Jana Peterson paints her heritage
A colorful passion inspired by Norway
Prolific Norwegian-American artist Jana Peterson has been creating art for 41 years, and much of her work is inspired by Scandinavia’s incomparable scenery, offered in land, sea and sky. Her most recent project is a wonderful new book, a compilation of all of her Nordic-centric paintings.
Peterson explained: “This book is the beginning of a Scandinavian retrospective. My love for my family and heritage is more than constant; it is an obsession. Now I must share my visual impressions of some of the world’s great Scandinavian landscapes and their magical impact. I have a great sense of relief that now these inspirational paintings may serve as a witness to some of the magnificent joys of this world.”
This quote is a perfect introduction to this artist and opens a discussion of one of her most evocative works, a magical piece she calls “Karstenfjord.”
Her technique in this piece is very realistic, almost photographic in its fine details, but not without a hint of the mystical. The play of dark and light on the mountain is reminiscent of a Japanese print.
Although completely still, this work has a sense of movement in the clouds sauntering across the sky and the flow of the current. But it is the mist that most intrigues, the melding of the air and sea catching our imagination.
Norwegian roots and inspiration
Peterson’s ability to share the majesty and magic of Norway is understandable. The country, its culture and environment, are intertwined with her identity and craft.
She explained: “I am 86% Norwegian. I was born in Northfield, Minn., a town with many Norwegians and St. Olaf College. My parents met there and are both of Norwegian heritage. I remember my great-grandparents speaking only Norwegian at times, and we enjoyed traditional holiday recipes and hearing about our heritage.”
Her first of nine trips to Norway came when she was 21 and studying in England. She says that during those adventurous years, international college classes, curiosity, and the Norwegians’ beloved idea of friluftslivet drove her to explore Europe and her ancestral homeland.
“I met my grandparents in Oslo,” she recalls, “and Grandpa cried when I put my hands over his eyes and said, ‘Guess who?’ He then brought me to visit his homestead and farm…. We were there for four days and met many relatives…. I still am close to many of them, including those from the other side of my family who live near Oslo. I try to visit every couple of years, and they visit me here.”
It is not surprising that Peterson’s other passion is visual art, considering her family background. Her father is an architect and her mother is an artist and art teacher.
The results of Peterson’s ability to merge her two passions, a Scandinavian identity and the compulsion to create, speak for themselves.
A study of the seasons
The pieces that follow seem to fall naturally into the four seasons. Looking at them this way presents a nice conversation:
Spring (“Blueberry Dusk”) has a certain Japanese feel. Notice the lovely detail of the gentle moon lighting the water’s edge. It is a wonderful study of soft blue possibilities. The staccato of color in the branch tops juxtaposed with the long notes of the trunks are striking, yet gentle.
Summer (“Lofoten Midnight Sun”) examines the jagged mountains in the far north, a hint of their height revealed in the still-frozen ice. Their darkness is lifted by the blushing sky, with rose and golden tints seeping into a watery reflection, bursting into wild flowers.
Interestingly, these colors are constant, yet the technique changes beginning in long horizontals and ending in delightful dabs, unifying the scene, but offering a twist. The colors compressing the dense dark mountains create an interesting tension.
Autumn (“Enchanted”) smacks you with a riot of color, a signature of Peterson’s work. The birch trunks hold still and pale in comparison to their flamboyant pirouetting partners.
The choice of cropping then draws you into the frame. You can almost feel the crunch beneath your feet and inhale the fertile earth conveyed.
Winter (“Geiranger”) The purplish-blue streaks of the auroras collocated next to the slate gray greens of the mountains are a sheer delight to the eye. One is drawn to the aurora spotlighting the sea and the translucence of a celadon glacier.
A distinct conversation emerges between the “Summer” and “Winter” pieces. They contain the same natural elements with a slight change in perspective, but each has a very different feel, showcasing Peterson’s attention to detail, her talent, and her love for the land of Norway.
One thing these four pieces share is the way Peterson saturates the canvas in color, shades, and tones. All but “Autumn” (“Enchanted”) include a masterful rendering of light and watery reflections.
When comparing “Spring” (“Blueberry Dusk”) and “Summer” (“Lofoten Midnight Sun”), the differences in the colors are subtle, but if you look closely, you can see how Peterson captures the nuances of each season.
The artistic process
The process of making art is unique to each artist. I asked Peterson if she could speak about her process as an artist, how she approaches a piece or project.
She explained: “Whether it is for a temporary exhibit or for eternity, I begin new pieces of art by going to the site and absorbing the space. It may take a few times and many hours: traveling, looking, photographing, researching, drawing, playing with color and media, and finding solutions. My pieces are constantly evolving until they create happiness for others. I am dedicated to creating new art.”
Beyond her Scandinavian paintings, the artist is also known for her contemporary bright abstracts, for which she has received commissions throughout the world.
She elaborated: “My abstracts just evolve. I am a colorist. If you came to my house, you would see a lot of bright and neon colors. I try to knock your socks off.”
It is not surprising that she has several pieces depicting architectural icons, a nod to her abstract forms and father’s profession. What was surprising was her flamenco series—until I discovered that she had once been a professional dancer.
She has also worked in iridescent mediums, for example, using copper and silver bases in her holograms. Her Viking ship etched bracelet cuff is especially handsome, as is her precariously balanced geometric trio of Viking crosses in the center of a necklace.
The artist even sculpts. One wonderful piece is a bust of a girl, her head encircled with a wreath of candles, entitled “Santa Lucia,” cast in both bronze and aluminum.
Creative to the core
Peterson’s need to create is tied to her core. I asked her what it means to create.
“Creating, painting, sculpting, jewelry making, and dancing are the core of my happiness and being. Inventing and producing works of art reward me with the feeling of accomplishment, in that I have made something special and new.”
Her rich Norwegian family and heritage is also a propelling force in her productivity. “The challenge to toil until the design mystery is solved is so exciting and rewarding once it is completed,” she said.
Peterson paints both in realistic and abstract styles. She has created installations and has made jewelry and sculptures. Her range of subjects is immense and idiosyncratic, from landscapes, of both Scandinavia and the American West, to dancers, animals, and architecture. Finally, I wondered what connected this creative potpourri.
The artist illuminated: “I have gone through so many changes in my work; I think that’s what keeps me going. I am always trying to branch out and learn new techniques.”
This exploratory impulse is boundless, Peterson says: “My goal and aspiration is to create pure joy in the viewer’s life, to inspire, excite, and renew. When the viewer looks into the piece and feels moved emotionally by the piece, it means everything to me.”
To experience more of Jana Peterson’s work visit: sites.google.com/view/jana-peterson/home
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.