Janet Kruskamp's Paintings - Famed Artist turns to Portrait Painting, an article about Janet Kruskamp

Famed Artist turns to Portrait Painting
Originally published in Los Gatos Weekly, April 25 1990
By Leslie Vestrich

Up until a few years ago, Los Gatos artist Janet Kruskamp was collecting media articles on her work published nationwide and adding to a long list of International collectors, awards, one-woman shows and museum exhibits like any successful painter.

Called “Santa Clara Valley’s foremost exponent of Romantic Realism” by an area newspaper, she did a collection of American scene paintings that became an Official San Jose Bicentennial event. It seemed her star had risen. Today, no exhibits, no awards. Why?

Because Kruskamp has turned to commissioned portraiture – and may now be “the foremost exponent” of that art here. She’s simply too busy to paint for shows.

“I hadn’t planned on being known as a portrait painter,” she said looking pleased. “Though I’ve always done figures, it was American, people, places when the work surged. Year before last I did three of my grandchildren and Margie (Marjorie Cahn, her gallery agent) started bringing people in to see them. Before Christmas I had seven months of commissions for the next year.”

A feminine, soft-spoken woman who surrounds herself with rose gardens, ruffles, flowered wallpaper and a carousel horse collection might be expected to romanticize her subjects. She doesn’t.

Criss-crossing the dusty back roads of America for three years in the ‘70s with her “incredibly supportive” husband Hardy at the wheel, Kruskamp came up with a vision of the country that circumvented the glitz and explored the enduring, the humble, the real and became the centennial collection.

Details tell her story: revealing bits of trash in an abandoned house, railroad tracks, the ancient county store/gas station, roadside wildflowers. A few years later she stumped inner-city streets, and her Transition Series of paintings at the San Jose Museum of Art recorded San Jose’s decay and old-fashioned beauty poised on the brink of revitalization. A town resident for 21 years, she made her surroundings into meticulous paintings of a Los Gatos that may not be here forever.

“I want to show people what there is to see and avoid clichés,” she explained. “The little things are the real things. If someone said, ‘Do Mt. Shasta” I’d probably paint the plants and rocks around the bottom.”

This intense scrutiny results in closely detailed work where every leaf and blade of grass gets a heightened reality. A sure and subtle hand with light, shadow and color puts the Kruskamp stamp on the most exact portrayal of client or backyard.

Human subjects can’t escape the scrutiny, whether a lanky-haired child, rumpled billboard painter or old man whose wrinkled skin folds around his hawk-like nose.

“This is what we look like,” she said, pointing to a thunder-thighed matron in a bathing suit. “I try to record events, the way we live-that’s what an American painter does.”

Although Norman Rockwell was her first idol, she veered from his overt nostalgia. But like him, she captures brief and poignant moments in time that are metaphors for all things human.

Portraiture, however, often challenges her honesty and immediacy. Clients expect the traditional poses. We seem to have an idealized idea of what we, or our children, look like.

“I’ve been asked to take off some weight or make hair longer,” she admits. “I’m happy to do that. Or someone says, ‘Oh, my wrinkles are so awful.’ But by gawd you earned them and they’re beautiful!” A series of meetings, photographs and sketches ensures customer contentment. Slowly, she is changing clients’ ideas about what a portrait is.

“I want people caught in the act of being themselves, to catch the moment – that’s what the Impressionists did. Otherwise, get a photographer. I always encourage people to have a thoughtful or characteristic expression rather than a smile showing all the teeth.”

She works America into portraits, whether of fields or gardens, old front porches or crumbling walls. And she likes to hide little “surprises” within, like the mouse in an eight-foot tall commission of a modern high-rise. There’s the inevitable pampered pet, living or dead, even one commissioned from a rancher for six paintings of cows and rolling fields.

Kruskamp studied at Chouinard Art School on a scholarship and then privately. Today she works in oil and egg tempera, mixing yolks with powered pigment she keeps in jars of distilled water. Working quickly to build up thin, semi-translucent layers prevents flaking and results in a depth of texture and color not possible with other paints.

Known as a difficult technique, it might almost come naturally to someone who has painted since pre-kindergarten and had her first exhibit at age 11 at a Burbank art center.

“I used to go into my closet, shut the door and draw all over the walls,” she said, laughing. “I guess that’s when they figured the better give me some paper!” To the delight of art lovers and her portrait clients, they gave her paper.

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