Radio Maine Episode 26

Jean Jack

Barn Beauty Artist Jean Jack has earned a reputation for her unique, and now iconic, rendition of New England-style farmhouses and barns. Although she had no personal experience growing up in or around these structures, she found herself mesmerized by a particular farmhouse in Connecticut while in the early stages of her artistic career. After surreptitiously photographing this structure, she painted her own version and entered it in a competition at the famed Silvermine School of Art in New Canaan, Connecticut. Her competition win affirmed her passion for the subject matter. While subsequently living in Santa Fe, New Mexico she continued to trek hours to America’s farming heartland for inspiration. In addition to pursuing her art, including time spent operating her own art and antique gallery, Jean spent years traveling around the country, supporting her husband’s military service and career and raising four children. She and her husband, Claude, eventually settled here in Maine. Learn more about Jean’s creative journey through her conversation with Dr. Lisa Belisle on this week’s episode of Radio Maine.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching Radio Maine. Today, I have with me, my friend and also artist from the Portland Art Gallery, Jean Jack. Thanks for coming in today. 

 Jean Jack:

Thank you.

 Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Jean, you are known for paintings of barns. This painting we have behind us in the studio is evidence of your work. It's a lovely barn. Can you describe this piece behind me? 

Jean Jack:

Well, we just saw we were driving around, I think it was in Northern Maine.  This was quite a few years ago. We took this picture of a farmhouse and barn and it was just sitting there and very just lonely looking, which I kind of liked sometimes. And I put water behind it. There wasn't water, it was in a field somewhere, but I had decided to put water behind it and it's just one of my favorites. And actually it was in a gallery in Vermont, well, the owner got sick and his wife got sick and they closed the gallery and it sat there for 10 years. And I kept thinking we've got to go and pick it up, we've got to go pick it up. There were 10 paintings there and we finally picked it up, just maybe a couple of months ago, and that's when I added the water. Actually, there wasn't any water in there before, and I think I had to redo the sky and some of the parts of the house, but it's one of my favorites. I love this painting and I thought I'm so glad I picked this up. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What is it about this particular painting that you love? 

Jean Jack:

I like the farmhouse. Actually I started painting farmhouses before I painted barns and that was really my big love. And then I started painting the barns with the farmhouse, but it was always the old farmhouse that I liked.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So, what is it about the farmhouse or the barn or this kind of lonely by itself in a field kind of picture?

Jean Jack:

When I see something I want to paint, I get the hairs on my arms just stand up, I just get this shock and I think, oh, I've got to paint this. There's a house there that I have painted so many times. I painted in the front, I painted in the back, I painted it on the side and I painted it all white and different colors. And it's just, it just struck me as something I really wanted to paint.  Brooklyn, that is the name of the town. I knew it would come to me at some point.  So that's what I remember. When we lived in Greenwich, I used to go out to Pound Ridge and go around there and photograph things. And the first painting I did of barns was actually in Pound Ridge and they were yellow barns and they were clustered on both sides of the road. 

Jean Jack:

And there was a very sharp curve there and I couldn't find any place to park and I just would wait until nothing was coming on either side of the road and quickly take some pictures, and that painting won some awards and it was in Silvermine, this school that's in Connecticut. That's a very good school and I won. What did I win? I won the Champion Paper first prize. And then an honorable mention for one of my other paintings. So I thought, oh, okay. I think I'm on my way now. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Before you started getting the feeling that these farmhouses, these barns, they kind of electrify you physically and help you to understand what it is you're supposed to be painting. What were your subjects before that? 

Jean Jack:

Well, when we lived in the big house in Greenwich on the water, which was in my husband's family for years, I would do scenes of looking out the window at the water and flowers and fruit and my kitchen. And then I started doing people and when I finally got to the houses, that's when I thought this is what I want to do. The other things somehow stayed with me, I look at them now and I think, mm it's a good thing you moved on to something else. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Is it a usual thing for an artist to go back to a piece that they've done in the past and add water to it or change the colors? Because I think of, you know, you're done, you're done and there you are, but it sounds like you weren't done in this case. 

