Upon meeting Jan Aronson, the first thing one notices is her total lack of pretension. She answers her own telephone, extends an immediate invitation to visit her Long Island City studio, books her own appointments—all accomplished with simplicity and directness not always visible in a city where sometimes staff conveys status. Calm and cordial, she appears to lack the “artist temperament.” Even her website is minimalist.
But then anyone who spent nine years in the wilds of Vermont (including several months in a geodesic dome) with her former artist husband, studying nature, heating with and cooking on a wood-burning stove and hauling two buckets of fresh water by hand each day, suffers no delusions of pretension. She’s also a quick study: she vowed never to fall in love again with an artist.
Despite a comfortable life being married for 22 years to Edgar Bronfman of Seagram’s fame, she’s fended for herself throughout the world for years. Raised in New Orleans, her father was an architect who taught her how to draw a straight line. Jan always wanted to be an artist, but suffered from the all-too-familiar malady of self-doubt, questioning whether or not she might be good enough. Graduating from the University of New Orleans, she then set off for New York City’s Pratt Institute, where she earned an MFA and set a goal of being great, not famous. There is a difference.
Her first job was teaching art (she needed to pay the rent), then she returned to New Orleans to teach at Dillard University. In 1986, after returning from trekking in the Himalayas for a year, she became a full-time artist, using nature as inspiration for her abstract expressionist work. Earlier works included series on leaves, clouds and rocks.
Aronson’s Water Series is currently on display at the DFN Gallery, 74 East 79th Street. Upon entering the gallery, the soothing forms contrast with combinations of cool and vibrant colors, and the walls of water images she interprets as dealing with life and its challenges. One thinks of water as a double-edged sword: not only a life force but also a means of destruction. Water offers options: being swept away, floating or succumbing to its gentle flows. (Jan’s analogy is a particularly poignant metaphor for life in New York City, where “sink or swim” is a common undercurrent).
Her nature themes manifested close to home immediately following 9/11, and her Leaves Series is in memorium to that awful chaos. Connecting with a doctor affiliated with St. Vincent’s who ministered to the rescue workers, she was invited to observe as he soothed the searchers stumbling from the rubble. Out of the gray ash of destruction, she witnessed pieces of the stainless steel structure standing upright, and in the dark dawn of those first days, its back was streaked with red rust, reminiscent of the girl in the red coat in the black and white film, Schindler’s List. That weekend at the couple’s working farm in Virginia, rust-hued leaves had begun to fall, alternately touching, then flittering in the breeze. The light emanating through the leaves she photographed prompted her to use them as a way to pay tribute to the tragedy and the life that emerged in spite of it.
“Being an artist is not a choice,” she avers. Rather, “It’s a curse. An artist labors long and hard, and most receive little, if any, recognition.” Yet she imagines doing nothing else. “We don’t fully understand the mysteries of life, but my work is a commentary on them.”
At age 35, Jan set out on the journey of self-discovery that ultimately defined her work, starting in Israel. “It changed my life—the desert was such a contrast to the humidity of New Orleans.” Hiking Israel’s mountains led to trekking in Sinai, then to a month in the Himalayas, where she climbed to 17,500 feet, followed by a16-day jaunt through Patagonia and, finally, floating the waters of the Amazon. “The Amazon gave me my appreciation of water,” she explains. Having hiked major mountains the world over, she looks forward each summer to hiking the rugged peaks of Idaho, where the couple maintains a summer place.
Fantastically fit (she competes in triathalons, regularly rides her bike and walks the 1-1/2 mile stretch between the subway stop at 42nd Street and her Upper East Side residence), this genuinely friendly and vivacious Woman Around Town’s goals are simple: to do good work, to continue sharing life with her husband of 22 years (they met on a blind date) and to be a good friend. “I have so much to look forward to!” she offers with a smile. “My friends, my community, connecting with people—I’m ready for my next move in life!”
Jan Aronson, Water
74 East 79th Street
Through June 12, 2010
The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Paintings, from top:
Jan Aronson Water Series #15, Oil on Canvas, 2008
Jan Aronson Water Series #17, Graphite on Paper, 2009
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Shop: Pearl Paint
Favorite Place to Dine: Manetta, Tuk Tuk (both in Long island City near her studio)
Favorite New York Sight: The Seagram’s Building
Favorite New York Moment: Still to come
What You Love About New York: I can be anonymous
What You Hates About New York: The noise – it’s so unhealthy