Our art editor Mark Benton recently had this exchange with Jeanie Tomanek, featured artist for Issue #31. Here’s what she had to say about the influence of story and myth on her art, her art-inspired poetry, and her use of archetypes and symbols.
You have indicated that your female archetypes are derived from myth, folklore, and fairy tales. Are there any specific stories that your paintings represent, and how much of the subject matter comes from your own personal experience?
There are two stories I’ve explored multiple times. The first is a Grimm tale, “The Handless Maiden,” that traces the journey of a woman from innocence (and ignorance) through trials and challenges that she overcomes to arrive at wisdom and power.
The second one I’ve explored many times is the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. It is such a rich tale of darkness and light, winter and summer, a mother’s love and heartbreak. I have one daughter who lives far away, so this one now has extra meaning for me.
On personal experiences, I often begin with what is occupying my mind. I created a series of “Caretaker” paintings when I was caring for my aging parents. I did several based on issues I’ve faced in my 48-year marriage. And I have been continually inspired by poetry, most notably Emily Dickinson.
I tell women’s stories and I believe my experiences are common to many others.
You are also a poet. Does this series pair well with your poetry, and have you also displayed your writing alongside your paintings?
Yes, I have written quite a few poems that I explored further once I started painting—the Demeter and Persephone one several times. I haven’t done a poem about “The Handless Maiden,” but it wouldn’t be a bad idea.
I recently did a series of haiku that were displayed next to paintings for an opening.
(haiku by Jeanie Tomanek)
The King’s pear orchard
Handless she cannot reach out
Spirit bends down bough
Void fruit tumbles odd
An ancient dusky vessel
Wonder where time goes
As I was reading your haiku, it occurred to me that the format is perfect for pairing with imagery. You can almost see a painting in front of you. What was the biggest challenge for you in creating this series?
The biggest challenge is always to keep the painting style loose enough that the paintings do not become illustrations.
With your particular style, I don’t see that as a danger. Will you continue in this vein, or do you have different plans for the future, possibly a different series?
I really love doing abstracts, and I want to do a series based on aging and mortality, but in a hopeful and philosophical manner.
That sounds very interesting. How would you approach that concept?
When I paint abstracts, my process is guided by a theme when I have one. Gestures, marks, intensity, symbols, and color are deployed in relation to what I’m thinking and feeling while exploring the subject.
What other mythic components have you used? For example, I’m curious about your use of bird figures and other iconic images like the dagger and the rose.
The symbols I use are just what make sense in my lexicon. Usually a personal vocabulary, but things like pomegranates and crosses are from myth and religion, for instance.
Not for you the terror
of “If I should die
before I wake…”
a dare to a fickle god
to take you while you slept.
Sandaled girl dressed in white
walks in flowered field
I used instead the pantheon
of frailer gods,
told you myths of Daedalus,
Icarus, Demeter, Persephone,
proud and weak, brave and foolish.
Hades’ nightshaded horses rising
from the sundered earth
– excerpt from Jeanie Tomanek’s poem “Mother Winter”
Can you tell me more about the pale, bald “Everywoman” that you have described in your work?
When I first began painting full time about twenty years ago, I only did abstracts. In the earliest days of painting full time, I was trying to find my voice and style. As I began to tell my stories, a protagonist figure emerged from the abstracts. She was still pretty abstract, as was the rest of the painting. The figure began to emerge more distinctly, and I knew I wanted her to be symbolic and iconic. Something rather statue-like.
Since I kept associating hair with bad portraits of females with flowing locks, I decided she would be bald, and somewhere along there I decided she was that way so she could represent all women and hence “Everywoman.” I honestly don’t remember now what the conscious process was that led me there. I sometimes do give them hair as it seems appropriate but still try to make the theme universal.
I love it. She emerged from your primordial painterly soup. Your figures have a wonderfully natural line. I could be wrong, but I gather that you are self-taught. Is this true?
Indeed, the painterly soup is the source. And yes, I am self-taught. Always liked to paint and draw. It didn’t occur to me ‘til later in life that I could make a career out of it.
A lot of your figures are very tall, which is very appropriate for a mythic theme, especially in terms of composition in art history. The prominent figures or gods were always larger or taller than other figures in many works of antiquity to denote importance. What is the significance behind this common feature?
I think my ladies’ unusual height is just another way for them to have a significant presence. The fact that they’re not perfectly realistic allows them to have other unusual powers, perhaps?