Interviewsand Articles


East and West: The Work of Jane Rosen

by Richard Whittaker, Dec 1, 2007



Two years ago, Jane Rosen resigned her teaching position as a member of the art faculty at the University of California at Berkeley. Her decision surprised me. She was a popular teacher and her drawing classes were always packed full. For a couple of years, Jane had mused about the possibility of giving drawing workshops, but it hadn’t seemed very concrete, and surely that was only a piece of the puzzle. I wondered what she would do.
     Rosen grew up in New York City where, early on, she established important connections in the artworld. As her career began she stood in the enviable position of having good gallery representation, a job teaching at the School of Visual Arts, a distinguished mentor and friends on the way to significant artworld standing. But during a visit along the Northern California coast, Rosen encountered nature in such a compelling way that she found herself in a real quandary: stay in New York or follow this call to Northern California and leave career security behind.
     It was shortly after she’d taken her first step out to the west coast that I met Jane. An early recollection is of how intensely she spoke about nature, about the curl of a wave, the shape of a hawk’s wing [I see her hand making the shapes] and their similarities. And then there were the spirals in pinecones, sunflowers and seashells! In some basic way, there seemed to be laws of form in nature, an underlying mathematics—the Fibonacci series, for instance. And there were other mysteries. After all, we are part of nature, aren’t we? How did all this apply to us? Had Leonardo da Vinci glimpsed these things? Rosen was sure of it, and quoted him frequently.
     When I met Jane, she was living in a rented house on a horse ranch, of all places, where she spent hours watching the horses. But she watched animals of all kinds, wild and domestic, large and small, on land and in the air, animals only glimpsed and those close at hand, especially including her much beloved dog Mayo, who she often referred to as her teacher. Rosen is a close observer, as they say.
     In those days, she lived on the west coast for part of the year, but kept a foot in New York where she owned a large loft in SoHo. She’d gotten it at a price hard to believe back in the days when New York real estate had been at a low point. During the summers, she’d return to renew old connections.
     It wasn’t working so well. The bi-coastal life reflected an inner division that Rosen was unable to resolve. I remember Jane telling me about an offer she’d gotten from Bard. They offered her a position as a full professor on the art faculty with a handsome salary. I thought maybe she’d take it, but she turned it down in favor of lower pay and a lesser position on the art faculty at UC Berkeley.
     She had begun looking for a place of her own along the coast south of San Francisco, but one year followed another and nothing quite right turned up.
     During those times, an idea for a book had come up. A well-connected friend in New York thought it would be a sure thing. I’d visited one of Jane’s classes at UC and wondered if there was some way of capturing her lecturing style, which is as entertaining as it is inspiring. I recorded her talking to her class and it appeared in the second issue of works & conversations [Art 12]. But besides her talent for speaking in front of a class, Rosen had developed her own approach to teaching drawing. Over the years a huge reservoir of her students’ work had accumulated, one amazing example after another. I remember looking at the drawings; they’d be perfect for her book. But as the years went by, the book never materialized.

It must have been about 1993 and I was publishing The Secret Alameda, which later evolved into works & conversations. Occasionally I used illustrators back then, and a young man had arranged to show me “his book.” I’d often looked at the portfolios of professionals. The work was always at least skilled, but looking at this fellow’s work, I wondered if my leg was being pulled.
     No, he seemed entirely innocent. “Have you had any training?” I asked. He was a graduate of the Art Academy of San Francisco. “What a pity you didn’t find your way to Jane’s class,” I thought.
     Rosen draws masterfully herself, but equally she is a sculptor. For Rosen, the two disciplines are deeply related and both grounded in the life of the body. When Rosen is teaching, leading a student toward some presence in sensation, it’s revelatory. In order to learn how to draw well, she might say, it’s necessary to reconnect with ourselves as incarnate, living in a body.

The day came, Jane told me, “when I decided I was moving back to New York.” She’d given her landlord notice—in fact, she’d already packed her things into her car. But just before leaving there would be a few words with a friend who lived nearby. It was one of those moments. “But Jane, have you seen that property up the road?” And in an hour, a handshake deal had been struck for a forty-acre ranch. It all fell into place in minutes, and the deal went through. Rosen sold her loft in SoHo.
     She had finally really moved to the west coast. That was a few years back. And then, suddenly, as it seemed to me, she retired from her position at UC.

Life on the Ranch   
Rosen did begin giving drawing workshops at her ranch, and during the first one, an unexpected thing happened. She met Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author [The Making of the Atomic Bomb] who, it turned out, lived just up the road. On that weekend, Rhodes, like her students before, knew he was encountering something special.
     What Jane teaches goes far beyond conventional ideas of what drawing is about. After the two-day workshop, Rhodes knew he wanted a complete drawing course. After all, Rosen’s university classes had lasted entire semesters. Was there any way? Somewhere in their conversations, Jane’s unfinished book on drawing came up. Rhodes took a look at the material and decided, it had to be completed. "I can help,” he said. He’d become its editor and contribute an introduction himself.
     "Why is all this happening now?" I asked Jane.
     She thought about my question. So much of her creative energy had gone into her teaching, she said. “I think it was critical to have contributed in that way. Now all my energies can go into my work.” 
     I'm sure that’s only part of it. A lot of things are falling into place.  
     “It’s funny,” she said, “I finally really got over worrying about the artworld, and now things are happening.”
     Indeed. Recently there was a successful show of her work in New York at Sears-Peyton Gallery. It followed a similar success at the Friesen Gallery in Seattle and another one in Chicago.
     Alan Artner wrote in a Chicago Tribune review of Rosen’s work at Gwenda Jay/Addington Gallery, “Animals are not self-conscious. Hence, little intervenes between them and the world. When they watch a thing, they are fully present in the watching. We, on the other hand, are distracted by our own hyperconsciousness.” Artner notes that, in this respect, animals participate in “a fuller state of existence than the one lived by humankind.” His observation gets close to the center of the questions that have captivated Rosen from the beginning.  ∆   


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.  


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