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Island Profile: A painter who makes art out of insults to the natural world
Jan Culbertson was born “hundreds of years ago” in Greensburg, a small city in western Pennsylvania within easy reach of Pittsburgh, and grew up there, she said. Outside of town, it was a rural area — the men hunted and fished for recreation and one of her family’s favorite pastimes was canoeing.
If culturally it was a little “backward,” she said, there were compensations. Carnegie Mellon University was nearby in Pittsburgh and many professors earned extra money by teaching private classes and/or tutoring. She counts herself as fortunate to have studied art privately with one such teacher, “who was an amazing artist and was terrific with young people. She got me involved with art and she was a feminist. She was really someone, not subservient to anybody, very outspoken and that was a lovely influence, because I grew up in an age where the answer to any question was ‘Because Daddy says so.’”
Jan went on to Carnegie Mellon for college and loved every minute of it. Growing up, she had always felt a little like the proverbial fish out of water but when she arrived at school she felt at home at last. Finally she met other people who shared her passion. Art students studied from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, almost as if they had a job there, in an ambiance of total immersion. They studied design, painting, art history, the sociology of art, the psychology of art, printing, color, and everything other than how to make a living after graduation.
“On the last day, the professor said, ‘Well, you must think about how you’re going to make a living if you want to paint seriously.’ But in fact,” she said, “we were thrown out on our own, without any preparation, any portfolios, or any way to make a living.”
So in 1953, she did what artists have been doing for a very long time. With $50 in her pocket, she left home, horrifying her parents and worrying them as well, and found her way to Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village and made herself at home in a rent-controlled apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen.
She stored her belongings in an orange crate or two and used a large wooden board on top of the bathtub for a dining room table.
She lived, as she put it, “marginally. I was there for a number of years, taking all kinds of part-time jobs. There was a whole group of us, floundering around, at the White Horse Tavern every night, drinking beer and talking politics. But after a while, I realized I had to get a real job.”
She went to work in the textile field and painted little colored designs on prints and flags, hating every minute. But she worked on her own painting whenever she had the chance.
She met Doug Kaften, a department head in one of the companies for which Jan had been working. He was newly divorced. They married in 1964, remaining together until Doug’s death in 2006 after a long and difficult illness. “He was a real New Yorker,’ she said, smiling. “He could find a restaurant anyplace, also parking places.”
Doug had children from his previous marriage and so the couple didn’t plan on more. He was very supportive when it came to her art, which made her even more serious about finding a life that would permit her significant time for her own work. She went to New York University at night, earning a master’s degree in art, which qualified her for university work, and she landed a job at Pace University in 1964 in what she still considers an amazing stroke of luck.
“It was a dream job,” she remembered. “I called all the colleges and just lucked into it.”
Her early work involved landscapes and elements of nature — animals, water, rivers and Long Island, because the couple came out here in the summers. She did a lot of scenes in the Shelter Island and Noyac vicinity. But in the ‘70s, her work took a darker turn.
She became more and more knowledgeable about what was happening environmentally; having long been interested in that subject, she joined the Sierra Club in 1969.
She remembered as a child canoeing with her father and suddenly the river turning orange with big pieces of slag floating on the surface. “The whole side of the mountain had been ripped off and trees pushed over the edge. I felt wounded looking at this and I never forgot that. Then I began using all that in my work, showing people this is what’s happening to nature.”
She paints oil spills, dump sites, smoking rubbish heaps, all telling a story of the industrialization of the landscape.
Eventually, in the mid-70s, she resigned from Pace and concentrated on her own work, finding museums that were interested, entering and winning contests and signing with a Manhattan gallery. When Doug retired in 1985, they moved full time to the Island.
Although not many collectors want “political art,” she’s been fortunate to have a Manhattan gallery, the Accola Griefen Gallery, enthusiastic about her work. In a write-up for the Islip Museum, Janet Goleas, the curator, said that Janet explores “the underbelly of beauty. The works ricochet between foreboding and seduction, tragedy and irony, splendor and squalor.
Culbertson’s use of iridescent pigment is effective in communicating the toxicity of humankind’s unrelenting greed and its reckless contamination of the landscape. She creates a high octane vocabulary of exquisite severity through the use of found objects, broken glass, shards and spills of tar and glistening, textured surfaces.”
In many ways, the times have finally caught up to Jan. When she first began in the environmental movement, her types were seen as the “tree huggers,” the “bleeding hearts.” But when there almost weren’t any more whales to save, the world caught up to where she’s been all along.
But she’s not satisfied yet, still painting and sending her message, still feeling there’s a long way to go.