Jayne Shoup is a painter living in Middlesex, Vermont. Her paintings usually depict scenes or objects from her central Vermont neighborhood. Each standing or slumping barn, towering tree, or unfolding flower in her work reflects the serenity and beauty of this area of Vermont. Some paintings are of New Mexico’s landscape and architecture. She is a member of the Vermont Crafts Council, Art Resource Association, Northern Vermont Artists’ Association, Bryan Memorial Gallery, and the Vermont Pastel Society.
Interview by : Tom Waters
For those unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe your art?
I call myself a contemporary modernist painter. What I mean by that is I’m sort of a throwback to the true American Modernists who were painting between the two world wars.
I never went to Europe so I haven’t studied any art there so I have that in common with them. In the O’Keeffe / Stieglitz school there was this celebration of nature that I have as well. And they certainly brought more emotional kinds of feeling to work than what had been showing up in a lot of the paintings in that era. I call myself “contemporary” because I’m not dead yet, obviously, but I do trace myself back to the American Modernists.
How long have you been an artist, and how did you get your start?
I started seriously in the late 1990’s. I had been a writer for a long time, a creative writer, and that’s a tough trade too. Visual arts are hard, but I think a writer’s lot is worse. Talk about being in a vacuum. You are so isolated and it’s so hard to break in. I was disillusioned with what was happening and I’d always liked visual arts. I realized what really called to me was creating a visual image as opposed to doing that with narrative, with language. So I started in the late 90’s with watercolors and gouache, and then I took a pastel workshop with Linda Hogan in Montpelier. That’s when I got serious about what I was doing. I learned in the early years how to use pastels and that sort of thing. And like many people, I tried to render everything. You know, I’d look out at a landscape and see every leaf and I tried to do that at first. Then I realized I could edit things.
Your work is very personal. As you state in your artist statement, you “depict scenes or objects from my central Vermont neighborhood”. Describe how you choose what to depict and why.
When we first moved to Vermont in 1988, we moved next door to a working dairy farm that had about 75 cows and two farmers in their 70’s. It was really different for me. I came from a rural wooded area in western Pennsylvania and then came here, which was rural agricultural. I really enjoyed that. I liked it visually. I found the landscape very stimulating.
I walk a lot, and just seeing things, like old homes, sometimes falling apart, sometimes being restored. I like seasonal changes, that became more important to me. I got used to the rhythm of the land because of the farmers next door. I’ve never been a fan of painting snow scenes, but I have done that. There is not enough color in winter, for me, so it’s not my favorite. But I like looking around my neighborhood.
I recently started work on a piece, on my easel right now, inspired by neighbors building a new house. They built it on this little knoll of land. That was two years ago. I walk past there every day, and in the meantime they’ve added a mudroom and a deck. Three weeks ago I looked at the house and said, “There’s a painting!” Nothing had really changed with the house, but the sky opened up that day. There were some clouds and the sun was lightly covered and there was a little bit of a notch in the pine trees on one side and deciduous trees were on the other. The house was sort of centered on the knoll. And that really struck me. So it’s that kind of thing where I may see a particular scene for a number of years and then it becomes a painting for me.
Also, I sometimes feel like the scene chooses me, after a while, to paint it. At first I’m not quite ready. I haven’t looked at it enough. I don’t know. But I think over time, I keep looking at it and seeing it through different seasons. Then there is just that one day where, literally, the sky will open and now it’s a painting. That was it for me.
I find that happens quite often with this area. I’m lucky because we live in this little valley with a farm in it that actually isn’t in production anymore, which I’m quite sad about. But it’s visually striking because the barn’s still here and one of those old, eight-sided wooden silos. Just seeing those kinds of things stimulates. I live in an old farmhouse, circa 1848, and both houses next to us are a similar era. It’s that old New England look and I like that.
Is it safe to say then that the scene has to reveal it’self to you? You have to see the painting, versus going and looking at something and saying “How can I make a painting of this?”
Well, I think I do both things. For me, because I am certainly semi- abstract in what I do, I focus more on the design of a piece. What I mean by that is, it’s not going to be a true rendering.
This piece I’m working on now, my neighbors built the mudroom on the left side of their house, and I really think it should be on the right. So in
my painting, it’s on the right. I removed their deck. Who knows why I do those things with editing. They have dormers on the front of their house. Well, those are out for me. My house is much older and wouldn’t have dormers so those had to go in my painting. Things like that, where I focus more on design than reality.
I’ve done the Jericho Plein Air festival a couple of times, painted at whichever location. There I have to edit the scene on the fly. And I take time to do that. I usually work up a charcoal drawing of whatever it is. One of the pieces I did there was of the Jericho Town Hall. So I “cut down” all the trees around it. I work to get a design, what I consider a good design. Others would say “Well, that’s the composition,” but I work hard to get a design that has somewhat of a universal application. It doesn’t have to be just the Jericho Town Hall. It could be another town hall in New England, or another building of that era. Design is a very important thing for me.
