From a baby violinist to a tiny dancer falling in love with ballet at 6 years old, to becoming a world-renowned painter, Lydia has never not lived an artistic life. She’s a tremendous, unstoppable creative force. Nothing has derailed her from being able to express herself with her particular genius-not injury, not initially having very little money, not a pandemic, nothing. From dancer to painter, incredible people have sought her out because her talent is astounding. Choreographers, gallery owners, authors…she has the wow factor in spades. Lydia comes alive talking all things movement, art, painting, music, philosophy and travel. Her life, like her brilliant work, is big and beautiful.
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Lydia Janssen: The Muse and Master
Lydia, my gorgeous friend, I met you in college, which was a long time ago. The minute I met you, you were a magical unicorn to me. You have proven I was right from the get-go because you’re amazing. In arts, did you start your life in cello or dance first?
Thank you for having me, Jenny. It’s a long story. I was born in Michigan and raised in Massachusetts and I suffered from ADHD when I was a kid. My parents couldn’t figure out how to control my energy. My mom took me to this beautiful performance at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, where I saw ballet for the first time and I fell madly in love. I’d also been doing violin at the time. I quickly dropped that and started ballet class. It was one of those transformative moments. Walking into the studio, you know the feeling. I felt home. I felt like this is where I belong. From there, I did it every week until I was fourteen and then I went to a performing arts school in Boston where I delved in much more seriously and I thought this could be the thing I’d do for the rest of my life.
It was ballet from the time you saw it at Jacob’s Pillow, performing arts high school then I met you at Sarah Lawrence. We were both obsessed with modern dance and you really pursued it for a while after college.
I did. You and I were dancing at Cunningham.
To interject, the fact that we got to take a class in that studio with those teachers and musicians and I used to be like, “I guess I’ll go to class.” Like it was some chore sometimes. I loved the class and I love dancing and the music. The caliber of dancing was extraordinary but now, as a grownup, to realize how lucky we were, it’s amazing.
With the master of the craft and you’re right, those levels of performance elevated our performance. You and I are strong dancers and you got even stronger just by the sheer presence of Merce. You and Merce would sit in the back and he was a god.
It was crazy and amazing. Viola, the fact that we had her in college was a huge gift. Our college teachers were pretty marvelous. Afterward, we were taking a class in Cunningham after college and you choreographed as well.The life of a dancer is more driven by passion and motivation rather than financial. Click To Tweet
I choreographed in college and it was a funny thing. After you left, that became something that I was quite serious about and it complimented the painting that I was doing at the same time.
I’m two years older than you. Did you start painting in your third year of college?
Painting has always been something that I did. There was always a secondary medium that accompanied dance throughout my life, which is funny. It has repeated itself but it never fulfilled me. It never scratched the itch enough. Dance was the thing that satisfied me entirely, but I did painting on the side. Freshman year at Sarah Lawrence, I studied with a few people and it turned me on. It gave me a much more challenging perspective on a different art form. I enjoy that. One of the big moments of my life was when my knee was dislocated in my junior year. It was a pivotal moment. I remember the sound before I felt pain. It sounded like a gun had gone off.
It was a powerful moment on every single level. I couldn’t dance for about two months and I was commuting from Manhattan to Sarah Lawrence. It was during that time when I started to draw a lot on transportation, the three subways I had to take, the taxi and the Metro-North, etc. That was when some drawing took over because I couldn’t dance. I realized I had another way to communicate what I needed to communicate. I started to delve a little bit more into painting. As soon as my knee healed, I went back to dance full–time and I took that seriously. I was determined to dance professionally in New York and so painting was pushed back again at that point.
After college, did you continue to take classes? Audition?
You remember this too. The auditioning process in New York is brutal.
It was terrifying. I hated every second of it and I only auditioned for a few dance companies or dance performances and I’m not cut out for that.
I don’t think many people are. It was one of the most brutal experiences. Luckily, I had met Pam Tanowitz who’s getting her Master’s at Sarah Lawrence when I was there. She took a liking to me and the way I moved so we promised each other that when I graduated, I would dance with her company, which I did. She’s outstanding and she’s just a visionary. She’s really extraordinary. I’m super proud of her and that was gorgeous. We rehearsed at the Baryshnikov Arts Center and we performed all around. We performed in Paris.
