A Dana Gallery retrospective with Janet McGahan

Perhaps I received an injection of family as a baby that made my cells bounce with a powerful, primitive, stardusty inclination to keep family as the center of my life. After sifting through my sketches and paintings from the past 40 years, I see that my art has always reflected my passion for wanting babies, family, friends, animals, and birds within arm’s reach.

When I was four, my mother inspired my love of drawing people.  She would draw tiny pencil sketches of our family on a piece of paper as she and I sat at the kitchen table. When my firstborn, Simon, was two, my sister Catherine drew a sketch of him as he slept; that renewed my interest to start drawing in earnest. I drew anyone who would sit still: nursing babies, sleeping kids and adults, dogs, cats, live birds, dead birds, people in airports, hospitals, on buses, and in courtrooms.

I first used pencil but switched to pen and ink, which I now consider brave. There is little room for error in quick portrait sketches with a fountain pen. For shading, I would unconsciously lick my fingers to wet the ink, which left me with perpetually stained fingers. I don’t draw pen and ink portraits anymore because I find it too difficult.

Instead, I use pencil and charcoal.

My first earnings from my art came from sketching at the 1978 Arlee Pow Wow Celebration on the 4th of July weekend. I charged $5 a portrait. The next year I drew quick-draw portraits at Doug Allard’s Trading Post for $10 a sitting. Over the course of several years I drew more than a hundred Arlee students’ ink portraits when I substitute taught in the early 80s. It was my way of maintaining calm in the classroom. Even the wildest kids would sit still while I sketched them.

I found that everyone who sat for a sketch would relax after a few minutes of sitting.  Sometimes they would nod off and come to with a jerk. When I made eye contact while looking back and forth from their face to my sketchpad, we would come to a brief, silent closeness.

After 15 years of working almost exclusively in black and white, I received a short but wonderful art education in drawing and painting from my teacher, the late Chinese painter, Tu Baixiong. I had seen Tu’s MFA show at the University of Montana and raved about his style when I got home. My husband Jerry gave me private lessons for a birthday present in 1992. Every Wednesday afternoon, for four months, I would go to Tu’s second-story apartment on South 3rd Street West. Then Tu told me I was ready to “graduate” and that all I needed was practice, practice.

My exhibit opens June 9 at the Dana Gallery.

The Dana Gallery has represented me since 2002. With thanks to Dudley Dana and Candace Crosby and the warm and competent staff of the gallery, I dedicate this show to my family and my late husband Jerry who encouraged me from the start.