Dr. Lisa: Today, it is my great pleasure to speak Jane Dahmen who is landscape artist based on the Midcoast. Jane is considered to be a contemporary realist in her art. She’s is working with the Lincoln Theater to bring artists and curators who are making a substantial contribution to Maine in front of a live audience for one-on-one conversations. Thank you so much for being here today.
Jane: Thank you for having me.
Dr. Lisa: Jane, you have been an artist for quite some time now.
Jane: Many years. Too many.
Dr. Lisa: Tell me about that.
Jane: I painted ever since I was a young child. It was just a proclivity of mine, and I painted throughout my whole growing-up years through grammar school, high school, and then I went to a liberal arts school, and I majored in Art History which I still, to this day, love, but I was always painting on the side, and I got out of school, and I had jobs, but meanwhile, I was always painting for my own pleasure.
Then, I got married, and we moved to New Hampshire, and I had two children, and I started doing silk screen print making which was a medium that land itself to small periods of time when the kids were growing up. That was very satisfying but still just a hobby, but I accumulated so many prints. I gave away as many as I could. I framed them from my own house. Then, someone offered to sell some for me, and I said “I’d love that.”
That actually began to make me think this could be a career. I started on that path. We moved to Concord, Mass where our kids grew up and I took classes at the museum school for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and painted in gouache and oil, sold many small paintings of Maine and of other places. One day, I had a studio in the center of Concord. Somebody gave me an eight-foot-by-eight-foot canvas which I did not know what to do with, but I was intrigued, and I watch that canvas every day when I went in there to my studio and looked at it for a whole year.
Meanwhile, I was walking in the woods with my husband every morning and looking at the woods and thinking. It just felt so spiritual in the woods, the noises, the sites, I love the trees, and I just was unsuccessful painting them. One day, I walked into my studio, and I put a streak of paint from the top of that canvass to the bottom, and it was the tree trunk. I just kept going, and it was the first painting that I was able to do of the woods. I’ve been doing that ever since. That’s what I’m doing today, but I’m painting on doors.
Dr. Lisa: I love the painting of yours that hangs in the Portland Art Gallery I think some of my favorites are ones that are birch trees.
Jane: I love birches.
Dr. Lisa: What’s interesting is I’m not a painter, I don’t consider myself to be really an artist, but what’s interesting and having spoken to other artists is they tell me the trees are actually not as easy to paint as one might think.
Jane: It’s challenging painting trees in a setting because there’s a lot going on and you have to make sense of it. There’s a lot of debris falling over trees, branches, and whatnot. Yes, it’s a challenge but I love challenges. Anyway, you’re an artist. Everybody is born an artist some kind or other. People don’t realize that but everybody is creative in their own way.
Dr. Lisa: I appreciate that. I’m going to keep that in my mind and my heart. What does it mean to be a contemporary realist?
Jane: It’s a way of saying that what I paint is recognizable, but it’s filtered through my own mind, and I’m as interested in painting what’s in here than what’s out there. I guess you could describe it that way.
Dr. Lisa: How did you end up here in Maine?
Jane: I went to school here. I went to Colby College, and I always loved the landscape. We sailed up here when we lived in Massachusetts. We’d come up on the weekends, and we always had an anchor that we would leave the boat at, and we had a little bike that we took with us, and we’d go back and get our car. We loved it up here but we didn’t see a way that we could make a living up here. When my husband retired in 2004, we moved up here.
Dr. Lisa: Since you’ve been here, you’ve actually become a very active member of the community including through the work that you’ve done with the Lincoln Theater.
Jane: Right. I like to give back wherever I live. I did that in Concord that I started an art center out of an old school building. It took a year out of my life. I didn’t paint for that year, but it’s still going. It’s very successful and it makes me feel good.
This program up in Damariscotta, the Skidompha, which is an award winning library, has Chats for Champions, and that program offers the audience a look at some author in a new book, but nobody was really showing artists, and what was going on with the artists. I thought we should do that at the Lincoln Theater. We should invite artists who are doing something great in Maine and interview them. We learned so much. I really do my homework. I love reading about other artists. I love talking to them, I love asking them questions, and I always learn a lot. We’ve had wonderful artists come talk with us.
Dr. Lisa: Who did you have?