I missed this interlude. Did you dance with the company for two years?
Yes, and it was gorgeous and she’s dancing professionally in New York. I didn’t make very much money. I was paid per performance and a little bit per rehearsal.
I feel like dancers are the ones that are most shafted in all the arts.
Absolutely. In the entire equation.
They’re paid in friendship bracelets. It’s so strange. Every other professional athlete, it’s the weirdest thing that needs to change.
I think it’s because our motivation is passion-driven as opposed to financial. I’m not going to speak for all athletes. It’s passion initially and then it becomes maybe financial but for us, it’s pure passion. I danced with her for a few years and then my knee dislocated again.
Was it the same one?
It was the same knee. Whether you believe in fate or signs or whatever, it was a pretty loud sign of something or someone telling me, “This is not the trajectory for you.” Viola put me in touch with this world-renowned osteopath named Irene. I went to her to heal. It was in one of the sessions where she said to me, “Lydia, I don’t think that this kind of dance and maybe even dance is for you.” It was a slap in the face because this was my passion project. I put everything into this. Years and years of training, devotion and putting life on the side. To hear that from someone who I respected was huge but I listened. I did eventually, I describe it as I faded out. It wasn’t a profound break with the company or with the dance itself. I just started to fade away. You have to put your ego aside. I was like, “No, who are you to tell me that I need to stop?” It’s very clear my body was giving out on me. My body was not meant to do this dance and Pam Tanowitz, her technique stemmed a lot from Cunningham. Cunningham is gorgeous but it’s for a few. It’s for a specific kind of dancer and body, which I didn’t have and I was forcing it.
I don’t have it either. From there you faded out of dance. Fade to black.
I started painting out of my bedroom, the bedroom in the house that you and I shared. That was where I started delving a little bit more into that. I became a massage therapist, which was a natural trajectory for a lot of former dancers. The healing modalities were screaming for me at that point. It was saying, “Heal your body.” Studying massage was fascinating because I was learning it from a different perspective, but that also didn’t scratch the itch. It wasn’t enough. It was fantastic and lovely for a few years but it wasn’t enough.
Were you a massage therapist at spas?
I was a legitimate massage therapist for ten years in New York while doing a few other things on the side.
You were painting out of the bedroom and doing massage. It felt fairly quickly to me, you had a big show in New York.
This whole period of time, I was in my twenties in New York. It was a bit of a mishmash of things but there are a few pivotal moments that I’ve discussed. There’s another one where I was walking in Brooklyn and I ran into Jordana Toback and she had danced with Mark Morris. I had been in Pam Tanowitz‘s company before and she was extraordinary. She is, to this day, one of the most extraordinary dancers I’ve ever seen.
I bumped into her on the street and this is after a few years now of not dancing, not taking classes, not having anything to do with the dance world. She saw me down the street and she said, “I know this is going to be out of the blue but I believe in moments like this and I want you to dance for me. I’m starting a company.” I said, “Jordana, no, I haven’t danced in years. My knee is still weak. I’ve moved on. I have a new creative outlet.” She said, “No, this is meant to be and I want you.”
You went back. You came out of retirement.
It was a very different form of dance and that was important to me that she understood I wasn’t going to be devoted to taking class every day. I didn’t want to do it the way I had done it before because that was too much emotionally and physically and swore up and down that it would be a different form of dance entirely, and it was. It was sensual and much more Martha Graham. It was a little bit more theatrical, which is not my thing but it ended up being super fun. She’s a really devoted and amazing choreographer.
The other thing that’s striking to me about these stories that you’re telling is that people are coming to you. People are coming to you and saying, “It’s you. I love the way you move. It’s got to be you and you’re doing this.” That’s very special.
You studied ballet when you were young too. In the ballet world, it’s important that everyone looks the same because you have a mold. We’re talking from head to toe. The length of your feet has to be a certain length and proportion to the rest of your body. That’s very intimidating if you don’t meet those criteria, which is the majority of the world. Not all of us are meant to be ballet dancers. Modern dance embraced my “imperfections.”
