If you want to talk art with Janet Slom, be prepared for some detours through dance, meditation, the nature of collaboration, yoga and the human condition. A renowned artist and teacher who has shown her transcendental abstract paintings on several continents, Janet paints not from her imagination so much as from her soul. Which is not surprising when you learn that Janet the artist has her roots in Janet the dancer and Janet the student of yoga and meditation. Today those seemingly disparate threads have been woven together in her life and her art. “Everything influenced everything else,” she says, sipping tea in her art-filled living room. “Everything feeds everything else.”
But it’s taken her forty years to come to this point.
She grew up on a flower farm outside Johannesburg, South Africa, but this was no ordinary flower farm. Janet’s father, the son of Russian émigrés, was a spiritual seeker who left home at age sixteen to study Eastern philosophies. He found his way through Shambhala, a Tibetan philosophy that believes in the common goodness of mankind. He returned to South Africa, bought a magnificent piece of farmland with ancient trees and a river. Beyond its commercial function, it served as the base of a spiritual community. But the flowers are what Janet remembers most vividly. “Magnificent reds and yellows, vibrant oranges — it was like living in a painting,” she recalls.
On weekends, Janet’s father would dispatch buses into the black and Indian townships and bring people back to the farm to discuss their spiritual beliefs. Sometimes gurus from India would come and teach. It was a place free of judgment and segregation, Janet says, and it’s where she became steeped in the traditions of yoga, meditation and honoring the sacred. It never dawned on her that her father was breaking fundamental rules of apartheid and could have landed in a heap of trouble.
At a young age, Janet realized she had a talent for both art and dance. While she would always paint, from age five to seventeen she danced competitively and earned a reputation. Ballet demands an incredible self-discipline that Janet says has stayed with her her whole life, but it was very hard on her body, and at seventeen she gave it up. Yet she still felt the urgency to express herself creatively. That creativity wouldn’t be about performance anymore, but she felt she could make the materials dance.
In fact, Janet has always had an obsession with materials: pigments, oils, drawing pencils, encaustic, sand, marble dust … . “They’re part of a universal language,” she says. “Working in different materials feels like I’m having a conversation with the process. If you can make it speak, or sing, or dance, or whatever the expression is, that’s important. But I never ask why. I’m just the facilitator and it comes through me. The me disappears and the process takes over and at the end of it, something is born. I never know how it’s going to turn out. It’s very intuitive; I just follow the thread.”
She may not know how a piece will end, but she always knows how it begins: with a meditation. When she feels ready, she starts by making a mark on the canvas, then “it” takes over. “I lose myself in the piece,” Janet explains. “As I work, I lay the canvas flat on the floor, then put it up on the wall, or maybe I’ll sit with it. Really, physically, it is a dance.”
Lately, however, Janet’s work has begun to change on a very profound level. For one thing, she’s in the middle of a huge life change, leaving her past behind and starting anew. Not surprisingly, her art is reflecting this transformation, which she likens to “living in the blankness of a canvas.”
Petite and impassioned, when Janet speaks, she sounds like she’s reading. But because her inner and outer worlds are so aligned, the words come out perfectly crafted, like her soul has been rehearsing them forever.
The second change is her inspiration. She has done commissioned work in the past— most notably an oversized mixed-media piece for a UN delegation, with a theme of rebuilding torn societies. But in the past year-and-a-half, individuals as well as institutions have started commissioning work, which she says is a completely different way to paint. “It invites you to get to know another being on that very deep, intuitive level and allows a work to unfold in a way that honors the place it will hold and the person it’s being done for. “But the energy has to be right. I don’t paint to fit the decor,” she takes pains to emphasize. “It takes a certain amount of risk on the subject’s part, and some deep bonding, because they won’t see it before it’s done.”
Lauren Kaplan, a friend, fan and fellow South African, commissioned Janet’s first private piece, and that has led to a steady stream of commissions. I Dream of Africa, a four- by three-foot mixed-media stunner in acrylic, pigment, graphite and charcoal, stands sentinel in the entranceway of the Kaplans’ grand Westport home. The women’s discussion of it is a perfect representation of the collaborative process:
LK: I had an open wall, and I couldn’t find something that said hello to me. The entrance is an introduction to my home, and maybe even my heart. I wanted something to be me, not too matchy-matchy. Janet showed me books of artists I never heard of. All I knew was that I wanted something muted.
JS: What that did for me was make me understand Lauren through her appreciation of other artists. I was learning to interpret her through her taste in art. But we didn’t talk about it, I just observed her.
LK: I had total confidence in Janet.
JS: With each person, the process is so different. It’s all about responding to their energy. It’s so much more than decorating a home. My intention with a piece isn’t fame or fortune; it’s the connection I share with someone through the work.
LK: It looks different in different light, at different times of the year. I walk by this painting ten times a day and every time it looks totally different.
JS: When you’re in the African bush, whether it’s dawn or dusk, you see and you don’t see. The landscape becomes an abstraction of this magnificent creation, and watching the incredible colors changing is almost like a performance. Everybody sees something different: Some people see bush, rock, mountain, people walking toward the distance.
Whether dance, poetry, music or painting, it’s the connecting on a deep soul level that’s the communication: it’s universal and it touches every soul anywhere in the world. This is why art is so powerful: You don’t need a common spoken language. I feel like I leave a little piece of my heart in each home, something that reflects back to them what they love about themselves.
THE ABSTRACT PORTRAIT
Janet feels this newest path on her journey is fascinating — she’s creating an abstract version of the time-honored tradition of portrait-painting. But rather than producing a representative rendering, Janet takes in the subject on an emotional and spiritual level — his or her passion, style, taste, even hobbies — and lets that inform her own unique artistic sensibility. Then, by working on a deep, intuitive level, she creates what you would have to call an abstract portrait. Everyone who has commissioned a piece from Janet has fallen in love with it. But it does take a tremendous leap of faith. Of course, that fits right in with the Janet Slom Philosophy of Art and Life: “We live in a society that doesn’t permit us to be vulnerable,” she says, “a society that’s very competitive and all about winning. And we’re kind of programmed to not feel good about ourselves. I want to live my truth and enhance whatever I’m feeling and teach others to do the same in their lives. This is my path: sharing the human condition. Everybody has their story, and if we don’t tell our incredibly unique story, what are we doing?”