Widgets Magazine

Shelter Island Artist Janet Culbertson On Art, Landscape And Our Environment

Q: You’ve been an artist for more than 45 years; when did you realize that art was your calling? A: I don’t know that there was a moment, because as a child I don’t think I knew the word “artist.” I just knew I loved crayons, pencils, papers and modeling clay, and liked to haunt the 5 &10 to buy and use those materials. I was thrilled as an 8 year old to take art classes from Dorothy Riester. She was a major influence on me as an artist, independent woman and a feminist.

She stood up to my father, encouraged me to question when he said, “Because I say so”. She also encouraged me to go Carnegie Tech for art, now called Carnegie Melon because the Melons gave them a huge amount of money.

She’s now 98, living in a residence and doing sculpture with scraps of wood she assembles— because, she says, they won’t let her have her blow torch there.

Dorothy and her husband created an Art Park in Cazenovia, New York on 104 acres, called The Stone Quarry Hill Art Park. It’s so beautiful it's  a National Geographic historic place.

Q: Do you have a favorite medium?

A: I love art materials. In my work I’ve used all sorts of mediums; acrylics, oils, collage bits. In my panels for example, I have animal bones I’ve found on the beach. Another panel is devoted to junk mail immersed in paint, and suggests the huge loss of trees.

Q: Has your style evolved over time? Do you have different periods?

A: Yes. In my early work I started doing the islands out here, little shimmering slivers of land surrounded by blue. I’d go out in my boat and make sketches which I enlarged and worked on later in my studio.

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But the more I traveled, the more I saw a polluted and desecrated world. I started to infuse my landscape with a sense of the ominous. I painted displaced animals in hostile wastelands.

I painted a hippo in Mexico City—absurd of course, a surreal effect. A pig rummaging in the dump, a baboon despairing as nuclear towers permeate his land.

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These works reflected my travels in Africa, the Galapagos, the Grand Canyon and elsewhere. I had to visit and experience those areas before I could draw them.

My critical eye has evolved—that’s the one good thing about aging. I looked back over my work for a recent 45 year retrospective. Some works look better than I thought and some are not as good as I thought.

Q: Looking through the images on your website, it’s striking how each period seems different.

A: Many artists have been criticized over the years for changing their styles. Picasso could have ten different styles, but most artists don’t dare. Josef Albers intimidated us by saying that our “mature” style should have one look.

I had to make changes. It was the only way I could stay fresh and incorporate my new experiences. I enjoyed developing a new technique that complimented the new topic. My unifying factor was in my environmental message and in my use of imagery. If there’s nothing new under the sun--if you reinvent it for yourself, it’s fresh and feels original.

For example, I found a way to break apart acrylics and inks, make them look as if they were dissolving, just as I saw the world dissolving.

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I called the acrylic company and asked them how to make their paints break apart, since some brands wouldn’t. The chemist refused to tell me,  saying “Lady, we spend all our time trying to make sure they won’t.” So I just experimented with various acids and alkalies from lemon juice to alcohol.

Q: One thing that’s been consistent is that you’re a landscape/nature painter. But “landscape painter” or "nature painter" usually evokes pretty images of nature. That’s not what you do. What is it that compels you to paint the gritty side of it?

A: I have always loved and cared about nature. Long ago when canoeing with my dad and brother we watched a clear green river turn orange, with sulphuric rocks floating by--it was from uncontrolled mine pollution.

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I became an environmentalist before I heard the word. In the seventies I felt that I was very much alone doing landscape, even ominous landscapes and mural sized endangered animals.

Q: Were there other people or events that really affected you?

A: I had a class with Jean Houston, it involved Joseph Campbell’s book: A Hero With a Thousand Faces. Ulysses—Hercules—the heroes were all similar. Each would feel discontented, go out on his own into the unknown magical world and face trials, adventures and thrills. He then returns empowered and with a special knowledge to share.

In my case, the character was a woman. I did a series of 20 drawings with a woman hero going out on these same sorts of adventures.

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She started small and fearful but finished as a large and powerful figure. This series was shown in the National Museum of Women in the Arts (2005) and is now in their permanent collection. That series confirmed my view point—ecofeminism, feminism with an ecological focus, women saving the world!