You are such an amazing mover. Your passion and charisma on stage, I still remember it. That’s why I picked you on my team.Many athletes are passion-driven as opposed to financial. Click To Tweet
I keep talking about these moments, this crossroad. That was it. When you picked me for that piece, that was a pivotal moment on every level.
I was like, “She’s unbelievable,” and still, I was right. I recognize genius. You came out of retirement, it was a whole different way of moving and now, you’re painting also. You’re doing both things.
I’ll quickly go through this period of time because it was quite a fun time, but I danced with her for about a year. It was hard. She had us wearing character shoes and Diane von Furstenberg dresses while we performed in 90-degree heat. It was a startup, essentially. It was a very new company. It didn’t have any of the band-aids or the help. It was tricky and there was a lot going on in New York at the time. I keep using this reference but it wasn’t scratching the itch. We parted ways amicably and that’s when I realized painting was something I needed to devote myself to. I ended up studying at The Art Students League in New York.
Did you just take classes or was it a degree?
I chose it over getting a master’s and I chose it over all the other schools that were in New York and there’s a plethora of them. It’s super famous. Helen Frankenthaler, Willem de Kooning some of big masters. I chose to not pursue a master’s for a few reasons and one of them was Viola, who we studied with at Sarah Lawrence. She had always said to me, “If you get your master’s in anything, it’s just putting off doing what you were meant to do.”
There are people that study and go that route and the people that do, and one is not better than the other but in this case, she was right. I just needed to paint. I didn’t necessarily need to study it at this point. I need to figure out what my voice was, what my language was and what I migrated towards. The Art Students League was one of those spaces that I could delve into and figure out what was going on.
From your first injury in college, junior year to now, are we talking years that you’ve been drawing, painting and doing art?
I was in my late twenties at this point. It was Larry Poons who was the reason I chose The Art Students League over any of the other schools. I don’t know if you are familiar with him.
He’s the quintessential bad boy of the 1970s and ‘80s New York. You can google him because he’s an extraordinary painter. I wanted to paint like him so I decided to study with him. The first day of class was a combination of Viola meets a military sergeant meets a Russian ballet teacher. He would sit in the back of the room and just scream and I was in heaven.
Viola was scary but there was something about the way she was scary that I loved so much and it made me want to perform, do well and impress her. There are people that are scary, who I’m like, “You’re just scary, period, full stop. I need to leave the room,” like those auditions that we talked about and then there’s scary where you’re like, “They see me. If they see even a tiny spark, I want to do more with that.”
There was you, me and there were only a handful of people that felt the same way. The attention she gave us made us feel honored. It made us feel special and that we deserve the critique.
Her criticisms were brutal and unvarnished always when you were terrible but then when something would please her, you were like, “I might be the best dancer ever.” This man, this was him.
This was every day when I painted. There were a few pivotal moments and there was a book written about my trajectory from dancer to artist.
What is the book called? Who wrote the book?
There’s a man named Ian Findlay–Brown and he’s the editor of Asian Art News, which is a leading art magazine in Asia. He’s an absolute genius. He’s in his 70s and a total madman. He and I had this crazy love affair. We talked about Bukowski, Sexton, writers, thinkers, philosophers and artists at the end of the conversation. There was so much that we both had in common despite our massive age difference. Also, a lifestyle that he decided he wanted to write about me.
He’s an extraordinary writer, an extraordinary thinker. He had asked to write a book and he had some connections with Skira, which is an Italian art publishing house in Milan. Through him and through them, Skira published the book, Ian wrote the book. I supplied the images, which was really funny. My paintings are up, luckily sold all around the world but they’ve been out there for many years. Some, I can’t even remember who has them and what collection they’re in. It required me, one of the least organized people in the world, to finally archive my work and find out where all these paintings are.
That’s my least favorite work. Was that hard?
The admin and the business, yes. Luckily, I have a husband who’s very good at those things. He took on the brunt. It took more than a year for the whole book to be done. It’s called Dance into Art.
You’re in class at the student art league. How long were you there?