Jane: We had Alex Katz recently. He was very good. We had Lois Dodd. She’s delightful. She’s 80 years old and acts like she’s 20. We had Yvonne Jacquette who paints from on high. She’s called the aerial muse. She’s just very beautiful painter. We’ve had curators. Sharon Corwin from Colby College who’s a rock star curator. She’s just terrific. If you haven’t seen that Colby College Museum, it is a winner. It’s the biggest museum in Maine now that they have wonderful gifts that they recently got. We had Suzette McAvoy from the Center for Contemporary Art talking about the new building and all the exciting things going on there. We had Eric Hopkins who was just wonderful, very personal guy. I love him. We’ve had a lot of good people and we have people lined up for this year too.
Dr. Lisa: Why do you think it’s important to have these conversations and to have other people listen to them?
Jane: It’s important for all people. Whether you’re an artist or not, you can learn a lot by talking to people. For instance, when we had Alex Katz come, one of the things I was fascinated with was he was turned down by everybody in the beginning of his career. Nobody liked what he was doing. He did well in school at Cooper Union, but when he got out, he didn’t want to paint what he painted in school. He wanted to paint his own thing. He started doing these incredible paintings that people said, “That’s terrible, don’t do that.” He turned down awards and everything because he had this inner drive. I said, “Alex, where did you get this confidence at such a young age?” He said “I don’t know,” but it was just that he never gave up on himself. He believed in himself. I think that was very instructive. I think people really were impressed with that. I was.
Dr. Lisa: What are some of the other things that you’ve learned from the artists who have come in to speak?
Jane: Of course, I’ve learned a lot of things about their process. I’m a painter. I spent every day in my studio, and I love to hear what other people do, and how they come up with their ideas for what to paint, how the artwork satisfies them in some way, what they get out of it, their motivations, their inspirations in there, some of the pitfalls that they’ve overcome.
Dr. Lisa: We’ve had people who are curators also on the show. It’s fascinating to me because there’s a very special art involved with, actually, curating, actually bringing together a group of paintings or pieces so that other people can enjoy them.
Jane: There’s a great skill in hanging shows. Sharon Corwin at Colby does a great job at that. Colby College was given a 500-piece collection from Peter and Paula Lunder recently worth over $100 million, some ungodly thing, and Alex Katz has given them 700 paintings, but to hang the paintings well, and to show them at their best is a real map that Sharon has. If you go and look at one of her shows that she’s hung, she has her hand in all of it, you will see that she makes connections that you might not make but she is very good at that. I think all her shows are really interesting from that point of view, if nothing else.
Dr. Lisa: You also have an interesting family and that your daughter recently returned, I believe, from Peru?
Jane: She’s married to a Peruvian. She’s traveled there but no, they met in Massachusetts. He is a musician and so is she. Yes, they have a wonderful band called the Flying Seeds. I think they’re going to go out as a duo because they find it a lot more creative and a lot easier than working with all these other people especially now that they’ve moved to Maine, but we’re very excited about what they’re doing.
Dr. Lisa: I don’t want to detract from your other child. What is your other child doing?
Jane: I have another wonderful child who’s living out in Vancouver and he’s an architect. Both of our children are artists of one kind or another. He’s also involved with sustainable building materials. He is very interested in rammed earth making, rammed earth block for building houses because one of the biggest drains on the environment is building materials that are shipped all over the world. Concrete is a huge, huge energy problem.
Dr. Lisa: Do you think that it helped your kids that you have this interest in the arts?
Jane: You would have to ask them. At times, I probably wasn’t helping. They used to say to me, “Mom, go to your studio,” as they were growing up because they knew it was where I found solace, and peace, and happiness but yes, maybe it was good because I gave them the freedom and my husband is also very creative. He had his own business, and he was creative, and unusual. We all needed a lot of downtime in our family. We all spent a lot of time alone within the family because we each needed it. We didn’t realize it at that time but now looking back on it, I think we all realize and appreciate the fact that we needed to be alone. I think we gave our kids the freedom to do whatever was in their heart. We never said, “No, you can’t do that,” and so probably because we’re artists.
Dr. Lisa: That’s an unusual thing to have, a family full of people who like to be by themselves.
Dr. Lisa: I like to be by myself and I didn’t know that it’s coo-coo. I just think it’s an interesting dynamic.