There are many ecofeminist artists now: some are conceptual artists, some are in performance, some are photographers and of course painters. I always had to do something with paint and hands-on materials.

Q: Sounds like powerful experience. Was there anything or anyone else?

A: Of course, a real heroine was Rachel Carson with her ground breaking book, Silent Spring, in 1962. What a world changer she was!

Also, in 1980 we had an accident on the back roads of the North Fork. It was hilly and snowy, a Mercedes rammed into us, and I was badly injured. It was very depressing.

While I was recovering, we took a ride past Elizabeth NJ, and I saw all the industrial pollution, the oil and chemical tanks, the billboards, and it just hit me how we are destroying the world. So I started painting the billboard series-- the American Icon of over-consumption and waste.

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The billboards evolved into another series which I called the industrial park. Industry was trying to make their industrialization sound attractive—clear cutting is “making open space”; acres of massive tanks filled with toxic chemicals are tank “farms”.

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My work isn’t only about the destroyed landscape. I see genetically modified animals as a real problem too. They’ve even invented a genetically featherless chicken, just to save the cost of plucking them--2 cents each!

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Q: That chicken is great—she looks indignant and empowered. And your billboards with their destroyed landscapes and advertising of prior pristine images really capture our consumption-obsessed, marketing-driven, polluted world.

A: I have a billboard story. Many years ago I did a billboard drawing, 60” x 40”, with urban sprawl and pollution, and on the billboard was a sunset. I called it “Showtime”. In other words, you view the sunset on that billboard because you can’t see the real thing for the pollution.

Since Beijing has such dangerous pollution the government put up a huge billboard with a simulation of the sunrise and sunset. Showtime!

Q: That’s funny and grimly depressing at the same time. Tell me about what the billboards led into—the industrial parks.

A: They're industrial landscapes where the core image is ugly, but I use silver paint and iridescent pigments so the paintings sparkle.

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I wanted the contrast of the beautiful and the ugly. You can see a rainbow in an oil spill--and if you can dissociate from the reality of it, it can be beautiful.

A work with a message is more accessible if it has a balance of the beautiful. Total despair requires the touch of a genius, an artist like Anselm Keifer can do this. I think he’s the most important artist of our time, because he has a message, power and beauty all at once.

Q: To shift to a more upbeat sort of topic, how did you get to Shelter Island? What do you enjoy about living there?

A: A friend brought us to Shelter Island around 1969, since we all loved to sail. We had rented in Sag Harbor previously. We found a little sliver of waterfront on Shelter Island and built a kit house that I customized a bit to make sure I had a studio. We moved out here full time in 1985 when my husband retired.

I loved painting Shelter Island when I first came here. I don’t paint it now, because it’s something I’ve done. The more I traveled, to such places as the Galapagos, the Grand Canyon, Africa, the more I admired the wilderness. Though Shelter Island is not wilderness, fortunately we still have open space and wildlife. A third of this island is Mashomack Preserve. And we have a cultural powerhouse—the Perlman foundation, and our Friends of Music group. Shelter Island remains very beautiful, safe and a great place to live.

Q: Shelter Island, like the North Fork generally, has numerous artists, doesn’t it? Is there an easy way to experience the Shelter Island arts scene?

A: Yes and yes. For a while some of us were participating in an artists’ studio tour that focused on the Hamptons, but it wasn’t really practical. Traffic!! So a group of Shelter Island artists got together, and said "why don’t we have our own studio tour?" When we started organizing it we discovered how many wonderful artists were here that we didn’t even know about. That became Art Shelter Island, which is now ArtSI.

Every August, the 3rd weekend, we open our studios from 11 am to 5 or 6 pm. We bring out old and new work and give a free studio tour. We have works on the website too, so people can get a sense of what they will see.

Each year is different because we have new artists and new works.

Q: August is a long way off. Are you showing anywhere now?

A: The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook is showing one of my works— SHOWTIME, from their permanent collection. My work along with three other living artists, Ansel Adams’s photography AND landscape painting from the 19th century, is in an exhibition called American Horizons, East to West. It’s an honor being in such good company.

I’m going to be on a panel with the other two living artists, Ty Stroudsburg and Bruce Lieberman on March 15th. We’ll be discussing our art, techniques and style.