I was there a long time. I was there for 3 or 4 years studying with him and another man named Ronnie Landfield. Larry wrote the foreword to the book. This is how extraordinary our relationship was. It was not personal and it was quite volatile. He would scream in the back of the room and it was interesting because he chose to often scream at me. One of the things he would say is, “Step away from the canvas. You’re here to paint, not look.”
That was one of the most transformative sentences because I realized I have to remove my ego from this process, which is incredibly difficult. Especially now where my work is quite autobiographical. It’s about me and my journey. Removing your ego from that process is a difficult thing but if you’re within inches of the canvas and just painting with the paint, it becomes in some way, ego-less. It’s when you step back and look at it that it becomes a mirror and that’s when ego takes over. At that stage of my career, it was brilliant advice.
You would get closer?
Not move back, just paint and when I did go back, it ended up looking like a brown mess but it was a process.
It’s impressive. You work with very big canvases, don’t you?
Now I can because I have space and I have enough money to get a big canvas. Back in the day when I had nothing, it was tricky. Now I can afford my linen, stretchers and I have a lovely space here in Bali. I would paint bigger if I could but my space is only about 2×3 meters at the time.
Is it intimidating to start with this giant, empty linen or no?
I describe it as being the most exciting part because of the infinite possibilities as you stand in front of it.
Your process, if you’re going to start a new painting, do you stretch your own canvases?Always get up, move, and just do it. Click To Tweet
I haven’t stretched to this point, lucky me.
After that, do you just see what happens?
It’s a little bit more than that. At this point because I’ve been doing it for about twenty years, I have a concrete subject matter. Every artist will tell you that they start from a different place but for me it’s autobiographical. The story of my work is my story so I don’t have to figure out what I’m going to paint about because it comes from my core. I don’t do preliminary sketches before I paint. I sketch on the canvas first often with charcoal and if I don’t use charcoal, I’ll begin with paint itself and then I’ll see where it takes me. It’s a push-pull and I described it as a literal dance between the canvas and myself, where it shows me something and then I show it something and then it goes back and forth until it doesn’t have to show me anything anymore.
Does every painting take you a different amount of time to finish? Have you had fast ones that came out of you?
I’ve only done one artist residency because I have three kids so taking the time away to be able to do that is impossible.
I have two and it’s so hard.
It’s a lot. Luckily, Luke gave me a week to take off, I went to this gorgeous place in Majorca. It was an artist residency where I had a week to myself with a few other artists and I painted. I was walking into the room that I was sleeping in and there was an old-fashioned stove with a massive pot. I said something like, “Is there a kettle that I can use for my tea?” They said, “No. It’s the pot.” That was indicative of the week. It was bare-bones, beautiful.
It was in Majorca, you can get any better than that. it was an intense seven days of just painting. I completed a painting called saturanga, which means orange grove. We were staying in this beautiful orange grove in Majorca. I completed it in seven days. There are some people that don’t think it’s finished. I do but to answer your question, that is the quickest I’ve ever done. I’ve done another painting that took over a year, roughly the same size. It depends.
Who are the people that get to say they don’t think it’s done besides you?
That person would be Luke.
He’s allowed. I thought it was some random person.
I’m going to allot you this position.
We’ll take his opinion. From the four years of taking classes, when did you have your first show in New York?
I had a few small shows throughout New York showing paintings in a café and at a bar. I did have a group show in a gallery in the early 2000s. My biggest solo show in a gallery didn’t happen until I moved to Singapore. The funny thing is the gallery that now represents me is in New York but I didn’t get that gallery until I moved to Singapore.
Is that REDSEA?
No, I’ve got two. There’s one called REDSEA Gallery in Singapore. The other one is Susan Eley Gallery in New York City. She’s brilliant. In fact, it was a lovely relationship she and I developed in the beginning. She’s a former dance critic. We bonded over that.
You did little shows in New York. In this time in New York, you meet Luke, your hubby, and you guys moved because of his work to Singapore.
We had one baby at that point. If you talked to any artists or anyone with kids, once you have a child, once you go from 0 to 1, it’s a game-changer on every level.
It was nuclear.
