Jay Fancher, Painter
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a wish fulfilled is a tree of life. –Proverbs 13:12
Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. –Pablo Picasso
When can someone start calling herself an artist? What is an artist? How much art must a person create and who needs to deem it worthy to earn the title? Can any area of life be an art? Many of us have encountered the memorably titled tome The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, taekwondo is one of many martial arts, and people who do tricky robberies are called con artists. So is there an art associated with everything? Can anything be done artfully? If so, who decides the standard or is there any? Do we all have the potential to be artists? Does knowing that all of us can be artists takes away the value of the title?
My sister, who edits this blog, expressed a concern (after about the fourth interview) that I was going to run out of artists. I told her no need to worry, because my church is packed with them. But would it be possible, many, many months from now, to run clean out of artists or could I just keep expanding and altering the definition? I don’t know. If the artists go on forever, what’s the point?
Jay is someone who questions her right to be called an artist. She is artistic, for sure—she dresses in colorful, funky clothes, many of which she buys at thrift stores and then alters or adjusts to her taste. She plays the drums and sings. She went to a four-year art college and studied design. She sews clothes, pillowcases, baby slings–you name it. She has always been good at drawing: “I was the kid who other kids asked to draw stuff.” She paints murals and builds fantastical theater sets for a living. So she should call herself an artist, right? You would think so.
You said, “Life has no limit if you’re not afraid to get in it.” –“If You Ain’t Got Love”, Mason Jennings
Jay’s preferred method to go through life is “having a goal of something I’ve always wanted to learn and heading towards it.” When she went to Columbia College Chicago, she studied sign language and fashion design, two things she learned well and enjoyed but doesn’t currently pursue in her career. The list of skills Jay has honed thus far includes bartending, playing the drums, bowling, roller derby, tap dance, jazz, and ballet*. At the moment, Jay is working on two more of her lifetime goals—speaking Tagalog in order to connect to her Filipino roots and, of course, unicycling. But her ultimate goal, the real doozy she throws at you, is slightly less impressive to many of us; Jay would like to learn how to type without looking at the keyboard.
When Jay was pregnant and painting the walls of the baby room for her oldest son, Dylan, Jay realized, “I don’t want to just do this border—I want to do something fun and different.” So began her career for the next fifteen years as a muralist, as she sought to become an expert at what had started off as her own curious attempt to make her son’s bedroom more interesting.
After painting her son’s room with a Winnie the Pooh theme and realizing—“This turned out pretty well. I think I can do this for other people”—Jay offered to paint a mural for a family she had worked for as a nanny during college. Another success under her belt, Jay decided to make the murals her work focus, in part because she wanted to be her own boss and to stay at home with her new child. Jay’s husband, John, promoted the business by phone to in-home day-care centers and news of her murals spread. Amazingly, Jay never uses any special sketching technique or method to blow up images on the walls she is painting; she draws them all free-hand. She found she had an uncanny ability to “look at something the size of a half-sheet of paper and blow it up,” with all the correct proportions. Her murals improved: “It seems like I would just get better and better and better. At first [the paintings] would be like a coloring book with lines and solid colors. Now it is much more shaded.”
Nevertheless, Jay explains, “I never thought of myself as an artist with the murals.” In fact, Jay has been weaning herself away from the mural business. “I really don’t enjoy it as much anymore,” (probably because it is another skill she can check off her life list). Recently she has been doing “three-dimensional murals,” otherwise known as set design. She loves the challenge of building complex, multi-functioning, beautiful sets for plays. She referred to how much she enjoyed envisioning and constructing, along with the help of middle school students at the school where she works, “a ramp that needed to look like a falling tree” for a performance of The Jungle Book.
At some point over the last decade, Jay remembers her husband John, not intending to be hurtful, saying to her, “You’re not really an artist; you paint what people tell you.” Though she knows he didn’t mean for the statement to be taken personally, she shares, “When he made that comment, it stuck with me.” She explains she had “never painted on canvas—never painted for myself. Give me a wall—I’ll paint something on a wall. Give me a little [canvas], I have no idea what to do with it… I’ve always been told what to paint.” So Jay began thinking, “maybe I’m not an artist.”
