On the poetic plane with Janet Pierce.

By Michelle Culpitt

The author acknowledges that this piece was created at the Banff Centre which is located on Stony Nakota and Blackfoot Territories, Canada and Larrakia country in Darwin, Australia and pay respect to the original custodians of the land in these places.

  Janet Pierce is an Irish painter who studied under the Scottish watercolourist Sir William Gillies at the Edinburgh School of Art. Helen Frankenthaler was a major influence on Pierce when she lived in the USA in the early 1970s. She lived, and painted, through 'the troubles' in Northern Ireland before, at the age of 55, she found her Guru, Sri Vasudeva, in India. In September 2013 she was based in the Leighton Colony at the Banff Centre in Canada preparing a body of work for an exhibition celebrating Yeats and Tagore, the great poets of Ireland and India.

"My primary school teacher, back when I was five, was part of the British Raj. Ten minutes to one, when the dinner bell rang, she used to put her feet on the table, light a fag, sit back and she would tell us stories about India. She told them from the perspective of someone who loved India. As a little girl at the back of the class with a very active imagination, I just loved it. Mrs. Trotter was her name and she was a fabulous woman. I adored her. She had little Indian bells in her ears. I always had it in my mind to go to India. But it wasn't until I was 55 (living in Ireland) and I had my award (the Aosdána) and I needed to make some sense of suffering. So I went to India. From the moment I stepped off the plane in Delhi it felt like I was home."

Janet Pierce, September 2013 1


Janet Pierce has dedicated the past ten years to making art and exhibiting in Ireland and in India. For most of her life as a painter, Pierce has portrayed the internal landscape. In her later works, this terrain manifested itself as the line. The line signals that there has been a spiritual quest inwards. Piet Mondrian depicted spiritual harmony as the line, for Kasimir Malevich it was the abstract sublime of Black Square (1930), Mark Rothko had the void and the maestro Agnes Martin had her horizons; they all depict a spiritual journey, and for some, the destination.

OmThe goal: pictorial unity, OM, the ineffable. But, it doesn't come easily. The journey of the artist leads down the rabbit's burrow or atop the metaphoric mountain. During her residency at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, Pierce experienced the highs and the lows, the ongoing tempo of her art life. Janet Pierce was a resident in the Banff Centre Leighton Colony. Artists resident in 'the colony', leave the light filled expanse of the Banff Centre's Vistas restaurant, where meals are served, and take the long lonely walk back into the dark woods to go another round with their work. The studios are accessed by walking across a small bridge – a kind of Einstein-Rosen bridge 2 for some. There are information sheets in the studios that warn artists of bears, elk and cougars. Past the first studio, the Hemingway, named for the architect Peter Hemingway not Ernest, is a suspended boat an actual converted fishing boat by architect Richard Henriquez — and past the boat is studio number six by architect Ron Thom; Pierce's home away from India and Ireland for more than eight weeks, her studio in the woods.

A bear clawed a tree at the back door, its scratch marks are still visible.

"I am not working on the outer landscape anymore, I am working on the inner landscape." Pierce says, "For five weeks I worked and worked and worked. I just couldn't find myself at all. But I worked through it, every day for hours, and I really felt despairing. It has been a long time since I worked for five weeks solid to get nothing. Slowly it began to dawn on me, I was trying to respond to the mountains. To be stimulated by them when I was not. I started to gaze at the blue sky and see that emptiness again: the work came. I stopped trying to respond to magnificence of the Rockies around Banff and looked within."

Janet Pierce's first solo show was painted while pregnant with her first child, whilst she lived with her first husband in America. Created in the domestic sphere, the paintings were not the scale of domestic work. Influenced by America and freed from Scottish and European traditions she painted large-scale. "Helen Frankenthaler was a huge influence in America, I had never seen her work before, she was a turning point in my life. I had never seen a woman produce big works before and the freedom of letting it flow and drip, as with her Color Field paintings, just blew me away."

Pierce says of this time in early 1970s America,

"It seemed very audacious. There was such a sense of freedom attached to being away from European cultural heritage, that my work expanded. I did a show in an American museum that was much bigger and freer because of Frankenthaler".