That’s a perfect word. It was a blast sometimes, in a fun way but I would take Lucia, who was our first that we had in New York and I had this beautiful studio in Chelsea Market near Luke’s office. We would go together and I would have her in the BabyBjörn and I would be painting with her on the BabyBjörn. We set up a cot in front of my studio. For the time being between 1 to 6 months, that was doable. When she got to be about six months and wanted to move, it was total game over. I couldn’t do both. I found it difficult to get into any kind of zone.It is tough for mothers and artists to be in the same arena. Click To Tweet
When people are like, “I would just take them.” I’m like, “Can you show me the video footage of exactly what you did?” How old was she when you moved to Singapore?
It was a funny moment because Luke is the quintessential ex-pat. He grew up all around the world. He was born in England but went to Liberia, Oman, Hong Kong, Singapore. His dad worked for the airlines, so every four years they moved someplace. That was a natural trajectory for him. He’s like, “Let’s get up and move. Let’s just do things.” He had grown up in Singapore and I think that he knew when he was there that he’d come back at some point in his life.
Luke would come back from work when we were living in Brooklyn and I had a little baby, Lucia. We would end up arguing about the things that young couples with a small baby argue about. There was a moment where we both sat across from each other and said, “This is not us. This is not how we are. We don’t fight about the dishes not being washed or the bed not being made. That’s not us.” We’d like to think we’re beyond that. He said, “I have a solution for this, let’s move. Let’s start over. Let’s do something else,” because he and I had been to New York for a long time. We decided to move to Singapore, where he opened up an office with his company. It was the most amazing time in my life.
You then went on to have two more babies because you have three. You were in Singapore for how many years before you moved to Bali?
We were in Singapore for seven years, where I had two more babies. The funny thing about this period is it ended up being one of the most prolific painting periods of my life. I look back at my twenty-year-old self, who would decide to go to the studio and then not do anything because I wasn’t feeling it. Now, as a mother of three, I have a finite amount of time that I’m in the studio and I’m going to bloody work. Painting became the job that I adored doing. I have a studio, I have a schedule, I have a deadline and I thrived with that because then I needed to get home to be with my babies and stuff like that.
Did you love your studio in Singapore?
I did. Although the one in Bali is infinitely better. When I started ballet at six and I described walking to that studio and feeling as though it was like home. From that moment, I realized that I needed a studio or I needed Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Some space with four walls or windows is mine. Especially as a mother and you will know these too, you have no space of your own within your own home. To have space where I can just think the way that I need to think is important. I’ve always needed a studio. To me, honestly, it doesn’t matter what kind of space it is, how big, how small or even how airy or light, I needed the space. My studio in Singapore was quite small, but I created a large body of work and then I ended up having a fabulous sellout show in 2018.
When was your first show with Susan Eley?
It was in 2014. Two years after we got to Singapore.
In those two years, did you just work your butt off?
I did. We had two babies at that point but I found the time to work so I worked hard but it became tricky for Susan and me because she was in New York and I was in Singapore. That’s a huge difference.
How did she find you there or did she already know about you?
Most galleries don’t accept unsolicited submissions. They find you but when you’re starting out, it’s a tricky thing and this is before Instagram. How do they find you if you’re not on the radar and you’re starting out? How does that happen? I blindly found her and I reached out to her. I used to dance as a common denominator. It was from there where our bond began and then she ended up loving my work.
In Singapore, you had a huge show in 2018 and that was with REDSEA. When was the book Dance into Art written?
The book was written in 2019. Luke had sold his company in Singapore where we were for seven years and where I had the three kids. We had a lovely life there. Singapore is a beautiful place to raise children. We had no complaints but we did feel a need to just flip it upside down.
It’s like you did in New York.
We’ve heard of Green School Bali. We’d known Bali because, in Southeast Asia, it’s quite tight. You travel to all these places quite easily. We had gone to Bali a few times and loved it. In fact, the first time I went, I cried. When you come here, you’ll understand what I mean. It’s the sound, the smell, all the people, the Hinduism or whatever it is that you decide to follow in your life.
I’m dying to go to Bali. I’ve never been even.
You must come while I’m here.