Jane: Yeah. No it’s true. I think we all gave each other space. When I was bringing up my kids, it wasn’t exactly thought to be a good thing to shut down on your kids, and say, “I need some time to be alone,” but I did that. They respected that. They knew these was mom’s time to be alone. I didn’t do it when they were two and three. I like being with my kids. I’ve always enjoyed them. I learned as much from them as I think they learned from me. I tried to be a part of their lives as they were growing up. I certainly wasn’t a perfect mom, but I went and got my daughter out of school when her cat had kittens because I wanted her to see it but I didn’t tell the teacher why I was taking her out. We took the kids on trips, and took them out of school to take them because we felt that life is a long life, and it’s lot of experiences, and you don’t want to give up any.
Dr. Lisa: I’m sure that you have the opportunity to work with younger artists and people who are newly in their field. What types of challenges do you see for people who are just getting into this work?
Jane: Probably the biggest one is to try somehow to hold your confidence, hold that inner knowing that you are doing the right thing. If you really want to be an artist, you have to be confident a lot of the time. I’m not talking about being a bragger or anything like that. I’m talking about when everybody is saying you shouldn’t be doing A, you can do it. Don’t go off, and try and do what pleases other people. It’s folly. Stay with who you are and believe in yourself because if you don’t believe in yourself, who else is going to? You can convince a lot of people that what you’re doing is right if you believe in it.
I would say too to protect yourself a little bit. Don’t let everybody in to your studio. I used to let everyone come in to my space. You’re very vulnerable in there, and you’re doing something that’s very personal. It’s a spiritual sacred place. Don’t just let everybody in there because even good comments about what you’re doing can be influential and it can affect you. I would say be careful that way a little bit.
Then, as people are gaining artistic experience, I would say I learned from reading Mark Rothko, he said it’s important what you choose not to do as what you do. Try to focus at some point, not in the very beginning, you might try all kinds of things, but most artists can do a lot of things. They can do a lot of things well but if you focus on one thing, you’d probably going to get better at it, and it may really be your voice.
Dr. Lisa: That’s an interesting point because I think that in this day and age, we have access to lots of things. We can act as almost anything we want, any piece of information, any type of education. To be able to hone down what it is that we feel most connected to, maybe it’s a little bit more challenging than it once was.
Jane: That’s true. With the internet and everything, you can waste a lot of time looking up things. You can be on Facebook every day. It’s true. I think it’s more challenging the more information that is available, but I think the satisfying good life is to slow it down and look inward, and say, “What is it I really, really, want to do? What means the most to me?” Somehow having an integrated life and feeling that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do is really, really healthy.
Dr. Lisa: Do you ever happen to cross other individuals who are later in their lives or in their careers who started off on one path and then just took a right turn?
Jane: All the time. I think it’s great when that happens. I hope they don’t regret what they started out doing because the experience probably added to what they’re doing now. I meet a lot of people in my studio when we have an open house or in the gallery who say. “I’ve always wanted to paint,” and I say, “Do it. What are you waiting for?” Sometimes, these people are not young, and they say, “I can’t. I don’t have time. I have a house to pay for, and I’ve got kids in college.” Then, just do it part time if you have to, but I’m all for, as Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss” I think it’s the healthiest way to go.
Dr. Lisa: There’s something interesting to me about being an artist, and having your piece on a wall for other people to evaluate, connect to, possibly pay for, maybe take them to their houses, you’re putting yourself out in a very obvious way.
Jane: Yes. It’s very observant of you to notice that. When I first started showing my work, I was scared to death. I really was. I hated to go to shows that showed my work up on the wall. I would think, “That’s me.” It’s like taking all of your clothes off and standing up and saying, “What do you think?” It’s really an awful feeling. I got over it and I got used to it. I was taught by the first gallery that I really was in that it’s like stepping into a stream. The water is still going, and it’s going somewhere, and you’re not there yet. This is your way along the way. What you’re doing right now might be the best work you’re ever going to do, you don’t know that, or you might be on the way of doing something great.
Don’t take it too seriously just put the work out there and be grateful if people like it. If they want to buy it, even better, but I don’t paint for that reason. I don’t paint for other people. I really paint for myself. I don’t paint to sell a work although I love to sell it because in this culture, if someone buys something, it means something. It means that they not only like it but they’re willing to sacrifice for it, but I would still do it if I wasn’t paid for it.
Dr. Lisa: That’s a strong statement.
