Monday, April 03, 2017 1:00 am
Artist tells how she created her book on historic homes
ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette
Fort Wayne artist Diane Groenert still has the scraps of paper that helped make the overwhelming task of creating a book doable – even if it took 10 years.
Each scrap had a handwritten instruction – including “get $” and “scan all images” – that broke down her goal into manageable steps. She brought them Sunday to the History Center, where she spoke to a few dozen people as part of the George R. Mather Lecture Series.
The free series, which runs from October to June, began in 1993, making it one of the History Center’s longest-running programs, executive director Todd Maxwell Pelfrey said.
It is presented by the Dunsire Family Foundation.
Deciding which speakers to feature can be challenging because organizers want the schedule to highlight a variety of topics, he said. This season included lectures on first ladies, the city’s three rivers and the state’s all-time greatest sports stories.
Groenert’s lecture, “Birthing a Book; From Sketching to Self-Publishing,” summarized her efforts to turn her West Central Neighborhood house portraits into a self-published book.
“This was the beginning of my book,” the 68-year-old said, holding one of the scraps of instructions.
Publishing a book allowed Groenert to showcase her art, she said.
She displayed several paintings, explaining that she tries to capture some of the owner’s personality by playing with color, perspective and lines. For example, she said, she tried to make one home look like it was “up on its toes” because its owner was exuberant.
“I like architecture because it sits still,” Groenert said.
Her book, however, is more than her paintings. It includes text about each home, which required research and fact-checking, she said.
She borrowed books from the Allen County Public Library to learn about self-publishing, raised money for printing expenses and – after many stops and starts – had her first book signing in September 2015, she said.
Her book – “Two Centuries & West Central, House Portraits & Diane Allen Groenert” – isn’t a “big moneymaking venture,” she said, but it gives her satisfaction knowing her work makes others happy.
Go to www.dagroenert.com for more information about Groenert and her book.
The lecture series will end the 2016-17 season with “Northern Indiana … at the Crossroads of Many Cultures” by Melissa Rinehart on May 7 and “When the Past Reappears: Imagining People and Places of Northeast Indiana through Poetry” by Shari Wagner on June 4.
Nestled in the heart of Fort Wayne’s beautiful West Central neighborhood is the studio and home of local artist Diane Groenert. Her studio is drenched in sunlight that pours through windows, portals to the world she paints. Singing birds, a cup of tea and soothing music set the tone for a productive day of painting. Groenert needs a clear head, peaceful surroundings and slow-moving hours to get in the flow she requires to work through her paintings.
“I like to have a long period of time to paint because it takes me a long time to get in the flow. Once I get there, I want to stay there,” she says.
On painting days, she likes to spend at least eight hours standing in front of a canvas.
Her current work is that of a charming home, lit up and glowing on a Halloween night. The canvas rests on an easel adjusted to a height that requires Groenert to stand as she works.
“I’m afraid if I start sitting I’ll get stiff and grow wide hips,” she says.
Groenert paints portraits of homes. She captures the essence of families and illustrates the houses they live in with details that reflect both history and personality. She uses curved lines and bright, bold colors that catch the eye. Viewers can’t help but imagine the type of people who live inside these homes and what they might be up to. Her work invites you to spend time with it, look for details and imagine yourself crawling inside a window to snoop around while the owners are out.
“I try to get in the mind frame of the owner and the stories they have told me,” she says.
Research for each painting begins with an interview. Before her first sketch, Groenert sits with the family and listens to its stories. She looks at family photos and takes new photos of her own. She captures all angles of the house, the front, back and sides. She takes photos of the family and mounts the collection of information on a reference board that sits in her studio on a table just behind the space where she paints.
Take a look at her work and you will understand the need for such a comprehensive collection of information. Groenert fills her paintings with details that tell about the most personal aspects of a family’s life.
“This family has roots in New Mexico,” she explains, “so I placed cacti all around. Their bicycles are here because they do a lot of biking, and the cloth with shamrocks on it is there because his wife does Irish dancing.”
These details are often so small that, unless pointed out, a person would likely never notice them. A hat rack inside a window, a family pet or an Air Force fighter flying through the background all require a tiny brush and a skilled hand.
Groenert focuses on perspective, line and color when she paints.
“I use burnt sienna for the undercoat that gives the painting a warm feeling,” she explains. “I have a commercial art degree, so I have a good black and white foundation. That informs the light colors and the dark colors. I know how to bring certain colors forward to get people’s attention.”
Her use of line brings life into each of her works. She curves and bends lines that in reality are straight. By doing so, ordinary houses seem to come to life, as if they breathe and dance.