You’re not moving anytime soon, are you?
No. Because of COVID, everything’s changing a bit but we’re here for at least 1 to 2 years for sure.
Did you move to Bali in 2019? You left Bali and even in a pandemic, you made it look rad. I’m sure there were some not fun days but there was Singapore, Portugal.
It was madness. It’s the funniest story. We left Bali to go to Singapore for my exhibition. I’d had an exhibition here in Bali in March 2020. It was a book launch and an exhibition of the Como Uma here. It was a beautiful gathering. It was probably a week before COVID exploded.
Under the wire, at least you got to have it.
I know and I look back at pictures and think how little we know the whole world is coming to an end. We flew to Singapore on a whim, to be honest, for this exhibition that we knew would probably be canceled but I had to be there if it hadn’t been. We flew as a family to Singapore. We were thinking we’d be gone for three weeks so we brought one pair of shorts. The three weeks turned into three months. Singapore locked down and we were unable to leave. As soon as we could get out, we went to Portugal. The story behind that is a long one but we bought a piece of land in Portugal. As soon as we were able to go to it, we did.
Your mother is Portuguese.
My grandparents were born there. My mother was born in the States but we lived outside Lisbon in 1986 for a year. It’s a part of me, for sure.
You guys are global nomads. It’s the best. I want to get on board. You are back in Bali. Do you have another show coming up?
Yes, I do. It’s the show that was canceled in Singapore. We’re just waiting for Singapore to open. We don’t know when that will be. All of my paintings are in Singapore. We’re waiting with bated breath to be shown to that audience. It’s a good audience for me. I have quite a few collectors in Singapore. They’re loyal. We’re waiting on that. In the meantime, I’m starting a new body of work based on some drawings that I did all year because I was unable to paint. I didn’t have a studio.
I saw you would sometimes post just you at the table with the kids doing sketches.
Those little bits of the table became my studio. I did drawings, which I don’t normally do. Those drawings are going to inspire this new body of work, which is loosely based on the concept of home.
That’s going to be so great. I know it. In an exhibition, how many paintings are there?
It depends. The last one I did was between 10 and 15 in various sizes, but I’m working on the biggest one for the show because I just sold a few. I need to replace the ones that sold. I’m working on a 2x3 meter. It’s super exciting.
You paint every day in your studio. Do you have a certain time that you go?
Yes. That hints back to when we were dancers and you have to be at class 1:00 and dance for two hours. It’s still in me. I’m not the most disciplined person by any stretch, but I’m sure you found it in different aspects of your life.
Having kids helps.
They force you to be organized. I paint best in the morning. That’s my creative explosion time. It’s manic. When I say manic, I don’t mean that I’m maniacally painting that whole time but my heart is racing and I’m excited. That’s the time where things happen. I give myself 2 to 3 hours.
Do you have music playing?
I do. That’s important. My Spotify playlist is my companion.
Do you invite Luke or any of your kids? Are they ever allowed in your studio with you?
Not during working hours. I wear many hats. We all wear many hats. If I can smell my kids then I can’t get into the zone. It’s hard for me to be a mother and be an artist in the same arena. They can have the studio, they can play, draw on the walls and do anything they want on the weekends.
You guys travel a lot. Do you go to museums all the time when you travel? The artists who inspire you, do they change a lot? Are there always the through-line, the constant people like Larry? Do you see new exhibits that light you up?
Yes, but this year has been tricky. I’m not a huge supporter of social media for a bevy of reasons, but I will say Instagram has been huge in terms of exposing me to what’s going on because I’m in the jungle of Bali. I’m away from a lot of the pulse of the art world, wherever that is. What I am discovering is, years ago, New York was the pulse of the art world. Before that, Berlin and etc. Now whether it be because of COVID or because people are able to become digital nomads much easier, there isn’t one place where it’s all happening.
It’s becoming quite global and international, which is great for someone like me who’s spread out all over the place. I don’t have much of a community of artists here. There are a few people that I tap into when I need things like wanting to be inspired or when I need oil paint that I ran out of. I’ve found those people in Portugal as well. Even in Dubai, where we were. In terms of gallery shows and museums, I haven’t been able to see them because of COVID.
