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Shelter Island profile: Janet Culbertson, artist, feminist, environmentalist

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO  Janet Culbertson with a painting that refers to an important event from her childhood – a canoe trip on a polluted river.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Janet Culbertson with a painting that refers to an important event from her childhood – a canoe trip on a polluted river.

Janet Culbertson’s identity as an artist was formed during a canoe trip she took with her father, sister and brother on a luridly polluted river in Western Pennsylvania when she was 9 years old.

“The river was bluish green, but then it started to turn orange, and then deep brown with puffy rocks floating in it, like cinders, and Dad said not to touch it,” she said. “I became an environmentalist that day.”

Janet’s distinguished career as an artist spans four decades and she’s spent most of it on Shelter Island. With more than 35 one-woman shows and numerous awards, her work is in the permanent collection of museums from the Galeria-Nacional in San Jose, Costa Rica to the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Her painting incorporates many materials on a foundation of skilled drawing, including acrylic and iridescent paint, glitter and found objects.

But her inspiration is singular: an interest in the beauty and fragility of the natural world. She is an activist artist, with a viewpoint shaped by her girlhood in the coal mining region of Western Pennsylvania, her travels in the American West and the Galapagos Islands, and the environment near the home on West Neck Bay where she’s lived since 1971.

Janet was in 3rd grade when the artist Dorothy Riester taught her to draw and later became her mentor. “She was a huge influence,” Janet said. “It was so important at that age because she showed me alternatives to my parents.”

With Ms. Riester’s guidance, Janet went to Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon University) to study art, embracing the departure from the conservatism of her family. “Art college encouraged you to be a  little bohemian — you’d wear your jeans until they fell off. Bathing was something the middle class did.”

In the 1950s, with a Master of Fine Arts in hand, Janet made her way to New York with $50 she had won in a bingo game. “I thought real artists had to go to New York and face obscurity and despair,” she said. “So I chose obscurity and despair.”

She found an apartment with the tub in the kitchen and work in textile design, but hated the business.

“If it sold, it was good,” she said. “Brigitte Bardot wore a gingham dress in a blue check and suddenly the bosses said, ‘Make blue checks.’”

Janet and her husband, Doug, first met at work. They ran into each other in front of the subway after work one day and decided to have coffee. Then, as Janet recalls, Doug changed his mind. “He said, ‘Coffee? Let’s have a drink.’” Janet loved his sophistication — a real New Yorker. “He went to Bronx Science,” she said, “and he could always find a parking spot.”

Doug was married with children when they met, but their relationship endured and they married in 1964. He passed away in 2006.

Janet started teaching art at Pace University. In the late 1960s, she began to create silverpoint paintings, a technique that involves drawing with a sharpened stick of silver on coated paper. She worked from old family photographs to create powerful pieces with the ethereal feeling of daguerreotype and established her reputation with shows in Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta. Ten of her silverpoint works are now part of the permanent collection of the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia.

When she was 5, her parents took the family on a memorable vacation to Sag Harbor. She remembered, “horrible sunburn and horrible chowder with clams like rubber.” In spite of these hardships, the trip made such a positive impression on Janet and her siblings that years later as adults they returned to Sag Harbor, and eventually, Janet and Doug bought some land on Shelter Island. In 1971, they had a Stanmar House, a modular structure, delivered to the lot in bundles and assembled. She lives in the house to this day.

The 1970s were an important period of productivity and success for Janet, with four one-woman shows in New York City at the Lerner-Heller Gallery. In the early 1970s, Janet created a beautiful series of paintings, works entitled “Jessup Pond” and “Crab Creek,” using acrylic on canvas, depicting creeks, islands, and bays around Shelter Island. “I like islands,” she said. “It must be some terrible psychological thing. Either I want to be alone or I am afraid to be alone.”

In the mid-70s, Janet began a series of paintings based on what she observed during a visit to the Galapagos Islands; “barren but gorgeous,” she said. In 1976, she had a show with the Galapagos works. Her fascination with the place was so persistent that she returned 10 years later with Doug, determined to show him the place she found so inspiring, a trip intended as his retirement gift. Although he enjoyed it, on one of the islands, they had to sleep in a tent, prompting Doug to remark, “I had all the camping I wanted in the service.”

In 1980, on a snowy North Fork road, Janet was nearly killed when a car struck the passenger side of the car where she sat. “It took me a year to get over being frail and another year being depressed,” she said.

After the accident, she began a series that incorporated billboards and became fascinated with images of traffic. Her view shifted to incorporate darker messages, which still inform her work today.

In 2005, The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington exhibited Janet’s series entitled, “Mythmaker.”  Dubbed “eco-feminist,” these paintings explored ways to depict women in a more heroic light and show the disturbing reality of our threatened environment.

In 2014, Janet had a one-woman show, a 40-year retrospective, entitled “Paradise Gone” at Stone Quarry Hill Art Park, in Cazenovia, New York.

Currently, six of her works hang in the lower level of the Shelter Island library in a special exhibit in recognition of Earth Day on Friday, April 22. At 7 p.m. on the following Friday, April 29, Janet will appear at the library in a Q & A with artist Roz Dimon to discuss the work on view.

“I’m going to get a gold tooth.” Janet said, explaining her plan to have one of her porcelain-capped teeth transformed. “That’s what they do in some countries to show that you have arrived.”