“I figure if a girl wants to be a legend she should just go ahead and be one.” Attributed to the American frontierswoman known as Calamity Jane, the quote hangs prominently in Janell James’ studio. It says plenty about the talented and determined Utah artist featured in UVU’s Woodbury Art Museum this month alongside Art of OUR CENTURY, an annual juried exhibition of new works from across the country.
James has been gathering paintings from her many collectors for her important retrospective A Decade of Art, a show that promises to display the evolution of her style, one grounded in the traditional fundamentals learned in the atelier system but not afraid to experiment with form and method. Though she recently branched out into some intriguing and well-received abstractions, James, 43, has focused mainly on painting trees: whether leafy maples, stately pines, or slender, near-naked aspens, she renders them wonderfully and in tune with nature, with the exception of her tendency toward Fauvist coloration. She took this arboreal theme, she suspects, from Connie Borup, her AP high school art teacher who was later her University of Utah instructor, a well-known landscape artist who for many years specialized in painting just trees and now has widened her canvases to include ponds and explorations of the reflections and shadows made by light on leaves, rocks, branches and twigs (Borup’s show ending May 11 at Phillips Gallery is a revelation).
James, however, has worked diligently to come up with a process she believes is all her own. As she describes it: “Combining the layers of classical realism, and an old technique from the 18th century — reverse painting — I found a way to bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary landscape art. I took that technique along with the very traditional process of oil painting that I was already using, and glazing, and layering, and wanted to break it up into something more dynamic and contemporary, and to come up with something uniquely mine.” She paints on all 10 sides of five panes of acrylic, and while each pane is a painting unto itself, it is not until all five panes come together that the final painting can be revealed, complete. “As if looking into an antique kaleidoscope or stained glass, each becomes a ‘living’ painting as the daylight and shadows interact within the painted panes,” she says.
The artist observes that acrylic paint bonds nicely to the acrylic. “In fact, it bonds so quickly that I really have to be very certain of my brushstrokes. You try not to make mistakes, just interpret the painting and be free with it and, it’s all about paint, you just see what it comes out as in the end. You never really know — I mean, I have an idea. I work from a composition.” James takes her own photos, crops them and manipulates them a bit on the computer. “I get my jumping-off point and then I just build from there,” she says. “From the back forward, so it’s almost like a sculptural process as well as like a layering and glazing process. You know, the shapes are almost pixilated. From a distance they look traditional, more realistic. A lot of times people think they are looking at a 2-D image and then they get up close and realize that these things are 3-D, and they look abstract.”
It all started at 300 Plates at Art Access when they began giving out acrylic plates instead of metal printers’ plates to paint on for their annual fundraiser. “The first year I didn’t know what to do with the acrylic plates, and the second year I just grabbed a few extra in case I made a mistake — and also I wanted to try something out because Paul Davis always said 20 percent of your painting and creating should be experimental.” Unsatisfied with her first attempts using her traditional technique, she started a new piece, then laid that on top of another. And then another on top of that. “I had watched Disney animation growing up and knew about cels and there are always influences but to see this come to life from my own soul was so amazing — you feel like you reinvented the landscape, in a way.”
James says she doesn’t want to be known “as the gal who paints trees, I want to take it further: I want to take this process that I’ve created and made my own into abstract, and even into figurative work because there’s so much movement possibility within these layers. I can already play around with depth. You can see here the trees and sky are closest to you and the mountain is further back. I’ve got so many things I want to do and the problem is staying focused.”
She’s always had multiple interests — she grew up a tomboy, active in sports (basketball volleyball and soccer in high school, at Rowland Hall) and the outdoors (mountain biking, hiking, running). She discovered an openness to travel with her father, an importer-exporter. At 8 she went to Korea and China for the first time and saw “millions of men in gray and black business suits with ties on and white shirts underneath riding thousands and thousands of bikes on the streets.” The cities were filled with rickshaws, but you’d get picked up at the airport in a Mercedes or Rolls Royce, because that was the taxicab system. “I kind of felt important. We went to Beijing, and we saw the terracotta soldiers. When I was 12, we went to India. I remember naked babies bathing in gutters. The poverty. And how wonderful people still were.”
She also inherited Glade James’ entrepreneurial spirit. She grew up in Sandy, “on the 6th hole of the Willow Creek Country Club,” so she always saw golf balls when they landed in the creek. Every summer from the age of 6 until she was about 14 she would have four to six “lemonade and golf ball sales,” where she sat right by the gate with a folding table and sold golf balls back to the unlucky golfers. (And lemonade, too, of course.)
She went to the U of U and studied Parks, Recreation & Tourism, and for a single credit spent three months in the outback in northwestern Australia in the Kimberley region. “We were the first people that weren’t Aboriginals to go down the Drysdale River,” James says. (They were in portable kayaks, and yes, there were crocodiles.) “We spent two weeks with the Aboriginals learning to make boomerangs and spears and catch fish. I went hunting with them one night to catch a sea turtle,” she recalls.