“I use the fish eye lens to bring more excitement to the scene. It’s all done in my head, not with a real camera.”
Moving things around inside her head is something Groenert has mastered. She can paint from a bird’s eye view without having seen a house from above.
“This one had an interesting backyard and I wanted to include it so I went up and over,” says the artist, describing a piece that resembles something that popped out of a fairy tale. She can paint a home as it is or she can create a retro version, capturing historic homes before the renovations that modernized them.
Living in the West Central neighborhood, Groenert is surrounded by inspiring architecture. Each day she sees homes that people make a point to drive past just to admire the charm and individuality of the neighborhood. She has been commissioned to paint a total of 48 homes in West Central, and they will all be included in a book she plans to release on September 10 at the Paradigm Gallery inside the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. The book will be a collection of full color images, a collection of West Central homes.
In addition to her house portraits, Groenert has painted most of the downtown Fort Wayne landmarks. She makes the city look alive and vibrant – bustling with activity and high energy. She incorporates the people who are making things happen in Fort Wayne by painting them into her works as tiny people, perhaps sitting in front of JK O’Donnell’s or piling through the back door of Henry’s on Main Street, or even the Stoner family peeking out from their storefront doorway.
“Fort Wayne needed some lively images of downtown,” says Groenert. She created a series of 18 paintings, each one showing people interacting and enjoying good times shared in the city.
As Groenert flips through her portfolio, she identifies names of people as if they were part of her own family. She remembers details of stories told by the homeowners of each of her paintings. She points out Betty Fishman, painted into one of her pieces, appropriately hanging a piece of art on the wall. Groenert knows this city’s history well.
“I’ve been in the neighborhood since ’74,” she says. Inside her head are clear memories of the lives of those who live and work in the city. She’s dedicated to celebrating the efforts of those who strive to make our city better and through her paintings has preserved pieces of history that are no longer with us, such as the Tiny Tim Diner.
“I blunder my way through each piece,” she says. “I can’t do much planning. I put a blob on the canvas and move it there, then move it over there, and move it again until it’s just right, and then I move on to the next blob. It takes a lot to get all the stuff in,” she continues. “I have to move things around and rearrange until it all fits. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle; I have to figure it all out.”
Groenert is an artist who has seen and studied the pieces of Fort Wayne; but beyond that, she has enjoyed getting to know the people behind the businesses and the families who live inside grand homes. She paints the details that make up people’s lives. She’s like the secretary who sits by the water cooler collecting stories and sharing them through her paintings. The rest of us look through the windows of her dancing houses and wonder what it all means. Each brush stroke tells a story but the stories are for Groenert to know and for us to discover.
“I like to get a feeling about the place,” she says about her work.
An outsider looking at one of her paintings is sure to think of our city as a place of vibrancy and bustling energy. Through her eyes, our city is a place like no other.
A Stroke of Artistic Genius
Fort Wayne artist, Diane Groenert, brings stories to life on canvas.
If it’s an iconic home or business in downtown Fort Wayne, chances are Diane Groenert has painted it.
The Fort Wayne-based artist has garnered much attention over the years for her portraits of West Central homes and downtown establishments. In fact, according to her estimates, she’s captured the beauty of 140 local homes and businesses since 1999.
Speaking of businesses, Groenert is in the business of creating heirlooms. And like any business person, she has processes that help direct her work. Although a naturally creative person, she has adopted a system to help with workflow from the initial inquiry to the final brushstroke.
Once a client has commissioned her for a piece, she sits down and gets to know them on a more personal level. She learns about family members, pets, the history of the home, likes and dislikes, etc. This rapport allows her to project that essence onto the canvas. For example, when she painted West Central resident and Dance Collective Artistic Director Liz Monnier’s home, she made sure to incorporate playful elements, as if the home was “up on its toes and ready to dance,” Groenert says. While portraying the structural aspect of the home, she’s able to incorporate abstract elements by playing with line, color and perspective.
“I attempt to put a bit of the personality of the homeowner into the portrait,” she says regarding her approach.
Her artistic statement on her website says it best: “As I move the images around I consider the stories. Some pieces fall into place before I start painting while others grow into place as the painting is progressing. I paint until I feel I’ve captured the narrative of the home.”
In order to capture that narrative spirit, she takes some photographs of the home or business and then lets the creative energy “roll around” (as she puts it) in her head. She says the piece often becomes more defined the more she dives into it.
That creative process can take up to two months, she says. But it’s worth it to have a piece that can be treasured for a lifetime. Indeed, it can be said nostalgia—particularly Fort Wayne nostalgia—is a key aspect of Groenert’s work. She initially came to Fort Wayne to attend the Division of General and Technical Studies at Indiana University, where she received an associate degree in Commercial Art in 1974.