Jane: Right, I suppose it is. I have friends who paint and never sell anything, and I love what they do but they are so into it, and their work does not appeal to the public. I admire that. You wonder, if nobody liked what you did, if you’d keep doing it just for your own satisfaction because sometimes people die, and then their work is discovered, and people say, “Wow,” or they’re very late in their career, and someone like Agnes Martin painted her whole life without any recognition until she was quite a bit older. That happens too.
Dr. Lisa: Now, that’s interesting. I think about that often actually, people who write books, or people who paint something, or people who put music out into the world, and they never know that anybody ever appreciates it maybe because, I don’t know, the cultural feeling hasn’t caught up to where the art is itself, but they’ve still done it.
Jane: Historically, look at all the artists who painted great paintings like van Gogh, for instance, great painter. One of the best painters who ever lived on the planet was never recognized when he was alive. How hard is that? You must have tremendous inner motivation and an obsession to paint when nobody is giving you positive feedback.
Dr. Lisa: Clearly, if he sliced off his ear, probably there was something tormenting, and possibly moving him forward in a way that many of us hopefully will never have to understand but yes, I think that’s true. I think this idea that you’ve brought up several times in really listening to yourself, and not only listening to yourself, but being propelled forward by what you’re hearing. I think that’s not always an easy thing because there are so many other voices that we hear, so many other influences upon our lives. Sometimes, it’s easier just to pick one of those and follow that instruction.
Jane: Absolutely. I think you got to be very careful and be on the lookout all the time for people who make you feel insecure. Do not hang around with people like that. Just get rid of those people. They mean well sometimes. They don’t even mean to be doing what they’re doing but don’t hang around with them. Don’t stay in a gallery. If you’re an artist, do not stay in a gallery that is putting down your work in subtle ways. Coming in to your studio and saying, “I like this one and not that one,” or “Why don’t you paint some smaller ones because we can sell them”. Just go somewhere else. Don’t stay with that kind of influence because you really do owe it to yourself to be strong inside and to stay focused on what you want to do.
If it takes listening to tapes, or listening to your show, or reading books, whatever it takes to build up your inner confidence, I think that’s a big factor in a healthy life. I really do. I think believing in yourself, having the courage to choose what you want to do, and listening to that little voice isn’t easy. You’re right, I think you need some time alone to hear it and know that it’s really you speaking and not some voice that you’ve heard, your mother, or your father, who again might be well meaning, but how do they know what’s in your brain, or what’s in your mind, or your body. They don’t.
Dr. Lisa: Who’s coming up for you at the Lincoln Theater that you think people would be interested in hearing from?
Jane: The first one we have is John Bisbee who is a wonderful sculptor who uses 12-inch nails. He’s in Brunswick and I love his work. We have Anna Hepler who is now at the show in Portland. You can get there from here, the Biennial. She makes wonderful, little, intuitive sculptural pieces. Then, somehow or other, she turns them into these enormous museum pieces. Even she doesn’t know how she does it. It’s a very magical, mystical thing that she does.
Katherine Bradford who is a very interesting painter. Sometimes hard to understand. Her images are psychologically challenging. I love her work. I always have. I can’t wait to hear what she has to say. Then, we’re having William Wegman who is a poet, artist, writer, and photographer of his great Weimaraners which are dogs, which he dresses up in costumes, and he is a very funny man. I’m looking forward to meeting him too.
Dr. Lisa: How can people find out about the work that you’re doing with the Lincoln Theater or the work that you do as an artist really?
Jane: I have a website for my art. Let’s just Google Jane Dahmen. It’s D-A-H-M-E-N. The Lincoln Theater Series is advertised in Maine Home and Design. We are trying to get grants for both advertising and to record these talks and also so we can have more local artists come who are very talented, and we’d love to have a showcase for them too, but we send out notices from the Lincoln Theater, and it will be on the newspapers, and in Maine Home and Design. If you Google the Lincoln Theater, you’ll find when these talks are coming up.
Dr. Lisa: We’ve been speaking with Jane Dahmen who is a landscape artist based on the Midcoast, and also who is working with the Lincoln Theater to bring artists and curators for making a substantial contribution to Maine in front of a live audience for one-on-one conversations. Thanks so much for coming in. Thanks for the work you’re doing. Thanks for being inspiring. I feel like I should go out and practice my art now. You’ve done a good job.
Jane: Thank you very much. I like what you’re doing too.
Dr. Lisa: Thank you.