityscape or a landscape, Janet’s paintings invite the viewer to compose stories with her. It is the story that interests her. Those stories are as essential as the aesthetic construction in her paintings. They are as essential as the movement of light.
Q: There is an interesting story that you have told about how your father met your mother in France. Would you mind repeating that here?
A: At a very young age I always had a story to tell that I would repeat as if it was a script in a movie. This story started before I was born and included this event of how my father met my mother. It always delighted me to tell others. I found it so romantic and wonderful. My father was in the Army and had been stationed in Italy during WWII. Prior to his return to the US, he furloughed in Paris. My father was immediately attracted to my mother when she exited the Metro in front of the Opera in Paris. Although, he tried to get her attention and desired to have a cup of coffee with her, she was not amused. Even after being rejected he followed her to her apartment as she refused to communicate with him. Since she only spoke French and my father only spoke a few words of the language, this was easily done. On returning home, she closed the door behind him only to find him waiting, as she left her apartment with her sister. Luckily, my aunt instantly liked my father and talked my mother into letting him go to the café with them. One thing led to another and my mother ended up falling in love with my father and three months later they were married in Paris. My father had to return home without her, while my mother took the next government ship with other War Brides to meet him. She left her family in France and became a US citizen. I loved this story; it reminds me of a movie. I believed everyone should have a story and I was fortunate to have this one. I would wonder what the chances were that my father wouldn’t have met my mother and I wouldn’t have been born. It taught me there is a certain amount of fate in life, a predetermined destiny.
Q: Because your father was in the military, you moved around a great deal. How did those years influence you creatively? Were either of your parents artistically inclined?
A I was born in Frankfurt, Germany, where my father had been stationed for a year. We returned to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey to live until I was three. The next move I believe made an impact on my creativity. We had moved to Adak, Alaska to live for the next two years. My father was in the Army Signal Corp. I believe he was stationed there to listen to the Russian airwaves. Adak is an island on the furthest end of the Aleutian Islands. I remember my father meeting us as we got off the battleship, seeing large chunks of ice floating in the water and my father in a fur-trimmed parka, ready to take us to our Quonset hut in his jeep. As you can see I have strong visual memories and again I found it very romantic. For the next two years I was totally immersed in nature. It is there where I feel my love of nature is found in my current paintings as well as the love of open space although they had no trees. Upon my return to California, I remember falling in love with trees, especially the oaks and eucalyptus and my desire to paint them.
I do believe that I had a lot of life experiences that were very visual and not common to most children at this young age. It made me worldly and enhanced my visual life and tastes.
My mother’s brother was an artist and my sister as well is talented in drawing skills. As for my mother, she was able to sew or knit anything and my father loved photography. I would watch my father develop photos in his makeshift studio in the kitchen. He had quite an eye.
Q: Your father passed away when you were nine years old. That is a difficult age to lose a parent. How do you think that changed you and affected your role as both a parent and your pursuit of a career as an artist?
A: Yes, it was very difficult. In 1960 my father had just come back from Vietnam. He had been stationed in Saigon to set up communications for the upcoming war. I had been without him for a year. I could see that being in Vietnam had changed him. Even at a young age I could sense the stress and pain that occurred from being there. It ended up being too much for his heart. Three months after his return he died of a massive heart attack at 40 years old. I had the shock of seeing my father die. Prior to my father dying I felt very secure and confident. After I felt like the rug had been pulled from underneath me. Everything I knew to be as true was no longer true. I was forced to be an adult at nine years old. I became a problem solver, independent and resourceful, since my mother had to go back to work and I was left alone most of the time to take care of myself. I was taught to become a survivor like my mother and my choices of my career and desires were always based on being able to take care of myself as well as provide for myself, thus art took a back burner. It was only later after I had my children that I was able to pursue art. As far as how it affected my parenting, I made sure I was always there for my children. I believe parenting is so important and that your children should be well provided for emotionally, physically and mentally. It was paramount that my children discover their own dreams and to know that they can do anything they put their minds to.
Q: Based on your experience, what advice do you have for those who find themselves deterred from their desire to be creatively expressive because of family or other difficult circumstances?
A: I wish I had used my creative expression to heal after my father died. Even if you are not using this creative expression as a career, it needs to be expressed. In fact, I realize that not expressing it can cause all sorts of problems physically or emotionally. If you have the gift it needs to be shared. By not expressing this gift, you will continue to find frustration. It currently has helped me through very difficult times.
