The following is a piece I wrote for the Smithy Center for the Arts as part of my internship with them this summer.
Jane Carr, 74, has considered herself an artist since she was eight years old, when her parents started sending her to the Baltimore Museum of Art for classes.
“Every Saturday of my life I went there,” Jane said. “I loved it.”
Jane studied sculpture in art and graduate school, but in her late 50s, she left her 20-pound hammer behind. She returned to painting with egg tempera, a medium her high school art teacher introduced her to. Now, all she wants to do is paint.
SCA: You do a lot of landscape painting of the area. How long have you lived in the Catskills?
Jane: I moved up here in 1980. I lived for nine years in a house that this man and I built in the woods that had no plumbing and no running water and no telephone. It was fun, but it got old. When you get old, living that way is kind of difficult.
SCA: How did living in that house change your art?
Jane: Because we had no lights in our house, I had to only work during the day at a window. I started making these little cutout wooden houses. I’d make maybe ten at the time and paint them all the same. They were modeled after buildings in this area. I did one of the Smithy. In fact, I gave them all to the Smithy. That’s how I made my living. I sold them for $20 each. And then I moved here, and I have a big studio and I paint every day. I don’t do the little houses anymore.
SCA: What sort of artwork did you return to when you returned to electricity and indoor plumbing?
Jane: I returned to egg tempera.
SCA: Tell us about egg tempera.
Jane: First of all, it predates oil painting. Egg tempera was used back in Egyptian times and Byzantine times.
What it is is very simple. All paint starts with dry pigment, but you have to add something to the dry pigment to make it flow onto a canvas or a board. If you mix oil with pigment, it becomes oil paint. If you mix with liquid plastic, you get acrylic. If you mix egg yolk, you get egg tempera. That’s all it is.
You mix egg yolk with pigment, and very little water with the egg yolk. When you make your yolk, you have to squeeze out the inside and throw away the little sack that the yoke is in.
When egg tempera dries and cures, it’s so indestructable, I suppose you could take a knife and scratch it, but it doesn’t fade and it doesn’t yellow and it doesn’t lose its color. Things that were done back in Egyptian times are still brilliant.
SCA: What do you like about egg tempera?
Jane: I love the color. I love how simple it is. When I teach people, I tell them—it’s kind of a joke, but it’s really not a joke—I say, ‘The thing about egg tempera is you keep adding layers until it looks right. If you don’t know what you’re doing, just keep adding layers. It’ll turn out, sooner or later.’
It’s very forgiving. If you don’t like something, you can paint right over it, and it even makes it richer, because you’re seeing everything underneath peeking out.
SCA: One of your pieces currently on display at the Smithy is a portrait of an Inuit man. You’ve done a number of these portraits.
Jane: I did them all in one year. I was going up to this Inuit festival in northern arctic Canada. I went there seven times teaching egg tempera.
SCA: How did you start teaching there?
Jane: I went camping in Alaska with this man that I lived with. I really wanted to see where Jack London used to live in Dawson, so we crossed into the Yukon and I saw this welcome center for the Northwest territories. I’d never heard of the Northwest territories.
We drove up this road and it went to this little village called Inuvik. There wasn’t much going on there, except there was this art festival that was on the last day, and there were a couple of little old Inuit ladies sitting there carving. I said, ‘I got to come back here. I can’t believe I missed this whole festival.’
When it was the fifth year, I went back. And I went back the tenth year, the fifteenth year, the seventeenth, eighteenth, and twentieth. But the reason I went the second time was because I contacted them and said, ‘I’m a painter and I’d really like to come up and see the festival.’ And they asked me if I would teach and give workshops.
SCA: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Jane: One of my teachers—I can’t remember who it was—told me, ‘Jane, put your hand to art every day, even if it’s just sitting at the phone doodling while you’re talking.’ And I’ve done that. I have done that every day. Some days, it’s not a hand scribbling. It’s sometimes picking up a book out of my bookcase, leafing through it, and learning more about some artist. But I do that every day. It’s my life.