A Maker of Fine Art
Picasso lived to be ninety-one, grown old and wise enough to know his biggest challenge. “Every child is an artist,” he said. “The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
BJ Maker (above) is eighty years old and has figured that out. BJ—”it’s Betty Jane, two words, but everyone knows me as BJ”—walks with a cane, but her eyes glitter with a child’s joy. Her oil canvases shimmer with the summer morning blue of the Long Island Sound; the sunlit red of a Pennsylvania farmhouse on a distant hill. Local folks can’t get enough of the extraordinary vision of the entirely self-taught Milton, Pennsylvania, artist.
She has exhibited at the Susquehanna Art Society show in Sunbury, the Fero Winery in Lewisburg, and also at the public library in that college town. Recently she exhibited at the Gmeiner Art and Cultural Center in Wellsboro after she was discovered by curator Anna Wales Rogers. Visitors were so wowed they bought seven of her paintings right out of the museum, more than one of every ten.
Starting on June 1, First Friday in Wellsboro, BJ’s paintings will be exhibited in the Mountain Home Art Gallery, 871⁄2 Main Street. Her work—a dusty country lane cutting through green fields; a couple of cows as natural and beautiful as the tree and big sky beyond them; the wine grapes of summer; a head of wild garlic as handsome as a king’s portrait—will be in the gallery all of June and into July. BJ will be on hand at the First Friday celebration. Look for a woman with a handsome, square-jawed face, eyes shining with the fine energy of an artist who has figured out how to be a child for eight decades now.
It was hard-won knowledge. BJ doesn’t mince words. She paints from photographs snapped with her “cheap little Canon camera.” She paints from memory, like Break in the Bar, the glistening view of the Long Island Sound two blocks from where she grew up in Locust Valley. She paints now and then from pure imagination, such as an impressionistic landscape of a field with purple wild flowers. It’s as if Van Gogh were a woman who lived alone in a central Pennsylvania mobile home and was a lot a more sensible.
But BJ won’t paint outside. “I can’t stand the heat or the bugs or carrying stuff to paint outside,” she says. “Plus, if it rains, how am I going to paint?” She paints in her kitchen, “the only room big enough in my home to set up in.”
Her art draws on ample life experiences. She’s been married twice and has four sons. She ran a small bed-and-breakfast in New York. She says she’s been a teaching assistant, sold Avon, worked in plant nurseries, loved designing gardens and raising plants, and was a boutique sales lady for custom clothing. She loves to cook.
During a rough spell in the 1990s, “my mother said, ‘Why don’t you paint?’” BJ winced. Her mother painted china, exquisite red porcelain designs of fruits and flowers. Her father, who had his own boat yard, longed to be a draftsman, but had bad eyes.
“I told her I can’t draw a line with a ruler. ‘Why don’t you paint?’ my mother said again. ‘Why don’t you paint?’ I was quite annoyed. But she gave me oils for Christmas, and that was the beginning. She was right.”
The art “flows out.” Paintings take an hour or two, she says, “or a couple weeks. I walk by them a couple weeks later and spend another ten minutes. I call it my walk-by phase. I’m quite passionate about color and nature and gardening, and fruit and vegetables, and I just try to create that feeling of joy when I put the color on the canvas,” she says. “Sometimes it’s quite accurate, sometimes it’s not accurate at all. But it’s an awful lot of fun.”