Jean Jack:

Well, no, sometimes I do that.  but this one, I just felt like it needed a little something more, but when I'm done, I'm done usually, but some, I have exceptions to that, but I don't do that every time I do a painting. That's for sure. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I'm interested in the number of people in your family growing up because it was a pretty good size, right? How many brothers and sisters do you have? 

Jean Jack:

I'm one of nine. And we lived in Massachusetts, in Rockland, Massachusetts, and I had a pretty normal growing up. I was a bit of a tomboy and I used to climb trees and I irritated my brothers as much as I could. And they did the same to me. And when I finished high school, I decided I was going to live in New York. And at one point I just got on the train and I went to New York and I got a job, I got an apartment and that's where I lived. And I thought, I never want to leave New York. But then I met my husband and we got married and he had to go into the army, or he wanted to go into the army and we moved to California. And then I started having children. We came back to New York when he got out of the army and I just thought, I can't do it. I cannot do a brownstone or whatever. I think at that point we had two little babies and  another one maybe on the way. And so we moved out to Greenwich and that's where we want our children to grow up. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Did you have other artists in your family? 

 

Jean Jack:

My oldest brother was a wonderful artist. He was the best artist and he died in a car crash. I think he was in his late twenties when he died. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Oh, that's very young. 

Jean Jack:

I know. And one of the brothers of one of my friends was in that car and he also died. It was terrible. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So was there some feeling that you had that maybe you were carrying on this artistic legacy for him? 

Jean Jack:

No, I actually didn't think I was a good artist or that I'd ever do art. He was so good that I just sort of didn't think about myself in that way. But when I went to New York and I was working during the day, I went to art students league and took classes at night and that's when I started painting. And, well, my classes were all drawings at that point, but I started painting after that. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So how did you get from a place of thinking that you weren't a very good artist to thinking, okay, I can do this for a living, I want to do this?

 Jean Jack:

I think it was when I was in New York, I started going to the museums and looking at art and that's kind of when I thought this is what I want to do. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Did you have that hair standing up on your arms feeling at the museums as well? 

Jean Jack:

No, but I knew I didn't want to work in an office. That was number one. So I was just trying to think of what I would do. But of course then I got married and I was having children. So I had to put everything aside for a while. But then when we came back after Claude got out of the service, I started thinking about my art and I took classes in Greenwich with different people. And as much as I could I painted. But it really wasn't until when we moved to Santa Fe, I mean I entered a lot of shows in Greenwich and I got some awards and things, but when we moved to Santa Fe, I thought, what am I going to do now? 

Jean Jack:

Because I don't really like these houses. I love the houses, but I don't want to paint them. And then I found this church. It was off in Romeroville in New Mexico, which is near Las Vegas, New Mexico. And it down this dirt road. And I thought to myself, should I be doing this, going down this lonely dirt road to photograph a church who knows what's down there, but I just had to do it. So I went and I photographed the church from the side and the back, and then I painted it. And that was a very popular painting. Everybody seemed to love that. So I started there and then I thought, well, I can live in Santa Fe and then I can drive to maybe Iowa and I can find the kind of houses I want to paint there. 

Jean Jack:

So that's what I did. And I would go on these trips, I'd take as many photographs as I could. And then I’d come back and I’d paint them in Santa Fe and I had still painted that church. And actually I'm thinking of doing that church for this show that I'm doing coming up. I haven't done it for a long time. It's just a very simple Adobe church where the old green roof that's sort of falling apart. It's a metal roof. And I think it would be a fun thing for me to do. So I'm looking back a little bit at some of the things I did before. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Is it often that artists will decide to focus solely on buildings, on farmhouses, on churches, on barns? 

