Jan vonBergen, Building on Cultural Influences

By Susan Gallacher-Turner

Jan’s interest in art started in her childhood at the family dinner table where ethnic dishes were served up with side discussions of the culture, textiles and art from around the world. She remembers delicious curry dishes, her mother’s beautiful sari, and a home filled with exotic smells, artifacts and furniture. These early influences are the building blocks for her kimono inspired prints and organic ceramic vessels that you can see as part of Portland Open Studios Tour.

Jan explains, “It was all based on food, their way of showing us the culture was through the food, beautiful fabrics, clothing, some of the customs. They would make these curry dinners and that’s how we celebrated these cultures. And my parents would go to auction houses and they collected a lot of their furniture, some of it was Asian table fabrics and kimonos. And my grandparents house, too, was filled with antiques.

It was her artistic grandmother who fueled Jan’s early art training teaching her to sew, knit, paint and make wreaths. From there Jan took Saturday art classes at Marylhurst and the Portland Art Museum, moving on to college at the Museum Art School, where she majored in ceramic sculpture and minored in printmaking. These two diverse media are still a major focus for her today.

Whether it’s one of Jan’s Asian-inspired kimono prints or her organic, ceramic vessels, there’s always a combination of line, color, texture and form. According to Jan, “Along with my training as a sculptor, I was also a calligrapher. Calligraphy, sculpture, and printmaking, those three are my favorite things.” And although these might seem like very different media, to Jan, they both involve building.

Says Jan, “To me they’re very close. Printmaking is more immediate, you have an idea and try it. With ceramics, you throw it, bisque it, glaze, fire it so I’ve got two weeks before I can see it. So it’s not as immediate but I do love making it.

With the vessels, Jan starts with a formal shape adding calligraphic marks in the clay, much like printing, then makes tiny, organic, sculptural shapes to form the lids.

To build a print, Jan might start by taking a picture of a swirl image in the road. Using that as a base to make a copper plate, she adds bits of her hand-painted Sumi papers, stamps from garage sale envelopes or ethnic ceremonial papers piecing together her image. Then, she might cut the plate into smaller, more abstract shapes before she runs it through her printing press.

Jan explains, “I like that building. I can take the plate and cut it up, glue stuff down, add whatever and build this thing. Then I ink it and it has all this texture.

While the mediums might be very different, the connections in Jan’s art and life are easy to see when you tour her home with its multi-ethnic furniture, sculpture and garden tea-house. Sitting in the tea house, Jan reflected on how her passion for art led her to teaching which in turn, taught her even more.

Below, the tea house.

Teaching those students was where my learning began, because they taught me so much. They taught me patience. How to really think about what I’m really doing because I had to verbalize it for them. And they would share an idea and I would think, gosh, I never would have thought about it that way. It’s another point of view and another vision that you get in that time and space to be part of…I can’t think of any other profession that you get to do that in, to join that young person in that part of their creativity,” Jan said.

As a Fulbright scholar, Jan went to Japan five years ago and taught lessons in Italic calligraphy, bookbinding and drawing. Now retired, she was a beloved art teacher for many years at Arts & Communication and Southridge High School in Beaverton.

You can visit Jan and see her at work in her studio October 11 & 12 as part of the Portland Open Studios Tour. You can also listen to a podcast of this interview with Jan (and others) at www.infopods.org.

Portland Open Studios Tour Guides with tickets are available at Art Media, New Seasons and other outlets listed on the Portland Open Studios website.

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