Jayne Holsinger left Mishawaka, Indiana, in the late 1970s for New York to pursue a career as an artist. In the early eighties, she studied at the New York Studio School, and later, she earned a master’s degree from the Transart Institute. After moving to Westbeth in 1990 and having to deal with the artificial light of a basement studio, she adopted a new process, which involved creating paintings from her own photographs. Her many subjects include her family members, Mennonites, women drivers, the middle American landscape. Holsinger’s artwork has been exhibited widely both in North America and overseas. She has recently returned from a residency at BigCi in Australia.
Terry Stoller spoke with Jayne Holsinger in July 2017 about her arts education, her upbringing in Mishawaka, Indiana, and the influence of her Anabaptist background on her artwork, her jobs that financed her education and her move to New York, her use of photographs for her paintings, her focus on women and her family in a series of paintings, her artwork in response to 9/11, and her volunteer work at a homeless shelter.
Terry Stoller: You told me that art wasn’t encouraged in your Anabaptist community. How did you get started as an artist? What did your family feel about that?
Jayne Holsinger: There was no judgment in my immediate family. They just didn’t understand. However, I remember from a young age that in church my dad used to draw Popeye. I remember watching him, amazed at how he’d make these lines—and I didn’t see it coming—and this image would show up. He was a navy man. I think that was probably the only thing that he really drew. That was one memory. The other is—my brother was a brilliant draftsman, and I would watch him drawing. My earliest memory of doing “art” was picking up greeting cards and putting them on a window and putting a piece of paper on top and tracing them. I had a lot of coloring books too, but I colored very specifically. By the time I got to grade school, I already had a sense of myself as being good in that area. My family thought that was nice. But my brother was crosshatching in grade school. I was very impacted by his aptitude, and I worked at it, and eventually it was very soothing, and I could occupy myself.
Was your family OK with your going off to study art?
My dad was a little leery. We were five kids, and I was the youngest. I went down to Florida to the Ringling School of Art and Design, and he encouraged me to do something practical, which was to get on a design course rather than fine arts. At that point, I didn’t mind. The fact is the curriculum at Ringling had a wonderful foundation, where you drew from a model three times a week—you had a drawing class, and you had perspective. Then we had to take painting, an array of landscape classes. Even as we were getting design classes, it was very well rounded with fine arts. Of course, we didn’t talk about fine arts in the commercial course. However, they had a library, and I discovered people like Robert Henri, John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper. It was apparent to my instructors by the third year that I was much more suited to do fine arts, and I shined in those classes.
The way I made money for Ringling was I did portrait sketches at Cedar Point, an amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. It’s on Lake Erie. At the end of the first year, these people showed up at school, and a friend of mine said, I’ve gone to this, and you can make a lot of money. That coincided with my talking to my dad on the phone. I told him, These people are sitting here doing portraits, and it’s a whole technique. It’s going to Ohio for the summer. He said, Well, Jayne, if you don’t go and do this, I really don’t have the money to send you back to school. So I ended up going to Ohio. I went from Memorial Day to Labor Day. It was sometimes ten-hour days. It was very intense, but I managed to put together room and board and tuition for my second year at Ringling.
That sounds like a fabulous job.
The funny thing is, I had adventures with that. I also went with a boyfriend after the fourth year to Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was the entrepreneur and manager, and I set up my easel, and I made about $1,500 in one week. It was phenomenal—at the amusement park, working the whole summer, I’d make $3,500.
When I got out of Ringling, I went to Indiana University in Bloomington for a year to get the credits for my degree, because at that point, Ringling only gave certificates. But they would award a BFA if you went to another school and sent back your credits. While I was at Indiana University, I met some people, including Robert Barnes, a painter who had left New York to teach. He was the head of the MFA program there. I got to know him, and he told me when it came to my moving on, If you really want to learn how to paint, go to the New York Studio School.
But did you ever pursue the designing career?
After school, I went back to my hometown for one year. I was living with my parents. Here’s the thing: under your dad’s roof, you go by your dad’s rules. I ended up going to an advertising agency and being an in-house illustrator for a year. I did billboards and newspaper ads. I did a national ad for a candy company. It was interesting, but I had to get out of Mishawaka, Indiana. So I went back to Bloomington because that was an area I was familiar with, and I had friends down there who had a big Victorian house. That summer, I did some portraits in this little tourist town, Nashville, south of Bloomington, and I was able to put together about $1,500 and then come to New York on that.
