Amateur taps creative muse at Janesville open canvas

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Ann Fiore
Wednesday, April 30, 2014

JANESVILLE—It's not hard to paint Claude Monet's “Water Lilies.”

What's hard is discarding the idea that your interpretation has to look just like the Impressionist masterpiece.

Janesville artist Val Saxer believes painting is something anyone can do. And she's tapping into an art trend that encourages amateurs such as me to pick up a paintbrush—and a beverage if I like—and make art in a group setting.

“When people create something, they open up the right side of their brain, and they're able to problem-solve better,” Saxer said. “Studies have shown that it relieves anxiety, depression, boosts confidence and self-esteem. I think it just changes your focus.”

Saxer offers art parties and open canvas events through Monet To Gogh, a business she runs in a renovated downtown storefront at 17 N. Main St.

Host an art party, and Saxer will help you and five or more friends paint a masterpiece—Van Gogh's “Starry Night” or Picasso's “Hand and Flowers,” for example—in about two hours.

If you don't mind painting with folks you don't know, try an open canvas, as I did.

Replicating Monet

I wasn't alone in my attempt to channel Monet.

Six other students sat in three rows of tables at Saturday's event. Each table held three small easels, canvases, brushes, aprons and containers with dabs of water-based acrylic.

My tablemates, Teresa Piehl and Jane Stamm, had their own reasons for trying this. Stamm was testing hobbies she could practice in retirement. Piehl was trying to stretch her comfort zone.

A painter in the back row, Julie McDougall, needed some “mom time.”

“I'm a coloring book and crayons girl myself,” Piehl said. “It'll be interesting to see what happens here.”

Personally, that blank canvas freaked me out a little. Monet's “Water Lilies” has a lot of dappled colors. How would I duplicate that? What if I messed up?

Saxer stood at the head of the class, brush in hand. She started us slowly, swabbing on the blue paint that would be the background. Use both shades of blue, she told us, and you'll give movement to the water.

So far, so good.

By the time we got to the lily pads, I had given up trying to copy Monet.

An art center

Saxer's studio has a relaxed, creative vibe. A Jack Johnson album played in the background Saturday, and the walls bloomed with paintings by Saxer and jewelry and sculpture by other artists, including her daughter, Allegrea S.B. Rosenberg.

Saxer is still renovating the space—a former shoe repair shop—but she has big plans for it.

Besides art parties, the studio will offer classes by other artists. Pam Weber Dykeman will give instruction in Zen Tango, a meditative form of drawing. Rosenberg aims to turn the back of the studio into an “Imaginarium,” where she'll teach music lessons and found-object workshops for children and adults.

Rosenberg also has seen a need for beginner painting classes to teach people basic skills, such as how to hold a brush.

Re-imagining Monet

Saxer talked as she worked, adding green dabs to her canvas for water lilies and their reflections in the water.

“Is each green blob a lily pad?” Piehl asked. “Uh-oh.”

“It's nice that it's impressionistic, isn't it?” Saxer replied, implying that we don't have to be too careful.

Rosenberg strolled around with a poster of “Water Lilies.” Up close, Monet's work doesn't look that intimidating—just a bunch of colorful blobs. From a distance, though, the blobs come together magically to form water, plants, reflections.

Art can be messy, Rosenberg told me and gave me a tip about creating reflections.

My lily pad clusters didn't follow Monet's layout, but the style was vaguely similar. I added white and yellow to the green, trying for a suggestion of sunlight.

The class was silent, working. Keep breathing, Saxer reminded us. “Let it sort of flow out of you.”

Bottom line: Don't worry about mistakes.

Art as healer

For art parties, Saxer has about 25 artworks that can be painted within two hours. She avoids pieces with people and skin tones, which can be too challenging.

“I just want it to be fun and free-flowing,” she said.

Fun means relaxing, and Saxer believes painting can help a wide variety of people, including those who are recovering from breast cancer or other diseases. Businesses also could benefit, she said, by using an art class as a team-building or problem-solving exercise.

Classes also can be used as fundraisers. In February, Saxer offered a group painting event that raised money for Agrace HospiceCare. Another event July 24 will benefit the ALS Association.

“I think it's a positive thing. It's unique to downtown,” Saxer said of her studio. “I think we can pull it off, and a lot of people are going to benefit from it.”

Monet or 'My-net'

Pink and lavender made a lot of difference in my developing masterpiece.

Pink added pops of colored blossoms. A little lavender brought depth and complexity to watery reflections. Black created dimension.

Saxer finished her work ahead of everyone and mingled among the tables, suggesting and complimenting.

“Jane, you might want to smudge your black,” she told Stamm, suggesting that the shadows should be “just a hint of a line.”

“Yeah, there you go. Exactly,” Saxer said encouragingly.

Friends Theresa Carroll and Robin Sturm Hess sat together, but their paintings turned out completely different. Carroll's featured many individual floating lilies, while Sturm Hess painted hers in three groupings.

“It's interesting to see the totally different perspectives,” Carroll said.

Johnny Alex paints a lot as the owner of a Rockford, Illinois, painting company. He said Rosenberg got him into painting for fun—a hobby he finds relaxing.

Alex didn't care that his “Water Lilies” wasn't exactly like Monet's.

He grabbed a Sharpie pen, turned the canvas over and wrote down a new name—not “Mo-nay,” as the artist's name is pronounced, but rather “My-nay.” Johnny's Monet.

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