Influences to your work include the early Modernist painters, Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Oscar Bluemner and John Marin. What was it about their work that affected how you developed your style?
I think probably Bluemner’s the exception because he focused a lot more on cities. But both Dove and O’Keeffe, and Marin to a point, celebrated the landscape. And not necessarily the hard-edged landscape but a softened landscape. I’ve always thought the earth is round. People say my hillsides are all rounded, and I think, “They are, aren’t they?” Hills look rounded to me. Maybe I don’t see them well, but the edges always seem pretty soft and rounded. We live in an area that’s old here, the land itself is old, so it has a worn down look. I drew that from the Modernists, and a flat perspective. I think there is emotion in their paintings-–always. That’s my feeling.
Another early influence was van Gogh. I was lucky enough to visit the Joan Whitney Payson Museum, a great little museum, on the Westbrook College campus in Portland, Maine. They had van Gogh’s “Irises.” Well, I went up there by myself to see that, and I walked up the steps to the 2nd floor and I turned to look at it and I honestly nearly fainted. “Irises” is so big and it is so breathtaking. I’ve had that similar feeling about certain pieces of O’Keeffe’s or of Dove’s when I’ve seen them exhibited. It just takes your breath away and I think, “Well what is it? It’s this simple subject. Wow.”
Dove has a painting “Fog Horns” that I absolutely love. I think it’s a perfect painting. It’s an abstract piece but it really has movement in it, there is energy, there is a lot of emotion in it. I think that’s what I really admire in their work. They were a little different for their era. They were trying to be adventurous maybe.
Your work is distinctive and recognizable. Were there times when you made stylistic choices in order to break out from those influences, or did they come about organically?
I do make choices, especially with flowers. I have to be careful because O’Keeffe did so many flowers. We have Jack-in-the-Pulpit flowers that grow nearby, and it took probably two years before I could figure out how to paint a Jack-in-the-Pulpit. I was aware at the time to be very careful how I did this because I didn’t want it to look derivative. And I didn’t want it to look like it was O’Keeffe’s. I had to make conscious decisions about how to present the Jack-in-the-Pulpit so that it would be done differently. O’Keeffe did something like 6 of them, so she pretty much covered that subject. But if it’s a flower that you love, and somebody else has already done it, you have to work harder to make it your own. I certainly made decisions about that painting to make it mine.
Otherwise, I’ve evolved over time to get to where I am, and as I came along there were paintings that I started in one year and got to a certain point with it and then didn’t know how to proceed. It was maybe a little bit ahead of me in a way? Or, I wasn’t quite ready to finish the painting because I didn’t understand it. So I might have to sit with that for a while and just put the painting away, then bring it back out, look at it again. I may get it out two or three times before I think, “Well, what was the matter with me? Why didn’t I finish this two years ago?” I grew along the way and I wasn’t quite ready to finish the painting earlier.
I think I’ve learned a lot about shadows and contrast along the way. I do those a little different than O’Keeffe and Dove.
I’ve very aware we have better materials and better paint now. Such a variety of colors are available in pastels. You can mix color with pastels, which many people say you can’t do, but I do that all the time. But there are more colors available now than a hundred years ago.
I’m struck by not only the simplicity of subjects in your paintings, but the big, bold use of color. Do you have a standard palette or does it fluctuate with the subject?
It depends on the season. We get pretty good color here in the fall, and I amplify it by 10 to make an even bolder statement about fall. You know, like, “You have to look at this!” Around 2004 or 2005, I took a workshop with a west coast pastel artist, Susan Ogilvie. I noticed her paint box had very few light values. I asked her about that, and she said, “I took them out.” And I thought, “What a good idea!” So I basically took out pastels that seemed very light to me. They live in another box. Once in a while I might think, “Do I need something that’s really light?” You know, just for impact. So I look in that light box, and I think, “No, they should just stay in this box.” I don’t want to start from that light a shade. And I think by leaving those out of sight, I start at a different point on the value scale so I’m using more vibrant colors that are not diluted with a light shade.
In my designs, I aim for simplicity because I think that life is really very complicated and we don’t need that many details. At least I don’t need that many details. So that is part of my goal in deciding what to leave out. I don’t care about every fence post, and I don’t care about all the leaves on a tree. If I can give the effect of a tree with color and shape and shadow and light, that’s better for me than trying to show different sections of the tree leaf by leaf.
If I can do what I think of as a clean design, that doesn’t have a lot of confusing detail, then I can also do bolder colors that people will just accept as truth. They’re OK with it because it fits the rest of the painting. They don’t think, “This would never happen in nature.” They don’t go there, because the whole piece, the design is already in the “It doesn’t happen this way in nature” realm. Viewers are more willing to accept colors that are a little more amplified as well.
The Vermont Pastel Society once had a visiting artist, Sergei Oussik, from Russia. He was trained very formally and his paintings were very realistic. He came up to my easel one day and he laughed, then said, “I don’t know what to tell you. It’s an opera. Everything is wrong, but it works.” I think that was a nice compliment.