She graduated college, worked for the Park City Marriott as a salesperson, then for the Hotel Monaco where she built up the entertainment industry there. “I booked Bruce Springsteen and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and all the big bands coming here. After that I moved to Park City, I got married and I started working for the Park City Jazz Festival and I did that for six years.” Later, her now-ex-husband encouraged her to focus on her art. And Paul Davis told her not to get a BFA or MFA, just craft her own schooling, take classes from artists she admired. But he did suggest an atelier, if she wanted something more structured, and James ended up at the Bay Area Classical Artists Atelier and studied under Ted Seth Jacobs “who comes under the lineage of Caravaggio. So for me it was all about learning about form and line. I did that for two intensive years.”
That was in 2006. Then she spent a year in Helper, returned and had her first show out of her studio, where she sold 22 pieces. She began showing locally — A Gallery, then Trove, then Coda in Palm Springs — and did well. “I don’t have any work from 2010 to 2012,” James says. “Those were my A Gallery days and I sold all of it. They got me started. In fact, this painting [she says, pointing to a smaller work] the Nordstrom representative came in there and wanted it to be big, so it’s in the entry to the women’s shoes at City Creek. It’s 5’ x 4’ — the biggest painting I’d ever done then. I knocked out the ceiling in my studio so I could get the piece up high enough to paint it.”
Right now her studio is filled with 46 pieces waiting for transport to the Woodbury Art Museum, located in Orem’s University Place Mall, while her home is filled with works by her peers. Uncluttered and well but simply furnished, the bungalow is filled with art – an enviable collection, with work from John Bell, her “partner in art and love and life”; and from much of the Helper art community, where she spent considerable time over a six-year period (Paul Davis, David Dornan, Marilou Kundmueller, Charles Callis (six of his), Anne Kaferle, Silvia Davis); Salt Lakers, too: John Erickson (“an aspen tree, the first real piece of art I bought”), Paul Vincent Bernard, John Sproul, Trent Call, Paul Redd-Butterfield, Travis Tanner, Blue Critchfield, Darryl Erdmann, Susan Gallacher, Lucia Heffernan, Sam Wilson, Ben Steele . . . did I say enviable? There are more.
Her passion for her peers is not just a personal interest. She has matched it with her entrepreneurial spirit. She helped put together the recent show of Helper artists at Finch Lane Gallery. And in 2013, she helped launch Sketch Sundays at Squatters. She also has a philanthropic side, with a focus on Huntsman Cancer Institute in honor of a beloved aunt and has donated numerous paintings to be auctioned at their galas as well as for display in the hospital and in the children’s art center.
James continues to find exercise and the out-of-doors exhilarating. Besides hiking, jogging and walking (or running) and paddle boarding with Bell and/or the dogs (Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers, Jasper, a big male, is 10 and Roxy 11), fly fishing, cycling, mountain biking and mountain climbing (typically sans ropes, though she acknowledges “doing some crevasse crossing with ropes in the Swiss Alps once. Amazing serenity.”), she boxes, too. Even owns her own pair of black Venom gloves and orange wraps.
Out back, her spacious studio is as cluttered as her house is orderly. But wandering around, you realize it is shipshape clutter where memorabilia is kept in its precisely allotted space. There are treasure shelves filled with a vintage Mickey Mouse phone, a gnome, a couple of charming paint-by-number works done by her mother, Jessie James. (“My mother says she married my father for his last name.”) Pointing out two crocheted toys, James says, “My great-grandma made the little dog, and the gingerbread man, too.”
Seeing her latest piece, it’s clear she’s working big. In fact, she says, at 43” x 43” this is the largest piece she’s ever done in her new style. “I start initially painting on the back. There are three or four different colors. I just started painting on the front. A little bit further down the road I’ll start painting on the front of this one [points to a different pane]. You can see how even the mirror reflection . . . and it will create shadows, too. But there are still three more panes to go. I’m trying the redrock this time [instead of a tree]. It gets more abstract this way. It’s like jazz music: it’s interpretive, improvisational. You have to listen to the painting, see where it wants you to go and follow it.”
James says again that she’s contemplating moving in a new direction. “I want to grow and explore. There’s so much possibility. I’m working on being an emerging national artist at the moment and then I’d like to be an emerging international artist. And I’d like to be in a museum collection. That hasn’t happened yet. But I believe you can be a commercial artist and a museum artist. You can be both. It’s all about what you believe. I don’t want to be confined to one thing. Ever.”
Art of OUR CENTURY: Coalesce, Exploring Intersections in Contemporary Art, featuring Janell James: A Decade of Art,” UVU Woodbury Art Museum, University Place Mall, Orem, May 10-July 14, opening reception May 15, 6-8 p.m. Juried by Chauncey Secrist and Mark Slusser; curated by Megan Ah You.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.