“When I arrived in Fort Wayne in the 1970s, I was looking around downtown and noticed the historical buildings and thought it would be a good exercise to sketch them.”
Although her medium has changed, her exuberance for the city has remained consistent. Years later she still has a fascination with Fort Wayne and the West Central neighborhood. As an artist, she could live nearly anywhere, but it’s the city’s pace that keeps her here.
Groenert doesn’t have to look far for inspiration as her home/studio is located in West Central, just blocks away from some of the landmarks she’s painted. Cindy’s Diner, JK O’Donnell’s, Columbia Street West, Coney Island and Henry’s Restaurant are among her subjects.
Most of her work is done on a commission basis. Representations of her work are available in many shapes and sizes at Riegel’s Pipe and Tobacco, Visit Fort Wayne and Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory. The Fort Wayne Museum of Art gift shop also sells her reproductions. Look for her work for sale at local art fairs or check out her website at dagroenert.com.
The downtown neighborhood of West Central is to Fort Wayne what Greenwich Village is to New York City or what Georgetown is to Washington, DC. Renowned for its charming architecture and Bohemian residents, many of whom know each other and socialize at floating weekly parties, West Central is unlike any other neighborhood in town.
Over the years all manner of creative and hipster types have been drawn to the beauty and affordability of the district, and it’s proximity to downtown. Folks move here because they like to walk to work, like having pubs and festivals just a few doors down and like watching that big TRF parade ooze through each summer. Decades back, when the Fort Wayne Art School was located on Berry Street, the sidewalks were strewn with art students. To this day, despite the departure of the FWAS to yonder IPFW campus, dozens of artists, young and old, still choose to call West Central home. And of all these, none has zeroed in on its charms more brilliantly than painter Diane Allen Groenert.
Groenert did not grow up in Fort Wayne but arrived here in the early 70s, joining parents who had moved to the Summit City thanks to her father’s Navy career, a career which had already taken the family to several states and Japan. Groenert, who had been attending a New Hampshire college, decided to resume study at the Fort Wayne Art School and pursue a commercial art degree. It was during this time that she fell in love with West Central, which she describes as “magical.” Reluctant to leave the neighborhood after graduating, she moved into the first of a string of at least 13 West Central apartments she would enjoy over the years.
Her first commercial enterprise as an artist began around 1975 with a silk-screened T-shirt business known as D A G Shirts. She then embarked on more ambitious creations, airbrushing complex geometric patterns onto ready-made garments using stencils. To promote her clothing, Groenert had three fashion shows at Henry’s on Main Street, recruiting such young and glamorous gals as WBOI’s Julia Meek, and Pamela Brown of blues band Mom & Pop ‘n’ Fresh as runway models.
But the aspiring fashionista eventually concluded that she would rather paint. She had always painted some, but now she saw a way to make a living in the neighborhood she loved so well.
The gift of a house painting she had recently made for a friend had been enthusiastically and gratefully received, suggesting to Groenert an untapped market among the famously house-proud West Centralites. Would they be interested in having a keepsake painting of their beautiful homes? As a test, she approached three friends in the neighborhood with the idea – and all three jumped at the bait. Ever since, Groenert’s house portraits have become so in demand that she has scarcely been without a commission since 1999.
The artist quickly developed a trademark oil painting style that goes beyond a literal architectural rendering of the client’s home.
“I try to give them a lot more than a photograph,” she says.
Each family is first interviewed to get a feel for their individual personalities, favorite colors, pets, memories and whatever else they feel deserves inclusion. Then, after taking multiple photographs and doing several sketches, Groenert sets about making the home come alive on canvas.
Indeed, in her colorful renditions, which she calls “house portraits,” some houses almost appear to be breathing; walls bulge outward, rooflines soar and decks and porches tilt crazily. Some houses are depicted from a bird’s-eye view – an astonishing trick without a helicopter. Playing with perspective enables the artist to maximize space and pack the picture with details that are meaningful to the homeowners.
“I just figure it out as I go,” she says, “moving this and moving that, all the little details that I can add to make it personal.”
Even the trees and landscaping seem to quiver with life and, upon closer inspection, often reveal small pets and creatures in the shrubbery. Family members and friends are also worked into the scene, and Groenert manages to get amusing likenesses in her tiny figures.
And they are tiny because Groenert somehow manages to capture all of this architecture and action within a relatively small format, oftentimes not much bigger than 8×10 inches. The small scale, of course, is part of the charm of her paintings, which nowadays include suburban ranches and lake cottages.
