Portrait of an Artist: Joanna Kane

by: Maureen Molloy Holmes

photography by: Jeffrey Allen

Joanna Kane has Manhattan on her mind. Her mood is expansive and restless, a radical shift for an artist who has zealously embraced the quiet and calm of Nantucket for the last quarter century.

“I believe people go through periods of contraction and expansion throughout their lives, and I’m now in a period of expansion,” she said.

This transmutation from small to sweeping is evident in her latest solo exhibit as well, which premiers this month at the Old Spouter Gallery. Beginning July 25, 15 of Kane’s paintings will be on view at the Orange Street gallery, and at least half will be shown on large canvases. The 19-by-22 inch surfaces of earlier paintings, which Kane now calls too constricting, today loom to four-by-five feet.

The selections mounted at Old Spouter signal change in Kane’s artistic sensibility not only in their veritable jump in scale but also in style: they showcase her penchant for abstract art, not the decorative art for which she’s popularly known.

“I am so glad to see her do panel and canvas instead of just functional furniture,” said Old Spouter Gallery owner Kathleen Walsh. “Joanna’s paintings are so powerful. It’s incredible to see how her art has evolved.”

For years Kane was content to work as a successful furniture artist, but slowly she began to feel stirrings to return to her true love – abstract painting and drawing – and is now pleased to see this aspect of her craft gain prominence. Her solo show this month follows another wide-scale debut of her abstract work at Cinco, the chic Latin tapas restaurant that also acts as an unofficial art gallery. Cinco co-owners Connie and Michael Sturgis rotate the art on their rich, earth-toned walls seasonally in the firm belief that fine art goes hand-in-hand with distinctive cuisine and first-rate wines. They became acquainted with the artist via photographer Jeffrey Allen, who referred Kane to the restaurateurs.

“Jeff told me, ‘I see (Joanna’s work) in Cinco,’ and when I went to take a look, I knew right away that he was right,” said Connie. “I love the colors in her paintings, and I love that they’re modern. Everything she’s doing hits me just right.”

More than a dozen of Kane’s pieces hang throughout Cinco’s bar and dining room, and it’s a happy coincidence that her art suffuses the space with a contemporary-style ambiance that’s well-suited to the restaurant’s sophisticated decor.

“It just fits,” said Sturgis, adding that Kane’s work complements that of Judith Brust, owner of the Old South Wharf-based Gallery Blu, whose paintings and monoprints currently adorn Cinco as well.

Raised in Connecticut, art was as much a part of Kane’s childhood home’s foundation as brick and mortar. She hails from a long line of artists, particularly on the maternal side of her family tree. When visiting her grandparents in New Jersey she was literally surrounded by art, each room teeming with paintings, drawings and sculptures. Her grandmother was the painter Janet Geddes Duffy, and her grandfather donated the Edward J. Duffy Gallery to the college-preparatory Canterbury School in New Milford, Connecticut. In May the gallery presented The Duffy Family Art Show: Four Generations, which included selections from 16 family members.

Kane recalls being a chronic doodler during her childhood and adolescence, a black sketching pad her constant companion. “I was always drawing, always,” she said, sensing from an early age that she was destined to join the family business. Her parents encouraged her art, as her profession appeared preordained not only to herself but to all who knew and loved her.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine art from the Kansas City Art Institute, she ventured to New York City with the idea of working as a stage make-up artist. She quickly landed a job at department store icon Bloomingdale’s, and almost as swiftly decided the job wasn’t the right fit, nor was the city.

“I went from living an introspective, bohemian lifestyle at art school to living the fast-paced, dressed-up life at Bloomingdale’s, and it felt wrong,” she said. “I couldn’t take in what New York had to offer.”

Kane fled the city and quite by accident wound up on Nantucket, enjoying a tranquil existence while eking out a modest living. She returned briefly to the Midwest of her college days and tried settling in Chicago, but soon she was back on Nantucket, where she stayed put for the next 25 years. “It got into my system,” she said of the island. “I missed Nantucket’s air, and I missed the solitude.” The island’s hermetic seal suited her and fed her creativity.