What challenges do your color choices make when working in pastels.
The biggest challenge for me is that I like to use a very dark color, say at the edge of a tree line, underneath. I have to join that with the colors above and make all appear to seamlessly grow together. That can be hard
to do in pastels. It can muddy the colors a little bit, so I have to be careful there. Mostly those transition zones, for me, can be challenging at times.
People ask me if I use fixative between layers and I don’t. But I use a sanded paper that holds quite a bit of pastel. I use Sennelier la Carte paper which has been around for a while. Of course, I had to experiment with everything else I could find,too. Then I came back to la Carte. It holds quite a few layers of pastel, and it’s forgiving in the sense that if I put a value down that is not quite right, I can lightly brush it off and still re-cover the area without a lot of erasure that can damage a sanded surface. So it forgives me that way.
Describe your studio and your “typical” day making art. What is your space like, do you use reference materials, are there routines you maintain or things you do to warm up?
I usually work in the late afternoon, so by then I’ve done yoga, walked the dogs, gotten the house chores done, that sort of thing. My studio space is a separate building from the house. We call it “the little house.” It’s a 10’ x 12’ free-standing building. It was built in 1991 as my writing studio. We remade it by adding a large window and taking everything out of it, literally, because it’s such a small space. I have a storage box, a workbench, an easel, my paint box on a table, and a folding rocking chair. Usually our two dogs join me. I listen to “bad” music: The oldies from the 70’s/80’s/90’s to now. Sometimes I don’t have any music on. When I’m working on a design, I don’t have music on. I’m just working with the charcoal in the quiet.
There is a Montpelier painter, Ray Brown. He and his wife, Jody, started the local art supply and frame shop. Ray is an oil painter. I’ve seen him a couple of times where we could just chat, and I asked him, “So when you’re painting now, you’re not using any reference material?” And he just pointed to his head and said, “No, it’s all up here.” Ray is about 74 now, so he has seen lots and has been painting for a long time. I thought I would see what happened if I did that.
I have used photos as reference. I have a little iPod touch with a camera. I’ll take a photo of something I might be interested in, but I don’t print it off. I just have that little screen to look at. Before I start, I look at that scene on the iTouch in its little window. That’s my reference. Then I do a thumbnail sketch. When I know where I want to go from the thumbnail
sketch I do a charcoal on newsprint in the same size that the painting will be. I work on the design until I get it with fewer details than the thumbnail sketch has. I turn it upside down, right-side up, sideways, to make sure shapes are working together and they aren’t weird from one angle to another. The other thing you can do with those small screen photos is to turn it into a black and white. Then you can see where the values are, and if it’s weak in some area.
When I get the design the way I want it, I do a reverse transfer. Which means I outline the major features of my design in vine charcoal, and then I put a piece of cheap newsprint on top of it and just rub that to transfer the design itself. When I get that, I re-charcoal the outlines, and then transfer the clean design onto pastel paper. Some years ago I decided that I didn’t like erasure marks on the sanded paper because it left a little indent in the pastel application that I could see. I thought if I had the design and I could transfer it clean, that would eliminate the erasure issue. And it really freed me up to be more daring. A piece of pastel paper that’s 19” x 25” costs around $18 and a piece of newsprint is like 10-cents. So I do all kinds of erasing and changing or throw it out and start over and I don’t care about the cost. And I like charcoal. It’s like play for me. It lets me be looser.
You are currently in the Bryan Gallery’s “Legacy Collection” (2016) as one of the best artists over the last year. How long have you been showing your work through the Bryan Gallery?
I think I started around 2009. I had a painting in the small picture show. I’ve been in numerous shows since and feel lucky to be invited this year to be part of the Legacy 2016 collection.
Do you have any advice to give new artists just starting out?
My best advice is to trust yourself more. When you first start out, there are so many people offering advice. You want to follow this person, or you want to do that. Just trust yourself. Maybe buy a pad of newsprint and just play. Don’t think you’re going to make a great piece of art the first go. Explore things, then decide – I like this or I don’t like that. When I started, I tried to do things that were representational and I was never very happy. So after a while I thought, “Well, I’ve got to see what happens if I’m just doing whatever.” Then I was much happier at my easel. So, play more.
If there were just one piece of art in the world that you could own, what would it be?
That’s a pretty simple one. O’Keeffe painted a piece, I think it’s called “59th Street Studio”. I’d take that. I think it lives in Switzerland, but I saw it in a show once in New York City. It’s a doorway looking down a darkened hallway into another lit space. The whole thing just signifies a level of abstraction that is right for me. You can tell it’s a door, you know what it is. And the colors are good. I think that is the piece I would want to own.
Anything you would like to add?
I’ve been very influenced by graphic artists. Charlie Harper is one who has influenced me. Locally, another artist is Sabra Field with her woodblock print process. I think people who do that kind of work, there is a simplification process which is very instructive for me. I would like to see Sabra Field working through her design process, see how she proceeds from the beginning to when she gets something.