In 1971, Pierce left America and moved to a war zone in Northern Ireland. The 'troubles' were at it's peak. She did her second solo exhibition in Belfast, of paintings made mostly on the kitchen table of her Northern Ireland home. She worked at the local school and while the other staff gathered for morning coffee break, she painted. In Northern Ireland, she painted and she passed through difficult territory. There were 'the troubles', a marriage break down and other personal conflicts. It was around this time when music — which has always been a very important part of Pierce's life and art making — changed the trajectory of her work.

She first heard the singer Maighread Ní Dhomhnail in County Clare, and had an immediate emotional response. She could not understand it. On her return home, a friend told her Maighread Ní Dhomhnail sang in Irish Gaelic, very close to Scots Gallic. "She said, 'maybe it's because she's from Donegal which is very Scottish'.

"I realised it was bringing back feelings of displacement. The terrible uprooting of emigrating to America for the sake of my husband. I loved Scotland and was torn. I did a whole exhibition listening to Maighread's singing. I played her music in my studio. Then I learnt the word Ceanalas (keen–a–liss) is a Scottish Gaelic word that means homesickness that comes from song. I was not the first to suffer from these feelings.
I painted imaginary landscapes that were between Scotland and Ireland. I had always been very spiritual but had left Christianity behind a long time ago, but, I was looking for light. It was a result of the conflict, internal and external; you really had to make an effort to transcend all that was around you to create something beautiful, a transcendent light. I remember Seamus Heaney wrote, walk on air against your better judgment. 3

The opposite was to get absolutely swamped with hatred and mis trust. It was all around us: machine guns in front of our house, armed police walking up and down the street, helicopters search lighting the lake, daily bomb threats. You become brutalised.
If someone had been killed, Catholic or Protestant, I would cry. I would hear about it on the radio and I would cry. But by the time I left, I only cried if I knew the person. It becomes normalised. You know that if there is a bomb in one street, that your life could go in the next street. It gives you an awareness of darkness. So you have to search for the light. By the time I did the big paintings later in Dublin I was on a path of transcendence."

The gold light of morning beams through the window in Pierce's Leighton Colony studio. Gold leaf burnished onto a drawing reflects light onto her face. She looks like František Kupka, swathed in yellow and gold in his painting The Yellow Scale (1907.) A photo of her Guru, Sri Vasudeva, is propped up against the computer screen behind her. Pierce listens to chanting — or banjans — as part of her painting discipline every day. Jules Olitski had his copy of the Polish Rider by Rembrandt 4 as his ground zero in his studio; Pierce has her Guru and her banjans.

The fruit of Pierce's labor from the past five weeks of this Banff residency are in piles on the floor and hang on the walls. If Pierce appears relaxed and aglow in the reflection of her work today, it is because she has passed through difficult terrain and survived those daily walks back from the dining hall through the woods to her studio. Tom Wolf wrote of Willem De Kooning, "… the bull – or the matador – as you like it – pulls back and takes a few snorts of reflection before the next collision with Fate." 5 Pierce is more Agnes Martin than matador, but the metaphor fits; art making as battle ground.

Janet Pierce at workPierce's blonde hair is mottled with the blue and yellow dust of her pastels. It wildly crests about her head. She is tall and her clothes billow behind her as she walks, such is the energy of her forward momentum. Her accent is Irish and Scottish. She is quick with craic or a broad smile. In the studio she wears a black apron. Pastels, watercolors and brushes cover the desk. She sits down to draw at the table. She works the pastels into a new piece — royal blue — with her fingers and then uses an eraser to rub back the colour. A large window of gold leaf polished into the center of the drawing acts as a mirror that reflects the artist and then later the viewer. Whilst she talks, she folds the whole piece of paper in half and scrapes down the fold with a metal ruler. Then she tears the paper. It appears she has just torn a perfectly good drawing in half. "That's better." And it is. Now there are two drawings and the ineffable gold line.

Luminosity, a key concern of Pierce's, it signals about the arrival at light from darkness. The first painting she can remember seeing was when she was around ten years old "… in Edinburgh and it was a Gainsborough. I used to go up Saturday mornings to Princess Street in Edinburgh and we used to look in this window, in a ski shop of all places, called Lilly White's, and they had a Gainsborough, a painting by Gainsborough. I'll never forget the folds of silk and that dress. It was luminous. I used to stand there and gaze at this painting."