Her first public commission came in 1991 as a collaborative project with her former husband Kevin Paulsen. The owners of American Seasons asked the couple to paint two large murals and a score of tables at their Centre Street restaurant. The murals, still on view today, and the tables, also still in use, led Kane to many years of work as a commissioned furniture artist. In addition to private commissions for clients in the United States, Canada and Europe, her elaborately-painted tables and chests were sold at Nantucket Looms and can be seen throughout Nantucket’s public buildings, including several tables in the Nantucket Atheneum. She also painted purely decorative pieces like wood ornaments and balls. Most recently the movie studio Dreamworks SKG rented some of her painted ornaments to be used as props in the Reese Witherspoon film “Just Like Heaven.” Kane was later told the actress bought the pieces for her personal collection.

This genre had grown timeworn for Kane, despite her commercial success, and it prompted a renewed desire to delve headlong into abstract painting and drawing.

“As a decorative artist I painted myself into a corner,” she said. “I wanted to take this technique as far as it could go, and I feel like I did that.” What’s more, the mechanics of such work had grown physically taxing. Leaning over to create intricate designs that require hours of painstaking detail exacerbated problems with her fragile spine, already weakened by a congenital abnormality.

Kane hasn’t abandoned decorative painting altogether, however, and will still dabble in it occasionally. She is one of eight island artists who’ve painted and donated chairs to the Nantucket Lighthouse School for its 8 Painted Chairs raffle to be held Aug. 6.

Milk paint is Kane’s predominant medium today, which she acknowledges is an odd choice. “Few painters want to use milk paint because it’s difficult to work with,” she said. “You have to mix each color, and then strain it. It also contains lime so it eats your brushes.” Having used milk paint early in her career, she has developed techniques with the material that lend themselves brilliantly to the complex layering of her abstract painting. Kane said she completes roughly 25 to 30 pieces a year. Some paintings flow out of her in two days, others in two weeks or longer.

Kane adheres to the ethos of abstract art, to use color and form in a non-representational way, and she admires the spirit of famed abstract artists Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Howard Hodgkins.

“There’s an element of surprise in Rauschenberg’s work that I relate to,” she said. “To get to that surprise I need to walk in the dark for a while. I don’t know where the painting is going, and I have to be fine with that.”

For Kane, painting requires a marriage of cerebral activity and energy released through one’s hands. “Like an athlete, I have to remain alert but on the outskirts of self-consciousness for instinct to take over and to paint something that I hope culminates in uninhibited sincerity,” she said.

“It’s a situation where my hands are more active than my conscious intention, and I’m not thinking of anything while I’m working,” she added. “What I’m after is the absence of gravity and seeing how these colors and forms come together – or not – and if the struggle produces anything interesting or beautiful.”

This desire to remain abstract carries over when identifying her work. It’s not unusual to see a Joanna Kane painting in a gallery with an “Untitled” designation next to it. “Titles are the most difficult part of the process for me because I’m not referencing anything in my paintings, and so to randomly come up with a title feels insincere sometimes," she said.

Coming full circle, the Manhattan that Kane escaped from 25 years ago now beckons. With the comparative dearth of abstract artists on Nantucket, she is seeking to expand into New York, the global capital of the modern art movement, where she would like to see her abstract art shown next to the creations of her peers. Her work is currently on exhibit at ZetaStudio in New York City.

Unlike so many Nantucket artists, Kane has not been seduced by the island’s pristine beauty and insists she’s never felt drawn to use its stunning seascapes and lush landscapes as subjects. “The light on Nantucket is so beautiful and the landscape is so beautiful that I understand why so many want to paint it,” she said. “I just have never wanted to paint it myself.”

Kane’s desire to take her art in a new direction coincides with her own growing maturity as a woman. When she was younger and mindful of her children’s dependency, she chose not to be apart from them for long, nor did she allow her focus to veer too far away from them. Now at 47 and with her two sons, Maxwell and Geddes, grown and living lives largely independent of her, she is ready to take on the larger world.

“I’m maturing as an artist, so I no longer need the isolation that I sought earlier,” she said.

“In art school they told us that we wouldn’t mature as an artist until we were 50, and I think they said that to weed out those of us who weren’t serious,” she said with a chuckle.

“But I happen to believe it’s the truth. When you’re young you wait for the surge of energy to create something, but at my age you just work. You don’t wait for inspiration.”

Maureen Molloy Holmes is a freelance writer.

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