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Hamptons Life

Jan 20, 2015 1:03 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Artist Jane Wilson, 90, Lives On In East End Nature

Jan 20, 2015 1:03 PM

Julia Gruen rubbed her palms on her jeans and pushed herself up from the kitchen table. In the next room, a smoked sausage-and-cabbage dish simmered on the stove—“comfort food,” she explained on Monday afternoon.“Let’s go up to the studio,” she said. “It’s a little chilly up there.”

Her long, thin legs ascended the steps, leading the way to the light-filled second floor of her family’s Water Mill summer home. A large canvas commanded the room, soft oranges and vibrant greens popping against the whitewashed walls as it rested on an easel. Globs of acrylic paint sat frozen on the artist’s work table, untouched since 2012.

“This is it, babe,” Ms. Gruen smiled, despite the uneasiness behind her eyes. “This is it.”

She wandered to the window and gazed out over the lawn, now populated by neighboring houses. She remembered a time when it was an open vista, when she would roll in the grass with her childhood dogs as her mother painted in the studio, watching from above.

Ms. Gruen turned away from the window and contemplated the unfinished painting, her hands clasped behind her back.

It was the first time she had been upstairs since last Tuesday, January 13—when the world said goodbye to her mother, artist Jane Wilson. She died of heart failure at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. She was 90.

“I didn’t know how I would feel, coming up here to the studio,” Ms. Gruen said. “I’m still just disbelieving a bit. It’s not that I expect her to appear. It’s just that this house is her. The light, the air. It’s her.”

Her work, which blurs the line between abstract expressionism and realism, focuses on everyday, natural phenomena: the passage of time, seasons and weather, which she experienced while growing up on her family farm in Seymour, Iowa, where she was born on April 29, 1924.

Landscapes were her primary focus, explained Emily Goldstein, owner of The Drawing Room in East Hampton, though they often depicted “something beyond,” in her own abstract language.

“She has changed the way I see nature, without question,” Ms. Goldstein said on Monday during a telephone interview. “I can see Jane Wilson skies and weather patterns. Having looked at and lived with her art, I see in a new way. That’s an amazing gift that I think her work gives to all of us.”

Ms. Wilson’s 70-year career technically began in high school, when she discovered her penchant, and talent, for drawing and painting. It grew and evolved while she studied at the University of Iowa, where she crossed paths—literally—with writer and photographer John Jonas Gruen in 1957. The striking, 5-foot-8-inch-tall brunette was walking across the bridge from one side of the campus to the other when she immediately caught his eye.

“Who is this gorgeous girl?” Mr. Gruen recalled asking his roommate at the time.

“Oh, that’s Jane Wilson,” he had replied. “She’s taken. The head of the art department is in love with her.”

“Not for long,” Mr. Gruen responded.

On March 28, 1948, they were married in Oskaloosa, Iowa, before moving to Manhattan—much to her parents’ chagrin.

“They thought that New York was going straight into Sin City. That’s where I was taking their little girl,” Mr. Gruen, Ms. Wilson’s husband of 66 years, said on Monday during a telephone interview from his apartment in Manhattan. “We survived and we were very happy, and we made our careers. She became a really marvelous artist, and we made lots of wonderful friends.”

The couple found themselves mixing and mingling with the likes of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Jane Freilicher, Andy Warhol, Fairfield Porter and Larry Rivers. She was among the founding members of the Hansa Gallery in 1952, the same year she began working full-time as a showroom fashion model on Seventh Avenue in the Garment District, leading to her appearances in Life magazine and Harper’s Bazaar. Warhol even included her in his 1964 compilation, “The 13 Most Beautiful Women.”

“The thing that struck me was how elegant Jane was,” artist April Gornik recalled on Monday during a telephone interview. “She was just a very put-together woman. Even if she dressed casually, she had an inner elegance. And I love that combination of someone who made rather expressionistic landscapes, who is clearly a true and compelling and sincere artist, but also a really elegant woman. She had an inner juggernaut that came through with her work.”

But in the male-dominated art world of the 1950s, Ms. Wilson’s friends questioned her choice and her commitment to her work as a serious artist. It was an “all boys club,” according to Christina Strassfield, museum director and chief curator at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Still, Ms. Wilson persevered and joined the famed artistic migration to the East End in 1959, buying a home in Water Mill with her husband one year later.

There, she painted some of her most renowned works—including “Water Mill Fog,” the circa-1966 60-inch-by-74-inch oil on canvas that snared Ms. Strassfield’s attention.

“I knew her work before I actually met her. I was a big fan,” she said. “The day she passed away, there was a sunset, and I was, like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a Jane Wilson.’ The pinks, the oranges. It was magical. If you haven’t lived on the East End, you might think, ‘Wow, those colors are so bizarre.’ And then when you do, you realize she captured the moment and the time and the feeling and the ambiance. She’s a master at that.”

Ms. Wilson was articulate, erudite and eloquent, her friends and family say. She was a great cook with a witty sense of humor. She chose her words carefully. A keen observer, she had an uncanny ability to distill her experiences and express them visually.

“Today, she is known as one of the country’s best landscape artists. It makes me very proud of her,” Mr. Gruen said. “I loved her so much. She was unbelievably wonderful. And so unusual.”

She couldn’t resist a brass lamp—the dirtier she found it, the better, Ms. Gruen said. She enjoyed listening to music, classical most of all, and found herself traveling and exploring when she wasn’t working. During low tide on warm summer days, she would often take young Julia on walks from the end of Cobb Isle Road, across Mecox Bay, to Flying Point Road and onto the beach, she recalled.

“I remember her literally holding me, when I was a toddler, and painting with the other hand,” she said. “I grew up on the smell of turpentine, and it’s an absolutely wonderful thing. It’s forever connected to my mother, who was not your typical mom.”

Ms. Wilson was “an artist’s artist” first and foremost, her daughter explained, her father being the more demonstrative parent. Their relationship eventually shifted toward the end of Ms. Wilson’s life, as they spent more time together and grew closer than they had ever been.

“Many adult children who lose parents, even people who haven’t lived as long as my mother did, there are issues that have never been resolved and are painful, and just gnaw at you after their passing,” Ms. Gruen said, wearing the red fleece she had given her mother this past Christmas. “I have no regrets.”

She flicked her eyes up to the exposed beams of the studio, stopping a tear from rolling down her cheek. “I was absolutely able to say to her, to her face, 1,000 times over how much I loved her. And she was able to say it to me.”

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