Artist to Collect: Janet Cameron
A Totally Original Endeavour
written by Brett Anningson
"I was about two years old and able to pull myself up on the crib bars to create something on the wall," recalls Janet Cameron. "Somehow I had a pencil … the eraser end had been worn down to the sharp metal edge, and it was with that end I drew my first picture. I don’t remember it clearly, but I understand the reviews were bad. At the age of five, I won an art contest that one of our neighbours hosted. There was no more than a handful of kids. The parents were the judges and the prize was a tiny Rolls Royce with yellow rhinestone head lights. I even remember the car colour – lime green!" When Janet was fifteen, her high school art teacher, Jen Dyer, actually came to Janet’s house to suggest to her parents that she be sent to an art school in Devonshire, England. Janet ended up going to Mcgill University and enrolling in the sciences, but she spent most of her time melting and bending plastic straws, making them into birds. As you can imagine, her grades suffered from lack of desire, and soon Janet was a "drop-in" student with no credentials and no real plans. "In the early ‘70s my pa, who is a dentist,
finally told me I was going to be a secretary or apprentice in a dental lab," says Janet. "The latter worked out and I became quite good at the ceramic end. I also started doing watercolours now and again." In 1975, she married a graduating architect and moved to Alberta, getting a job as a tray girl delivering food in a hospital. Then it was on to Surrey, British Columbia, and work in the kitchen at an old folks’ home. One day she was out on her bicycle and got hit by a car. That was the end of heavy kitchen work, and she once more found herself in a dental lab doing ceramics. At the same time, she continued to paint watercolours of her dogs, her husband, and a few other people.
The Changing Landscape of Artistic Endeavour
So far it had been watercolour, ceramic sculpture and creating toy frogs which she sold on the side. But Janet Cameron is nothing if not versatile. A gift of acrylic paints from her boss set the wheels in motion. "This was 1984," Janet elaborates. "I took the paints home, into the furnace area of our tiny basement, and all but lived in there for the next three days. No daylight, no head room. I came out with a fairly good knowledge of handling this new medium. I could realistically paint anything I could see." For the first time in her life, she was developing a plan and that was to seriously paint.
"So, how does one become an artist?" asks Janet. "I rented a small bachelor apartment in New Westminster, BC to use as a studio. No phone, no TV, no food! My subjects were still people, dogs and, now, parts of the heritage houses in the studio neighbourhood. It seemed to be time to paint more than just what is there. I began to add in ideas by introducing extra elements, like a leaf floating by a porch with a screen door, or the image of a mother and child I could see in the tree branch reflections distorted by aged glass window panes in the old homes." She did a few portrait commissions during this time, but found that it was a little more give-and-take than she liked. She admits, "What I think I learned here was to make sure the person who wants work done is very familiar with the style of work you do." In the fall of 1990, Janet left her husband and moved to North Vancouver. "It was tough for me for the next few years. It looked very much like I’d gone from reasonable riches to serious rags. Still, in 1991, I went back to something my sister had done some years before – a piece of art made not with paint, but on a sewing machine with thread. I had an old Singer that usually sewed forward and sometimes the reverse worked. I had a few thread colours, a piece of cloth and a lot of lonesome time. I did my first thread piece, and hundreds were to follow."
Janet has created a wide variety of different art forms over the years. She says, "One day I was talking on the phone while fiddling with a piece of cardboard. By the end of the conversation I had fashioned out a balcony. That was the beginning of the "Art of Recycling" show. I had about 30 or so pieces, and was shown at The Surrey Art Gallery. Then, on to Whatcom County, Washington and a few years later to Fort St. John, BC. There were lots of whimsical pieces and a few serious ones – it was a lot of fun. The pieces were 3D made from paper, cardboard, plastic jars and bags, metal cans, coat hangers and old wire." In 1994 Janet remarried, and three years later they moved to Salt Spring Island after she saw an ad asking for a cook. Janet says, "I came home and asked Bob how he’d feel if we moved to the Island. He seemed fine with the idea and I moved to Salt Spring that Saturday for my first day of work. I have never considered myself spontaneous! Before the first week was through, I had walked into Naikai Gallery, pointed to a piece on the wall and told the owner that I could paint like that. He said, "Show Me" – and I did, and I was in." Early in 1998, Janet and Bob rented a house on a sheep farm. That was when Janet’s art turned towards animals. She began making pieces of sheep art, which are fashioned in quite an interesting way. First, she does a sketch on the canvas, then covers the canvas with modeling paste. While the paste is still wet, she puts the canvas on a light table and follows the sketch lines with a wooden stick. When that is dry, she has the grooves as a guideline for the paint. Next, a base coat is added with a brush, then a finish coat with a lot of paint on a knife.
Down but Not Out
Over the next decade, Janet’s art work was taking more and more of her time. She had expanded into other galleries: Crafthouse in Vancouver; The Eclectic Collector in New York; Mindscape in Evanston Illinois, Quiddity Gallery in eastern Ontario and Catfishmoon Gallery in Nova Scotia. "I literally worked day and night. A breakdown should not have been a huge surprise. I was about 52 years old and I woke up one morning, turned on the TV and watched two women, identical twins, wearing the same thing, saying the same thing at the same time. Wow! Then I noticed the hydro lines outside had six lines instead of three. I drove to the doctor on two roads. I didn’t get out of the hospital that day, or that week, or the next. I was reduced to pushing wax polka dots onto candles for the next couple of months." After being released, Janet slowly got back to her artwork, but had to drop all the galleries except the one in Salt Spring. "In 1992, I had been diagnosed with Bipolar for the fourth time, by different doctors," explains Janet. "I never believed it until then. I went back and read my notes that I always keep about my work. It was obvious, and the evidence went way back. In some ways I have been lucky. I’d taken on huge projects that included designing and painting huge theatre sets for a number of shows for the Gilbert and Sullivan Society. I worked with two great carpenters. One of the shows had a fiveset change. The projects always got completed. Maybe this illness has given me that creativity, and maybe there is a lot more to this…"
Some Final Thoughts
When offering advice to other artists, Janet says, "If you get criticism and some bad reviews it shows that your work is worthy of attention. What I’ve done is listened, sometimes learning things,
sometimes ignoring things." Her way of working is to always be thinking of creative ways to apply the techniques. She starts with the most complex parts of her work, knowing that if you don’t get that right, nothing else will follow. "I use failure to my advantage and learn from it. It forces you to change focus and think on your feet. Work with what you have!" She recalls with a laugh, "One time, I was working on a rug hooking piece that needed the colour I was wearing. So, I took off my pants and cut them off at the knee! You just have to be committed, love what you do and do it. There are now a few hundred Cameron pieces around the world. Remember, if you have to do this, it can be done."
Janet Cameron is represented by: Gallery 8 Salt Spring Island, BC www.artgallery8.com 250.537.8822
left, It Was the Cat!, thread, acrylic modeling paste on canvas, 7" x 4.75" above, Man's Best Friend with Man's Best Shoe, thread, acrylic modeling paste on canvas, 4" x 4"
Hey, I’m Talking Here…, thread, acrylic modeling paste on canvas, 3" x 11.5"
It is important to note with these thread work paintings that both the frame and the sewing subject are all one piece of canvas and the frame continues the subject.
above, Blue Shadow, thread, acrylic modeling paste on canvas, 4.25" x 4" right, Edna, thread, acrylic modeling paste on canvas, 7" x 5"
left, Anybody Bring A Saw?, thread, acrylic modeling paste on canvas, 7" x 4.5" above, Village Pine Tree, thread, acrylic modeling paste on canvas, 4" x 4"