Then when I arrived in New York, it was total culture shock. I wasn’t accustomed to blunt people. The whole cultural thing was so different. It took me a while to figure out that it wasn’t their problem. It was my problem. I really had to stop thinking that deferring to people was going to be reciprocated.
You then went to the Studio School in New York. Much later, you worked on an MFA from Transart Institute in Austria. It was a low residency program. What drew you to doing that?
I was teaching already at Montclair State University and realized that I needed to get an MFA. At that point, I didn’t want to stop, so I was seeking a low residency. I thought I would be able to do one at the Studio School and get advance standing because of the three years I did there in the eighties. That didn’t come about. A friend sent me a link for the Transart Institute. And I got in touch with the directors, and it was all a green light. And it seemed pretty radical to go to Europe at the time. But I had also been traveling in Europe because of a show and had friends in Berlin. The degree was in new media, which was an unusual choice for me. I was happy to be among a different group of people I might not have understood before because I had cloistered with the painters. I learned an incredible amount. Plus because my practice was already taking a tack to work with images, it was also nurturing that.
What were the courses in new media going toward?
Anything that’s not traditional. Any new art form—could be installation. Design was on equal footing with painting. You could be a radical designer. You had people who danced. The intent was to create interesting projects with a strong foundation of research.
How did this affect your work?
It expanded. When I came back from Austria, I felt that Chelsea was a small game. It helped me think more about the creative aspect of my work and keeping focused on thematic content. It opened a lot of myself to be more available to the work. And it broke me out—I was being influenced by European painters, and they are a lot looser and more conceptual. I’m not as dogmatic in my practice as I had been. There’s a very strong dogma in modernism. I appreciate modernism immensely, but I appreciate many different schools of work. I feel like my work has taken a lot of turns as a result.
You moved to Westbeth in 1990 when you married poet Hugh Seidman. You’ve since had studios in Williamsburg and Bushwick. Did you ever have a studio at Westbeth?
Yes, I did have a studio in the basement for nine years, and it was a huge space. Actually it impacted my work. Without natural light, I went through a whole phase, which also was having to do with breaking away from what I’d learned at school, where I was working with the New York school painters, and they were telling me to paint with rags. Down in the basement, I went through a phase of abstract work. I was working with a lot of collage—early women’s magazines.
And I started working from photographs; that was a kind of radical thing for me to do, but not really when you consider my background of having come from the Midwest and not having a concept of what I was supposed to be doing when I was doing artwork. So down in the basement, because I don’t like artificial light, I started working from photographs and the content I could handle, such as my family history and women’s issues. I really developed my craft differently by virtue of that studio.
Your bio says that your use of photographs is a postmodern way of working on iconic American subjects. Are you using any other postmodern strategies in your work?
When I went to Transart Institute, I started working on appropriating images and putting them into my paintings. That was when I did the Mennonite series with the flowers. I was painting portraits of Mennonites, because that’s my background, growing up in an Anabaptist environment. I felt I wanted to bring my two worlds together—the world of art and my community from my history. I started putting Van Gogh flowers in kitchens of Mennonite women doing their dishwashing. I put a poster of a Mondrian abstract behind a Mennonite man and woman in the basement of a church. The idea was to subtly insert things that were out of context, that you wouldn’t ordinarily see there. One of the paintings is two sisters who were at a function in the basement of a church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And I put a highly designed floral pattern from a French wallpaper in the painting that would be considered showy to them. It was like giving them flowers. The women are very understated, but the flowers come forward. It’s that dichotomy in myself too of wanting to be more subtle, but there’s a whole world of color and design. It was my opportunity to use those very flourishing, decorative elements in my painting. That’s how that series evolved.
Can you talk more about how your work is influenced by your background?
