AN ECO POLITICAL ARTIST
"When it comes to global warming, extreme weather, overpopulation, and the
diminishment of planet earth, Janet Culbertson has had her eye on the storm
for over forty years. The proliferation of nuclear reactors, strip mines, horizons of oil
rigs, animal extinction, the bleak, deforested landscapes...in the hands of Culbertson,
whose mixed-media paintings, monumental drawings, and elaborate collages have been
exhibited across the United States, even these Boschian nightmares exude the
seductions of pictorial depth, tactility and radiant,iridescent color. Her work has never
been more germane than it is today" - Janet Goleas, Islip Museum
My first New York City exhibit was called "Elegy to Nature." Since then I have been painting and drawing the many diverse aspects of the landscape. I am fascinated by our complex love yet exploitation of nature. For me painting is an affirmation of my concern and sense of awe for my subject, the natural world and its creatures...
I grew up in a small town in Western Pennsylvania where canoe trips, hikes in the woods and climbing every tree in the fields was almost as exciting as trips to the cultural centers in Pittsburgh. A family vacation to Sag Harbor imprinted me with the vastness of the sands and ocean, which is probably why I eventually came back here to this island area to live. After high school I attended Carnegie Mellon University and studied Painting and Design. I had a passion for exploration too and hitchhiked with a friend out West where the landscape of red mountains, wild pines and fragrant sage came as alive as the legends of the West.
I moved to New York City because it was the art center of the world. I experimented with many odd jobs until I finally earned my master's degree at New York University and subsequently found great pleasure in teaching at Pratt and Pace University, and in doing my own painting. My first successful show was of a series of silverpoint drawings inspired by my family album. These works were well received, showing in Los Angeles, New York City, and Atlanta. Ten of these have subsequently been acquired by the Telfair Museum of Savannah, Georgia.
After moving my studio to the East End of Long Island, my husband and I became enthralled by sailing through the waters and exploring the inlets. This inspired me to paint a series of islands and ponds -- seen from a boat, they often looked like luminous, distant slivers. A high point in my life was camping and sailing through the Galapagos Islands with the "Friends of the Earth." We followed the trail of Darwin and reread the poetic stories of Melville. From this I developed a series of mural-sized "burst ink" drawings of animals. My paintings of these haunting islands strive to capture this volcanic, primordial place.
In 1975 I developed a personal mythology for a woman hero (based on Joseph Campbell's monomyth) which dealt with her ecological commitment to nature. This series of 20 drawings called “Mythmaker” in the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC. Thanks to grants from the Ludwick Vogelstein and Puffin Foundations, the museum framed and exhibited this series in an exhibition depicting an eco-feminist point of view in 2004-05. Whenever possible I took trips, drawing and photographing the Grand Canyon, Alaska, as well as parts of Mexico and Africa. Some of these sites became the focus for a series of collages, knife drawings, of "nature as Disney-fied scenes."
During the seventies I had four one-woman shows in New York City at the Lerner-Heller Gallery; received a C.A.P.S. New York State drawing award and exhibited in a number of group and museum shows; proposed and worked on the HERESIES Ecology Issue #13 along with a group of other concerned women. My article on Ecotage appears in this issue. Then in 1980, I was seriously injured in an auto accident, which interrupted my life and work for a number of years and added another dimension to my work.
In 1987 I began a series of billboard paintings, (that great American Icon that urges us to consume), contrasting the beauty of nature with our destruction of it. I searched for beautiful sites as well as the ubiquitous polluted areas–to paint, to photograph and to absorb. The number of "hotspots" in the world has now begun to outweigh the wild and unpolluted ones. Curiously, the Orwellian idea ("1984") of rewriting history comes alive in the Industrial "Parks" concept. Parks were idyllic green glades with streams and wildlife. Now vast fields of storage tanks filled with gas, oil, etc. are being called "Tank Farms", the land is sealed away in asphalt. Our air is polluted by chemicals, clear cutting is being called "making open space" and slaughtering animals, is called “harvesting."
In the last years my Industrial Park works dealing with environmental destruction have won recognition; I was invited to have solo shows at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, the University of Nebraska, the University of Bridgeport, Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA., (my home town), The Museo de Los Ninos in Costa Rica, The Accola-Griefen Gallery, NYC and more recently, a forty-year retrospective, "Paradise Gone" at Stone Quarry Hill Art Park, Cazenovia, NY.
I plan to continue painting these paradoxical aspects of the landscape in the Industrial Park works, as well as in my ongoing and evolving series of panels, "Overview." These panels are more sculptural since they are composed of dimensional materials such as collage, iridescent pigments, glass chips and even creatures washed up on the beach. They are an overview of all of my work from the last twenty years.
My work is fueled by the constant news barrage 24/7 of both natural and/or contrived disasters of the day. When possible, I take trips to experience first-hand the sustaining power of nature amidst the evidence of humanity's destructive impact. I feel that art, whether beautiful or provocative, can be a force for creating a greater ecological awareness of our threatened world.