Janet Monafo once tossed objects onto her studio floor in an attempt to paint a more random arrangement with pastels. “I really wanted to accept whatever happened, but in the end I couldn’t resist my need to carefully organize the shapes and patterns,” she confesses. “I had to admit my inability to deny my natural tendencies and personal standards.”
Massachusetts artist Janet Monafo
says she is not very good at explaining her painting process, but the truth is she is forthright, clear, and profound when she talks about the creation of her still life and figure paintings. It’s just that intuition and experience play such important roles in her creative process that it is inconceivable for her to think she responds in a predictable, methodical way. That is, she is more apt to say her decisions are based on what feels right at the time rather than on calculations about relative value, color temperature, or compositional principles.
“Every painting is the result of a completely different set of motivations and perceptions, yet there are commonalities that reflect my personality,” Monafo says. “For example, the still lifes are almost always complex arrangements containing a major or primary still life and one or more secondary still lifes within the same painting. That is, some things are arranged on top of a table while others appear on the floor or a lower shelf; and my vantage point is frequently from above the setup. If you compare one of my paintings to a still life by Giorgio Morandi or Francisco Zurbaran, for example, you will quickly see how differently I approach still life. I love what other artists have done with simple, straight-on views of fruit and vessels, but my interest in still life painting is very different.”
“Once I’m satisfied with a plan for a painting, I use grid lines to redraw the outlines of the forms from the full-scale drawing to a piece of toned paper, and I begin working very directly with pastels,” Monafo describes, pointing out that for most pictures she uses sheets of heavy, white Stonehenge paper; whereas anything larger than 38" x 50" is created on sheets of heavy Lanaquarelle watercolor paper coated with Golden pastel ground. “I immediately indicate the local color rather than underpaint complements or block in a grisaille of values,” the artist says. “I need to see some evidence of the entire picture on the paper before I concentrate on any one element. I don’t use hard pastels to make those initial indications because I prefer to only work with soft pastels, being mindful of the color key. That is, the intensity and relative value of the colors.”
A recent set of large paintings of Adam and Eve gave Monafo the opportunity to comment on timeless issues as well as contemporary values. “I was struck by and very interested in the beauty and grace of the human form as depicted in a painting of Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer [1471–1528],” the artist explains. “I thought about paying homage to the artist and revisiting the theme by adapting the figures in a diptych of Adam and Eve, contemporizing the story of mankind’s original sin by suggesting the prevalence of greed in the culture today. The gold fabric, golden apple, and brass vessels represent the material possessions that continue to tempt people, while the skulls remind us of the transience of life. The branch of leaves that extends from one painting to the other suggests the tree of knowledge of good and evil; and the corked bottles of wine, lilies, cattails, and serpents are some of the traditional iconography associated with biblical stories.”
Monafo’s pastel paintings have earned her wide recognition and respect from collectors, curators, and artists. She was elected to the Pastel Society of America’s Hall of Fame in 2002, and her paintings have been included in major gallery and museum exhibitions, including “Object Project,” organized by The Evansville Museum of Arts, History, and Science, in Indiana, that was featured in the October 2007 issue of American Artist.