When it’s not COVID, do you still love going to a museum or a gallery? I had not even thought of that. In 2020, what did artists do? Did anyone have virtual shows? What was that like?
A lot of people did and it doesn’t do it justice. You need to see the work because it’s alive when you see it and you can’t see it over a Zoom call. For artists, it was tricky. I do know a few people who’ve sold during this and had some exhibitions online. My gallerist in Singapore did not think that would be best for my work. We didn’t think it would translate.
There’s a direct, energetic connection whether it’s artwork or dance. I love dance. I love to watch dance still. There have been some performances online and they’re beautiful. The dancers are extraordinary but it’s not the same. It just isn’t. When you sold some paintings, was that from people who had been to the gallery in Singapore?
Surprisingly, not. It’s a lovely woman who received my book. That is tangible. Being able to physically touch the book itself, smell it and read the words, that brings you one step closer to the actual thing. I know she was interested before via my channels, but it was the book that made the sale happen.
This body of work that you’re about to embark on is about home, the notion of home and what is home. It couldn’t be a more perfect topic for what every single person in the world has been through. You did a body of work about not being able to dance anymore. There were many paintings from your early years that I would look at and it was so beautiful. Is one called Lame?
Yes, Lameness. That’s one that sold. The first body of work that you’re referring to, I used quite a lot of horses and some animals. There were a few inspirations behind that and one of them was cave paintings. I’ve always been a huge fan of cave paintings, the colors, the images are childlike but advanced at the same time. They’ve been a powerful force for me but initially, the need to paint the animals was because I wanted to paint movement but still, how do you paint movement? How do you even begin to paint movement? You can move with the paint but that doesn’t necessarily evoke movement for people, whereas if you paint a horse galloping, everyone knows what a horse looks like when it gallops. It’s an immediate feeling of connection.
I’m not a horse person. I don’t ride horses. I don’t necessarily love them. I don’t migrate towards them but they became an incredible vehicle for me to be able to paint what I wanted to paint. A painter, a professor who I respect immensely, said, “Lydia, at some point, you are going to have to move away from the animals because you have the ability to be able to paint what you want without using them.” They did become, in a way, a crutch for me. I wasn’t delving in deep enough into my technique or my subject matter to paint what I ended up painting after that.
Have there been any paintings that you’re like, “I don’t like that one,” years later or no? Are they all like your babies?
No, for sure. There are a few paintings I look at now that I think, “They’re not done. What was I thinking?” There’s a good story. There’s a painting that I painted called Horse Hunter Stag. It was based on another painting of mine that I had painted called Graffiti Kiss. Graffiti Kiss was sold to this gorgeous collector of mine in New York. Someone else wanted it and I said, “I’m so sorry, it’s sold.” She said, “Can you paint another one?” “That’s such a fun task. Let me try.” I tried to paint another version of Graffiti Kiss and Horse Hunter Stag is what came out. It was unbelievably different from the Graffiti Kiss. I was upset. I was disappointed in myself and in the painting. I threw it in the bin.
This was in early 2010 or something, Luke took it out of the bin and he said, “There’s no way. This is an incredible piece.” I didn’t have perspective because, to me, all I was thinking, “It’s not like Graffiti Kiss, therefore it has not succeeded.” He was like, “Please just put it up in your studio and sit with it for a little bit.” A woman named Charline von Heyl, a famous painter who happened to have a studio next to my studio in New York, came into the studio. We had some tea and she looked at that painting without prompting and said, “This is my favorite one out of everything that I’m seeing.” I no longer throw anything away. If anything, I will work on it again if I have to or leave it.
I love that story. Before being with you, was Luke an art appreciator? Did he know anything about it or has he learned or grown with you?
Both. Luke comes from a family of accomplished musicians. He was a musician himself, he was in a band for years in Australia.
Isn’t he like a champion whistler?
He is. We went to a wedding once where someone said, “Can the world wrestling champion come on stage, please?” From the audience, “You mean whistling.” He’s the 2009 World Whistling Champion. We went to North Carolina to this massive convention of whistlers. It was hysterical. Anna documented the thing. You should have him on your podcast and he’ll whistle for you.
