Like many artists, Grover classifies her paintings into “real” work and “novelty” subjects, for which she is more often recognized: Her expressionistic renderings of crows and ravens typify the interior at Indigo Crow restaurant and sell quickly at local art venues.
“Even Artificial Women”
“BJ the Crow skis the Rockies”
“Hiding From Pain,” Jana Grover
A childhood redeemed
—Keiko Ohnuma, Signpost
To say that Jana Grover found art late in life doesn’t begin to tell her story. She didn’t know what art was until well into grade school. In rural Idaho, where she grew up, the nearest art museum was in Jackson, Wyoming, three hours away.
“We didn’t have plumbing until I was in third grade,” she recalls. She rode a bus 30 miles to a school that wasn’t even accredited. The only art she can remember seeing were drawings that her stepmother had done as an adolescent and which she never thought of attempting herself.
Many decades later, as a seasoned urbanite living in San Francisco, Grover was talked into taking an unusual class called “The Edge of Vision.” Taught by famed portrait artist Elaine Badgley-Arnoux, it featured “weird music” and a woman in strange costume “dancing around doing bizarre movements.”
It was her first experience with art since a drawing class in college, and “I loved it!” Grover laughs. “It was art therapy,” she admits—with exercises like closing your eyes and revisiting childhood to paint your feelings from that time. “I didn’t remember my feelings, but I was hooked.”
Grover didn’t just keep taking classes with Badgley-Arnoux, who developed a huge following over the years. She ended up taking over the building where the classes were held and where she now co-manages 40 artist studios in San Francisco’s SoMa District, a number of them rented to other acolytes.
What made Badgley-Arnoux such an inspiring teacher, Grover recalls, was that she could spot instantly what was needed for someone’s development and give each student individual direction. “At first I took classes and didn’t care about what I made,” she says. “Then I got good at it, and Elaine would give critiques that were very helpful.”
It was no accident that the teacher resonated with Grover. Badgley-Arnoux had learned at age 13, as an innocent girl from rural Nebraska, that her father had spent time in prison for statutory rape. She went on to marry four times and had an artistic awakening at age 50.
Grover also got a startling perspective on her roots when she moved to Arlington, Virginia, at age 15 to live with her mother, a woman she hardly knew. Only then did she begin to understand the strangeness of her upbringing in a secluded world of stern Mormon men who didn’t think women should drive cars or write checks. Her mother had fled Idaho soon after Jana was born, abandoning her only child for a career as an actress and teacher.
Ironically, “the one thing she did that was most damaging to me—the abandonment—was also in a way the best because this was a woman who did her own thing,” Grover says. “At least she was some kind of bizarre role model.”
Jana never looked back either. “I had a childhood from hell, which shows up in my art,” she says, an outspoken woman now who moves and paints with great energy and lives comfortably alone for part of the year in a ramshackle little house in the Corrales bosque. Even as a child, she had known there was something peculiar about her; she had no interest in boys and could not imagine getting married and having children. “I don’t know what I saw, but I never saw myself getting married.”
With no real direction, she went on to “Podunk colleges.” No one in her family had gone to college, so it never occurred to her that the choice might matter. Following her mother and stepfather back west, she eventually ended up at San Jose State University, where she studied physical education. And there she stayed. For three decades, Grover taught in Bay Area schools, first PE, then special ed.
And for most of those years, art remained peripheral to her awareness, she says, still amazed that this world was unknown to her for most of her life. Yet the substance of her paintings—moody, dark, intuitive emotional portraits, mostly figurative—clearly had been brewing under the surface for years.
Like many artists, Grover classifies her paintings into “real” work and “novelty” subjects, for which she is more often recognized: Her expressionistic renderings of crows and ravens typify the interior at Indigo Crow restaurant and sell quickly at local art venues. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re the crow lady,’” she says, which has prompted her to start painting armadillos and javelinas as well.
Her serious emotional portraits deal mostly with disappointment, loss, or heartache. Many also have a political edge. “I work quickly,” Grover explains of her intuitive style. “The longer I spend, the worse it gets.” Also, the titles usually come first, a predilection that may be handed down from her actress mother and storytelling grandfather; his stories about “Blackjack the Crow” inspired her series The Ten Crowmandments.
Both kinds of paintings have done well, to Grover’s surprise. “I used to say, ‘It would be great to sell my art, but I don’t have to sell it.’ I used to say I would only make art I wanted. But it’s seductive, I’ll tell you,” she says with a shake of the head. Retired since the turn of the century, she travels to art fairs four or five times a year, spending most of the winter in San Francisco and doing a series of exhibitions and art fairs from her base in Corrales in the spring and fall.
“I’m lucky in that I have two support systems,” she says. Grover settled in Corrales in 1989, when her mother and stepfather retired in Albuquerque. Her small adobe house is precisely what she had wanted: a casita with no main house attached. The humble structure with its two tiny outbuildings sits far back from the road, under a dense canopy of cottonwoods in the heart of the village.
Finding art late in life, Jana Grover has brought her whole life to the altar of art. Late-blooming artists thus serve as a testament to the transformative power of creativity, quite aside from the success of its products. Of course, Grover doesn’t mind that her paintings sell like hotcakes. But the real truth of the matter, she says, is that “doing art has saved my life.”
Jana Grover shows her work in the exhibition Now and Then at SCA Contemporary Art (524 Haines NW, Albuquerque; 228-3749) through May 7 and in the Corrales Studio Tour May 1-2.