In a couple of ways—the sense of heaviness and repression about imagery—and not really being supported in the arts. My great-great-great grandfather was credited as being the founder of the Church of the Brethren, and he came over in 1718. After I was living in New York, in 1999, I went to a local Mennonite congregation that meets in the Quaker Meeting House on 15th Street. They were so diverse—that for me represented New York. It took me a while to figure out that it was my culture that had escaped the Midwest or come here for more freedom. How did my background influence me? I think in my character. I’m very understated. Also, when I took it head-on as my subject matter, there was a big split of having left Indiana and encountering the radically different cultural community here—and going back and forth. I almost think I started doing my family to bridge that. I learned a lot about my family because we were very practical people. And you were kind of homogeneous out there, and you didn’t need to talk about your background.
For the most part, you’re not painting things that are happening in New York. Your artwork is about being on the road, about travel, about the middle American landscape.
I’ve done some little pieces here and there related to what I see here. But I tend to go into something that has an emotional resonance for me. That seems to be the landscape—having grown up on a farm was very deep in my psyche. Because I live in the city, going out on road trips is very stimulating. I’m just drawn to that as subject matter.
In the paintings of road trips and drivers, many feature women. Do you identify yourself as a woman artist—and what does that mean?
At the New York Studio School, there was nothing about being political. But I understood very clearly when I was choosing more of my voice that basically I come from a very different background, and also there weren’t a lot of women painters in general in history. And I understood that anything I looked at was through the eyes of a woman. So I chose to do women as subjects consciously. My family are the first ones that I painted, thinking that the amenities and the advantages and experiences I was having here were very different than the daily struggles they experienced in Illinois, where one of the series of women drivers is set because my family migrated there. My two nieces, my sisters, and my mother are in the original women drivers series. It was a symbol for mobility, and the landscapes out the window are very reminiscent of what I grew up around. It also provided a framework for doing both portraits and landscape in a way that took a fresh perspective.
In the documentary film Opening, you talk about your artistic response to 9/11. You did a painting set on the Westbeth roof of Hugh’s back as he’s looking through field glasses at the Twin Towers burning. That painting traveled in a show and appeared in an article about 9/11.
It got on the Associated Press, and everybody was picking it up because it was so literal. We were on the rooftop of Westbeth that day, and I just stepped back and took that image. Afterward, I kind of had all the air taken out of me. Obviously we were all distraught. That was one of a couple of images I managed to paint. I put it in a show that called for work in response to 9/11, at the Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C. They traveled the show to Europe. I went to Istanbul and to Berlin with the show. I think there were forty venues, and it came back and traveled a bit around the States, too. I think it was a process of about two or three years.
Can you explain the choice of showing Hugh’s back as he’s looking at the Towers?
I don’t know if it was intuitive, but I think the point I’ve learned is that when you provide the figure of the back, people can project on it. It’s not specific.
That’s a very small painting, isn’t it?
Yes. It’s twelve inches by nine inches. It was all I could get out at the time. The other thing is, the original paintings of the women drivers were really small, like twelve inches square. And at that point, I was into glazing and doing a very refined surface. Working large had not really been a habit of mine then. I worked large in art school, but when it came down to doing what I felt driven to do, it was a highly refined surface, and it was always on wood because that allows you to articulate more clearly; it’s got resistance. When you work on canvas, it bounces. Some people have worked it out—they stretch canvas over wood. But if you look at art history, people like Bellini, the masters, there are a lot of them working on wood.
You’ve been working in gouache, but you’ve done quite a lot of paintings in oils.
In my first year at Ringling, part of the design course was to do color studies in gouache, and I loved that because it connected into my earlier use of tempera paint. And I found that I could actually do a lot with it. I kind of forgot about that. I knew from my experience at the New York Studio School—where we did a lot of work in charcoal, typically, and oil—that to be taken seriously, you had to master oil. So as long as I was wanting to get my work out into the dialogue of the New York art world, I chose to work in oils. At a certain point, it began to be so labor intensive, I couldn’t produce enough work to keep up with the demand. I was showing at Margaret Thatcher Projects, and she was always asking for work. I had to figure out how to get myself out of being so labor intensive, so that I could get more to what I wanted to say. I started working on a series of four-by-six-inch gouache portraits of my family. That became part of the show “American Stills.” But I found out I could also be labor intensive about gouache. It took me several years to get loose, and Europe played a big part in that. I realized I had to go back to my Studio School days, and work on the wall, on the floor, and let paint do what it does. Step back, and let accidents happen. It’s also about energy and movement.
You just returned from an artist residency in Australia.