The artist, whether Martin, Gainsborough or De Kooning, mines the spiritual plane and the audience seeks out the spirit of the artist when they look at their work, read the poem or listen to the song; they sometimes find themselves on the same plane. These acts tie artist and audience together in the devotional and the divine. "I am always looking for the spiritual light shining though darkness. Painting is always a mixture of the outside and the inside. I had my own darkness and suffering in life." Pierce says, "Landscape was not just about holding on to reality through the landscape and the sky, but the deeper thing was my own emotions and I was really, really struggling. And then I got the major award – the Aosdána award - and I set up a permanent studio, another award got me to India."

This was another major turning point in Pierce's life and work, as it where she met her Guru, Sri Vasudeva.
After the Guru and Pierce found each other she went inwards. She did not paint, or even participate, in her previous artistic and creative life for two years. After this period of reflection, she returned to art making and the flat line emerged as the major motif in her work. The line, as centerpiece of pictorial unity, replaced the metaphorical mountains and earlier landscapes. They were influenced by the ennui and homesickness activated, in part, by listening to the music of Maighread and Triona Ní Dhomhnail. Music has always charged Pierce's work. Before the Indian banjans, there was the bodhrán (the Irish drum) that she played in her studio while she danced to warm up before painting.

Pierce has had collaborations with poets. She has been inspired by the Irish poet and Noble Laureate Seamus Heaney, there was a collaborative exhibition and book titled Ladakh with Indian poet Sudeep Sen. And here at the Banff Centre, she is making work for the Sligo Yeats Festival in 2014 on the relationship between W.B Yeats and Rabindranath Thakur (Tagore).
Many of the new works feature yellow and gold. She has arrived back at the void and the line after burrowing in the depths, scaling the mountains and walking across the ice age glaciers, literally within Banff National Park and also metaphorically.

The colours and compositions are transcendent: the elemental silver and gold glow and the colours are deep and rich, "Yellow is a very difficult color, but I think that I have pulled it off. When it is the wrong color it's a decadent color and when it's the right yellow it's joy and sunshine and light. It's very difficult to get it right. And it (yellow) dominates. It floods. It's opaque if you are using lemon or ochre: it's Indian, like turmeric powder. If you go to the temples in India, they have powders that you that you put on your forehead, earth colours, and turmeric is one of those colours. The right yellow is the color of joy. I love it and I have been obsessed with yellow. I think that its because of the meditation. The energy here has affected me, it is highly meditative. I'm living a Yeats and Tagore life if you like. I listen to my guru chanting in the morning and then I do a meditation. Then I paint."

The author acknowledges that this piece was created at the Banff Centre which is located on Stony Nakota and Blackfoot Territories, Canada and Larrakia country in Darwin, Australia and pay respect to the original custodians of the land in these places.

End Notes

  1. This interview with Janet Pierce took place in the Leighton Colony at the Banff Centre for the Arts in September 2013
  2. The Einstein-Rosen bridge is a theory of Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen of a wormhole that is unstable and collapses before any information or matter can pass through. I thought that this was an interesting metaphor for some stages of art making.
  3. Pierce is quoting from both a poem by Seamus Heaney, The Gravel Walks and his 1995 Nobel Laureate Speech
  4. Terry Fenton, Jules Olitski and the tradition of oil painting, Edmonton Art Gallery, 1979 The Rembrandt reference is from an interview with Judith Dayton 23 October 1977
  5. Tom Wolf, The Painted Word, Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, 1975, p. 56

Janet Pierce biography Pierce studied under the esteemed Scottish watercolorist William Gillies at the Edinburgh School of Art. She graduated with a series of mural works in 1969 and has since lived her life as a practicing artist across several continents, worked as an arts administrator and received many awards. www.janetpierce.com

About the author
Michelle Culpitt was in residence at the Banff Centre in September 2013 as part of the Banff Literary Arts program. Culpitt is an artist and writer based in Darwin, Northern Territory Australia. www.michelleculpitt.com