Jean Jack:

I don’t know. I was thinking about that because for a while I started doing paintings where the landscape was the biggest part of the painting and the houses were way off in the distance. But the landscape was very minimal and the houses still had more detail. So yes, I think I've always, I don't know. I can't think of anybody that does houses just houses, but I'm sure there are artists that do them. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I know that one of the things that my husband, the art gallery owner, Kevin Thomas, one of the things he likes about your pieces is that they remind him of the Northern Maine farms and his family is from New Brunswick and also from Northern Maine and was a farming family. So there's something that really kind of speaks to his roots, speaks to his foundation. But growing up in Massachusetts, was it similar for you or was there any part of that that was in your background?

Jean Jack:

But I guess I just admired farmhouses that look the way I paint them. So it really didn't have anything to do with my background. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So there's something about them that attracts you and then kind of brings it out to other people who somehow have a connection to it. 

Jean Jack:

Yes because when I was in New Mexico and then I was in that magazine Country Living a couple of times, which totally changed my life, I have to tell you, but I would get letters, emails from people saying, “oh, this reminds me of a farm house I grew up in” and say, you know, “will you paint my house?” and all these different things. So obviously there were people out there that it really hit home somehow to them what I was doing. And that just made me want to do it more, you know, I thought, well, you know, this is what I want to do. And certainly, there are people out there who enjoy it. So I kept doing it, but it's very hard to find houses that I want to paint. It's not like I can just go out the door and I can see a house and think, oh, I'll paint that! No, it takes a while. So that's why I do the same house sometimes a few times in different settings because it's the house that's the most important thing to me. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

When I had moved back to Maine after medical school, there was a farmhouse that was set back from the road and it was in the same town that we live in now. And I remember I would run past this farmhouse and I just had it in my mind, my family is going to live there someday, my family's going to live there someday. 

Jean Jack:

You mean in Yarmouth? 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

In Yarmouth. Yes. And lo and behold, we did. And, there was something very important about, I think connecting, it just had a very New England feel to it, and it just felt very much like home, like something that had me wanting to put my children in it. So, and I know there is a nostalgia around that, that people, they feel like they want to go to Maine or one of the New England states and renovate an old farmhouse and make it into something that their family can live in. 

Jean Jack:

I find more of those kinds of houses in Maine than I do in Vermont and New Hampshire for some reason.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I mean, it kind of goes along with this idea that people feel a really strong connection to Maine. You know, they feel this sense of home,  even if they live here only in the summers, for example, or their families live here in the summers, but there is kind of a feeling of coming home for many people. What is your connection to Maine? 

Jean Jack:

Well, my connection really is that many years ago, well, 2005, I think it was that I was in a gallery in Maine in Damariscotta called the Firehouse Gallery. And I would come for shows, drive from New Mexico to Maine, with my paintings in the back, photographing along the way. So I did a show there and my other connection, I guess, is when I was a child, we used to go to Sebago Lake. You know,  it's funny because every time before we moved here, and I was in Maine, I always felt like, oh, this is where I could live. And that's what happened when we decided to leave New Mexico. After 20 years, Claude said, let’s make a list. Where do you want to live? And I said I want to live in Maine. That's the only place I want to live. So that was that it was settled. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

There was a short list. 

Jean Jack:

Yes, it was very short because when we moved to New Mexico, we had a long list and it was California or a lot of places and Vermont, but we moved to New Mexico. And that was a good thing for us. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Tell me about New Mexico. What was it about Santa Fe that you found so intriguing? 

Jean Jack:

Well, number one, the weather is great there. When we lived in New Mexico, I had a gallery, my own gallery, and I really liked antique furniture with old paint on it. And I had a source for that. So I filled my gallery with old painted furniture and I had my paintings hanging on the wall, I had quilts. And that was great, except I had no time to paint anymore. So I did that for a while. And then I finally decided, you know, I really want to paint. So I got a studio and I painted in the studio, just got into some galleries around the country and did it that way. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And did you have to wait until your children were mostly grown before you could get back into your art? 

