By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
Some artists have the opportunity to spend their entire lives devoted solely to their art while others simply push art into the background as they pursue other careers. But Peoria, Illinois artist Jean Gronewold found ways to keep art alive by integrating it into her class material as an elementary school teacher.
Originally from Virginia, art was always special for Jean. “Art was my escape,” she recalled, “art and reading. It took me into another, peaceful zone.” She would have liked to study art at Richmond Professional Institute, but it just wasn’t in the cards. “My mentor was my aunt, who was a teacher,” she said. “I’d gone with her to the one-room schoolhouse where she taught and I just loved it. My aunt recommended James Madison College (now James Madison University).”
Originally Jean planned to be a secondary school art teacher, but found she didn’t yet have the maturity and confidence to handle the students. “I got out in the schools as a student teacher and the kids just ate me alive,” she said. That experience prompted her to switch from secondary to elementary education with a focus on art.
After graduation, she began teaching in Washington, Illinois. As an elementary school teacher she integrated art as a way of learning, whether it was science, history or math. Other teachers began asking her to help them, so she would switch classrooms to do programs with other students. Soon, she was in the forefront helping to show others how to integrate art into learning.
After 17 years, she was ready to move on, which led her to Eureka College and Illinois State University as a part of their elementary education programs. But, her favorite job came later as the director of the adult literacy program in Pekin, Illinois where she stayed until she retired a few years ago.
During her career in education, she always maintained some form of studio space, but retirement has allowed her to focus on art. Of course, being a teacher at heart, she still teaches, “but I’m finally teaching art – my passion,” she said. “Now that I’m retired, I’m really getting into art and life is good. But, I love teaching – I absolutely love it.”
Jean’s art has continued to transform too. Due to asthma, her doctor told her, “No more painting with oils,” so she switched to acrylics to avoid the fumes. “Oh my, it was a blessing,” she said. “I’d never go back to oils. I love acrylics, there are so many things you can do with them.”
Over the last few years she has also begun exploring new genres. In addition to her more traditional landscapes and floral still lives, Jean has been exploring abstracts, which has become her new passion.
Jean describes herself as “always something of a perfectionist,” but abstract art has given her a new freedom. “I always pushed really hard to get A’s. Everything had to be perfect…. except my abstract art. There, I can feel really centered. I go into that zone and life is good.”
Jean’s approach to creating a piece is different as well. “With realistic works, I always sketch first so that I don’t paint myself into a corner. But, with abstract, I might have an idea, or I might not. Something triggers me, like the shape of a vase or something and I think “Oh, that’s a nice shape” and I jump right in with paints. For me, I love the free-flowing paint once I touch the brush to the canvas. I don’t have to think or plan. I feel like I can just let myself go.”
Lately, her exploration of abstracts has led to other experiments as well. She explained, “A few years ago, a fellow artist looked at some of my work and told me, “Don’t be afraid of texture,” and those words keep echoing around in my head. I came back home and I started adding more texture and playing just to see what would happen. I’d have to say I’m an experimental painter.”
Working in abstracts has also affected how she approaches her realistic paintings. Leaves on a sunflower are more stylized where before they would have been more realistic. She’s also experimented with adding texture to realistic paintings, such as creating a texture on the canvas, then painting over the texture.
“These are people pleasers,” she said gesturing to her more traditional paintings, “and I grew up being a people pleaser. My abstract paintings are for me, and if they don’t sell, that’s OK.”
“Who am I painting this for? I’ve eaten my peas, and now I can have my dessert.”
You can see Jean’s work at Exhibit A Gallery in Peoria and at the Galesburg Civic Art Gallery and Gift Shop. Learn more about her classes at Illinois Central College, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute offered through Bradley University and through Jean’s own Dragonfly Fine Art Studio.