Q: Your mother’s experience during the Second World War was, to use your words, “survival orientated.” How has that influenced your art in terms of expressing yourself and marketing your work?
A: Now there is a positive and a negative to being survival oriented. The negative is that I may take fewer risks with my art. I push myself to take chances and explore different avenues instead of taking the safe route with my creativity, which isn’t always easy. I know that it can be my downfall. The positive side is I am goal oriented in productivity and focused on marketing my art. I treat creating art as a business, not a hobby. I avoid the stereotypical view of the “starving artist”; I have been taught the practicality of money.
Q: What brought you to art? To put this in another way, who or what inspired you to express yourself creatively?
A: My sister would always draw; her art resembled Matisse and Picasso’s style. I found it fascinating and inspired me to draw, as well. She is quite talented. At school, drawing and art always came naturally to me. I do remember most of my peers felt I was an artist before I did. They would often nominate me to do the murals for the prom and school events.
Q: Though you refer to your work as “Modern Impressionism,” Fauvism is your primary influence. Among this group, whom Louis Vauxcelles referred to as the Fauves (“wild beasts”), we find Henri Matisse, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Kees van Dongen. Their use of color is bold and dramatic. There is an expressive value to their strokes. Was it their high keyed colors and the quality of their brush strokes, besides the scenes they captured, or something more that attracted you to their work? Do you recall your first visit to a museum or art gallery?
A: I was certainly attracted to their use of color, since color is my first love. But I was also attracted to the emotions created by using the color expressionistically. I never felt a need to use local color in my paintings. The Fauves reinforced this belief of painting how the object made you feel, not what it actually was. I admired the Fauves strong sense of design and powerful compositions of which I always strive for.
The most memorable and exciting visit to an art museum was at the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris. I was in my early twenties. The museum housed important Impressionist works now housed in the Musee d’Orsay. The art spoke to me and immediately satisfied my sensibilities of taste in art, which now carries over into my work today.
Q: You were also influenced by the School of Color and Light and the German Expressionists. Do you recall the first time you saw the work that came out of these schools and your response to paintings by these artists?
A: I was first attracted to the mud heads inspired by Hawthorne’s teachings. He would send his group of students to the beach and have them paint a figure backlit. They were only allowed to use a large trowel to create the painting, forcing them to be loose. I loved the raw large shapes using the correct color to represent the exact value. Their choice of color was based on the relationships created from one color next to each other, creating the key and atmosphere of the day. I had taken some plein air classes with Camille Przewodek. Although, I do not prefer plein air painting, practicing this method has helped me create light and atmosphere in my studio paintings.
I first remember seeing the German Expressionists, The Blue Rider group, in books I found at the library when I started on my journey to become an artist. Their paintings had a tendency to be moody and somber. Also, their use of color was symbolic, each color representing a mood or instrument. I loved their spontaneity with the desire to express how they feel being their main focus.
Q: You have written, “Learning the rules of good composition is important, but in the end you must make a decision for yourself.” Who were the art teachers that influenced your creative development?
A: I had no interest in taking the academic route to studying art, although I read many books on my own about the artists I love. I already had a degree in Speech Pathology. My desire was to learn from the best and actively be learning the craft. In the beginning I did attend a local junior college, taking all their classes available, except sculpture. It was a great way to study the basics of color, design, drawing and painting. At the same time I was also taking private lessons for two years with Diane Wallace, who is local to the area. She is an excellent teacher in regards to color and composition. I then studied painting and life drawing with George de Groat in Carmel, California for two years. George taught me more about the body in one lesson than I could learn in two years at college.
Color became very important to me and I wanted to enhance this aspect of my work. Mike Linstrom was pivotal in my increased knowledge of color, and color composition. Since I also love to paint bright colors, he also taught me the importance of neutrals. Mike also introduced me to Camille Przewodek who was from the School of Color and Light. In addition, I have taken workshops with Charles Movalli, Charles Sovek and many others. I had some wonderful teachers of which I highly regard and welcome their influences.
Q: On your website you have a quote from the caricaturist Al Hirshfield. “Artists are just children who refuse to put down their crayons.” In your art, what is the role of a “childlike” openness to life, a willingness to explore and be imaginative?
A: I have never wanted to draw or paint realistically. Might as well take a photo. I am always open to creating in new ways and looking at things differently. I will continue to explore and discover new ways of expressing myself. I always allow a certain amount of play in my creating that is restrained with knowledge and the ability to make rules that are broken work.
