Brush with beauty keeps Mrs. Wilkey in sunlight, next to her easel

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Painter Janis Wilkey chats with a visitor at the Gallery Hop. Behind her are two paintings from a series of six pieces called “Conversations.”

By David Tulis

We should take an interest in the “culture war” as it plays out in the world of the arts. Part of the Christian interest devolves on whether an artist is creating a work to express himself, or whether he is attempting to interpret “what is there.”

[This essay first appeared Sept. 22, 2012, at Nooganomics.com. — DJT]

Now this distinction is a crude one. It fails to account for an artist’s passion and purpose, and it really does no great favor to a master on either side of the traditional vs. modern divide. But the traditional or classical view espouses beauty and developed technique to present real objects and real scenes. It is, shall we say, “objective.” The modern view is subjective, thrusting up from an era of revolution, telling about the inner life of the artist and often attempting to lecture or stun the viewer.

Janis Wilkey, a plein-air painter whose work hangs at In-Town Gallery in Chattanooga, helps makes the distinction clearer by discussing her interest in technique.

“Colleges don’t teach technique anymore,” says the oil painter in her studio on a hillside bungalow studio overlooking Cherokee Boulevard in Chattanooga. “You get that from private ateliers and things like that. That’s where they teach you more technique. In a lot of colleges, from my understanding now, they’re looking more for avant-garde idea-type things, or telling a story or making a statement, or, you know, they are not looking for you to be able to replicate what you see, which is more of a traditional type of art education.”

Grabbing the public’s attention

Mrs. Wilkey in September chatted with Jeannette and me and other visitors at the Gallery Hop arts event. On display at In-Town on the Northshore’s Frazier Avenue were a series of six paintings about people having conversations. Two of the images were drawn from 1970s-era photos Mrs. Wilkey snapped of members of a church graveyard committee chatting outside after the proceedings. The series has proven popular with visitors, she said.

Landscapes are Mrs. Wilkey’s specialty. In her studio on an easel is a large-scale painting of a waterfall, based on a photograph she took from an overpass.

What is technique, and why is it important? From Daud Akhriev and other painters in the classical tradition she learned the value of faithfully presenting an object or scene, “to accurately paint a building, or a landscape I’d see. I wanted to be able to paint in a representational way, and for it to be accurate and beautiful — not only accurate, but beautiful. There is a whole lot to learn to even get to that point.” Not everyone cares to have a solid foundation in technique. “Some people just want to go in and express their emotions, and that’s where they derive the most satisfaction.”

Personal gratification?

The crude distinction between modern and classical goes only so far. Moderns splash their colors about in abstract design and develop little technical skill because all they care about is unearthing the depths of their souls and self-expression. A true statement? Only to a point. The traditional painter such as Mrs. Wilkey also derives great satisfaction from acts of creation. Her  faithful portraiture and landscapes are built upon ability to paint. Yes, she paints for personal satisfaction. She paints when something speaks to her. Only, her self-expression is different than that of other artists.

Personal expression is not her prime mover. Painting is not about her.

If I look at an absolutely beautiful scene, like this: I feel something about that scene. Beauty speaks to me. Beauty speaks to me. Probably that’s my No. 1 motivator, that I love beautiful things. And I want to be looking at beautiful things, and I want to make beautiful things. So that is my personal quest. Some people in their art want to say things more than I do. My thing that I’m saying is, “Isn’t this beautiful? I would like to share this with you.” But some people are saying, “I’m outraged by this, and I want to show it to you.” Everyone has his own thing he wants to say about the world and about the arts.

A painter since 1999, Mrs. Wilkey is married to a builder, Thomas “Boofer” Wilkey. It is her and Mr. Wilkey’s second marriage. She graduated a Spanish major from University of Chattanooga, where she had already a developed appreciation of art. She has a grown son, who appears as an infant in one work. Before going full time into painting, she worked for the state as a child welfare caseworker and for the Chattanooga Housing Authority as an inspector.

Everything is interpreted

The question arises whether the artist strictly and absolutely presents what she sees. For example, is photorealism real, or is it an interpretation? Mrs. Wilkey says even the photorealistic style involves the medium of the artist’s eye, mind and hand. “Every painting is an interpretation of some kind.” She shows a field sketch of a tree and shoreline of Nickajack Lake and says if you went to the spot where she stood, you would not see exactly what she painted.

In her 13 years of work she has developed a style that is a creative absorption of many influences. Art books and novels entrance her. She takes part in workshops, such as that of Bill Davidson, who works with pallette diverse from her own. “I’m all about wanting to [study technique], whether I choose to use it or not on a day-to-day basis,” she says. She recommends the Booth Museum of Western Art in Cartersville, Ga.; the museum’s subject matter does not greatly impress Mrs. Wilkey, but the technique and style exhibited there were useful in her development. “I’m not a Western person at all, but that work spoke to me because it is high quality.”

An orientation to the local

Mrs. Wilkey has traveled in the U.S. and to other countries. Perhaps on account of her sense of the larger world she is comfortable with living in Chattanooga, finding that it satisfies many longings. She is a native of Cleveland, Tenn., where her kinfolk reside.

She mentions a faraway locale, and says, “I think I could live there had I been born there. But this is where my family is, and this is where I choose to be. I think where we live, too, is abundantly beautiful.”