story by Nancy E. McCarthy,
photos by Peter Blackwood
Canandaigua artist Jeanne Beck fully embraces any new opportunity for self-discovery, reinvention and exploration within her artistic life. In “Trusting Change,” a personal essay she penned last year, Beck muses that while she’s never been physically daring – no mountain climbing or running marathons – she has always had a creatively adventurous spirit.
Beck’s creative interests began with writing. Visual arts came later in life: Beck was 40 when she took her first art class in 1990. By 2001 she was producing an impressive body of work as a fiber artist from a rented studio in Rochester’s artsy Hungerford Building. Then from 2011 until last year, Beck gravitated toward mixed media constructions, including dimensional 2-D and 3-D pieces, using metallic leaf and acrylic paints.
These days, Beck is primarily painting abstracts on canvas and cradled board using a variety of media: acrylics, oils, graphite pencils and crayons, oil bars, metal leaf, pastels and inks. She describes herself as an experimental artist because, really, nothing is off the table. Last year she closed her Rochester studio and opened the Jeanne Beck Art Gallery & Studio in downtown Canandaigua.
Yes, more change!
Beck grew up in Pittsburgh and East Aurora, New York. From a young age she was influenced, in part, by her parents’ love of literature. She journaled or wrote short stories almost daily. The visual arts were never emphasized at home or at school. There were no elementary school art classes and secondary school art curriculum was not offered to college-bound students. Beck’s earliest exposure to original art was a memorable school trip at age 13 to see a Vincent Van Gogh exhibit at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.
“He was the first artist whose work I ever saw in person; lavish impasto surfaces filled with energy, motion and color plus the tragic story of his mental problems and lack of financial success during his lifetime made him a tragic, romantic figure,” says Beck. Looking back, that planted the first seed that there could be more to painting than making images look realistic.
Any inclination toward art took a long time to germinate though Beck continued to express herself creatively through writing. Those skills later served her well in various professional settings.
Beck attended SUNY Buffalo, married a fellow student in 1971 and they had two children, Jennifer and Aaron. By 1986, Beck was divorced and working as executive director of a college foundation in Herkimer, New York. In 1990, she attained an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College’s external degree program. That same year, with her daughter in college, Beck accepted a position as director of the Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) Foundation. When she and son Aaron moved to Canandaigua it marked the beginning of a new chapter of her life, personally and artistically.
Beck was Jeanne Raffer when she met Bob Beck, a Canandaigua widower. They married in 1992 and their blended family included her two children plus his daughter and two step-children.
By that time, Beck was already exploring art. FLCC employees could take courses and Beck’s first art class hooked her in. She kept taking more and exploring various mediums. Beck discovered a special affinity for fiber and textile art and began honing her skills. When she transitioned into creating art full-time, her husband and children were astonished but supportive.
In her Hungerford studio, Beck explored a wide array of materials and processes including screen-printing and paper making. “My explorations were like cross-training,” Beck explains. “All strengthened my creative muscles. I have a fertile imagination and textiles challenged me to innovate to turn ideas into completed works.”
Her large screen-printed wall works and printed silk threadwork constructions, often inspired by cursive handwriting, calligraphic marks and diary or letter fragments, were part of numerous exhibitions (one highlight: her textile hanging “Seeds of Compassion” was accepted into the Memorial Art Gallery’s prestigious 2011 Fiberart International Exhibit). Beck’s award-winning works were purchased by private and corporate collectors.
Cynthia Hawkins, an abstract painter and SUNY Geneseo’s gallery director, remembers meeting Beck and being “enamored” of her work. “I had a studio in the Hungerford Building and as one is apt to do there, you wander looking into other artist’s studios. That is how I met her. After poking my head in, I had to see more of what she was up to.”
Hawkins brokered the sale of three of Beck’s large mixed-media constructions for the school’s MacVittie Student Union in 2012 and began collecting Beck’s work herself.
In 2017, Beck was creating impressive fluttering installations of painted and printed metallic leaf “papers” made from sheer spun polyester. Yet she was also feeling a new artistic tug toward painting gestural abstracts on canvas. Concurrently, Beck was also ready for a geographic change. The commute between Canandaigua and Rochester cut into her creative time and she longed for a larger space closer to home.
Fine artist Pat Tribastone, a former Hungerford neighbor, urged Beck to consider Canandaigua. The lakeside community was becoming an arts destination with several galleries and artist-owned businesses, a growing outdoor art trail, plus abundant art events and festivals attracting art patrons. Tribastone had moved her studio there, affording her the opportunity to have both a working studio and a retail storefront gallery.
Beck quickly found a spacious second floor loft in downtown Canandaigua overlooking Main Street with high ceilings, hardwood floors and brick wall interiors. There was ample room for a studio and gallery plus plenty of space to host workshops and hang guest artist exhibitions.
The Artist’s Process
When the Jeanne Beck Art Gallery & Studio opened on June 1, 2017, the artist was already creating a new body of work: large abstract acrylic and oil paintings based on the theme of creative energy taking form. The series, along with an installation and mixed media pieces, made its public debut in Passages, her March-April solo exhibition at Meibohm Fine Arts in East Aurora.
Owner Grace Meibohm met Beck in 2016 when her work was among 90 featured in the gallery’s Buffalo Society of Artists retrospective “Celebrating 125 Years – Thumb Box Exhibit.” Beck’s work was a standout: Meibohm awarded her a gallery exhibit in 2018.
“I was impressed with Jeanne’s experimentation and her creative process, which has continued to take her in new directions,” says Meibohm.
It isn’t surprising that Beck’s process begins with journaling her ideas. She also photographs her works in progress to see them more objectively, draws daily and keeps a log to record her experimentations and color mixing. “I create paintings by activating the surface with marks, shapes and lines, then respond to those and gradually build layers by pushing portions of the surface back and emphasizing others,” says Beck. “It is both an additive and subtractive process where the meaning and story of the piece evolves as I work.” Marks and lines get added, scraped back, sanded away and new layers build over portions of those.
Beck finds the local arts community friendly and welcoming. “My work is different from many other artists in the area because it’s non-objective rather than representational, but having that variety makes downtown Canandaigua a more interesting place for art lovers to visit,” says Beck.
And with just a 10-minute commute for her—another welcome change!
Jeanne Beck Art Gallery & Studio is located at 154 Mill Street, behind Main Street, in downtown Canandaigua. Visit jeannebeck.com for more information, including special events, workshops and guest artist exhibitions. Contact the
artist at firstname.lastname@example.org.