Groenert has long contributed to the vibrance of Fort Wayne’s downtown, having personally instigated no less than six different venues for public art and/or performance over the years. Two of these were the “A” and “B” galleries she operated in the abandoned FWAS classroom buildings on Berry Street in the 1990s. In 2001 she opened the Art Factory, a venue for art, music, poetry and plays, which lasted until that building was torn down to make way for a parking lot for the United Way. ArtUp, her next studio on Wayne Street next to JKO’s, welcomed the public until that building was sold. She has now consolidated her living and gallery space into a location on Union Street she calls simply West Central Studio.
Perhaps Diane Allen Groenert’s most lasting contribution to the city, however, is a series of affectionate portraits of local public buildings and businesses that she calls Fort Wayne Landmarks. Right now they number 15 and include notable buildings such as the Lincoln Tower, Embassy Theatre and the Allen County Courthouse as well as popular hangouts like Cindy’s Diner, Coney Island Hot Dogs, Henry’s Restaurant and even the Tiny Tim Diner, which is no more. Fortunately for future historians, Groenert is creating a lively pictorial record of Fort Wayne at the start of this century. That’s a nice legacy for the town she has come to love.
You can view her paintings and contact the artist through her website at dagroenert.com. Reproductions in the form of prints and notecards are available at several locations in town, including the Fort Wayne Museum of Art gift shop, Neuhouser’s Nurseries and the Botanical Conservatory.
If you are traveling from Fort Wayne by air this spring, you’ll be able to view a show of Groenert’s work in the upper concourse of the Fort Wayne International Airport, as well as selected prints on display in the ticket counter wing. The exhibit is scheduled to run April through June.
by Susie Suraci
Published: October 16, 2011 3:00 a.m.
Painter gets city landmarks moving
- In the black-and-white cartoons of the 1920s, everything danced.
A jazz tune would start up and everything within earshot, whether that thing had ears or not, would start bouncing to the beat. Anthropomorphic animals danced out of dancing buildings onto streets filled with dancing cars.
Those cityscapes just couldn’t seem to help themselves.
Diane Groenert’s buildings have some of that same liveliness.
For well over a decade now, the local artist has been painting what she calls house portraits. She got the idea from one of Fort Wayne’s more internationally renowned male artists who, for the purpose of not wanting to spoil a good story, shall remain nameless here.
The way Groenert tells it, this shrewd-as-he-is-talented artist drove out to one of the more well-heeled lake communities in the region and made paintings of a bunch of charming cottages thereabouts. Then he invited the owners of all those cottages to come to an art show where, much to their surprise, they found paintings of their beloved vacation homes. Needless to say, the artist made a killing.
Groenert isn’t quite so mercenary about her house portraits. For a fee, Groenert will paint a portrait of your house in such a way that it seems just as alive as it undoubtedly sometimes does in your own mind.
Groenert tries to bring out the personality of each house (which, for a house, is a composite of its architectural nature and the nature of its inhabitants).
She says her house portraits are likely to incorporate any number of things: the likes and dislikes of the people living there, childhood memories, departed loved ones, pets, the history of the building, etc.
The artist by whom Groenert is most influenced in her house-depicting endeavors is underground comics legend Robert Crumb.
“He was one of the heroes of my hippie days, not that my hippie days are over yet,” she says.
Groenert says Crumb never seemed to have any boundaries.
“I guess I have always been trying to fight my way out of my Lutheran box,” she says.
In 2001, Groenert painted her first public structure: the Allen County Courthouse. On Friday, she unveiled her latest local landmark: Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island on Main Street.
She says she has painted 16 public buildings thus far, most of them places where local residents go to have a good time. Her portraits of Henry’s, Columbia Street West and JK O’Donnell’s (among many others) capture the essential natures of those establishments and are as instantly recognizable to habitués as the faces of the people with whom they often share bar stools.
Representations of Groenert’s work are available in many shapes and sizes at Riegel’s Pipe and Tobacco, Neuhouser Nursery, Visit Fort Wayne and Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory. Groenert also has her own corner in the Fort Wayne Museum of Art gift shop. Her website is www.dagroenert.com.
If you are one of those people who still send postcards and note cards, there may not be a better way to convey the particulars of our community to outsiders than by sending them something with Groenert’s art on it.
Groenert says she has always wanted her art to get people excited about the city and “spark their imaginations” about the sort of place downtown could become. Now that the city center actually seems to be moving toward greater and greater crescendos of refurbishment, Groenert says she feels like she has contributed to downtown revitalization.