Q: Your paintings reveal a diversity of interests and topics. It is as if you are taking those who view your art on an emotional life journey. Most artists limit the scope of subjects and interest. You give yourself wide latitude. To what do you attribute this diversity?
A: From day one I told myself that in order for me to grow, I must learn how to use a variety of pallets and subject matter. I tend to do a series when painting, focusing on one subject. In doing that I have grown in many ways. Submersing myself in a variety of subjects and color has enabled me to be a better artist. I guess I want to be able to paint anything and not be limited by lack of knowledge.
Q: You have written, “I have painted many series from horses, flowers, people, still life, etc., but I do believe that I will always be known for my color.” Experimentation is an essential aspect of discovery. Having fallen in love with color before kindergarten, when your mother gave you a box of crayons, you have said that color is “the emotional force behind all my paintings.” How did that gift of crayons shape your sensibility of and to color, shape, line and contrast? How important does experimentation with color remain to your creative process?
A: Color is the emotional life force in my painting. Frankly, as I have said before, if I didn’t have color, I would have no need to be an artist. Color is like music; it involves an endless amount of notes that can be arranged in a limitless amount of ways. I explore a variety of pallets with my sole intention to wow the viewer. I love hearing I have never seen these colors together before. Colors have personalities like humans, and I am fascinated by these relationships created in an environment. I remember this exploration first started with a box of 64 color Crayola crayons, which included colors such as magenta, apricot, burnt sienna. It was the beginning of my ability to mix and match colors that had similar names to some of the paint colors used today. Crayola was the only brand I would use. Even then I was concerned with the quality of my materials.
Q: In Jacques Rivière’s essay, Present Tendencies in Painting, he observed that the cubists’ painters were asking questions about what must be put in place of lighting and perspective. When you are painting, do you find yourself thinking along those lines, say of “renouncing light” or even adding light to capture the essence and permanence of the person or object you are painting?
A: Yes, sometimes I use light as a light source and others times I use light as a compositional component. In the end what is always more important to me is the composition and the impact the light creates. You can always make up a reason why the light is a certain way.
Q: Faith and spirituality are important aspects of your life. In one of your essays you stated, “Remember what are your intentions? Is it to be right or righteous or is it to have love as the outcome? Let that be your barometer. Is your intention of love? Is it selfish or selfless? When you hear yourself say, what about me, you miss the mark.” How do these questions guide your creative expression as a painter, a poet and a writer? Is painting a form of spiritual exercise for you? Can it be compared to Saint Ignatius or other spiritual meditative exercises?
A: Faith and spirituality are very important to me. In fact, it was my spiritual journey that began my quest to become an artist. I always begin my paintings with an inspiration and I do believe they come from a higher place. There are moments when I create that feels as if I am channeling an energy that is beyond my own. I become the watcher. I totally lose myself. I lose the concept of time. I find myself in another dimension that allows for all possibilities. This happens at times when I am open to the spirit and less attached to the outcome as well as relinquishing control. I find myself in that space of receiving and co-creating. This doesn’t happen every time, but ideally this is the most desirable. I hope the viewer can feel this intention and also find it very healing when viewing my art.
Q: How has having a child with Down syndrome influenced your creativity?
A: In imperfection there can be so much beauty. Blake has allowed me to be imperfect and be all right with it. He has made me realize there is no such thing as perfection and gives me permission to be fearless when creating. After having Blake I realized that I needed to follow my dreams and not be afraid to do so. I needed this courage, especially since I started to become an artist at such a late age.
Q: There is a great deal of psychology in Edward Hopper’s work, just as there is in your own. And like Hopper, you seem disinterested in the symbolic effects, expressing what you perceive in a direct and uncomplicated manner. You keep the loneliness and isolation, the absence of communication and communion, the psychological tension right on the surface of your work just as Hopper did. In other words, there is an absence of symbolism, but a wealth of meaning. The difference between your work and Hopper’s is that in your work there is a possibility for that isolation to be broken, more of a sense of a communal experience. There is an introspective element to your work, but there is an extrovert’s hope rooted in your faith. And your faith is finding expression in the colors you use that express warmth. Would you agree with this assessment? Are you challenging the viewer’s perception of her or himself in the environment you paint?