Jean Jack:

Sure. Yes. They were, you know, going out with friends and they had friends over and they had parties that they wanted to go to and parties that we had in our house. And it was just, you couldn't do anything other than be a mother at that point. And that was fine. I would dabble a little bit. We had a group that would meet at our house and we had a teacher that would come and she would teach us painting. And it was mostly just a social thing. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Do you need to have silence in your studio or do you need to have some sort of specific setups so that you can paint? What's optimal for you? 

Jean Jack:

I listened to NPR and then when I don't like what's going on there, I put on some music. I think I probably don't paint with nothing going on. I'm one of these people that likes a couple of things going at the same time and my husband is not, he doesn't like that. So it's only when I'm in my studio that I can do that. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Have you always been like that? 

Jean Jack:

Probably.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I know for me growing up in a large family, it was kind of by necessity that I always needed to know what was going on. Because I had nine younger brothers and sisters, so there was always something going on, and I was the oldest. So it was always something going on in the left-hand, something going on the right hand. So I kind of needed to have eyes everywhere, always paying attention. You know, I don't know if that's part of being in a large family, you know, you and I are both in that same situation or maybe it's being a parent. I don't know. 

Jean Jack:

Yes. Well, I was the oldest girl. I had two older brothers and then two younger brothers, you know, so I had, I was surrounded with boys for a while and they would just, you know, pick on me. Like they always said I was my father's favorite, you know? So you know, they would be doing things like going by and giving me a noogie on my arm, or one time they lit my hair on fire. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Wow. Did you put it out quickly? 

Jean Jack:

No, my mother did. That's what mothers are for, you know, they stay home and they put out their daughter's hair. Well, just things like that. I don't remember smelling a lot of smoke, so I'm not sure it would have gone as far. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I have younger brothers and none of them ever lit my hair on fire. So it says something about you and your I guess flexibility of spirit that you're able to think about it with fondness, I guess, on the other side of it. Did you end up having to help take care of brothers and sisters a lot as the oldest girl?

Jean Jack:

I did,the last two children were twins and I was 13 when they were born, so I had to help my mother a lot and take them for walks in the stroller and just all those things. Yes. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

This all sounds very familiar to me. Yes. We had a set of twins. I did not help raise them. They were only 19 months younger, but all of the younger ones that were born after me, I had some sort of hand in being part of their part of their lives, which is also interesting to me that you were able to move into being an artist. Because I think in my family, there was a very practical approach to employment. You know, we all knew that we needed to get good jobs and contribute to the world around us, raise our families so that none of us, I think we had three of us who were very good at art and only one person went to art school. Nobody in our family out of 10 kids ended up being an artist. Somehow there was in your family. 

Jean Jack:

Well, my mother, she was a really good artist, although nobody knew it, but she used to draw the babies when they were born, you know, and she was very good. Her father was a taxidermist and he could do like a striped bass mounted and, you know, they have to repaint the fish, and he was wonderful at that. And people from all around would, you know, seek him out. I remember going to his house and seeing these things up on the walls and thinking, oh, and it smelled like formaldehyde in his studio, but he was a pretty good artist. And my mother and two of my brothers were artists. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So you said that one of your brothers passed away when he was young. Did your other brother continue to engage in his art as got older?

Jean Jack:

He still does. He does, hm not fresco, but something like that. He's a pretty good artist, but the best one was my brother, my oldest brother. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And what type of art did he do? 

Jean Jack:

He could do people and cars and houses–he did a lot of different things, but they were very good. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Did your family keep any of his pieces after he passed away? 

Jean Jack:

I don't know. Probably I never saw any, but... 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

That's a really tragic thing to have happen to a family, to lose a child. You said he was 29, right? I mean, that really stays with the family for a while. Even a large family. I can't imagine losing any of my brothers or sisters. 