It’s the coolest thing ever.
He doesn’t whistle with his lips. He whistles with his tongue, which is a different thing.
I need to know all the nuances of whistling. He’s musical. When he met you, he already had that sensibility. Now, when he gives his opinion on a piece, do you value it and love it?
I do. Bias aside, I think he’s a genius. Whatever he touches is incredible to me, whether it be a tech business, a startup or whatever it is. I’m continually amazed by his brain. There are many times when I’ll say, “No. This is my thing. I’m a little bit more of a master in this craft than you are. Back off.” We’ll battle back and forth. The one thing he does tell me is he thinks that I abort the mission too early. I’ll often say, “It’s finished before it’s finished.” I would say 90% of the time, he’s right.
Do you go back?
When the painting is almost done, it’s the most exhilarating feeling. You know all that work is coming together in this image. I will often just back away from it and say, “It’s done. I can’t wait. It’s exciting.” That’s when he would say, “You must be more present, calm down, go back into it.” I’ll give it usually a week and then I’ll go back into it again.Once a dancer, always a dancer. It's in you. Click To Tweet
You’re waiting with bated breath for the exhibit that was supposed to happen last March 2020 in Singapore to happen when the world opens up again. You’re starting a new body of work in Bali. You’re there for a couple of years. I need to come to visit you while you live there.
Everything about you since when I met you as a dancer is always movement, like what you said about the horses and your paintings, from your long flowing hair and even your wedding ring. Your wedding ring looks like it’s moving and alive. That is the best.
Thank you. Once a dancer, always a dancer. It’s in you. It’s the same as riding a bicycle. It’s like, I know I can’t do anything that I used to be able to do but it translates in other ways.
Just like in college, I’m completely in awe of you. You are a magical unicorn. I knew it first before anyone else. I feel like I was first.
You were one of the only champions, Jenny.
You were always on the cutting edge of everything. You were macrobiotic before anyone else was. I love you. I cannot wait to see all of your work. If anybody wanted to look up your paintings, do they just Google you? Do they go to REDSEA Gallery? Your website?
No, the best platform is Artsy.net. That has both of my galleries. That has all my paintings.
One place, one home, Artsy.net. I’m going to go there and drool over your paintings. I love you. Thank you for taking the time with me. Please say hello to Luke and love to your kids. Thank you.
- Lydia Janssen
- Pam Tanowitz
- The Art Students League
- Dance into Art
- A Room of One’s Own
- Green School Bali
About Lydia Janssen
My paintings reflect my observation of how movement is achieved within confined spaces. As a former modern dancer, having suffered from several injuries, I dealt physically and emotionally with the inability to move expansively. This obstacle has led me to ask, how does one express the desire to move without moving? How does one move large within small spaces? My art can be understood as an attempt to paint movement or, perhaps, move with the paint. There is dance in the content of my paintings and dance in the execution of them. I rely on the viewer’s kinesthetic reaction as well as their visual one, for the way in which I paint is part of the content of the painting.
My current body of works, titled ‘All the King’s Horses’, is a painted collection of short stories spanning the last five years since I arrived in Singapore from New York City. They are reflections on my life as a cast of characters; daughter, dancer, lover, mother. My interpretation of these characters and their stories have become more literal, more figurative and less pure abstraction as I’m finding clarity in using familiar images, and thus really including the viewer in my journey.
My process relies heavily on my partnership with the painting itself. Although the work is autobiographical and therefore quite an autonomous journey, it is like a dance. I dance with the canvas, leading it, then letting it lead me. Breaking it down, then building it back up. This process creates many layers which in turn pull the viewer into the painting for their own little dance as different symbols and characters emerge from it, created by the viewer themselves.
The title, taken from the famous lullaby, follows Humpty Dumpty, falling down, falling to pieces, unable to get up, as I did in a literal sense from my dance injuries and as I experienced figuratively as I navigated a new country, culture, motherhood and the person which I was becoming. Humpty gets up, falls again and so on, and so on…lesson learning, finding beauty in the unbeautiful, order in the disarray, true grit, changing course and moving through life…
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