May 22, 2022

Charlie Doodle

Unique Art & Entertainment

Self-taught artist captures the wisdom of women and their life journeys

1 min read
Caption

Jeanie Tomanek’s painting “Demeter’s Search” is featured on the cover of Joan Houlihan’s “It isn’t a Ghost if it Lives in your Chest.”
Courtesy of Jeanie Tomanek

Credit: Handout

Jeanie Tomanek's painting "Demeter's Search" is featured on the cover of Joan Houlihan's “It isn’t a Ghost if it Lives in your Chest.”
Courtesy of Jeanie Tomanek
Caption

Jeanie Tomanek’s painting “Demeter’s Search” is featured on the cover of Joan Houlihan’s “It isn’t a Ghost if it Lives in your Chest.”
Courtesy of Jeanie Tomanek

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

While Tomanek has painted male figures in the past, most of her subjects wear ground-grazing skirts. Dogs serve as animal familiars. In her extensive body of work, nature heals, gentleness signals strength and sisterhood is powerful.

Many of her paintings explore the concept of blossoming. Some may call Tomanek a “late bloomer.” She did not start painting until age 50.

Born Shirley Jeanne Robinson, the fourth of seven children, in Batavia, New York, Tomanek grew up rambling around the dairy country of the Genesee Valley. “I was a tomboy who idolized the Iroquois,” she says. Her grandmother and two uncles were artists, but Tomanek wanted to be a poet. She attended Kent State for a while and married her husband, Dennis, at 20. In the early 1980s, they moved to Atlanta with daughter, Mara.

Tomanek worked several jobs that did not exactly feed her soul — human resources, real estate, accounting. Her husband bought a novelty T-shirt company, and she learned that she enjoyed the design aspect of it. Soon enough, she was drawing, and then painting, teaching herself, dab by dab. She has never taken a painting lesson. “I don’t do sketches beforehand, and I have no color rules,” she says. “I’m naive,” she says proudly. Her influences include surrealist Leonora Carrington, Georgia O’Keeffe and Caravaggio. She started in oils but now usually relies on acrylics.

She entered her first completed painting, “Tomato,” in a competition at the Atlanta Artists Center in Buckhead and won first prize. A collector offered her $1,500 and a two-week time-share in Paris. “I didn’t sell, and I’m glad now that I didn’t,” she says, pointing to the bold, red painting that still dominates her parlor. She likes to remember how she started.

Tomanek gradually shifted into figurative work. Her father suffered a stroke, and Tomanek found herself tending both him and her sister, who was disabled and partially paralyzed by a childhood accident. “My sister moved in with us, and we treated her like a little princess,” Tomanek says. Caregiving remains a leitmotif in her work. “Whatever is happening to me at any given time goes into the paintings,” she says.

Caption

Jeanie Tomanek did not start painting until she was 50, but she quickly found an international following, especially among writers who use her ethereal art for their book covers.
Courtesy of Jeanie Tomanek

Credit: Handout

Jeanie Tomanek did not start painting until she was 50, but she quickly found an international following, especially among writers who use her ethereal art for their book covers. 
Courtesy of Jeanie Tomanek
Caption

Jeanie Tomanek did not start painting until she was 50, but she quickly found an international following, especially among writers who use her ethereal art for their book covers.
Courtesy of Jeanie Tomanek

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

She started showing and working at the now shuttered artist co-op Heaven Blue Rose in Roswell, which exposed her to other creatives and collectors. She read “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron for inspiration and “Women Who Run with the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, which gave her a nourishing vein of material. “One of my favorite stories is the ‘Handless Maiden,’ about a woman’s journey when she feels controlled by outside forces,” says Tomanek. “It shows up in my work often, along with Demeter and Persephone. I love that longing and poignancy between a mother and daughter.”

Tinkering with this gossamer sensibility, Tomanek eventually arrived at Everywoman, a bald and faceless feminine figure that figures prominently in her paintings.

“I was immediately struck by the shorn, ghost-like women striding across the landscape of each of Jeanie’s canvases,” says poet Eleanor Hooker. “I found that utterly compelling.”

Hooker used a Tomanek painting of a levitating woman wearing a crown and a pair of Mary Janes for a frontispiece on her chapbook. She also began collecting the artist’s work and hanging it by her desk to inspire her writing.

“’Dancing as Fast as I Can,’ one of the poems in my chapbook “Legion,” and included in my recent collection, “Of Ochre and Ash,” was inspired by one of her paintings with the same title,” says Hooker.

Tomanek’s Everywoman figure particularly appeals to those who are facing a challenge or negotiating a passage.

“I had just lost my home and everything I owned in a house fire, and at the same time had transitioned through menopause,” says collector Baxter Claire Trautman. “I wanted a work that would represent this next stage of my life so I asked her to paint a portrait of the goddess Hecate. I now have five originals plus three prints and laughingly refer to my home as the Tomanek West Gallery.”

Poet Anya Krugovoy Silver had breast cancer when she discovered Tomanek and used her art on two book covers before she died in 2018. Silver, who had lost her hair with chemotherapy, wrote a moving poem about crows that hold funerals for each other, so Tomanek painted “Fledgling,” with Everywoman protectively embraced by a large, black bird.

Caption

Tomanek’s painting “Fledgling” appears on the cover of Anya Krugovoy Silver’s second poetry collection, “From Nothing.”
Courtesy of Jeanie Tomanek

Credit: Handout

Tomanek's painting "Fledgling" appears on the cover of Anya Krugovoy Silver's second poetry collection, "From Nothing." 
Courtesy of Jeanie Tomanek
Caption

Tomanek’s painting “Fledgling” appears on the cover of Anya Krugovoy Silver’s second poetry collection, “From Nothing.”
Courtesy of Jeanie Tomanek

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“Jeanie’s paintings are evocative, fairy-tale spaces where loss blurs into wonder, trauma into resilience, the human form into nature, nature into the supernatural,” says Krugovoy’s husband, Andrew Silver. “Her paintings make pain, suffering and isolation iconic, and in lending shape to these scars shows us to a kind of deeper resilience.”

The perspective of maturity, in other words, and a woman’s fruitful journey in a world that seldom feels like a fairy tale. “In much of my work, a woman may be facing difficulty, darkness even, but I try to portray the strength there, and give the viewer optimism that she will prevail. She will survive.”

Tomanek has no regrets for arriving at this station in midlife.

“I wouldn’t have had the things to say or share or the wisdom, if I had started painting full time when I was younger,” she says. “It happened when it was supposed to happen and made my work richer because of it.”


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