Lives Of The Artists: Jan Snell


As a child I drew all the time. My mother, also an artist, tells me I used perspective at the age of five. By the time I was ready for college, I had to choose between anthropology and art.

I graduated from the Maryland Institute, College of Art where I studied painting with the late abstract expressionist Edward Dugmore. I have been included in many group and solo shows in New York City, Washington DC, Baltimore, Cleveland, Akron and other cities. I am the author of “Flytrap” (Cleveland Poetry Center)- a book of drawings and poems about the drawings, an E-chapbook of paintings and verse, “Heads” (March Street Press) and the recently released  “Come to Think of it…”(Scattered Light Publications).


Collaboration with my sister Cheryl Snell resulted in another book, “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” which won the Lopside Press competition. Our partnership works because of a shared sense of melancholy, I think.  She can extend my images metaphorically, so the work is more like two takes on a similar idea, instead of one medium explaining the other. I send her photos of whatever I’m working on, and if the idea sparks a response in her, she’ll make a poem for it, then send it back to me for comments.  We’ve made a few collections that way.

Portraits and Process

Whenever I see an interesting face, I want to paint it. In my portraits, I use color freely to express the subject’s personality while the facial features remain realistic. The portraits are semi-expressionistic.

They are only semi-expressionistic because I still stick to the realism of the subject’s facial features. Thus the portraits are related to my other work, for which I get images in my head often when listening to music. Then I have to find the right space to put the image in. That’s where process comes in. The touch of the brush leads in an intuitive manner to develop the space. My portrait of Jimi Hendrix, for instance, looks the way the music sounds to me.

Music seems to create an environment for my mind to relax and think its thoughts in. Then an image pops into my head. It’s not a completely formed image. I don’t want it to be. I want something spontaneous to happen when I start to draw or paint.

Then, after losing and getting back the drawing many times, developing the space, I can re-capture the image that was in my head in the first place. I’m not completely an expressionist. There’s objectivity and logic and subjectivity in the space I create, and some realism in the image, usually a head. So I’m not entirely self-indulgent and personal!

Lately, I’ve begun to merge more satisfactorily the figurative with the abstract in my work.  Historically, figurative painting came first–then abstract. My model is figurative-abstract fusion like Miles Davis’ jazz fusion – a blend of jazz and rock.

There has always been figurative-abstract fusion, going back to Turner with his mature work of storms fire and vague buildings in the background. Turner was the daddy of figurative-abstract fusion painting. Probably, we next see it in Picasso’s cubism. The Dames ’d Avignon was certainly both abstract and figurative, as was all the ensuing cubist painting. After cubism, lots of artists –fauvists, German expressionists, Klee, Kandinsky — had figuration and abstraction. All figurative painting, even the old masters, had an abstract base– concern with color line value composition, etc. Some painters took those concerns and turned them into the subject matter and came up with entire abstract painting –first Kandinsky, with his improvisations-and later the abstract expressionists. Gorky, who painted a little before the abstract expressionists, combined subliminal imagery with lyrical color. So he was a figurative abstract fusionist. So was DeKooning, with his women’s series.

Now I’m jumping ahead a few decades. I’ve been interested for the last 30 years in merging the abstract with the figurative, and I think I can finally do it. I have seen others do it, like George Reuter from Akron, and others here and there. It seems to be a logical progression, on the one hand, and on the other hand, its roots have always been around. It’s nothing new- or is it?

There’s another thing. Controlled randomness, like in a Degas where the figures (dancers) are arranged in what seems to be a sort of randomness, but the composition is still very much controlled. There’s randomness in nature, like the trajectory of an electron being somewhat unpredictable, or the element of chance in natural selection–evolution. There is some chance in my drawings when I put white acrylic over grey chalk and charcoal and end up in a fit of pique, slashing the white with more charcoal and finishing up with a texture and a degree of dark- light that works well with the whole drawing. That moment of chance is stored as experience that will show up in future drawings, I hope.

Jan Snell’s Blog

This Autobiography is part of the Lives Of The Artists Series

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