For my part, I think Jay is underselling her murals. In particular, she described one mural she painted nine years ago for a huge dining area at Irving Elementary School. She had to propose a concept in order to compete for the job against numerous other artists. Jay’s mural, which was ultimately selected and painted within three weeks, covered all four walls with an evolving scene of underwater, land, sky, and outerspace—each wall portraying one landscape drifting into another.
She’s an artist, she don’t look back. She can take the dark out of the nighttime and paint the daytime black. –“She Belongs to Me”, Bob Dylan
A year or so ago, individuals began painting on canvas during worship at church, and Anthony Allen, a friend of Jay’s, was the first one to paint. Jay was curious to see how he did his work, so she “stood up to worship and went to watch everything he did.” While she was watching, she explains, “God just downloaded a painting to me,” and after the service, Jay found Anthony to tell him, “I think I have a painting I want to do.”
Anthony told her she needed to go for it, but Jay was concerned the painting in her mind, of a tree and its roots dripping blood, was a little morbid. Nevertheless, she explained, “I could not get this picture out of my head until I painted it.” It was a new experience for her. Although she was worried about the image, she believed it was from God. “Who am I to change the painting that He gave me? Even if one person is blessed, it’s good.” In contrast to her expectations, Jay “got such an overwhelming response.” One person told her, “The second that blood started to drip, I felt like I was going to get knocked over.”
Jay was unaccustomed to the new experience. “After all these years of people telling me what to paint, God was telling me what to paint.” Jay is now a regular ‘worship painter’ at church, and though the people watching made her nervous at first, she is now able to forget about the congregation behind her. “When I’m painting, I don’t get scared, because it’s just me and Him. For the most part, I’m in this zone, just painting for Him. So I don’t worry as much about what I have to paint because I trust He’s gonna do it.” And by ‘do it,’ Jay means give her another painting. During one recent church service, Jay was uncertain what she was going to paint until the very last moment. “He told me right as I was walking up.”
Jay’s paintings capture the imagination. Some are more realistic-looking than others, and some incorporate universal symbols, such as trees, hearts, and paths. The human figures and faces she includes are usually only seen as silhouettes. Overall, the paintings are surprising; if you are watching her as she works, they usually don’t end up looking like you think they will when she begins. There are mysterious people and unexplained messages. The paintings give the viewer the freedom to be moved by them in a personal way–the interpretations are not obvious, allowing them to remain open and available for reflection over and over again. All of the answers are not provided in each painting. Instead, the viewer is entrusted with the power to see them however he or she will.
Doing this different kind of painting has been empowering for Jay. “Now I feel like I’m an artist after all these fourteen years of mural painting. I didn’t really feel like that for so long. It was not to prove John wrong but to prove something to myself.”
But Jay’s artistic abilities reach far beyond drawing and painting. “My favorite part of receiving a present is putting it together. I would love to be a mechanic.” Jay told me about how she fixed her car door handle by creating a metal mold for a piece of plastic using her stove to heat the materials to be shaped. Every year, John’s grandmother would give him tools in his stocking, and every year, John would “say ‘wrong stocking’ and hand it to me.” In fact, one year “for Valentine’s Day he gave me a cordless drill, and I was so excited.”
Though I don’t think we are all artists, I think we all have the potential to be. Jay is. And Jay is someone whose art is not limited to her painting, but is expressed throughout all of who she is. She is a profoundly imaginative and creative person. She does almost everything as though it were an art to be perfected. From personal experience, I know you want her driving, parallel parking, and playing dj (i.e. figuring out how to hook up the ipod to whatever stereo system there is) whenever you go anywhere. Furthermore, I don’t think that the fact that we all can be artists cheapens the definition. God wants us all to be artists and to do everything with the passion and devotion Jay gives to, for example, her unicycling. We all have the ability to create if we want to. Just like Jay wanted to be an artist in her own right and felt her wish granted by the paintings God has started putting into her brain–which have only confirmed to her that not only is she an artist, but that God sees her as an artist–the desire for the gift of creativity will always be fulfilled.
*I can attest to the fact that Jay is also very good at zumba.