The new ‘nothing new’

I asked her if she wanted fennel or licorice tea, and she replied, "I’ll take whatever, I’m easy. That’s what it says on the bathroom walls, anyway." Janet Julian is like this, she grabs whatever comes her way and then breathes a little more life into it. Ask anyone in her neighborhood, the Alberta Arts District, about Julian and they’ll tell you how generous, funny, friendly and talented she is.

At the Star E. Rose and the Laurelthirst, Janet Julian is a living legend, known for her prolific art and music. Her style lands with one foot in the cute puddle and another in the gutter. A typical Julian collage starts by cutting a Victorian lady’s head off, then replacing it with another. Defining a person’s art and categorizing it might be one of the most degrading and insulting things to do. It creates limitation around the art and artist but, for the sake of argument, lets define Julian as a folk artist. Her work by itself might be defined as mixed media or collage, but because she puts so much life into her work it is pure folk art.

Much like a taxidermist, Julian brings dead things back to life. Her pieces are like memorials, created to honor those who have passed before us. She even gives them names pulled from obituaries, her grandma’s yearbook and from her own family. For example, "Thelma," "Corebell" and "Luella" are some of her favorite titles. These monuments are made of old postcards, Victorian clip art, vintage magazines and other scrap paper. They are modge-podged, painted with salvaged paint, embellished with squirrel or cat fur and other fragments from her private and melancholy life.

Julian’s use, or reuse, of materials has nothing to do with the current fads. Rather, it "started out as an economic concern," she said. She couldn’t afford to buy new materials at first, "and now it’s so natural to me not to buy anything new. It doesn’t make any sense to me."

But she admits to buying new socks, underwear and soap along with food. "I really like new food, food that’s really new."

Julian thinks that anybody that consistently uses recycled or salvaged materials is making a statement about consumerism. However, for her, the statement comes as an afterthought to just wanting to make art. Reusing scrap, junk and other discarded material, "makes art accessible to everybody, [and] helps people who can’t afford new material." This approach takes away that "I-can’t-afford-to-make-art anxiety."

Where does she find such precious material? Antiques Road Show dumpsters? E-bay? Thrift stores? Nope. Julian gets the stuff from friends who find and keep things for her. She also simply finds stuff on the sidewalk around her neighborhood, but most of her material comes from estate sales. Considering that estate sales happen because someone has just died and left a lifetime of stuff behind, Julian has found the perfect source of materials in need of a new life. "People leave a lot of their unfinished projects behind."

The pieces in Julian’s current show at HI-IH Gallery (2927 N.E. Alberta St.) started off at an estate sale. "This old guy had been collecting all this stuff to make things out of. There was all kinds of odds and ends and bits and pieces, bits of tinker toys and spools and things, over in a corner on a shelf were these end pieces of tomato boxes. There were tons of them, but I just grabbed seven of ’em for 50 cents."

The tomato boxes would have just gone into the trash and down to the dump, but Julian showed up and saved them. Now they are vibrant and full of new life.

Like a true folk artist, Julian is a product of her environment. "I never go out looking for anything in particular. Something could just present itself and inspires me to make something out of it."

Her approach is like piecing evidence together to reveal a hidden story, the secret life of junk.

Julian’s work is usually smaller than a checkers board but they may change. "What I’d really like to do is make giant pieces of all the stuff that I’ve collected for years. It would be for the process of making something out of all these things, rather than just using one little piece at a time."

Julian has also been thinking about collaborating with her buddy/lover Ted, "I think it would be really cool if we did some stuff together, because he’s been making me little things in the garage. Like little frames and little boxes. He just gave me one the other day. It’s got a little cupboard. You open it up and there’s this old wall paper in there." So he would build the house and she would fill it. Pretty cute, right?

Julian’s work has been all over town for years, and you might have noticed it in a coffee shop, tavern, flower store or hair salon. Why a gallery has not latched onto her work is beyond my comprehension. Once you hang Julian’s work in your home, it will instantly become your favorite. Her work has raw appeal, and she should be recognized as the best folk artist Portland has to offer.

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