Life-long East Sider finds peace in a paintbrush

Janet Cullen shows off two paintings that will be in her show at the East Side Arts Council. Cullen spent years painting without showing anyone, but recently found the motivation to show her work. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

One of Cullen’s favorite, this piece is darker and contains elements of her past. Though she scrawled “power” on the painting, she doesn’t know why she wrote the word. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

This bright piece of art shows the positive pastel images that Cullen creates. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

East Sider Janet Cullen has not had an easy life.

Her father was an alcoholic, and she lost one brother to suicide.

Her other brother drank himself to death on Christmas Eve about 13 years ago.

Now in her sixties, she’s spent much of her adult life without her immediate family.

“All my life has been trauma,” she said.

Cullen herself has struggled with alcoholism for much of life. But she’s come to terms with all that.

About 12 years ago, “I just woke up one morning and started drawing,” she said.

She hasn’t been the same since.

Art for transition

Through her art, Cullen’s found ways to forgive her troubled family, she said, and find positivity.

She’s been generating pieces of art quietly by herself for over a decade, with little formal training -- “it just exploded and started coming out.”

Cullen spent years with the drawings laying around -- “I never showed anybody because I never thought it was good enough,” she said.

But now, she’ll finally have an opportunity to show them off to the public -- starting Tuesday, March 4, her works will be on display at the East Side Arts Council. The opening reception is from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the organization’s gallery, located at 977 Payne Ave.

“It’s the first time in my life that anything like this has ever happened to me,” Cullen said. “I can’t describe it.”

Free form approach

Cullen’s approach to creating art is fairly loose. Often, she’ll simply close her eyes and begin to doodle with a pencil.

From there, she connects the lines she’s made using a wide array of different chalks. She creates rounded, bright pastel shapes that weave in and out of eachother gracefully, conveying a hopeful and joyful spirit that goes against the many struggles she’s seen in her life.

Though Cullen has been mostly independent in her approach, she did receive some formal training from a longtime partner of the East Side Arts Council, Rose Marie Felsheim. Felsheim has been working with the organization’s mobile summer art studio since its inception nearly 20 years ago.

Felsheim recalls that Culler was at a time of transition when the two worked together, also about 20 years ago.

“She was at a point of changing things in her personal life,” Felsheim said.  “Her artwork was one of the ways she was using to express how she was going to transition.”

Felsheim observed what she said was a natural talent in Cullen.

“She had a really excellent internal direction in her artwork,” she said. “They were just exotic and beautiful drawings.

“She took feelings that would really depress the average person, and used them to create something to uplift herself and other people around her,” she said.

Getting hooked up with ESAC

Until recently, Cullen was on hospice, and was told she only had six months to live. Her life-long smoking habit had caught up with her.

“I thought this was it,” she said.

But by some miracle, she’s taken on her illness and has a new lease on life. She has transitioned into a senior living facility, where she has her own apartment and is feeling much better.

It was that recovery that led to her deciding to try to show her artwork.

Going through an old phone book, Cullen came across Felsheim’s name, and decided to give her a call.

Felsheim recommended that Cullen contact the East Side Arts Council -- she did, and after showing some samples, she was able to land the show.

Jeffrey Quatier, who helped Cullen set up for her art show at the East Side Arts Council, describes Cullen’s works as “very soothing pastel abstract works.”

Quatier said Cullen seemed like a great candidate for showing her work in the organization’s gallery -- she’s a life long East Sider, and “she’s never shown her work anywhere, so it seemed like a nice opportunity for both of us.”

Cullen’s excited about the show, and is hoping she gets a good crowd to check out her artwork.

Felsheim said she too is looking forward to seeing the work on display.

“I just think she’s one of those success stories,” she said. “Art can help your life be better.”

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.


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