This recent residency in Australia was immensely interesting for me in that I was working onsite. It was at BigCi—Bilpin international ground for Creative initiatives—which is in the southeast corner of Australia, just an hour and a half out of Sydney. It’s drop dead beautiful. It’s an alternative culture that cropped up to get out of Sydney. And the Wollemi National Park is right there. The first day, they took us hiking in the National Park, and we went right to aboriginal cave art. The environment was so strange. They had had bush fires recently. You had these charred remains of trees, but also flourishing eucalyptus trees.
I started out focused on documenting local indigenous plants and insects, and I was also bringing samples of leaves and things back into my studio. I actually then moved to what I’m doing now, which is large gouache paintings, anywhere from thirty-six by twenty-eight to thirty-six by fifty-four inches, and then I turned to my fellow residents hiking, which goes into my ongoing theme about national parks. I was still working from photos, but it was the first time I’ve been onsite and worked immediately with what it was I was experiencing. It was so focused, and it was a quiet, tranquil place.
There was an article in the New York Times  about your working at the Friends homeless shelter on 15th Street.
I’ve been doing it since 1999, and I’m still doing it. I’m now on the committee. The shelter is in the common room, the children’s gymnasium, and there’s a little kitchen there where all the beds are stored. We are open three hundred sixty-five days a year. That’s unusual for a faith-based shelter. It’s one of the most gratifying things that I do. It’s a very easy way to make a tremendous difference for other people. There’s a terrific bunch of people on the committee and such a good group of people—probably about sixty—they can call on. We’re able to fill the shelter schedule by committing to one night a month. Two people do it a night, and it’s easy. We have fourteen beds, and also unusual for shelters, we get men and women at the same time. We are serviced by a drop-in center, Mainchance, on East 32nd Street. They are vetted there in terms of disease, tuberculosis. They have lockers, psychological counseling, housing support. They can get meds there; they have showers there. They’re coming to us about 8:30 in the evening by bus to get a night’s rest. We give them a hot meal because the Friends Seminary provides us—when they’re open—with sixteen hot meals.
Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you’d like to talk about?
I’ve been amazed at how many people buy my work because I don’t really think of myself as playing to the market. There were a couple of surprises: my first solo show in Hudson, New York, in 1998—Christopher Burge, the director at Christie’s, bought one of my pieces, and the gallery’s dealer said you can’t do much better than that. Recently, Serge Bloch, an illustrator from Paris, who’s world renown, bought two of my pieces. It’s been more out of my studio recently, by word of mouth.
One of my pieces, Two Sisters, which I talked about before, was reproduced in the Mennonite Weekly Review—it’s what all the Mennonites read. A reproduction of the painting was on the front page. The people in the painting, whom I had not been able to track down, saw themselves, and they wrote me and said they were offended. But they didn’t say it like that. They said, You know, we have an artist friend, and she asked the farmer’s permission to paint his cows. That’s how they said you did not get permission from us. Their son, who was a doctor in Ohio, tracked me down, and over the years wanted to buy the painting, but he did not want to pay the price. Finally, he said, Do you make prints? I said, I have a little down time. Would you like an archival print? And it was the only time I’d done that. I made a giclée. That’s taking the digital photo of the painting and putting it on watercolor archival paper and using archival inks. It came out beautiful. They purchased two copies. I gave him a reasonable price. I figured the guy’s mother had passed away, what was the big deal. The painting cost $14,000, and I understood that he wasn’t familiar with New York prices.
Do you want to say anything about your twenty-seven years at Westbeth?
I’m grateful for the support, and the ability to live in affordable housing. Through the years, I’ve been more and more connected with the people here—including WARC when I curated my show “Oh, Canada.” I’ve always enjoyed my neighbors.
And final thoughts?
I have a wonderful husband. Hugh has been incredibly stabilizing for me, coming from the Midwest. We met in ’84. Hugh is a supportive partner, and he’s a model for commitment to the work.
To see more of Holsinger’s work, go to www.jayneholsinger.com.
Photo credits—Headshot: Hugh Seidman; Two Elders Seated and Two Sisters: David Plakke; Mrs. Horst II: Andrew Adkinson; all other images: Jayne Holsinger. Courtesy of Jayne Holsinger.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2017 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council