A: Yes, there is a “possibility for that isolation to be broken”. I am always looking for hope in the painting as well as compassion. My colors also express that hope through their brightness. I take great care when developing the composition. I do like to eliminate anything that is frivolous or doesn’t lend to the composition. By doing this I feel my work is honest and upfront. Hopefully, I challenge the viewer to see beauty in unlikely subject matter and by simplifying my work it forces them to connect to the subject. There is nothing better than to have the viewer step into the painting, not in a realistic way but a psychological way, whether it brings up a memory or an awareness. The less elements to distract the viewer the better, plus I believe it gives the painting a more dramatic impact.
Q: Your painting “The Empty Chair” seems to invoke Hopper’s 1942 painting “Nighthawks.” Unlike Hopper, your cityscapes often raise a sense, if not the possibility of community and human interaction, rather than isolation. There is also a sense of movement rather than inertia. In part this sense of connectedness between people is due to your use of color, which tends to be vibrant. How much of an influence was Hopper on your development?
A: Well I do feel in most of my cityscapes there is always a sense of being alone in a crowd. So often in real life, we can be ignored and unseen no matter what we are doing. I am also interested in the story of each individual I paint and how they juxtapose each other in a crowd. Questions such as “What are they thinking?” “Where are they going?” or “What is their story?” come to mind when I am painting. Just as characters in a book are written and come to life, I feel my characters also have a life of their own. My trees in my landscapes are like people as well with their own stories to tell. I have been told often that my work resembles Hopper’s. I love his work, but never intended my work to be like his. I guess we are kindred spirits.
Q: In your painting “It’s Not Kiki’s Market, II” there is a lot of color and contrast that captures shopping in Chinatown. In “Twitter Followers,” the movement is stiff, the subjects are marching, they seem almost unconscious to their environment. They move in solitary absorption. When you create these paintings, how immersed do you allow your senses to be to enter into a scene prior to and during the painting process? Are you emotionally responding to the nature of the moment?
A: I don’t separate myself from the person. I am a very empathetic person in nature. I become one with the people I paint as well as I want to hear what they have to say, even when most people wouldn’t listen. And it is for that reason I paint the common person. Emotion is an integral part of my paintings. I always respond emotionally to the painting as I paint in reaction to the subject, action and most of all color.
Q:: What is your preferred method of working; plein air or in the studio working from either photographs or sketches you have made of scenes for a possible painting?
A: I’m a studio painter. I do not enjoy painting plein air. I do enjoy manipulating the scene from photographs that I take. I do take the photographs with the intention of a certain subject or composition. I take many photos and combine and subtract from the photos as well as change the color pallet and lighting. The photograph is the jump off point but it isn’t copied. Usually the process starts in my mind of which I tend to paint the painting in my mind many times before I start. I have to build up the feeling and the intention first. It’s as if I am practicing choreography for a musical. Then when I am ready, the energy explodes and flies on the canvas. Then the painting tells me what it wants to be.
Q: What is the purpose of art?
A: For me the purpose of art is to express beauty, to heal, to take the viewer on a journey of exploration and discovery and to experience the sublime.
Q: It seems that today, with the proliferation of B.F.A. and M.F.A. programs that the emphasis falls on learning techniques of art; reducing art to a commodity, rather than a deeper expression of one’s own voice in interpreting the world around us. Picasso has observed that “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” If you were afforded the opportunity to address a convention of artist students, their families, what would you say to them?
A: Well I do believe you hit on something when mentioning expressing your own voice. In an ideal world it is desirable to explore your own voice. I would say that don’t let the academic aspect of the craft influence you to the point where your paintings don’t become identifiable as your own. You can be influenced, but as soon as your paintings become a replica of someone else’s you have lost the point of creating. Just as you are an original so is your ability to have a voice that is unique to all other artists. It is only in that uniqueness that you will truly discover the ultimate in creating. Our job is to be the poet, the preacher, to enhance the vibration of the world by our creations.
Twitter Followers, Empty Chair, Gauguin In Hanalei © Janet Vanderhoof – All Rights Reserved
Janet and Blake Vanderhoof, Photo by Lora Schraft, Gilroy Dispatch, permission to use granted by the Gilroy Dispatch
See more of Janet Vanderhoof’s art at her website janetvanderhoof.com
Recent Charles van Heck Articles:
- The Importance of Color and the Composition of Light: An Interview With Janet Vanderhoof
- Dispatches From Mayne Island: Lessons on Life, Death and Leadership
- Dispatches From Mayne Island, Part Two: Conversing with Stevens, Einstein and Carr
- Dispatches From Mayne Island: Meditations on the Writings and Paintings of Emily Carr - Part One, Possession
- Intimate Stories from a Two-chambered Heart: An Interview with Roberta Murray