Still Life

Home Studies

Although she has lived in many places, Joan Tanner always returned each summer to her grandparents' farm beside the Delaware Canal in Bucks County, PA. To hear her talk about it sounds like something out of a storybook—the days were filled with strawberry picking, skimming rocks, playing in the creek and going to the Tinicum Art Festival. Dusk brought out shy fawns, playful baby foxes, fireflies mixing with the stars and the hoots of the great-horned owls. The farm is now home for Joan, her husband and daughter. "It was a kid's dream and I am grateful that my daughter has been able to experience it, too," she says, "I find that I often draw from this place in my art."

An Afternoon To Myself. Click to see more work.

Many of Joan's still life oil paintings are influenced by the colors and eccentric nature of Bucks County. She particularly tries to choose items and arrangements that convey the beauty in everyday life—the pop of green from a bowl of baking apples being readied for a pie or the sparkle of light on a grapefruit section at breakfast. Her family enjoyed collecting antiques, which often end up beside pears and berries from local farms in her paintings. "I prefer simple compositions that give a feel of elegance or convey a certain mood," explains Joan. "For me, it is the challenge of paring back objects in the arrangement first, and then finding the balance and color placement that will really make a difference."

As a kid, her family bought her paints and sketch pads and encouraged her to capture the beauty of her surroundings in her art. A touch of nature bursts into many of Joan's still life paintings today. "Acorns, leaves, feathers, an antler; you never know what I'll pick up and mix into my compositions. I'm very influenced by the season at hand. In the summer I'll use locally grown tomatoes, strawberries, peaches, apricots, whatever fruits or vegetables are in season. There's nothing like painting a big slice of watermelon on a hot July day to remind me of my childhood", says Joan. "But my favorite is the fall. I love to paint apples, gourds and pumpkins."

Her grandfather purchased the Pennsylvania farm in 1929, and Joan grew up hearing stories in connection with the art and furniture the family purchased from the highly-skilled craftsmen who shared the towpath neighborhood, including woodworker Ernest Schaible, printmaker and painter Allen Saalburg, and the famous framer Fred Harer, who was also a painter, sculptor and furniture maker. The paintings of local impressionists, Fern Coppedge, Edward Redfield, and Walter Baum also inspired Joan from an early age. "My family was very enthusiastic about the historical affiliation with artists and writers in our little area," Joan recalls, "and they passed that appreciation along to me."

Although Joan initially studied graphic design at Pennsylvania State University, she eventually switched her major to, and graduated with, a degree in advertising. She had a successful career in marketing for nearly twenty years in the financial services industry. Along with writing and editing, Joan was responsible for hiring and managing artists, photographers, and printers, enabling her to keep her hand in the creative side of the business. She continued to develop her eye for composition and color. Wall Street eventually took a back seat to motherhood when Tanner decided to leave her job to spend more time close to home.

For her next skill set, Joan chose construction, learning how to sheetrock, and finding work with a local contractor doing all kinds of renovations. In 2005, they were hired to work at the home of the well-known artist, Frank Arcuri. Conversations with Arcuri convinced Joan to try still life oil. "Frank is a modern master of classically inspired still imagery in the style of the old Dutch masters of the 17th century," explains Joan. "His outstanding ability to teach his technique of observing and comprehending light on an object is both amazing and extremely generous. I have been very, very fortunate to have studied with him."

It was also by chance that Joan began showing her artwork when a friend took a painting Joan had given her to WallFlowers Gallery , a small gallery in Bernardsville, to be framed. The owners admired the painting and inquired about the artist. They invited Joan to participate in a show with two other artists in the fall of 2009. "It was something of a crash course in showing," Joan laughs, "I had no idea what was involved and I was pretty intimidated by the other artists resumŽs. They had all gone to various art schools, won awards, and had shown in a lot of places. But the owners, Michelle and Christine, liked my work and were very supportive. At the end of the day, I sold some paintings and that was the best encouragement of all."

As luck would have it, her husband, Jay, also wanted to get one of Joan's paintings framed to surprise her. He went to see their friend, Ron Kolbi, owner of Decoys and Wildlife Gallery in Frenchtown. "Ron has a very successful gallery that is well-known for his superb collection of original carvings and wildlife art by artists from all over the world. He also does framing. When I brought in Joan's painting, Ron asked me about the artist," recalls Jay, "He was surprised to learn Joan painted and asked her to bring in some more of her work. Eventually, Joan dropped off a few paintings. That night Ron called to say he'd sold one of her paintings right off the counter. He hadn't even had a chance to hang it up! And he kept selling them."

Lately, Joan has been working on a group of paintings that she says are more about invoking a memory or feeling. The concept started with a painting entitled, An Afternoon To Myself, that depicted an open book, antique reading glasses, and a cup of tea. She posted it on online and several of her cousins wrote to tell her that it brought back memories of their grandfather's library. One cousin remarked that looking at the picture even made her remember how the library smelled of old leather and dust. When finished, Joan hopes the new paintings will prompt viewers to recall a moment from their past in the same the way most of us have experienced hearing an old song on the radio and are suddenly transported back to another place and time.

"I have been really lucky that I met the right people at the right time and they were kind enough to help me learn and grow as a painter and a person," says Joan. "For me, life really is about 'getting by with a little help from my friends'"!

This story was first published: Winter, 2010
Stay in the Loop!

Get our newsletter, This Week in the NJ Skylands, with updates, special offers and good ideas!

Read current newsletter

Privacy Statement