Great Happening:

Art beneath her feet

For Jan Borgner, art is not an elective

Jan Borgner, artist, in her Conneaut, Ohio, studio. Jan Borgner, at work in her studio in Conneaut, Ohio.

Jan Borgner holds her head low, her gaze fixed upon the polished pebbles, gull feathers and occasional beachglass nugget that seem to arrange themselves on the LCD. Every few steps she pauses and the camera in her hand translates the pebbles into pixels, pixels that will become paint, paint that will become art.

Gems of the Shore, detail, by Jan Borgner.

Gems of the Shore, detail, by Jan Borgner.

Jan, a Trumbull County native, and her husband, Dr. Richard Borgner, live on Lake Road in Conneaut roughly six months out of the year. Their winter home is on the Gulf in Florida, where her art studio is about 20 feet from the seawall. At Conneaut, the studio is in a cottage that somehow got separated from the lakefront by a house. The musty scent of the water, the surf’s incessant roil, stiff breezes, nevertheless remind Jan that she is at home amid her favorite things: brushes, pencils, watercolors, oil paint and nature.

This talented artist, whose works have garnered international recognition and more prizes and awards than she can count or remember, also is a mother to eight and grandmother to 10, a wife and caretaker for her mother. Perhaps as a reward, certainly a blessing, the offspring are as pleasing to the eye as a Lake Erie sunset. They make convenient, excellent models for Borgner’s portraits, as do the color transparencies that her uncle shot of Jan and her sister decades ago.

Bees, birds, boats, blossoms, buoys and an occasional dip into the well of dreams come forth in Borgners’ other works, exhibited during June at the Ashtabula Arts Center, 2829 West 13th St., Ashtabula. A reception with the artist is from 6 to 8 p.m. June 10.

The show is entitled “Lake Life.” While the lake is absent from most of the paintings, its effect is felt in the wind-swept hair of a granddaughter walking barefoot between dunes on a summer day; wooden boats docked on a western lake; damp pebbles in “Gems of the Shore,” one of several oils that emerged from her walking along the beach near their Conneaut home.

In addition to being a master of the medium, Jan attributes the translucent realism of “Gems” and her other works in oil to techniques borrowed from the Old Masters. She starts with a black-and-white rendering of the work, applies the transparent glaze, then builds the scene in oils, working toward the front.

“You are basically painting the painting twice,” she says.

She also revels in the rendering of detail, from the veins in an maple leaf or bee’s wing to the belly-dancer’s ornate costume.

“To me, the more intricate something is, the more I enjoy it,” she says.

Jan developed her style over more than three decades, during which time she has worked as a school teacher, marine biologist, art instructor and assistant to her husband in his oral surgery practice. Not surprisingly, Richard called upon his wife to do medical drawings for the surgical techniques he developed. Semi-retired and no longer practicing, Richard lectures on his techniques and relies upon Jan to provide visual support materials, including the Powerpoint presentations, in his work.

Jan Borgner at easel.

Jan Borgner typically works seven hours a day in her studio. For Jan, painting is an essential part of life.

For all her skill as an artist, Jan grew up bereft of art instruction in high school. While she always enjoyed art, the lure of the ocean and science took her to Kentucky, where she earned her biology degree.

“I was raised that you got to be sensible (and get an education) so you can get that nine-to-five job,” Jan says of her decision to delay an art education.

A divorce and the responsibility of caring for three children sent her back to college to study nursing. Amid all this turmoil, someone gave her a book on decorative art. Captivated by the instruction, Jan purchased a few “dime-store” brushes, tubes of paint and media, and began following the lessons.

Encouraged and inspired, Jan attended a workshop, which led to another workshop …

“I’d see the work of an artist whose work I really liked and go to the artists’ workshop,” she says. “I loved it, and people started asking me to do pieces for them. It just snowballed from there.”

Richard and Jan have always enjoyed visiting Lake Erie and, early in their marriage, considered purchasing a second home here. That plan was tabled until 2007, when the couple returned to the lake and purchased their home, which just happened to have a cottage to the south of it. The cottage bedrooms provide private space for guests while its living room is Jan’s studio.

“I do mostly studio painting, particularly of portraits,” says Jan, who occasionally dabbles in plein air. The problem with the latter is that Jan prefers to have several pieces going at once. Glazes take time to dry, so to be productive, she has to flit from canvas to paper and back again. Even while watching television, Jan is likely to be working on a colored pencil piece.

Because of her passion for detail, Jan sometimes has a difficult time “completing” a painting. This is especially true with her detailed beach images, which tempt her to add one more stone, one more piece of beach glass or a marble.

“That is the fun part, putting in all the little details,” she says. “I have to say to myself, ‘Stop!’ Or my husband will come in and look at it and he’ll say ‘No more.'”

Viewers can decide if Richard and Jan found the perfect balance as the exhibit hangs in the gallery of the art center through the end of June. Jan’s work also can be found in print. A watercolor of buoys, “Where the Buoys Are,” was selected for North Light’s Splash 5 watercolor anthology. View Jan’s work at her website, as well.

Jan also has exhibited her work at the Conneaut Arts Center, as part of a two-woman show. But this is her first solo show in Ashtabula County, and she has been preparing for it over the course of two years. About 40 percent of the show’s content, which includes several miniatures, was created just for this exhibit.

The show is as much about her family as the lake. There are portraits of both her grandchildren and children, including her daughter Erin Pitney, who is a surfboard and skateboard artist in Florida. Her other daughter, Jessie Boyer, is a research biologist, and Jan suspects the artist in her will blossom forth, just as it did for Jan three decades ago. For Jan, it’s as natural as breathing.

“I have to do it,” she says of painting. “It’s one of those things I have to do. And my husband is very supportive of that; he wants me to do it,” she says.



About Carl (329 Articles)
Carl Feather is lodging tax administrator for Ashtabula County and the founder of The Wave newsletter. He is 25-year newspaper industry veteran and frequent contributor to West Virginia's Goldenseal Magazine. He enjoys photography and videography, which he shares at his blog,, and his Feather Cottage You Tube channel.

2 Comments on Art beneath her feet

  1. Carol Curtiss // June 9, 2016 at 12:15 am //

    Jan is a very accomplished artist and a beautiful person inside and out! It is a privilege to be her friend.

  2. Karen Lee // June 9, 2016 at 12:53 pm //

    Great article for a really fabulous artist. The world needs to see her creations.

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