Jean Jack:

Well, it sometimes happens, I guess. I know he was out with the boys and they were probably driving too fast. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, it says a lot that even if you're not kind of keeping his legacy alive, the fact that you and your other brother are continuing to do art, I think that's really pretty great. Actually in our family, our family business is medicine, which is not a bad thing. It's not a bad thing to have doctors in your family, but I often wonder, you know, of the three that in our family who are particularly artistic, maybe even four, you know, what, if our family business had been art? You know, what if we had, you know, that same sort of inclination that you're talking about with your grandfather and your mother. It's interesting how kind of a culture of a living or growing up situation can kind of impact somebody's life trajectory. 

Jean Jack:

I think we all encouraged my oldest brother to go to art school and he fought it and he fought it, and we just centered everything on him. So I'm not sure. It was a different time. I mean, I grew up during, you know, the war was just ending. I remember blackouts and all the things that went with it, you know, squeezing this plastic bag, white things inside, and a little orange ball and you had to squeeze it until it all turned that color for butter or margarine. You know, things like that. This came into my mind this morning when I was thinking about growing up and all the things. And then when the war was over the parade and my uncle was in the parade, and that was kind of important to us. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So what did you think you were going to be doing? 

Jean Jack:

I didn't really think about it. I just knew, at some point in my life, I wanted to live in New York City and so I did do that. I went with a friend of mine and we got an apartment together and she left. She only made it for like three months and I came home from work one day and her parents were there and she was packing up and leaving and I thought, oh my God, now, what am I going to do? So that was kind of a hard thing. So I went into, it was called the Anthony House, which was all women. It was a hotel for women. And I lived there because I couldn't keep the apartment by myself. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Why was it so important for you to stay in New York? 

Jean Jack:

I don't know. You know, it's kind of like when I'm looking at houses I want to paint. When I got to New York, I thought, oh my God, I love it here. I just love it. And I have no idea why. It's just something about it spoke to me. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, like I give you credit for listening to yourself. I mean, sometimes it's hard for people to listen to what their inner self is trying to tell them whether it's what types of things to paint or whether it's where they should live. 

Jean Jack:

Well, I came from a small town in Massachusetts and it was really not exciting at all and New York was, so I'm sure that was part of the reason. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Tell me about the work that you're doing now. What types of things are you focusing on? 

Jean Jack:

I'm trying to get more minimalistic if I can do it. I'm not sure. And I don't want the painting to be boring, but I really want it to be very calm and not so much color, just lines and houses that I've painted before, but I want to do them in a different way. But I've been looking at a couple of the ones I've done already, and I'm thinking this is boring, so I'm not going to do them all that way. I'm changing. And now I'm thinking I need to put some color back in here, so I'm hoping to do that, but you know, that happens with me. I think I want to do a painting and I will start it, and I think it should go one way. 

Jean Jack:

And then I come in the next morning and I just wipe the whole thing off and start over and that usually turns out to be a pretty good painting. So I think I have to go through the process a little bit. So what I'm working on now, a lot of the things I'm working on, are paint houses I've done before, but in a different way. So we'll see how that goes. And then we should take a trip in the next few weeks. And maybe we'll go where Kevin is from. I'm not sure, that sounds kind of interesting. We haven't gone that far north yet. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So you'd end up in the Presque Isle region if you go that far up. You know, that’s quite a drive, right? Although this time of year, it's very beautiful in Northern Maine. 

Jean Jack:

Well, we did drive once to Nova Scotia and then PEI (Prince Edward Island). And I did quite a few paintings of PEI. I photographed many, many houses and farms, and there was a feeling there like that I like, but I want to keep it mostly in Maine this time. So we'll see. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I can't wait to see your work moving forward and I enjoy it very much. 

Jean Jack:

You know, it's funny. I think I want to change the colors and I change them. I just don't like them anymore. So I guess it's just, I really love these colors that are in this painting and that's kind of the way, I guess I'll always go or white, just very white. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I appreciate your willingness to come talk to me today and I've really enjoyed learning more about you and about your background. I've been speaking with artist Jean Jack, you can find more of her work at the Portland Art Gallery and on the Portland Art Gallery website. Thank you so much for coming in today and for sharing a bit about your life with me. 

Jean Jack: 

Thank you.